Article In Foreign Policy And Chernobyl Questions

I’ve got an article in Foreign Policy. It’s more than the headline – Anne I. Harrington and I look at the kinds of masculinity that have been associated with control over nuclear weapons and how Trump fits into that.

Also – I think this week’s was the third (?) in the Chernobyl HBO series. As I’ve said before, I’m not watching because I have no desire to see a dramatization of acute radiation syndrome. But I was on a rapid reaction team at Los Alamos to try to figure out if we could help as the news of the accident unfolded. So feel free to ask questions here, and I’ll try to answer them.


71 replies
  1. 1
    Baud says:

    Congrats, Cheryl.

  2. 2
    rikyrah says:

    Good for you for the article.
    I, too, have no interest in the mini-series.

  3. 3
    Yutsano says:

    Just remember us Cheryl. Remember us little peeps. That’s all I ask. :)

  4. 4
    Al Z. says:

    I’m watching the series and find it very compelling. Depictions of radiation poisoning have been pretty terrifying but not gratuitous in my opinion. Is there a reason I should not want to watch this?

  5. 5
    MobiusKlein says:

    Could it happen again? Here, there, or elsewhere.

  6. 6

    I completely understand why you want to avoid the mini-series, Cheryl.

    But for anyone else on the fence about it, I highly recommend it — it’s riveting and absolutely haunting. There’s also a companion podcast where the writer details what dramatic license he took, and what’s completely factual. It seems like the people involved really want to do justice to this.

  7. 7
    Archon says:

    Mini series is fascinating. I had no idea how close the world was to a true nuclear catastrophe that would have made much of Europe uninhabitable.

  8. 8

    Congrats! Put it on my reading list!

  9. 9

    Oh, good, another scary reason not to sleep at night. ;-) Congratulations!

  10. 10

    @Al Z.: From what I understand, the Chernobyl series is pretty accurate. The part of the story that hasn’t been told before is how the managers at the plant and the bureaucracy stumbled to preserve a facade that everything was fine. The Soviet system didn’t allow for something like this to happen, and people understood that they were likely to be sent to the gulag or shot if they were found responsible. Gorbachev recognized this, and it was the motivation for his perestroika and glasnost, with which he hoped to make the government more responsive to the people.

  11. 11

    @MobiusKlein: Probably not. That type of reactor (RBMK) had a peculiarity in how it responded to the control rods – a little bit of control rod actually made the neutron reactions go faster – that every other reactor design has avoided. That peculiarity was part of what went wrong. The reactor also had minimal containment. Both of those things have been corrected on existing RBMK reactors and were avoided in other reactor designs.

  12. 12

    @Al Z.: I am not watching because I’ve read the report, with photos, of Louis Slotin’s death after a criticality accident. It’s horrible and not something I want to see again. Otherwise I would be interested in watching.

  13. 13
    Tbone says:

    When working around high level radiation leaks, is it a good idea, or a bad idea, to work completely naked? Will a hat and shoes help mitigate exposure to gamma radiation?

  14. 14
    Don says:

    One thing I have NOT seen has been any reference to 3 Mile Island accident which had occurred a few years earlier. Did the RBMK operators have no knowledge of TMI, or were the reactors so different that there was nothing to learn from it?

  15. 15
    MobiusKlein says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: I never expected a direct repeat. But how possible are similar scale of impact & risk from nuclear plant mishaps. Have we learned the right lessons.

  16. 16
    David C says:

    My day job is finding treatments for ARS and Delayed Effects of Acute Radiation Exposure (DEARE). We just had a workshop on cutaneous radiation injury and the pictures of those injuries are pretty gruesome, too, but our colleagues at IRSN in France (one of whom presented sides) have made some strides in treating skin, etc. injury.

    In justifying the use of leukocyte growth factors to accelerate neutrophil recovery, we used the experience of Chernobyl liquidators. The bone marrow has a pool of radioresistant cells that can expand into neutrophils. We now have three growth factors (two of which I worked on) approved to treat hematopoietic ARS. Gastrointestinal and lung radiation syndromes are tougher, since multi-organ injury is more pronounced at higher radiation exposures.

