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A Famous Photo of Chernobyl’s Most Dangerous Radioactive Material (2016) (atlasobscura.com)
295 points by lelf 26 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 93 comments

I don't think of it as a selfie... It looks more like he wanted to take a photograph of the "elephant's foot", and considering that the only available light was his flashlight, had to do a long take while he trained the flashlight onto various parts of the piece, trying to illuminate it evenly. If he'd wanted to pose next to it and be recognizable, he would have shone the light onto his face while standing still for a few seconds too

You could call it a "self-timed photo". But "selfie" is the current slang, and a lot shorter. It's the same concept as taking a family photo including yourself.

Illumination of the "elephant's foot" seems to mainly come from just left of the camera, given its shadow on the background. So he probably stood there for a while, panning over it with his flashlight. And then he walked over, and stood next to it. But he was a little careless with the flashlight, and hit the camera some.

Also, the right side of the "elephant's foot" does seem to be flaming.

I beg to differ. A selfie is specifically a photograph taken from the hand pointed at yourself.

Using a timer makes it not a selfie in my book.

What about drone selfies? That's definitely a term, and it breaks your criteria. Could we call this a timed tripod selfie?

I propose that photographer must a) be the primary subject of the photo, b) be engaged with the camera in some way, in order to categorize as a selfie.

So yeah, pretty sure this isn't a selfie. Also this makes me want to play the new Metro.

Well, he did put himself in the photo, which wasn't at all necessary for documentation. And doing so arguably increased his radiation exposure. So I think that "selfie" fits.

It does not. The amount of risk involved is not a factor. The term "selfie" refers to the inherent narcissism of the focus of the shot.

In a traditional selfie, when you move, your arm moves with you and your self remains the center focus of the shot. A drone selfie acts in a similar way. A timed shot on the other hand will always capture a specific scene, whether you are in it or not.

Arguably Eschers lithograph "Hand with Reflecting Sphere" does qualify, but Korneyevs picture doesn't.

> while he trained the flashlight onto various parts of the piece

In photography that's a technique called 'light painting'. Usually done deliberately but I had to resort to it once on a shoot when the flash units wouldn't fire; I borrowed a bicycle headlight.

A side note - I work with developers in Belarus which borders Ukraine and the Chernobyl to the north.

In that process I’ve met many young people who grew up in neighboring villages and small towns who call themselves Chernobyl-baby. Nothing severe, but they all have various minor health issues, apparently.

There was even a humanitarian program that provided summer getaways to some European countries for kids growing up in that region.

I (we) always hear about the Chernobyl disaster, but to see people born 10 years or so later and in a country that many have never heard of gave it a human face to me.

I am from Gomel. I was there when that happened.

About 70% of the fallout landed were we were (the winds were blowing north that time, so Ukraine's side was bit more spared).

Most of the time, I do not want to talk about it, though.

Feels like we were cheated out of normal life. Feels like we were animals to do experiments on.

I hate that time. Even now, place does not feel right.

I do not think health statistics coming out from here, are right either...

I also do not like videogames about Chernobyl for some reason. But I understand why the story line is attractive. So I am ok with that at a 'logical' level.

Once I become 'a person of means', I want to help people to get out of there, or, at least, live with proper controls of what we eat, drink, breath, etc.

Here's a fairly unique version of the story from two parents in Gomel with young children at the time of the accident [1]. Quite a story. The dad was a professor and had a Geiger counter and took readings. The mom's story is more emotional. The kid grew up to be a nuclear engineer.

[1] https://whatisnuclear.com/chernobyl-memories.html

Highly recommend the book "Voices From Chernobyl" by Svetlana Alexievich (she won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature partially for this work), it is an illuminating account of the Belarusian struggle and subsequent cover-up of the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident.

> There was even a humanitarian program that provided summer getaways to some European countries for kids growing up in that region.

Yep, when I was young, various families of kids in my school would host children that were affected by the Chernobyl disaster.

I remember my parents telling me that when the explosion happened, the schools forced all kids to either A). swallow an iodine capsule (if under 8 years old) or B). To drink a tablespoon of iodine.

This was in Poland so close enough to be affected by the fallout.

If you like this, you'll go nuts for this woman's YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/bionerd23/videos

She goes into Reactor 3, finds a piece of graphite from the reactor core, and generally explores Chernobyl with a Geiger counter that she gleefully points out a few times is absolutely pegged to the maximum reading.

This was a thing on the night of the explosion too. Workers were reporting doses at the maximum their equipment could read. Those figures got passed up the hierarchy and contributed to the downplaying of the event, as doses would be way higher in a meltdown. Serhii Plonkhy has written a really good book about the disaster called ‘Chernobyl’.

