back to article An anniversary to remember: The world's only air-to-air nuke was fired on 19 July, 1957

The date was 19 July, the year was 1957 and America was worried that the Soviet Union could amass too many bomber squadrons to be stopped. That's why it ran its one-and-only test of one of the oddest ideas to emerge in the Cold War: a nuclear-armed air-to-air missile? The resulting armament, the AIR-2 Genie, was made by …

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"Hiroshima bomb was activated midflight. No nice red buttons though. Weaponeer had to crawl into the bomb bay and attach explosives to the bomb."

Did he not also have to remove a physical barrier between the ring (projectile part) of the bomb, and the spike, intended to prevent a fizzle if the plane crashed and the shock caused the ring and the spike to meet?

As for Castle Bravo, from what I understand they practically had to build a chemical plant, it was the biggest laboratory explosion ever.

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Re: @Phil O'Sophical

They wished to expand it to allow multiple ships through next to each other (and in both directions at once!)

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Regarding arming the atomic weapons on board the Enola Gay - yes.

Captain Deke Parsons had to crawl into the bomb bay, and insert the arming plugs into the tail of the bomb whilst it was in flight.

I believe the fear with the Little boy gun-based bomb was fear of what would happen if the B29 failed to take off, and crashed on the runway.

I might have this wrong - I don't have the books to hand to check.

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Re: Valves...

"Valves...

Which are not that bothered."

Nuvistors and their Russian copies are fairly rad-hard, as are conventional valves. The problems lie more with inductors and capacitors, as enough radiation (rather than EMP) may cause insulation to break down in capacitors. Modern capacitors are remarkably tolerant of internal discharge - "self healing" capacitors - but I suspect the ones used in avionics in the 1950s would be less tolerant. And then EMP may induce high enough voltages in inductors to cause insulation breakdown. The biggest problem we had in making {redacted} EMP-proof eventually involved a very complex design of a coil. The microprocessor in the middle of it all was very well shielded with little difficulty.

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> Don't forget the EMP.

The bombers of the day had no (or very little) electronic. Yes - they had electrics but the 'fabric and rubber' type stuff they had wasn't particularly susceptible.

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Re: @Phil O'Sophical - @ qwertyuiop

You are correct and I am wrong, a quick look and search says it was to widen the canal.

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Re: 300 meter blast radius

I think this was a development version and in no way a 'production' piece.

The smallest bomb you can make is about 200 tonnes TNT equivalent - that what just banging a couple of sub-critical hemispheres together. To get bigger blasts you start adding a lot of weight - in 1957 I'd guess the missile that carried this also vibrated like shit and so for a demo to scare the ruskies you would produce a small light but more importantly reliable warhead that proves the point. Adding clever explosives and special detonators required to make a bigger bang would simply have been too unreliable,

This version would never have been used in actual combat - as you point out 300m is pretty useless as that's 2 second of flight for a slooooow bomber.

What you really need is Tsar Bomba - that would have cleared the skies for miles, or as Chocolate Starfish Prime showed you could use one to knock most planes out of the sky in a thousand mile radius,

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@TonyJ re emp

for emp to work you really need to set the thing off outside the atmosphere so the pulse does not cancel itself out.

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@collinsl -- Re: @Phil O'Sophical

There were even plans for atomic artillery, and atomic bullets with roughly the power of a hand grenade to blow up enemy (commies naturally) forces.

Actually it was beyond planning... https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M65_atomic_cannon

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Re: ICBMs was the end of air to air nukes etc

"Once ICBMs become common, it was excepted that shooting them down was not an option, so "air to air nukes" etc stop being made."

In the world of anti-submarine warfare, something called 'SUBROC' was invented in about the same general time frame, to take out a ballistic missile submarine that was about to shoot its missiles. The principle was the same: large blast area, large kill zone. you just had to be 'close'. Sadly, shooting one was almost a guaranteed suicide mission...

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UUM-44_SUBROC

however, like you pointed out, ICBMs made bombing planes obsolete, so air-air nukes were unnecessary (and impractical). And things *like* SUBROC were eventually abandoned.

/me thinks: "Nuke 'em 'till they glow, then shoot 'em in the dark."