    I’ve been watching the series and listening to the podcast.

  17. 17

    @Tbone: Are you referring to John’s naked mopping?

    I would always wear something. It’s not necessarily going to stop the radiation, and in a situation like the Chernobyl liquidators, you’re going to die anyway. But it will collect the particulates, so it will be easier to decontaminate your body.

    Also, it’s easier to work around machinery and hard stuff if you have something to protect your body.

  18. 18
    H.E.Wolf says:

    Many thanks to you and your co-author for writing this article, and for letting us know about it.

    Thanks also for recommending a 1987 article by Carol Cohn to us, some while ago. It was similarly well-written, and similarly sobering to read.

    “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals”

  19. 19

    @Don: The circumstances, and the reactor, were different enough that it probably wouldn’t have made a difference, although the lessons of being alert and knowing what you’re doing are always useful.

  20. 20
    David C says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:

    The miners brought in to dig under the concrete pad were faced with really high temperatures which necessitated their stripping down to nothing.

  21. 21

    @MobiusKlein: I can’t imagine how an equivalent accident could happen now. For all that TMI and Fukushima are mentioned in the same breath with Chernobyl, they had no fatalities or serious injuries from radiation.

  22. 22

    @David C: This is so cool! Thanks for sharing. I’d imagine that these growth factors are helpful in supporting cancer patients through radiation therapy?

  23. 23

    @H.E.Wolf: Anne Harrington has contributed a lot to feminist thinking on national security issues in academic journals, as have others. But there hasn’t been much of it in more popular publications. I’m very pleased about this piece for that reason. Anne and I hope to write more.

  24. 24

    @David C: I just wouldn’t, but I’ll believe they did.

  25. 25
    David C says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:

    They were already approved for other indications: G-CSF (Neupogen and Neulasta) and GM-CSF (Leukine). It still took 11 years for the first one since the path to approval was pretty new and there were a few obstacles. Some of the story is in here:

    Real life occurrences at gatherings: “What do you do for a living?” “Develop drugs to take in case of nuclear holocaust.” “Oh, that’s interesting….” (Walks away slowly)

  26. 26
    Gin & Tonic says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: I know what you’re saying in the sentence about Gorbachev, but a quick reading of that sentence may lead someone to think that Gorbachev’s political reforms were a reaction to the Chornobyl accident, where they had actually begun the year before, and reached full expression at the 27th Congress of the CPSU, which took place two months before the accident. Just a minor clarification.

    I haven’t watched the series largely because we don’t have HBO here, but my son has been watching and recommends it highly. But I was following events in real time, and he was as yet unborn.

  27. 27
    trollhattan says:

    I’m watching, suppose for the dual reasons it’s 1. compellingly well done with few caricatures (unless the Soviet hierarchy was like that, which isn’t out of the realm of possibility) and 2. because at the time we got the information in dribs and drabs it’s fascinating to fill in a lot of the blanks and have them presented in a chronology.

    Nerd question: were the dead responders buried in metal-clad caskets and feet of concrete because they were contaminated with gamma emitters? Does not bode well for those providing them with medical care. Or the (apocryphal?) pregnant wife.

  28. 28
  29. 29
    The Pale Scot says:

    A good documentary is The Battle of Chernobyl

    Film of brave fucking soldiers strapping on lead sheeting then running out a door to the roof to shovel graphite over the side for a minute then running back inside. They did a couple of runs then got sent home. Over 500,000 souls did shit like this, there are NO studies that followed what happened to those people, and they had to fight to get their pensions. Just like there are no comprehensive studies of the population around 3 Mile Island. The Penn legislature passed a budget item to do this, it was vetoed by the governor. What I want to see in the HBO series is the Russian report to the world that took place in Zurich. The Russians gave an estimate of 40,000 causalities from direct exposure and cancers. The participants from the west called it preposterous and chewed the Russians down to 4000, which was the UN estimate. Our nuclear industry at it’s finest.

