Hospitals have been bombed in Ukraine. Are radioactive substances in those buildings a risk?
That’s what we need to pay attention to, because in this war, many unimaginable things have become reality.
There are two sources of medical radiation. One is a machine, like an X-ray machine or a linear accelerator, used to treat cancer. They give off some radiation, but only when they are turned on. When you turn it off, it’s just a piece of metal.
But the second source uses isotopes such as cobalt or cesium, which are used in nuclear medicine and radiation therapy, for example in positron emission tomography (PET). They are physically protected in the hospital, which means they are protected from theft. But they were not protected from being hit by bombs.
If they are compromised, we might see something like Goiania accident in Brazil 1989. Some people then stole and dismantled a radiotherapy device from an abandoned hospital complex to sell the parts as scrap. They discovered this small ampule filled with cesium glows blue at night. It’s a long story, but the only destroyed radioactive source contaminated much of Goiânia. Four people died, 20 needed hospital treatment and 249 were poisoned. 85 houses were severely contaminated, and 200 people living in these houses had to be evacuated. So this kind of scenario needs to be considered. And that’s without thinking about malicious use of the sources.
What kind of malicious use?
For example, spent fuel complexes are very good materials for making dirty bombs, which is a scenario for a terrorist attack. The more technical term is a radiation scattering device. If you attach such radioactive sources to a device and detonate it, it will lead to radioactive contamination of a large area. There are many radiological scenarios of this type on the table.
How are nuclear power plants in Ukraine currently monitored?
Radiation monitoring networks have been established at each nuclear power plant, but they are now disconnected, so Ukrainian and international agencies no longer receive real-time data from them. The Ukrainian government and authorities no longer have access to this network, which was quite sophisticated and operated before this invasion.
There is also a remote monitoring network set up around the country to detect radiation. I think the points closest to the factory are also disabled, or at least cut off from this general network. If something really bad happens, it will be noticed by more distant monitors. It is not real-time control — hours will pass before it is noticed. Unless it is reported by people under Russian control.
Have there been any problems so far?
What I do know from official reports is that shortly after the invasion, before the connection was cut, the radiation dose rate recorded at the Chernobyl site increased fivefold. The most likely explanation is that the tank tampered with radioactive material on the ground.
The Chernobyl exclusion zone is a forbidden zone. Some travel is allowed and if you follow the rules it’s pretty safe, but it can still be dangerous. What they do is move the tank back and forth, on the road. This was a very contaminated area after the 1986 accident, and some of the most heavily contaminated areas were deliberately covered with soil and vegetation to keep the radiation from reactivating.
Storage tanks can immediately disturb these heavily contaminated soil layers. Those boys [Russian soldiers] not only did they ignore the law, but they also ignored any sensible radiation safety rules. Now they have inhaled this dust and they have radiation in their bodies. It’s stupid from an ecological point of view and from a global point of view. On a local level, it’s very dangerous and stupid. A five-fold increase in the dose will cause a local problem.
How would you measure human contamination if an incident happened right now?
There were two or three types of equipment that were really important at the time of the accident. But many of the devices we have in Ukraine are now obsolete.
After the Chernobyl accident, from 1987 to about 1991, we went through a period of accumulation of radiation monitoring capacity. Since then, interest in Chernobyl has waned. As a result, many of our dosimeters are from 1991 or 1992 at the latest. The normal lifespan of these instruments is 10 years. Now, they are over 30 years old. Devices that are still working are not in very good shape. Therefore, we really need [new equipment]. We have made some formal requests for such equipment, but I have also made requests to colleagues in the US.
What equipment do you need?
One type is called survey meter. They are radiometers, like a Geiger-Müller tube. They have screens that show you the dose ratios, so you can see which areas are dangerous and which are not. There are also some special dose rate meters, which are useful for measuring contamination of clothing, hair and surfaces after an emergency.
So-called full-body monitors are specially calibrated to measure internal contamination, for example, in people who drink local milk or breathe in contaminated air. Personal dosimeters look like badges. They are small devices that can weigh 10 grams that are attached to people’s clothing. These are sent to laboratories to determine the dose a person has been exposed to.
Can we learn lessons from Chernobyl?
Not really. After the Chernobyl disaster, everything was completely under control. It is possible to mobilize and recruit a thousand buses to evacuate the population. That is a completely different story.
Now we have a fight — some territory is out of control, and others are under fire. I cannot imagine such an evacuation process being possible. We don’t have the means to evacuate like that, and we don’t know where to evacuate. Evacuation routes can be attacked and bombarded, like what is happening in Mariupol.
My recommendation, if such an emergency occurs, is to shelter as long as possible before receiving a special order from the authorities. Do not move. Don’t try to escape. Simply shelter. It doesn’t have to be underground – even apartment buildings have enough shielding against radiation if you stay away from windows.
You have moved out of Kyiv. Where are you now?
I live near Kyiv, about 25 kilometers away, in a house in the country. Fortunately, the area is quite safe and I can communicate with Kyiv. I’m an hour’s drive from Kyiv, so I can go to Kyiv if needed. I’m on standby — if my capacity or my job needs it, I’ll go back to my workplace. That’s why we decided not to run away.
I am optimistic about the success of the Ukrainian army against the Russians. Ukraine simply will not be subdued. Giving up or forgiving is simply not an option.
Our children have two 4-year-old daughters, so we have moved them to a safer place. But the old people stay here. I’m old enough to sacrifice my life if need be.