Crisis preparedness: radioactive radiation

Radiation is one of the dangers you can’t hear, taste or smell. Nevertheless, it can cause terrible damage to the body and make vast areas of land uninhabitable for hundreds of years. Depending on the type and intensity of the radiation source, the harmful effect can already be reduced to a harmless level by a sheet of paper or a few meters away. But there is also the far more dangerous gamma radiation..

Besides the natural, so-called background radiation, which is absolutely harmless to us, radioactive radiation occurs mainly in nuclear power plants, experimental reactors, research facilities and through nuclear weapons.

To protect yourself effectively, you need to know the different types of radiation and understand their effects!

Types of radiation

Alpha radiation

Alpha radiation is relatively harmless to the human body from the outside. Ingestion through inhalation or food, on the other hand, is extremely harmful to health.

However, this type of radiation only has a very short range of about 10 cm. Even a thick sheet of paper or thin aluminum foil shields reliably.

Beta radiation

Beta radiation reaches a few meters far. If the skin is exposed to this radiation, the skin layers are damaged up to intensive burns. Late effects such as skin cancer are possible. At the eyes can cause lens clouding.

It can be shielded by aluminum or plastic a few millimeters thick. However, part of the energy is converted into X-rays. Therefore, a material with a low atomic number such as z.B. plastic combined with a layer of heavy metal (iron, lead, copper) behind it to shield beta radiation.

Gamma radiation

Gamma Radiation occurs mainly in nuclear power plants and in nuclear weapon explosions and has many times the range of beta radiation.

To shield them reliably, you need lead with at least 20cm or solid concrete walls of at least 20cm. 1 meter thickness!
In humans they cause the so-called radiation sickness. Depending on the radiation dose, this progresses to varying degrees, from minor long-term damage to death within a few minutes.
Possible symptoms are reddening of the skin, blisters, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, headache, fever, fatigue, etc.

More information on radiation sickness can be found at Wikipedia.

Radiation quantity and effect

There are different units of measurement for radiation. The most common unit is "Sievert (Sv)", Geiger counters usually display the radiation in "Microsievert (µSv)".

It is important to understand that (except for extremely high values) it is not the actual measured radiation that is decisive, but the total absorbed dose! In other words, even a small amount of radiation can be dangerous if you are exposed to it for a long period of time.

    0,0005 – 0,2 Sv / 500 – 200.000 µSv
    No direct effect. However, it is assumed that late effects such as cancer and genetic changes can be triggered.

Contamination types

Radioactive radiation can have its dangerous effect on humans in 3 ways.

  • Remote contamination
    Here the radiation – as the name suggests – acts from a distance. That is, without having direct contact with radiating material.
  • Skin contamination
    This occurs when there is external contact with radiating material such as z.B. Liquids on.
  • Incorporation
    Incorporation is the term used when radioactive substances enter the body through eating, drinking or inhalation.

Hazard sources

Nuclear power plants

Probably the greatest current danger comes from reactor accidents. Even countries like Austria, which do not operate nuclear power plants themselves, are often surrounded by them close to the border. Even if the safety of such power plants is preached again and again, Chernobyl and Fukushima have clearly shown that serious accidents with far-reaching consequences can occur.

Areas within a radius of more than 30km around the power plant can become uninhabitable for decades, and the radioactive cloud can cause great contamination hundreds of kilometers further on. Depending on the weather conditions, radioactive particles can rise into high layers of air, travel hundreds of kilometers and rain down at another location.

The so-called super accident, i.e., the worst-case scenario, could contaminate millions of people, render food crops unusable. For example, the Chernobyl catastrophe in 1986 resulted in the death of 218 people.000 km² with more than 37.000 Becquerel per m² radioactively contaminated. Countries such as Finland, Sweden Germany and Austria were and still are burdened with!

Nuclear weapons

Atomic bombs are among the most dangerous weapons in the world. Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki the world knows what such weapons of mass destruction can do, yet they continue to be stored in their thousands. In addition to the better-known nuclear weapon owners such as America and Russia, there are many other states known to possess such weapons. In addition z.B. North Korea and Iran are said to be working on it.
The danger lies in both intentional use and accidents during handling or use of gamma radiation. the storage of such weapons.

