Chernobyl then and now

Above: Scene from HBO’s “Chernobyl” miniseries

Lots of people have been riveted to HBO’s five-part “Chernobyl” miniseries, whose fourth episode just aired. Hailed as totally essential, the program is engrossing and hard-hitting, with writing by Craig Mazin and direction by Johan Renck building a steadily creeping unease. The cast is great, and the accuracy of the historical details, from uniforms to telephones to flashlights, has amazed even Russian viewers. The story is, so far, extremely accurate, including in its graphic depiction of the ravaging effects of Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS), suffered by the many onsite workers and first responders sacrificed in the effort to mitigate the disaster. Our expert advice is not to plan on eating anything that contains melted cheese while watching the show, or anytime afterwards. There’s also a superb companion podcast which provides more historical background and describes issues encountered during the production of each episode.

The popularity of the series has naturally led to increased interest regarding the contamination in the area today, just over 30 years later. At Safecast, we’re fortunate to have received data from many volunteers who have visited the Chernobyl site and surrounding areas, almost annually since 2012. If you’re curious to know more about the current radiation levels there our maps can tell you a lot. The data has come from journalists, like Daisuke Tsuda (NeoLogue), who visited in 2013 carrying a prototype bGeigie Nano, and German science media figure Ranga Yogeshwar, who visited in Feb. 2016. It also includes researchers like Tim Mousseau, who visits regularly in the course of his work monitoring wildlife, and staff from the National Radiation Protection Institute of the Czech Republic (SURO) who do the same. A number of other individuals have visited the site with a Safecast bGeigie, measured and pushed their data as well including most recent publicly available Chernobyl data which was collected by Agnes Villette about a week ago. We express our gratitude to everyone who has made the trip to Chernobyl with a bGeigie, and financially supported this project to build and open and public dataset.

Chernobyl NPP area on the Safecast map

What does Safecast data tell us about the radiation situation in Chernobyl now? One thing to keep in mind is that although thousands of visitors are given access to the site each year, most of the area within about 10km of the powerplant remains off-limits. This holds particularly true for the highly contaminated “Red Forest” south and west of the plant. Consequently most of our data is along set access roads, viewing areas a few hundred meters from reactor Block 4, and relatively free movement in the abandoned town of Pripyat. Comparison with Safecast data from Fukushima shows that even 30 years after the disaster, the highest radiation levels we find near the Chernobyl powerplant are similar to those we find near Fukushima Daiichi, between 30-40 µSv/hr. (Incidentally, Safecast data from the Hanford site in Washington State shows areas with similar radiation levels, albeit on a much smaller scale). It’s worth noting that in all likelihood higher radiation levels exist in parts of the Chernobyl reactor buildings where public has not had access, so these areas have not been measured. Visitors seem to be generally kept on roads with radiation levels less than 1µSv/hr, but sometimes more. It’s possible to find streets in Pripyat which are close to normal background radiation levels, about 0.1 µSv/hr, just a few meters from roads with levels several times that, as well as hot spots in that town up to 36 µSv/hr. The limited data we have from inside the Red Forest shows levels up to the 30µSv/hr range.

The historical record leaves no doubt that Chernobyl was a horrific accident made much worse by government unpreparedness, ass-covering, and a lack of transparency. There’s a scene in the first episode of “Chernobyl” which illustrates this perfectly, where a roomful of panicked Soviet apparatchiks applaud the decision to keep information from the public. We can look back on the Fukushima disaster and see how a similar dynamic played out among Japanese decision makers, themselves misinformed and overly optimistic. In both cases, many of the worst consequences of the disaster occurred because the public was kept in the dark about what was happening and lacked the means to find out for themselves. In “Chernobyl” we learn that the only good dosimeter onsite was kept locked in a safe which no-one could open when it was crucially needed. At the start of the Fukushima disaster, radiation detectors were unavailable to purchase by the people who needed them most because the limited supply immediately sold out worldwide. In both cases, the public had to rely on sparse and often misleading data from official sources. One of the goals of open environmental data collection projects like Safecast is to ensure that governments are not able to keep crucial safety information from people who need it.

While we’re comparing Chernobyl and Fukushima, we want to point out how thorough the data coverage for Fukushima is at this point. The Fukushima disaster occurred at a time when technical developments and information infrastructure made a massive citizen-based data collection project like Safecast possible. This was incredibly fortunate. Even if people in pre-internet Chernobyl had found radiation detectors, there would have been no easy way to share the data, even without the KGB breathing down their backs. There is cause to reflect on the capabilities and responsibilities we now share, and on the need to prepare for disasters of all kinds.