Correction: Serhii Plokhy.

> If you like this, you'll go nuts for this woman's YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/bionerd23/videos

She has a video named "rat taxidermy with LED eyes mod - full video - gore warning!" [0]. What the hell?

[0]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5B1pz-V_YGg

You’re writing this as if you found something bad/evil on her channel. Really?

I'm happy that the weird parts of the www still breathe

Damn, that brings back old memories.

As Pioneers, some of us learned taxidermy ;) When we were about 12, as I recall.

I liked her montage of taking a train to Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gGXyGSS5G_M, obviously a shout-out to the Stalker's train scene https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_hWqsWHac8

> Korneyev’s sense of humor remained intact, though. He seemed to have no regrets about his life’s work. “Soviet radiation,” he joked, “is the best radiation in the world.”


How does one survive multiple visits to "the Elephant's Foot" long enough to tell these jokes?

How? The answer is "Nohavica's theory of alcoholic mountain". As you drink, you are climbing your alcoholic mountain. While you're climbing, everything is fine. You can even turn around and go back. But when you reach the summit and step over it, you are done. Nobody will help you. No doctors, no therapy, friends or medicine. Nobody. Then you die. Now you say "but my uncle was drinking whole life and he was fine". Sure, because his mountain was very tall. Nobody knows how tall is his mountain.

This Russian scientist had very tall radiation mountain. You try doing the same and you will die.

Do you have any source for that? I have some friends suffering from alcoholism that could probably use hearing something like that, but google isn’t turning up anything.

Friends mom was a ICU nurse. She said the effects of drinking and smoking begin to kill people in their mid to late forties. The most susceptible develop liver failure or COPD[1] in their forties and start checking out soon after. Not that many people at that age but grows substantially each decade after.

[1] She said about liver disease and COPD, you think cancer is bad. Cancer isn't a death sentence.

She said in your 20's you don't know which group you're in.

It's a joke from a movie. No science here.

what movie

Yup, Year of the Devil.

Humans (and other organisms in general) have a rather wide range of tolerance to such things, and it's the reason why an "LD50" exists. Not everyone who received the same dose will react with the same severity. Hence you will hear about people who have smoked a pack a day yet lived into their 90s without cancer, asbestos workers without lung problems, etc. What is responsible for this "robustness" is an interesting question to research itself.

That said, this guy happened to be particularly well-suited to his job.

>Hence you will hear about people who have smoked a pack a day yet lived into their 90s without cancer

At least for this, it's thought to be specifically linked to cyp p450 polymorphism. As the enzyme breaks down the carbon molecules from smoking, it creates free radicals which can cause cancer. People who express less of the enzyme experience a lower frequency of cancer from smoking, hypothetically.

Super interesting! Are there downsides to having less of it?

Drug metabolism is slowed, sometimes dangerously.

I suppose whoever invented the term Corium also had some dark sense of humor - as in the-stuff-that-comes-from-reactor-core.

This aspect seems to have escaped the article’s author, who operate with the term as if it’s another new element un the periodic table.

I'd say the author's writing is entirely consistent with him knowing full well what corium is. This passage in particular shows he doesn't think it's an element (emphasis mine):

Of the five corium creations, only Cherobyl’s has escaped its containment. With no water to cool the mass, the radioactive sludge moved through the unit over the course a week following the meltdown, taking on molten concrete and sand to go along with the uranium (fuel) and zirconium (cladding) molecules.

To add another correction to the others:

> Chornobyl Center for Nuclear Safety, Radioactive Waste and Radioecology (spelling often gets changed as words go from Russian to English).

The differing spelling is because "Chornobyl" (Чорнобиль) is what it's called in Ukrainian, whereas "Chernobyl" (Чернобыль) is a transcription of the same name in Russian.

The first-responders received severe and lethal doses. The surrounding population was exposed to large amounts of I-131, this resulted in an increase in thyroid cancer.


Estimates vary widely and are controversial but somewhere in the range of 4k deaths are believed to be a result of the disaster. That estimate is from esteemed professionals in the respective sciences of Radiobiology and Biostatistics. Other estimates from Green Peace, etc range from 25-250k for the most serious nuclear disaster, ever. Contrast this to WHO estimates of 3M deaths per year due to fossil fuels, seriously bananas.

The relatively low number of casualties owes a lot to sacrifices made in a cleanup operation which also abandoned an area of land the size of Luxembourg and resettled all the people who lived there. And the casualty numbers rise if you start using the noisier estimates used to estimate fuel fossil deaths.

Of course, fossil fuels have killed more people, but if we used nuclear power with the same ubiquitousness and slapdash approach we've used fossil fuels, I'm not sure any of us would be alive today....