When nuclear weapons are detonated in the air, the blast wave spreads out evenly in all directions.
A 2 emerges. Pressure wave that unites with the first one at some distance from the hypocenter, so the destruction at some distance from the explosion site is much greater than in the vicinity. The higher the weapon is detonated, the weaker the shock wave, but the affected area increases accordingly. The area destroyed in an air ignition can be twice as large as in a ground ignition.
In case of ground ignition, the main characteristic is radioactive contamination of large areas by fallout. In addition, enormous damage is to be expected within a radius of up to 5km due to the pressure wave.

The impact varies depending on the use, but the effects are the same:

  • Pressure wave
  • Thermal radiation (UV, infrared and visible light)
  • Ionizing radiation (neutrons, gamma and X-rays)
  • Radioactivity by fallout
  • EMP

Transport

Castor transports of spent fuel from nuclear power plants are probably the best known, but far from the only ones. Every day radioactive material, mostly in civilian vans, is transported on the roads or by air. Mostly low radiation material for laboratories and hospitals. While the Castor transport is protected and accompanied by the police and the radiation is monitored at all times, this does not apply to smaller transports.

The greatest danger here comes from leaking containers or from the radiation. direct contact from, z.B. after a traffic accident.

Preventive measures

In everyday life one encounters, if at all, only very rarely dangerous radiation. Nevertheless it is not completely impossible as the case of a man showed some years ago. This man had bought firewood from the Czech Republic and only by chance, when testing his Geiger counter, he discovered the radiation.

Geiger counter

In order to be prepared for everyday hazards as well as for emergencies, we have purchased a Gammascout Rechargeable. This Geiger counter remains constantly switched on, the accumulator lasts nevertheless over years! In addition, limit values can be defined and data can be read out via USB. The permanently installed battery can also be charged via this connection.
The device can measure and record alpha, beta and gamma radiation. We have set a very low warning threshold and thus would be warned immediately acoustically even if the load is only slightly higher than usual.

Crisis preparedness: radioactive radiation

Photo: Fellner Manfred / MSK News

Deliveries from online stores as well as purchases made by yourself are always checked by us. So we can simply prevent getting something radioactive into our house.

Transport

In short: Keep distance to known nuclear transports. Larger transports are often announced in the media.

Pay attention to appropriate warning signs on the vehicle in case of traffic accidents. Specially secured transport containers, signs or stickers can also provide indications of hazardous products. Stay away from ruptured boxes or spilled liquids.

Nuclear power plants

Preventing an accident is not in our hands, preparing for it is!
Inform yourself in time about nuclear power plants within a radius of about 100km around your home.

Equipment to secure your home should always be at hand. Define several escape routes and keep in mind that in case of emergency others will also have the idea to leave the place. Smaller "crawlways" can be many times faster than a 3-lane highway! A few minutes head start can make the difference between a clear road and a clogged road.

Always take a look at the Geiger counter. Own readings may be more current than official warnings.
Think in advance if you want to flee in case of emergency or if you want to secure your own home. For both there will be neither enough time nor material available.

We have also discussed it long and in detail, as we live only 90km away from Temelin. Finally we decided to sit it out at home. This is due to the distance to the nuclear power plant and the fact that we are well equipped.

Nuclear weapons

Here we definitely reach our limits and yet there are a few ways to prepare ourselves.

Watch the news for increased "saber rattling" from countries with nuclear weapons. Often enough, empty threats are made, but you should not rely on them. Targets will be mainly military and industrial facilities, as well as large cities. So keeping away from such likely targets is strongly recommended.

Behavior in an emergency

Transport

Basically you can say, put as much distance as possible between you and the radiation source. Apart from Castor transports, the quantities of radioactive material transported are usually very small.

If you are involved in a traffic accident with such a vehicle or if you are going to be involved, avoid direct contact with the radiating material at all costs! In most cases, a few meters distance will be sufficient. Inform the emergency services about the radioactive load so that they can take appropriate protective measures.
If contact cannot be avoided, it must be kept as short as possible!