    The radiation cloud was over Kiev during May Day festivities. The Russian army was hosing down streets as children played there. All photos of that May Day have been disappeared from Russian/Ukrainian archives. My opinion is because the photos show radio-flashes from the radiation.

    And the claim that the soldiers didn’t know what the dangers are rings false. They were mostly from the Kiev District. This army is always the best equipped with the most capable soldiers. I can’t believe that soldiers that went thru training to operate in fallout conditions didn’t have clue. The miners were just badass MOFUS, google Richard Burton talking about growing up in a mining town. The helo pilots were experienced combat veterans, they’re loss must have crippled Russian operations in Afghanistan.

  30. 30
    EmBee says:

    I will note that in the miniseries, the “cover-up” is mostly depicted as happening for two reasons. The second is just as you describe, Cheryl—the fear of the Soviet hierarchy, of giving bad news to people who can kill you.

    The first one I didn’t know: the plant operators and their superiors spent the first couple of days denying that the core was exposed because they firmly believed an RBMK reactor could not explode, delaying the right response when time was critical and costing many first responder lives.

    Only now in the storyline are the experts starting to realize that the plant engineers pressed the shutdown button before the explosion (not knowing about how inserting the control rods accelerated the reactions briefly instead of immediately dampening them).

  31. 31
    Gin & Tonic says:

    @The Pale Scot:

    All photos of that May Day have been disappeared from Russian/Ukrainian archives.


  32. 32
    Martin says:

    @Gin & Tonic: I was in college (studying physics) when it happened, so it was injected into a lot of classes if nothing more than a lets keep the undergrads engaged with some current events kind of thing.

    I do highly recommend it. What couldn’t be told without the passage of time was the story of how people reacted to it, which is what this is – a historical drama. Yeah, there are liberties being taken, but nothing egregious. You can see how the political and management structure enabled this to happen and also how they were able to respond so quickly in many cases. It’s not moralizing on communism or nuclear power, but leaves you thinking that highly complex systems with seriously undesirable failure states maybe need to be approached in a unique way.

    Contra Cheryls statement above “I can’t imagine how an equivalent accident could happen now.”, the throughline on the story so far is that they couldn’t imagine how this could happen either. What’s more, we don’t to this day have a conclusive theory of how it did happen. We know pretty clearly the conditions that led to the explosions, but there’s debate over what the nature of each of the explosions was. That suggests we don’t understand at the most granular level how the reactor failed in its final seconds.

    The lesson from this has been ‘that reactor design is stupid, and the tests they were doing is stupid, and let’s not do either of those again’, so yes, we can probably cross an exact replica of this off the list, but its hard for me to have faith in the operation of a nuclear plant when the construction of the plant can’t even be managed. (I’m looking at you V.C. Summer). It’s nothing to do with the quality and training of the staff that run these plants (we train operators here where I work, and it’s impressively thorough) but rather the broader management of large, complex projects which so routinely fails. The operators aren’t responsible for funding and performing large scale maintenance and replacement, training of surrounding affected workers, and the like. And if we can’t even get our shit together to do basic construction, there’s no fucking way these cost center operations are going to happen properly. I used to have faith that even if state government was incompetent to regulate and inspect these operations that the federal government wasn’t, but that’s out the fucking window right now.

    All engineering design carries certain assumptions. A friend of mine designed a nearby road, which required the creation of a natural adjacent wash for water management. The constraint on that design was laid out clear before a shovel hit the ground – you have to keep the wash clear of trees and brush, or else it’ll back up in a heavy rain and flood this adjoining neighborhood. It’s a simple enough requirement – send your ground crews in there with a Bobcat once a year, yank everything out, and you’re good. In 10 years, they’ve never cleared it out. There are 25′ tall trees growing in there now, and sure enough the adjoining neighborhood very nearly flooded this year. There are impressively safe nuclear reactor designs out there, with almost 100% passive failure modes. But even these require certain things be done regularly by management. I have no faith that will happen because there is no accountability for management failures in this country. That problem is getting worse, not better. There’s no design that our very talented engineering community and very responsible operator community can implement that management won’t find a way to fuck up.

