V – Geiger Counter

Geiger Counters

For my visit to Chernobyl, I hired a Geiger counter. A neat little device about the size of a mobile phone, but thicker.


When radioactive materials decay, they release energy. We call this radiation. There are a confusing array of measurement units: Roentgens measure the ionisation of air, curies and becquerels measure the radiation emitted, rads and grays measure radiation absorbed and rems (Rontegen equivalent man) and sieverts attempt to convert that into biological damage.

Background radiation showed 0.2 microSieverts. See relative radiation chart here

The alarm was pre-set and on our first excursion, most of the devices started beeping. Our guide told us not to worry and reset the alarm levels for us. There were several occasions when the radiation triggered the higher alarm setting, but by then we were all happy to ignore it.

In April 1986, the people living closest to the nuclear power plant were told that everything was under control. Officials checked the area around the nuclear power plant with Geiger counters. The highest readings registered 4 R/hr (Roentgens per hour), high but not alarming (a lethal dose is 500 R/hr over 5 hours). But the Geiger counters they were using only went up to 4. The real reading was 20,000 R/hr and unprotected workers received fatal doses in less than a minute.

It took two days to order the evacuation of Pripyat, the town closest to the stricken reactor. Informed that the evacuation was only for a couple of days, residents left everything behind. They were told to wait outside for the buses (when the safest place was indoors), and then sat in a traffic jam through the most heavily contaminated red forest, as the 13km evacuation convoy lumbered towards Kiev. exposing everyone on the bus to high levels of radiation.

The May 1st parade in Kiev went ahead, even though the wind direction had changed and was blowing radioactive particles straight to the city.

We had no fear of our guide. We believed and trusted Elena. She was knowledgeable, experienced and reassuring. Challenging her was not going to get us shot or sent to Siberia. We were all independent, intelligent, well informed people.

And sheep.

It’s so much easier to go with the flow.

Continue reading? VI – Russian Woodpecker

Fiona Erskine’s debut thriller “The Chemical Detective” is published by the Oneworld imprint, Point Blank Books and is avialable from all good bookshops and on-line here..