Nuclear power plants

The decision between escape and holding out at home is difficult to make in advance. Distance to the nuclear power plant, expected exposure, weather, own mobility and traffic situation must be included for this purpose. Under 30km distance we would always recommend escape! Between 30 and 80km from the nuclear power plant, the severity of the incident matters. From about 80km, with reasonable equipment, you can reduce the radioactive exposure even without a special shelter, so that you do not have to leave your home.

If you decide to escape, you should do so as soon as possible. Close the windows and switch the ventilation to recirculation. No vehicle is 100% leak-proof, but it is possible to reduce the air supply considerably. Use roads with as little traffic as possible and stay calm and focused. Do not drive excessively fast, an accident will keep you far longer than a cautious driving style!

Keep in mind that it is not always wise to simply put as much distance as possible between yourself and the nuclear power plant. Winds may blow the radioactive cloud exactly in your direction, and 20km to the right or left of it, the exposure may be much less. Therefore, if possible, the passenger should follow weather and radio news to be able to react to it. Avoid rain, which washes radioactive particles out of the air and causes fallout.

If you want to sit out the emergency at home, you need to react just as quickly. In any case, go indoors, preferably to a protected interior room, cellar or the like. Windowless rooms with thick walls are the best option. But don’t panic, even a "normal" apartment can be easily converted into a temporary shelter.
Seal windows, doors and other openings with tape. Large window surfaces should be additionally shielded with aluminum foil or even better 3mm aluminum sheets.
Note, however, that depending on the number of people and the size of the room, the duration of stay is limited by the oxygen content in the room. Therefore provide for appropriate air exchange. This should definitely be done after the radioactive cloud has passed through, so stay calm and avoid any unnecessary exertion. This drastically reduces oxygen consumption and saves valuable time. Ideally, you should have a carbon dioxide meter so that you can check yourself when an air exchange is necessary.

Pay attention to information from the authorities. These are broadcast on radio and TV and provide information about radioactive contamination and proper behavior. Any evacuations that may be necessary will also be announced here. Keep an eye on your own Geiger counter. Thanks to appropriate equipment you should be able to survive a few weeks without having to leave the house.

After the radioactive cloud has passed and the radiation has dropped to as harmless a level as possible, you can go outside again, but you still have to remain careful. Remove the seal only at one building opening and constantly check with the Geiger counter while doing so. Even when leaving the house, the Geiger counter should always be with you, it is quite possible that objects and areas have been exposed to different levels of exposure. Take only items into the house that have been checked for radioactivity or. have been decontaminated accordingly.
Under no circumstances should fruit from the garden be consumed! But also tap water could be contaminated, it is often transported over many kilometers and may have received more or less radiation accordingly. If purchases are necessary, every item must be checked.

Nuclear weapons

In addition to the dangers already mentioned in connection with nuclear power plants, there are two other dangers.
During or. shortly after the explosion, there is an extremely bright flash of light. Looking into them can lead to temporary or permanent blindness, even at a distance.

In addition, there is an enormous heat radiation that can cause severe burns. In a short distance from the explosion, objects can spontaneously start to burn!

Further information

An overview of all nuclear power plants in Europe can be found on this interactive Google Maps map.
With click on the individual nuclear power plants, you get more information about incidents: Nuclear power plants Europe

Iodine tablets
One often reads about so-called iodine tablets. However, most people only know that they are supposed to be taken after a nuclear power plant accident, without understanding the effect and the sense of it. Therefore at this point a small introduction to this.

Potassium iodide tablets enrich the thyroid gland with the isotope 131 and thus ensure that it can no longer absorb radiating molecules. The tablets are available in pharmacies.

It should be noted that especially children, adolescents, pregnant and breastfeeding women and adults up to 40 years of age should take these tablets after public request, while for those over 40 years of age the intake is not recommended. For this group of people there is an increased risk of hyperthyroidism. In individual cases (e.g.B. (e.g., emergency personnel), it may be advisable for those over 40 to take the tablets.

Even if they are very rare, there are also known side effects. These are: metallic taste, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach problems, skin rashes, restlessness and palpitations.

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