  33. 33
    Dan B says:

    @David C: You haven’t run into me at a party. I’d have so many questions. For example: Why is this necessary and who authorized funds for this research? (Not an indictment, genuinely curious.) If these treatments don’t work well for high radiation exposure and multiple organ failure what do they typically address, bone marrow or white blood cell damage, or something else? Is there any research on animals and people living in the Chernobyl zone of contamination? There seem to be species that are thriving. Would that be useful research or are there too many variables? How many researchers are there in this field? Do you feel your research has been used in any attempt to justify or normalize the use of nuclear weapons or nuclear reactors?

    You’d be trying to escape me because I was not trained (womped) as a child to stifle my curiousity.

    BTW sounds like fascinating, but slow, research.

  34. 34

    @Gin & Tonic: Yes. Gorbachev recognized the need for reforms before Chernobyl, but the difficulty he had in getting a straight story convinced him to move more decisively. He really wanted socialism with a human face. What he didn’t realize was the pent-up dissatisfactions in the satellites and republics. Glasnost opened up communications, and perestroika could be used as a cover for stuff like forming political parties. Things happened very fast, and the USSR collapsed.

  35. 35
    Blue mouser says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:How much did the US know about the extent of the disaster in the immediate aftermath of the explosion and then as events unfolded? In the series Gorbachev is told that Reagan has (satellite) pictures on his desk right now and that the Swedish government was asking if there had been an accident, to dramatically illustrate that the Soviet Government can not contain the spread of information. I think in this era of social media and information interconnectedness it’s hard for people to remember or young people to understand how hard it was to find out information about events going on internationally. Did the US know how bad it was from the beginning? I remember you mentioned in an earlier reply that it was hard to get information from the Soviet Government. It would be fascinating to hear how the committee went about piecing together what happened. I could have sworn not to long after the events there were pictures of the burning reactor on the cover of Time magazine.

  36. 36

    @The Pale Scot: Keep in mind that the examples you give are of very different exposures. The guys shoveling gravel were going to die or be very sick. The exposures to the general public at Three Mile Island were at the other end of the scale – practically nothing. Kyiv was somewhere in between, but much closer to Three Mile Island than the guys shoveling gravel. Numbers are really important in understanding something like this.

    And the claim that the soldiers didn’t know what the dangers are rings false.

    Oh man, let me tell you what people don’t understand about so many things. And the Soviet army was particularly poorly trained.

  37. 37

    @EmBee: I think both were operative. The information we got on the task force came in dribs and drabs, with a lot of holes. It was pretty clear to us then that for one reason or another, the information flow was really bad.

  38. 38


    What’s more, we don’t to this day have a conclusive theory of how it did happen. We know pretty clearly the conditions that led to the explosions, but there’s debate over what the nature of each of the explosions was. That suggests we don’t understand at the most granular level how the reactor failed in its final seconds.

    This is a quibble. We know enough to have corrected the control rod reactivity problem.

    You are arguing that if we don’t know every detail of every process, we can never be 1000% sure that nothing bad will ever happen. That is true, but operationally useless. We need estimates of the probabilities of bad things happening. If we just say “well, we don’t know everything, so something terrible can happen,” then we might as well not get out of bed in the morning.

  39. 39
    Gin & Tonic says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: Kyiv, please.

  40. 40
    Aleta says:

    What a great article. I didn’t know all of that about Gen. Curtis LeMay; I only knew his name re the US firebombing and nuclear bombing of Japan. (My landlady and my early guardian were present during both (separately).

    I appreciate how succinctly you and Anne Harrington describe the history of civilian control over nuclear weapons (the debate, precedent of presidential launch authority, McNamara, LeMay and Kennedy), placed up against how our future is presently trapped within the Trump admin’s old norms (that we’d hoped were dying) of aggressive masculinity.