That's a very good point. We're discussing massive differences in the number of power plants. It would be beneficial to see the risk normalized.

> fossil fuel

From explosions? Drinking? Sitting near it? Got a source?

From air pollution due to the burning of fossil fuels; World Health Organization (WHO):


To be fair, estimates are that only 80% of air pollution is due to the burning of fossil fuels. So, give or take a million, still pretty intense.

One thing I always wondered about is that the other reactor at Chernobyl was kept in operation for quite some time after this accident. How much radiation exposure did the operators and workers of that reactor receive?

Only 3rd and 5th (5 and 6 were at the last stage of construction but were cancelled) reactors had increased levels of radiation after the disaster. After contamination, 3rd was reactivated in 1987.

2nd block was stopped in 1991 after a case of fire, 1st block was stopped in 1996, 3rd was stopped in 2000.

They totally stripped the topsoil in areas where workers for the other reactors would be. They certainly still got irradiated, but considering the nature of the circumstances it was pretty safe.

The real hotspots in the region are the places they dumped that top soil and other debris.

Reminds of a movie from Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker. The guy may be the Stalker, leading people to the center of the Zone - the elephant foot in this case.

"We were shooting near Tallinn in the area around the small river Jägala with a half-functioning hydroelectric station. Up the river was a chemical plant and it poured out poisonous liquids downstream. There is even this shot in Stalker: snow falling in the summer and white foam floating down the river. In fact it was some horrible poison. Many women in our crew got allergic reactions on their faces. Tarkovsky died from cancer of the right bronchial tube. And Tolya Solonitsyn too. That it was all connected to the location shooting for Stalker became clear to me when Larisa Tarkovskaya died from the same illness in Paris."

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stalker_(1979_film)#Production...

I've seen this photo many times and have always wondered about the fate of the person in the picture considering how dangerous the elephant's foot is always said to be. It's good to hear that he's still alive and sounds healthy.

In 1986 that distance from the corium you’d have 300 seconds before receiving an LD50. By 1996 when this photo was taken it would have taken an hour to receive an LD50.

Same here. This is by far the most badass selfie ever. Good to here he seems to be ok.

Alive but not very healthy:

> In his mid 60s, he was sickly, with cataracts, and had been barred from re-entering the sarcophagus after years of irradiation.

The article mentions cataracts too. These can happen to anyone, but radiation induced cataracts are well documented. https://radiationsafety.ca/radiation-induced-cataracts/

Yup. Cataracts are the best example of a deterministic radiation effect; i.e. receive X dose and you _will_ receive Y result. While cancer induction is stochastic; probabilistic effect of exposure.

That part of the story made me wonder why the cataracts haven't been treated. There are relatively low-risk and well-understood treatments for cataracts that do a very good job restoring vision.

It looks like he treated his cataracts, because he wears glasses on his 2016 selfie at his page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100013326305771 .

Easy procedure for an individual with insurance in the US or EU, is the same true for Eastern Europe? IDK

Cost? The URSS was already declining by then, and Ukraine was “born poor” in many ways. A procedure might well be safe and effective, but if the local health service can’t afford to do it thousands of times, they will just ignore it.

Not sure where he lives, but in Russia this surgery is covered by mandatory medical insurance.

Back in the early 90s, I was at a government facility. On one of the walls, there were several pictures of the Chernobyl reactor taken from several hours to days after the explosion and from a unique perspective: directly above (albeit from a very high altitude). In effect, the viewer was looking right down into the glowing core of the still-unfolding disaster. Quite unsettling.

Many of these were shot by Igor Kostin and appear in his book "Chernobyl: Confessions of a Reporter". Highly recommended if you're interested in the disaster, its cleanup and effects on the people involved.

It's a clickbait headline. The article is a meaty (for a webzine) history story, and the headline is to trick people into reading something unsexy.

I'm annoyed how the author never actually explained what Corium was. Just described it as "the most toxic substance" and hoped readers would go along with the ride thinking it's some new material.

All it is is an amalgamation of melted fission materials and reactor components like control rods.

Yeah I feel like maybe some irony or humor is being lost too. Do we really think whoever named it "corium" was proposing an official name to be taken with seriousness and reverence? Probably it was a joke that started with its rhyming with thorium. Something on a par with "unobtainium." If a writer were to reverently and carefully explain that so-and-so's custom racing bike is made of unobtainium, the most expensive substance known to man, I'd be like, you missed the joke buddy!

It's mentioned somewhat, but admittedly not terribly clear:

> Of the five corium creations, only Cherobyl’s has escaped its containment. With no water to cool the mass, the radioactive sludge moved through the unit over the course a week following the meltdown, taking on molten concrete and sand to go along with the uranium (fuel) and zirconium (cladding) molecules.