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Mushroom

Re: Doug S Re: 300 meter blast radius

"What stops you from spacing the bombers further apart than that to prevent a bomb from taking out more than one bomber?" The Soviets had three problems with that idea.

Firstly, their bombers were very vulnerable to interceptors when flying alone or widely-spaced. Their most common bomber was still the Tu-4 copy of the WW2-era B-29 Superfortress and their best the Tu-16 (roughly equivalent to the B-52 but without the electronics). The Soviet fighters simply didn't have the range or performance to act as escorts (their long-range interceptor, the Yak-25 couldn't dogfight, and their best dogfighter, the MiG-15, didn't have the range). And in 1958 the Red Chinese suffered a very nasty shock during the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis, when American Sidewinder AAMs were used for the first time. For the Soviets, this meant every USAF interceptor in the late '50s had a very good chance of shooting down singleton Soviet bombers outside the range of their defensive cannon. The only recourse was to fly in big swarms and hope cross-fire would keep the interceptors at bay.

The second reason was the Soviets simply didn't have the advanced navigation tools and training of the US's SAC bomber crews, often getting lost when sent out alone on Artic exercises. The Soviet answer was to have a few highly-trained lead bombers and then have the rest stay in visual range of their lead bomber, making them vulnerable to weapons like Genie if intercepted over the Artic ice.

The third reason they didn't fly widely spaced was because the Soviet high command worried that individual crews could not be trusted not to defect!

/"Hamster Huey And The Big Kablooie" icon, natch.

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JLV
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@Baldy50

which is also why, much as it is horrible, the risk from current Islamic fundamentalism needs to be kept in context - it is nowhere near the threat level of the USSR <=> US/Western confrontation. Or indeed the number of deaths that came out of it.

Not to be complacent, but we've outfoxed the USSR, surely we can outfox a bunch of moronic backward zealots whose idea of PR includes killing lots of people of their own religion and starving the economies of their host countries in the Middle East. It'll take time, many innocents will die and it will often seem like the world is getting ever worse along the way. But they will lose and the world will move on.

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> "Vacuum tubes are not entirely resistant to EMP."

But they don't matter once the EMP has fused the coils (inductors) and condensers (capacitors).

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Re: WOPR got it right

"Nuclear brinkmanship was a lose-lose game."

ITYM

"THE ONLY WINNING MOVE IS NOT TO PLAY."

Others might describe this as taking a tambourine to a gun fight.

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Re: @collinsl -- @Phil O'Sophical

Not to forget the SADM https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_Atomic_Demolition_Munition

or the Davy Crockett recoilless rifle https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Davy_Crockett_(nuclear_device)

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Some of the UK designs were safetied with ball bearings inside a rubber sheath. Arming meant removing the sheath and allowing the ball bearings to roll out.

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Re: @Mark 85 re: blast radius.

"I don't suppose it occurred to them that the radioactivity caused by thousands of those air-to-air missiles would probably do just as much damage as the bombers they were trying to stop."

Yes, but mainly over Canada. So not really as much of a problem for the US. </sarc>

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"We, it turned out, lived near a Nike missile launch site "

They were going to fire over-priced trainers at the Russians? Surely that was against the Geneva Convention? Oh, the humanity!

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Actually, they would have relied mostly on vacuum tube electronics that would be much more tolerant of EMP than the solid state equipment that came later

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Vic

We, it turned out, lived near a Nike missile launch site

Just Bomb IT™?

Vic.

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Re: @Phil O'Sophical

the Panama Canal opened in 1914, so I doubt they were considering nukes as a way of building it!

The US was considering nukes to make a sea level canal in the Panama/Nicaraguan isthmus.

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Headmaster

Chase plane

The "unidentified" chase plane has the distinctive wing shape of an English Electric Canberra, built under licence in USA as the Martin B-57.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_B-57_Canberra

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Re: Chase plane

And amazingly, while the B-57 retired in 1984 (1986 with Pakistan) the English Electric version carried on until 2006.

It even saw action in Tony Blair's Murderous Rampage Iraq war in 2003.