    This part was also impressive:

    Trump’s personal manner is like LeMay’s—belligerent, inarticulate, refusing meaningful discussion, and deflecting criticism. And, like LeMay, his statements about nuclear weapons prioritize use over doctrine. [ … }

    Trump’s focus on the individual, the leader is not just narcissistic but also deeply patriarchal. For Trump’s supporters, it is precisely the hope that Trump might “make America great again” by restoring their social world to its “natural” order, one in which the (white) man’s home is once again his castle. His masculine bravado and willingness to eschew social norms in favor of social aggression and emotional combativeness are his attractive qualities, but it is precisely these characteristics that lead to senseless and irrational conflicts—conflicts that could quickly become global catastrophes in the nuclear era. [… }

    This style of personal entitlement stands in sharp contrast to prior presidents, who (with rare exception) accommodate themselves to the role by placing the demands of the office before personal desires. It also stands in contrast to the masculine ideal that we have come to associate with the office of the president, one that values rationality and sound judgment over brutishness and bravado.

    The debate about civilian control of nuclear weapons, including presidential launch authority, was not only a struggle over whether nukes are primarily political tools or military weapons but also what type of person could be trusted with the ability to forever alter life on Earth.

    It’s also a good description of what we’ve been saying we want in a Dem candidate:
    “placing the demands of the office before personal desires”
    “values rationality and sound judgment”

    rather than
    “belligerent, inarticulate, refusing meaningful discussion, and deflecting criticism”

    Great article.

  41. 41

    @Blue mouser: I can’t give you an exact chronology. The Swedes were the first to send up a warning signal when they detected the radionuclides. We now have many more of those stations to monitor for clandestine nuclear explosions. We also have seismic stations that might have picked up the Chernobyl explosions if they had been in place then. And there are gazillions of satellites taking pictures of everything now.

    What is called “Nuclear Twitter” would be kicking around everything that came in, as we do for North Korean nuclear tests and other exciting events.

    But yes, there was much less information back then. Our task force got some photos, but I think that was well after the accident. I was at the Air and Space Museum in DC earlier this year, and they had a nice exhibit of the development of photographic satellites. They actually used film back then, and ejected it from the satellite in canisters that were then picked up by specialized airplanes in Utah. Now we get the photos pretty much instantaneously.

  42. 42
  43. 43
    Blue mouser says:

    @trollhattan: Lyudmilla is a real person. She did go to her husbands bedside as he lay dying. Her story is told in Voices from Chernobyl according to sources I read. I need to pick up that book next. She is shown holding shoes at the mass burial site because his feet were too swollen to wear them when they buried him. Does Craig Mazin in the podcast mention that they used her description of what her husband look like to depict the effects of radiation on the body? I don’t remember. I might have read it somewhere.

    The amount of effort they took to try to accurately depict the time in which events took place is astonishing. They use actual clothes, supplies and building from that era. The fact that they shot the prison scene in an actual KGB prison blows my mind. Craig Mazin’s description of the place is downright creepy. I wish they had been allotted more episodes and a bigger budget to tell the story of what happened.

  44. 44
  45. 45
    Dan B says:

    @Martin: Great commentespecially on the critical importance of, and lack of respect for, maintenance.

    I occurred to me that we’re in a similar societal mindset wrt climate crisis. Since we haven’t experienced anything but seemingly isolated “weather events” few of us have felt the future on a suitably profound level. Chernobyl and Fukushima are dramatic and we are evolved to recognize the need for a response. Hanford is the climate crisis metaphor. It’s far away from most people and the hazards don’t grab the imagination.

    At the moment we are inserting the control rods – many words – and the bureaucracy is responding like the Soviets to Chernobyl. Meanwhile 2/3 of WA state is in drought, in May! BillinGlendale reports sniw in SoCal. The jet stream dips to the south of CA and AZ then zooms to the north of MI and ME. This is a terrifying omen if you know the science. There aren’t enough warning lights flashing red. Yet.

  46. 46
    Aleta says:

    @David C: Hope you have a chance to write more here.

  47. 47
    ant says:

    These days Trump not only brags about grabbing women by the pussy but also boasts about how his nuclear button is bigger than North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s.

    Yeah. Sometimes I wonder why some republican doesn’t primary him for 2020 just simply on national security.

    Between the leaking of classified info, the security clearances, his illiteracy of daily briefings, general ignorance of anything, his sucking up to fucked up countries like KSA/Russia/ect….. and on and on.

