Tuesday, April 26, 2011


Twenty-five years ago today, I was working on the chemistry of flame and flame suppressants. I got a phone call (not much use of e-mail then) from the Los Alamos Director's Office to attend a meeting on the events at Chernobyl. That phone call probably came a day or two later; it took some time for the world to realize what was happening in the secretive Soviet Union.

It turned out that there wasn't much I could contribute; dumping limestone, boron compounds, and other solids on the smoking reactor zombie was probably the best path and what was eventually done.

The Guardian has an article on what I've been thinking, as a result of my forays into the BEIR VII report: much more research is needed into the consequences of Chernobyl. The terrible numbers you will read in some places today are almost certainly incorrect; BEIR VII concludes that the results are pretty much what might have been expected, except for a higher number of thyroid cancer cases. Chernobyl is located in an area that historically has seen high incidence of goiter, a result of iodine deficiency, which may be part of the reason for those additional thyroid cancer cases.

I'm half-listening to a White House conference on energy security as I write this. Nice words are being said, especially by Jane Harmon, formerly of Congress and now at the Woodrow Wilson Institute, about the complementary roles of industry and the national laboratories. Conservatives and the business community, however, haven't allowed that to be the case for thirty years or so. Back in that Chernobyl time, I was fighting off arguments that industry could do what I was doing much better. They eventually, with the aid of internal fighting within the DOE complex, won. And, twenty-five years on, the technology I was working on is as dead as it was when I came to it in 1986, also under the influence of industry.

So I'm not holding my breath that we'll learn what we could about radiation hazards from Chernobyl. The Republicans would probably eliminate all research, so that they can make their cases unimpeded by fact. And beeee veeery afraaaid of the deficit!

Some more links about Chernobyl from Dan Yurman.

The Women of Chernobyl. Some things to think about in balancing radiation risks against having to abandon one's home.

Not about Chernobyl specifically, but a ridiculous result of some of the fear about stuff people don't understand.


Peter said...

My wife falls into the category of people who think 'chemicals are bad'. It can be very frustrating sometimes. If I prod her, she'll concede that it's really just synthetic chemicals that are bad - she prefers natural ones. But then I have to point out that paint thinner is (was) derived from pine tree pitch. Where's the line between natural and synthetic?

For unclogging drains she recommends that I use hot vinegar and baking soda. But when I protest that it's a waste of both to use them at the same time I get a cold look.

I only took two years of chemistry in high school, but even that amount should be sufficient to give people an elementary understanding of the basic principles.

Don't even get me started on the food 'allergy' mania!

Cheryl Rofer said...

How about wood ashes for unclogging drains?

Peter said...

Kind of hard to come by in NYC. All those big-government big-brother restrictions on my freedom to burn whatever I want in my apartment, of course.

But I bet it would work better than her current scheme! So how would that work - dump the dust first, then follow with boiling water?

Cheryl Rofer said...

I think I would add the dust with some water, let it stand for a while, and then flush with hot water. But be sure you've pulverized the wood ashes thoroughly!