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Re: Chase plane

Actually, NASA still fly 3 of the WB-57 variant:-

http://jsc-aircraft-ops.jsc.nasa.gov/wb57/

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Re: Chase plane

The NASA WB-57's were still being used to tie together various different comms networks in Afghanistan as recently as a few years ago:

https://theaviationist.com/2013/02/08/wb57-heading-to-afghanistan/

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Anonymous Coward

just goes to show how little ...

radiation damage there is from nuclear explosions, or in a nuclear weapon.

the whole 'scare of radiation' meme was constructed as a cold war propaganda tactic.

its hard to find anyone who has died from radiation, anywhere in the world.

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Re: just goes to show how little ...

My paternal GrandFather used to work at the AeroJet GenCorp facility in Folsom, California as a R&D scientist for the military. I had No Need To Know about what his duties might entail, but what I can say with certainty is that the day he came home & showed us his employee ID badge cum radioactivity dosimeter badge that had turned bright red. His last words to us were a heartfelt goodbye as he packed a few belongings & carted his dying arse off to the Air Force Base at the end of town to be seen at the Base hospital. He never came home & GrandMa has the folded flag as her present for his service.

So yes folks have died from radioactivity, they just aren't turned into news articles that the Military Industrial Complex lets get out for public consumption. My GrandFather is one such non-story. =-/

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Re: just goes to show how little ...

Well, for public consumption, there were the Japanese and most recently, the Ukrainians at Chernobyl. I've heard of others from various accidents. Radiation sickness is not a pleasant way to die.

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Re: just goes to show how little ...

the whole 'scare of radiation' meme was constructed as a cold war propaganda tactic.

There's a very big difference between a 1.5kT airburst four miles up and a 20MT ground burst.

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Re: just goes to show how little ...

Hmm.

While the radiation produced directly from the explosion is relatively short lived, it'll still do a (considerably big) number on you, and you won't be living much longer than a few hours or days, depending on proximity to ground zero (Which, in the case of these rockets, you have a few miles of atmosphere between you and the detonation, so that's all the alpha particles and likely almost all of the beta gone too, so only a minor gamma burst to deal with... and none of what I'm about to write about next...)

The biggest issue is the material that gets sucked up as part of said explosion, and irradiated to produce the real fallout that goes on to cause much more long term damage than the initial explosion. This is the stuff that will prevent you from going back there for a good amount of time, or more likely cause long term problems and issues due to people going back and not understanding why it's so dangerous. Lots of those who went back to help those injured in the original bomb blasts in Japan succumbed to the secondary fallout radiation without knowing it

Not only that, but this material can spread in winds and rain, this was the major issue surrounding Chernobyl and the massive cloud of debris it produced, which was capable of scattering radioactive fallout for many thousands of square miles, potentially endangering huge amounts of the nearby population, even drifting towards Europe and causing havoc there.

The damage you're imagining is more than you think. Most wouldn't think dust and the like floating down would be harmful in that way, and by the time you know about it, it's too late.

As for your last point, obviously, it's hard to talk to anyone who has died from radiation, because... well, they're dead. Possibly buried in lead lined coffins too. Not hard to find though (not like they're going anywhere), just takes more effort than you want to put in because it's easier to make false blanket statements about things like this, contrails and moon landings than it does to simply state what you think.

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Re: just goes to show how little ...

I would just like to add Cheylnabinsk (spl?) to the above.

After several accidents at the nuclear weapons factory the area was so heavily contaminated with radioactive debris that Chernobyl looks like a minor spill.

The life expectancy is/was ~50, and until recently, doctors were'nt allowed to list cancer as the cause of death.

I would also like to point out the rise in cancer rate amongst the population of the WHOLE WORLD since the US and USSR started exploding nukes left, right and centre in the 1950's.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: just goes to show how little ...

Just goes to show how little the OP knows about radiation. My maternal grandfather served in the Pacific theater with the US Marines during WWII. We have a photo of him standing at Hiroshima (right next to the ground zero sign) that was taken a few days after the invasion.

In his late 60s, he contracted diabetes and then died from leukemia. Interestingly, no one else in our family tree had any history of cancer. Most of his relatives lived well into their 90s.

You can say what you like, but I reckon his exposure to a fresh blast site was wot did it. As said previously, the military (in its infinite wisdom) prefers to minimize the downsides of using WMD in warfare. Agent Orange, tactical nukes, chemical agents all are perfectly safe, as long as they aren't being used on you, right?