    Seems like he would be vulnerable on national security. I know I sure feel vulnerable with him having so much power.

    Couldn’t someone point these things out coming from the right?

  48. 48
    J R in WV says:


    Regarding the excellent article about the history of authority to wage nuclear war, and the lack of restraint on the President for launching a nuclear attack, I have a couple of questions. Perhaps out of your area of expertise, more in Adam’s?

    Anyway, the power to declare war is vested in the Congress by the constitution. Certainly launching a nuclear attack is an act of war, perhaps the most violent act of war possible. Wouldn’t the use of nuclear weapons in the absence of a formal declaration of war by Congress be a most serious war crime?

    In my late night anxieties I wonder if President Trump might not use nuclear weapons against his enemies just before an election, specifically to sway the election. Something along these lines:

    We’re at war with _ _ _ _ _ _ now, and [you must vote for me to save out freedom (least bad)] | [this election is cancelled and the nation is under martial law (pretty much worse)] | [ something even worse I haven’t yet thought of at 3 or 4 am] !

    I know Trump is totally unaware of what war crimes are, since he seems more than willing to pardon war criminals for their unbelievable crimes right now. Perhaps he should be forced to watch “Judgment at Nuremberg” — isn’t there a hanging at the end? Not that I believe he would learn from it, but at least he couldn’t successfully claim ignorance of the war crimes situation.

    Perhaps there should be a court case filed to overturn the President’s ability to launch or employ nuclear devices in the absence of a prior nuclear attack on American soil OR a formal declaration war in congress? Specifically not the “Authorization for Use of Military Force” which looks to me to be a dead letter now that bin Laden is dead and his network is essentially dispersed, and that no national governments currently in power had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks~!!~

    Perhaps we need legislation and/or an injunction ending the AUMF as having any power in today’s international environment? I remember W Bush’s Axis of Evil, including Iraq, Iran and North Korea, none of which nations had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks.

    If W could use the AUMF to attack Iraq, I’m sure Trump would believe it authorizes him to nuke Iran, DPRK, even Venezuela in the absence of some formality ( legislation or an injunction) making it crystal clear the AUMF has no current power to enable military action ANYWHERE!

    Not the Trump seems to pay much attention to courts, legal judgments, etc. But perhaps his minions have seen “Judgment at Nuremberg” and understand they would be as liable to arrest, trial and an extremely harsh sentence for war crimes committed by Trump. Especially the military officers who would be necessary to carrying out such an attack in the absence of a threat to the US.

    I have a small backhoe, and have often laid awake planning how to build and provision a fallout shelter in my head. Lying there awake at 3 am is not good for a person.

  49. 49
    David C says:

    @Dan B: :-)

    So many questions; I’ll see what I can do. The medical countermeasures programs are funded through Congressional appropriations to the NIH (NIAID, my digs – mostly early stage) and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). ( They are much smaller than the biodefense/emerging infectious disease appropriation, but we get stuff done.

    Current treatments are for bone marrow damage that comes from relatively lower radiation levels. Medical management (antibiotics, fluids, nutritional support, blood and platelet transfusions) do a lot to help. Many of these were available at Chernobyl. The GI and lung damage were apparent in the Tokaimura patients (

    I’m aware of epidemiology research in Byelorus and Ukraine, but not research on the animal population.

    As far as whether our work makes nuclear war more likely – I doubt it. Even our best planning assumes many, many fatalities, even under the best circumstances. Even though there are ways to limit casualties (Get Inside, Stay Inside, Stay Tunes), nobody involved in this work thinks that a nuclear detonation will be a piece of cake. We’ve seen what happens after disasters with infrastructure loss (Katrina, Sandy, Maria). We just want to save as many lives as possible.

  50. 50
    Aleta says:

    @H.E.Wolf: Thanks for that reference, which I’d missed earlier. In Signs during the 80s no less. The decade when the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camps first became active to protest/publicize storage of cruise missile nuclear weapons at the British base at G. Common. I thought of them because there was an article recently (NYT maybe) that included one of JEB’s photos from there.

