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Mmm, Is That Radiation You’re Cooking?

Posted by Sunday on Oct 25, 2008 at 11:29 pm in Apocalypse, Daily Space

When I was 10 years old I read a book titled Missile Envy, by Dr. Helen Caldicott.  It is a sensationalist account of what a nuclear attack on a city would be like, including the preceding events and the aftermath.  Then, as in now, Dr. Caldicott is scolded for her emotional, maternalistic feminism, a fact that was entirely lost on this pre-teen.  As far as I knew it was as untainted an account as any – and after all, is there any other way to present the details of what is essentially a planet-buster? Anyway, it started a lifelong preoccupation with all things nuclear (and lightly related: chemical warfare).  It was my Nightmare on Elm Street – it terrified me and I couldn’t get enough of it.

  • I saw Silkwood on television and became convinced that bologna and/or cheese slices were tainted with radiation.  Luckily no one in my family ate bologna.
  • I believe it was Dr. Caldicott’s book that stated (erroneously?) that some common radioactive element smelled like garlic, a fact that haunted me for years.  Combined with Silkwood, I thereafter had nervous fantasies that my showers were tainted with radiation, to the point where I powerfully hallucinated smelling garlic.  Oddly, I can’t eat enough garlic.
  • Shortly thereafter I read a magazine article about improperly discarded nuclear waste, a story in which a foreign child finds a small chunk of pasty, glittery blue material.  The child then smears some of the blue glitter on his/her body and pockets the rest.  Within the week the child is dead, the regions where the blue paste had been smeared are rotting away and a orange-sized pit in the thigh near where the remainder of the chunk had rested for several hours.  A local doctor is at a loss.  I became hyperaware of suspicious items in the trash and assumed them to have a half-life of 1,000 years.


Fuel containing mass emerging from ducts (image has been altered with black lines to enhance visibility of slag)

  • Chernobyl,  unsurprisingly, had occurred around this time.  I can and do spend hours reading about it.  Among the aspects I find most fascinating is the phenomenon of radioactive lava that formed during the explosion.  Some 95% of the uranium became what is referred to as “fuel containing mass,” or molten fuel slag.  The lava splooged in waves through the facility, down four levels by running through pipes and channels and sometimes melting clean through walls.  The slag cooled and hardened into a super-ceramic that scientists later had trouble chipping a sample from (they ended up firing at it with a rifle to get a chunk off; there goes that old adage about not shooting molten fuel slag). One slag outcrop is referred to as “The Elephant Foot” and is so radioactive it cannot be approached by living things, even in protective suits.
  • A moment of silence for Spock.
  • Another aspect about Chernobyl that still gets me going is the rumored mutations that have since evolved in the surrounding countryside.  As expected there are a plethora of strange tales, including glowing trees, over-sized and overconfident wolves, “Chernobyl Snowmen” and colonies of vicious squirrels.
  • Some movie from my childhood that really stuck with me: a kind of biography about the men of the early atom bomb tests who may or may not have been used as guinea pigs by being exposed to fallout.  There was a scene where the men almost immediately begin to vomit a kind of white, creamy bad-movie vomit, the little spitted mouthfuls kind (I don’t know about you, but when I puke there had better be a bucket ready)(okay, except for that time in Seattle when I threw up all over the sidewalk and a waitress accused me of being drunk but I was having some kind of allergic reaction to surf clam).  It was the first time that I understood that radiation sickness wasn’t like getting a cold: it is instantaneous, irreversible and horrid.
  • On November 1st of 2006, Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko was murdered by a lethal dose of polonium-210 slipped into his tea cup.  While the entire story is intense and worth looking up (a teaser: the most likely suspect for the actual act is “Igor the Assasin“, an ex-KGB judo master who walks with a limp), it’s worth noting that polonium-210 is not a typical gamma-type radioactive element (think: Chernobyl/Hulk) – it emits alpha particles, the kind that can be blocked by a piece of notebook paper.  Alpha particles don’t set off airport detectors or even geiger counters under certain conditions.  Polonium-210 must be ingested or inhaled, and the victim will die a slow, painful and terrible death.
  • Just in case radiation doesn’t impress you enough, here’s a little treat from Wikipedia:

It is interesting to note that, under some conditions, shielding can increase the dose rate. For instance, if the electrons from a high energy beta source … strike a lead surface, X-ray photons will be generated (radiation produced in this way is known as bremsstrahlung). It is best for this reason to cover any high Z materials (such as lead or tungsten) with a low Z material such as aluminum, wood, plastic. This effect can be significant if a person wearing lead-containing gloves picks up a strong beta source. Also, gamma photons can induce the emission of electrons from very dense materials by the photoelectric effect; again, by covering the high Z material with a low Z material, this potential additional source of exposure to humans can be avoided. Furthermore, gamma rays can scatter off a dense object; this enables gamma rays to “go around corners” to a small degree. Hence, to obtain a very high protection factor, the path in/out of the shielded enclosure should have several 90 degree turns rather than just one.

Have a great week, everyone!

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October 25th, 2008 | Apocalypse, Daily Space

6 Responses to “Mmm, Is That Radiation You’re Cooking?”

  1. quagmire Says:

    I’m sure most have seen it by now, but for those who haven’t, the old video footage compilation ‘Atomic Cafe’ is a must-see. Scenes of US Army dudes ordered to stand very close to Ground Zero during a nuclear explosion are both hilarious and gut-wrenching in their insane ignorance. The demonstrations were to show that radiation was, indeed, harmless! The public and GI Joe knew nothing about the demons being unleashed.

  2. Mark Says:

    I know several people who work for the agency that controls entry to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and scientists who also work in the Zone. They tell me there is no validated evidence of animal mutations in the area. Documentation does exist of changes in plants, such as the number/pattern of needles on pine trees.

    Glowing trees reference the “Red Forest”, which is a forested area north and west of the Chernobyl Plant. Most experts believe the trees did not actually glow, though their trunks did change to a deep shade of red due to radiation exposure. All those trees were buried in trenches shortly after the accident.

    I personally visited the Chernobyl area for two days in June 2006 with a friend and former resident of Pripyat. We toured the Chernobyl Plant (including the Reactor 4 control room), several of the abandoned villages, and Pripyat. I have posted a photo journal of my trip at:

    My Journey to Chernobyl: 20 Years After the Disaster

  3. Sunday Says:


    That’s really awesome that you went to Chernobyl, I honestly would go in a moment if I had the financial freedom to do so.

    I understand that these rumors of mutant animals are all untrue (though, from what I read there are mutated molds and lichens that are thriving in the area) – nevertheless, I am fascinated by the mythology of this kind of thing, the way that we turn what is already an atrocity into something even stranger and more alien. I’m no psychologist, but I believe there is a powerful coping mechanism taking place. And it interests me.

    And thanks for the link to your site, I enjoyed reading about your trip.

  4. quagmire Says:

    Animal mutations would most likely take more generations to exhibit effects, if any … unlike in movies!

  5. Nastybear Says:

    Yeah I shake my head every time I see footage off all those troops walking into a trenchline to wait for an atomic test. The government damn well knew from the bombs droped on Japan what they were exposing those troops to.

  6. Mrs. Melons Says:

    Don’t forget Jollity Farm, either!

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