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Re: its hard to find anyone who has died from radiation, anywhere in the world.

No it isn't.

First of all, you can just google "lethal radiation event" and you get, in 4th place, this list. Of course, that means you have to actually search instead of just spouting a comfortable ignorance.

Second, you might remember a little event called Three Mile Island ? The one that started the whole "nukular is BAAAD" craze ? There again, Google is your friend.

More recently, you have to have heard of Chernobyl. They even made a video game based on the environment. Thousands died from exposure on-site, the number of cancers influenced by the worldwide fallout is, of course, unknown.

So no, it is not difficult to find people who have died from radiation. You just have to look.

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Re: just goes to show how little ...

Due to national security issues, it's somewhere between hard and impossible to get an accurate count of people who have died on nuclear projects. Whether in construction, accidents, radiation poisoning or from cancer. There's a bit of PR tied in with it too, but in general radiation is more dangerous than some of the "safer" sounding stats, as they ignore the hidden deaths, and not nearly as bad as some of the more shrill greenies make out.

It's also pretty much impossible (short of evidence of ingestion) to determine what radiation caused what cancer. We're all exposed to various levels, depending on locale, and we all have various cancerous growths*. If someone dies of a heart attack and had multiple late stage cancers, what's the cause of death?

Even if you factor in a reasonable estimate, nuclear power (as electricity generation) is about as safe as large scale hydro, which is pretty** safe most of the time, considering the size of the civil engineering involved.

It's pretty easy to find people who've died of radiation poisoning. Whether someone who dies from cancer, showing that cancer was caused by a particular source of radiation is very hard to prove. Off the top of my head, about 30 people died of radiation poisoning at Chernobyl (within a few weeks), Harry Daghlian Jr and Louis Slotin for doing nuclear experiments without proper (any?) safety measures, and Alexander Litvinenko.

* 99% of which we'll outlive, as they grow slowly. It's the fast growing buggers that we worry about.

** Hydro dams don't fail often, but when they do it's horrific.

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Re: just goes to show how little ...

"its hard to find anyone who has died from radiation, anywhere in the world."

That's because they're dead.

That said, you're right, they're uncommon. The Lucky Dragon crew being one group and the Chernobyl firefighters being another (most survived. What killed them in the end was being treated as pariahs and being denied decent medical care)

A significant number of Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims died from exposure to the gamma burst, taking hours/days to do so but beyond that point most survived.

More recently, 2 japanese nuclear workers managed to irradiate themselves about 20 years ago when they took a shortcut and accidentally sent some plutonium critical. They died a few days later. Actual in-the-wild, from-the-leftovers radiation victims are rare though.

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Re: just goes to show how little ...

"I would also like to point out the rise in cancer rate amongst the population of the WHOLE WORLD since the US and USSR started exploding nukes left, right and centre in the 1950's."

The greater cause of that is that more people are living long enough to GET cancer since the 1950s, thanks to antibiotics and vaccines.

Radiation doesn't generally cause much in the way of cancers as cells tend to be killed rather than mutated. Chemical and localised heat exposure is a far more serious issue - cancer rates are highest around pollution hotspots (love canal, B2 assembly workers, Minimata Bay, chinese solar PV manufacturing areas, coal ash slurry environs, etc), not radiation ones.

With regard to Chebalinsk it's worth noting that bomb-grade Plutonium isn't particularly radioactive, but it's a potent chemical poison/carcinogen. The USA has its own nuclear waste sites (Hanford).

Whilst everyone wibbles on about Chernobyl it's worth noting that the world's COAL burning power plants emit more radium and other radioactives each _year_ than several chernobyls but noone get sup in arms about that. Then there's the fun factoid of how radioactive the average smoker's lungs are.

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Re: its hard to find anyone who has died from radiation, anywhere in the world.

> Second, you might remember a little event called Three Mile Island ? The one that started the whole "nukular is BAAAD" craze ? There again, Google is your friend.

TMI emitted a small amount of radioactive steam. The bigger problem there was the public panic.