  51. 51
    David C says:

    @Aleta: :-) Back to work, though (I’m justifying posting by calling this community outreach).

  52. 52
    Dan B says:

    @David C: The webinar didn’t seem to address socially significant issues like panic and potential for individual and/or mob actions. Although 9/11 and other disasters seems to show these are unlikely.
    Getting people out of high radiation zones would cause traffic gridlock in NYC and other metro areas with physical constraints (Seattle…).

  53. 53
    Aleta says:

    @Dan B: “who authorized funds for this research” is to me always a good question, a good thing to know. My first summer job after 1st year physics was about clouds and water droplet growth … the first lines of the first paper I was told to read re: my bosses’ work, quoted Joni Mitchell on clouds … sweet stuff, earth and sky, a cloud chamber in a lab. Twenty years later one of the then-grad students told me he’d learned that the DoD had funded the study bc (why of course) it could also be used in weapons research. An acquaintance who’s done years of chemistry research for the military on bioweapon protection told me they’re troubled lately, wondering about their research being applied offensively.

  54. 54
    Dan B says:

    @David C: Thanks! I had a feeling that you’d spent time considering the possibility that your work would lead to increased risk of negative outcomes. This introspection is an important part of science.

    BTW my father was a research chemist, rubber and plastics / polymers. Today we’re trying to stop the damage…. He would have been enthused about biodegradable plastic and non petroleum based plastics.

  55. 55
    Dan B says:

    @Aleta: Unintended consequences. Hmmmm! Where have I heard that before?

  56. 56
    Aleta says:

    @David C: absolutely true

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    trollhattan says:

    @Blue mouser:
    Thanks so much! Knowing more about the level of story accuracy and that many of the characters are historical figures and not amalgams or serving dramatic needs, makes the show more compelling and the topic worth pursuing beyond the series itself.

    There is, of course, Chernobyl tourism (because, reasons) and I’ve seen a few truly haunting photo essays of Pripyat and surrounding forests and villages. Some villages are even repopulating despite residual contamination. Peace and quiet, no extra charge.

  58. 58
    Aleta says:

    @Dan B: Most of the physics jobs for awhile were in two areas–either for weapons or oil. You could try to avoid them in favor of earthy things and modeling natural systems going back and forth in time … but all roads kept tilting toward the defense budget. Even if you didn’t do defense work, as soon as certain research suggested applications to defense, the grants went to those people and their much faster (well-funded) supercomputers. (Generalizing wildly with this; ymmv)

  59. 59
    trollhattan says:

    IIUC big investment banks started vacuuming up PhD physicists to work on their automated trading algorithms. Which reminds me: “pick up copy of ‘Flash Boys’.”

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    Damned at Random says:

    Late to the party as usual, but I wanted to mention the awesome NOVA episode from a couple of years ago about the new Chernobyl sarcophagus – amazing engineering feat under very adverse conditions.

  61. 61
    Miss Bianca says:

    Good article, Cheryl!

  62. 62
    David C says:

    @Dan B:

    True – the webinar did not address the loss of infrastructure and the difficulties of transport/gridlock, but the US government is looking at this. I had a speaker from ASPR discuss that in a workshop we had last fall (and just finished a section of a manuscript on my section of that workshop, so it’s fresh in my memory). Local responders will be directing efforts in the first days and they will know the limitations of movement (like no heading east if you’re in Chicago).

  63. 63

    @J R in WV: There are a couple of bills in Congress to require the President to consult with Cabinet members or Congress before launching a nuclear attack, or just to prohibit unilateral first use of nuclear weapons by the President. But the facts right now are as we stated in the article – it is totally the President’s decision. A service member is always nearby with the communications device called the football, which is a heavy-looking oversize briefcase. Presumably Trump carries the card with his identifying codes around all the time.

    Yes, it would be a war crime or worse if Trump just decided to let fly at North Korea or Iran. But the damage would be done, and others might respond in kind.

  64. 64
    David C says:

    Things I’m wondering as I watch:

    – How long after exposure did people start to vomit? Time-to-vomiting is a rough way to calculate radiation dose.