You have heard of Google and Duck Duck Go, correct?

Just for your information, so you know why you've been heavily downvoted … From the HN guidelines:

"Be civil. Don't say things you wouldn't say face-to-face. Don't be snarky. Comments should get more civil [...]"

On HN, discussion is encouraged. Yes, Google exists, but we're here to share our ideas, our thoughts, our opinions; not simply parrot Google results at each other.

Not just the headline... the article does attribute the man's presence on the photograph to a desire to "get into position, which explains why he seems to be moving and why the glow from his flashlight looks like a lightning flash." I think it's cool that the journalist traced the person in the photograph but that explanation doesn't hold water

"The Famous Photo" - it's not famous. "Most dangerous radioactive material" - All radioactive material is dangerous given enough Roentgens. "Selfie" - Anachronism and misapplication.

I feel like there should be a machine learning like filter that can be applied so this stuff doesn't get posted here anymore.

It is absolutely famous, but its fame is somewhat cloistered. The Elephant's Foot is a gateway to the Chernobyl rabbit hole for so many people. A geological, cataclysm celebrity; a fucking rock with a documented kill count and it sits still. Fascinating.

This picture led me to reading all about Chernobyl, Pripyat, glasnost, and the collapse of the SSR in the context of logistics and energy infrastructure. The whole chibang was the result of good intentions, poor planning, and an intellectual environment experiencing a death spiral. During this process, I watched a documentary on the Chernobyl clean up effort. Chernobyl was the largest military deployment by Russia since their "Great Patriotic War."

I digress. This picture could be accurately portrayed as a perfect metaphor for the scientific endeavors of the 20th century; unique brilliance, unfettered intention, bureaucratically fettered investment, unintentional disaster, Herculean effort at recovery, and all of it flushed down the memory hole.

It's a famous enough that I've seen it before, and I don't have a particular interest in the history of nuclear accidents.

I've read almost every photo book at the Mechanics Institute... if there are gaps in my reading it's pre-20th century stuff. I guess it's famous if you say it is. Four downvotes. What a way to start a Saturday.

The downvotes come, I assume, from your parading how wonderfully clever you are, how much reading you've done, etc., as though the rest of the world should measure itself against your level of knowledge with a particular domain.

That would be my interpretation of your original comment and the reply to which I am replying, and I'm sure it wouldn't be too far off what others are reading, too.

It's sufficiently famous that I knew what photo the article is about just from reading the headline.

Interestingly, corium has the property of spontaneous dust generation, from self-sputtering by alpha particle release. So between this and weathering, the structure itself is unlikely to stick around forever.

The last time they checked (AFAIK in 2004) the Elephant's foot was porous and extremely fragile. In the 1980s they couldn't get a sample even using the hardest tools; in 2004 they could stick a finger right through.

From there I found a couple of articles with more pictures (and a suggestion that the corium could eventually melt through to ground water):



I’m amazed this guy is still alive. Can anyone explain what is supposed to happen if you were very close to something this radioactive? Would you get some kind of massive headache or feel any pain? Are radiation hardened organisms a thing?

For instance these animals; https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tardigrade

From there;

“tardigrades can withstand 1,000 times more radiation than other animals,[60] median lethal doses of 5,000 Gy (of gamma rays) and 6,200 Gy (of heavy ions) in hydrated animals (5 to 10 Gy could be fatal to a human)”

This is a commonly known fact it seems, but what creature is most susceptible to radiation?

Great story, but one thing that struck me on the website - they added a map at the end of the article with place (Chernobyl) marked. I would love it if more news outlets did that...

Yes, and that map is incorrect. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant is NOT located in or near the Chernobyl city.

The plant looks pretty close on google maps at less than 20km from Chernobyl and that city was evacuated soon after the disaster. Yes, the point should be located closer to Pripyat but that’s only about 5-10km from where it is. Not perfect but pretty close.

You would think that the big new structure would give a clue as to where the plant is/was.

It’s sad that I couldn’t read/see this from my mobile because of the full page cookie consent popup which doesn’t have an option to opt-out from the ad tracking of their partners.

So you have to go with the personalised ads if you want to visit their articles...

It's a clickbait article anyway - you can get this and related photos from inside the reactor elsewhere on the web. Just go with "chernobyl corium" phrase in your fav. search engine images section.

Or use an ad blocker. Not difficult.

Turn off Javascript.

Did the Windscale fire create corium?

Apparently not - while the fuel there caught fire, the core material did not melt and escape the containment as a miolten blob. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windscale_fire#Use_of_water

from the article -

“Soviet radiation,” he joked, “is the best radiation in the world.”

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