That said, water-moderated nuclear plants are a spectacularly bad idea, despite being several hundred thousand times safer than coal(*). Molten salts are the logical way forward, in large part because they mean there's no radioactive water/steam to contend with when things go wrong.

(*) http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/03/deaths-per-twh-by-energy-source.html

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Re: its hard to find anyone who has died from radiation, anywhere in the world.

And 22 deaths on the K-19 submarine, directly attributable to radiation poisoning:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_submarine_K-19

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Re: just goes to show how little ...

I take it you stopped doing any STEM subjects once it got past GCSE then? I'm just asking pretty sure what your saying means all my teachers must have been telling fibs.

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Alert

Re: just goes to show how little ...

Re: "I would also like to point out the rise in cancer rate amongst the population of the WHOLE WORLD since the US and USSR started exploding nukes left, right and centre in the 1950's."

Note that correlation is not causation. Life expectancy has ballooned in the 20th century almost everywhere. We (as a civilization) have removed lots of causes of early death by disease, making cancer stand out more strikingly. If you were correct, cancer rates should decline for the last few decades.

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Re: its hard to find anyone who has died from radiation, anywhere in the world.

"Molten salts are the logical way forward, in large part because they mean there's no radioactive water/steam to contend with when things go wrong."

Are there any designs where molten salts do not absorb radioactive materials?

AFAIK that's the main problem with them - it's bloody difficult to clean a molten salt during operation, because it's hot, radioactive, and corrosive as hell. Fluoride salts being especially nasty. And there is no good way around it, as moderating agent has to be purified from protactinium & other undesired actinides that are inhibiting the reaction process.

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Re: just goes to show how little ...

"just goes to show how little ...

radiation damage there is from nuclear explosions, or in a nuclear weapon."

Actually, the military seems to have more often downplayed the risks:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/20/us/decades-later-sickness-among-airmen-after-a-hydrogen-bomb-accident.html

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Facepalm

Re: just goes to show how little ...

"its hard to find anyone who has died from radiation, anywhere in the world."

Yes. Because they're dead.

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Re: just goes to show how little ...

"If you were correct..."

But that's the problem with people cherry-picking statistics to prop up a pre-baked belief. They're hardly going to cross-examine their 'conclusion reached', when the conclusion was the starting point in the process, rather than an artifact of reason.

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Re: just goes to show how little ...

"radiation damage there is from nuclear explosions, or in a nuclear weapon.

the whole 'scare of radiation' meme was constructed as a cold war propaganda tactic.

its hard to find anyone who has died from radiation, anywhere in the world."

I assume you are simply engaging in a particular weak attempt at invoking Poe's Law, but if not, try looking up the term "downwinder."

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Re: just goes to show how little ...

"I would also like to point out the rise in cancer rate amongst the population of the WHOLE WORLD since the US and USSR started exploding nukes left, right and centre in the 1950's."

Mostly caused by increase in life expactancy.

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Re: just goes to show how little ...

Well 20Megatons would have been rather rare. The USSR deployed them as specialised Silo/Bunker Busters on the SS-18 "Satan" ICBM. The more typical warheads where in the 500-750kt range, good enough for city busting. (The 9MT warhead on the Titan was the biggest US warhead deployed)

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Re: its hard to find anyone who has died from radiation, anywhere in the world.

If you look at the Wikilist you mention, you'll find Three Mile Island isn't there, because there were no fatalties.

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I had actually reviewed the list before posting my reply, and had been surprised at not finding it - but didn't follow up on that. I was always convinced that the operator at the station had died of radiation poisoning. My recollection is that I had read that somewhere.

Following your comment, I reviewed the article on Wikipedia.

Thank you for giving me the incentive to correct that mistake.

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@Pascal - No, thousands did NOT die from exposure on-site at Chernobyl

Only 41 died in the immediate aftermath, four from a helicopter crash. Now obviously radiation shortened the lives of many more who got cancer later in life, but mostly decades later. Not saying that radiation isn't a big problem, but the number of people dying horribly from radiation sickness was very small - and most of those were volunteers who knew they'd die but gave their lives to prevent the disaster from being worse than it was.

For Fukushima the number dying from radiation sickness was zero. The death toll even counting cancer deaths will never come close to the toll from the tsunami itself.

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