    – How much radiation did the sickest patients in the hospital receive? I am familiar with radiation sickness up to a certain level, but these are the patients who in a mass casualty situation would be given palliative care (because of scarce resources).

    – I am also interested in how the patients became radiation emitters; I assume because of radionuclide contamination since, AFAIK, ionizing radiation that passes through the body does not cause one to become radioactive.

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    @David C: I kind of doubt that answers to your questions are readily available. Certainly you have access to the professional literature where such things are most likely to be reported.

    My sense is that, given the denial and bureaucratic foot-dragging, measurements and records were slim to none. On the other hand, Soviet scientists would have wanted this information too. They have had active programs in dealing with radiation injuries for a long time.

    I have my doubts about the patients becoming radiation emitters. To the extent they were, it must have been from contamination, as you say. But I would not minimize inaccurate reporting; many people, including reporters, seem to believe that radiation is communicable. So if you are irradiated, you become radioactive.

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    David C says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: In light of the miniseries I’ll have to go back to the Beebe Symposium talks at the NASEM. I hear there was a good talk on Day 2. ;-) We generally dip into the Chernobyl experience to extract just the information we need.

    I finally got a chance to read the article. Now I wonder how Eisenhower managed to throttle LeMay. Maybe having the title of Supreme Commander at one time gave a little extra street cred.

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    David C says:

    There’s some information in Fred Mettler’s talk – I’ll have to read his manuscript. “Some patients had skin doses in the range of 400-500 Gy” Wow!

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    MobiusKlein says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: What latitude do the soldiers tasked with carrying out a nuclear strike have to refuse orders? Whether for war crimes reasons, or declaration of war requires Congressional authorization.

    And could that latitude be formalized with laws or congressional resolutions?

    E.g. would a sense of the Congress resolution making clear that a first strike constitutes an act of war enable the armed forces to refuse a first strike order? (Absent a preexisting war, obviously )

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    JimV says:

    Thanks for this post.

    As a former design engineer, it is my firm conviction that we design new things by trial and error (the way evolution designed us). Boilers used to blow up and kill people regularly in the 1800’s, until all the failure modes were learned and preventative design measures were codified (e.g., in the ASME Code for Boiler Design), and states made it illegal to operate a boiler that was not designed to that code. Most of us in developed countries have been within the lethal radius of a boiler explosion at some point, without worrying about it. (Of course the code did not and does not cover the long-term danger of powering boilers with fossil fuels–yet.)

    Perhaps one of the answers to the Fermi Paradox is that civilizations evolve their technology to the point that their errors become so dangerous that they destroy the civilizations. (I wonder what error modes fusion reactors will have.)

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    @MobiusKlein: There was quite a discussion about this on Nuclear Twitter early in Trump’s administration. There’s also a dramatized version in Jeffrey Lewis’s “2020 Commission Report”, an imagining of how we might have a nuclear war with North Korea.

    The bottom line is that the service members’ orders are to obey the President. All down the chain of command to the folks in the bunkers who turn the keys. And those chosen for such duty are the ones most likely to obey. I like to think that at some point, in an obviously illegal order, some of them would prefer to continue in the world we’ve become accustomed to, but that is a thin thread on which to hang hope.

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    The Pale Scot says:

    @Gin & Tonic: Sorry to be late, I had a thing, The direct quote is from photographer Valery Zufarov in the documentary I linked to. He flew over the reactor that morning to take pictures, so all the video of him is before the internet. There are many pics of the parade on the internet, but who can tell if they’re from 1986? You should watch the doc, it fills in the story being told in the mini series. There’s many stories to read, but I haven’t found one that gives radiation levels in Kiev at that time. There many accounts of radiation sickness in the region around Kiev, but since there were never any comprehensive studies of the population or of fallout distribution, the facts will never be known.

    The thing I take away from this is that at a conference in Geneva, the Soviets gave an estimate of a total of 40,000 eventual casualties. The western attendees, almost all employed by the nuclear industry, refused to accept this and chewed the number down to 4000. I’m pretty sure that’s not accurate.

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