Radiation is bad. There is no other way to succinctly point out the fact that it is the antithesis of life. Even when we turn it to our own uses, and there are a few, it comes with host of nasty side effects. Radiation is so bad, in fact, that I don’t even mind when it’s not accurately portrayed in media. This is because if it were accurately portrayed then chances are that most of the characters in the Nuclear Apocalypse based books, games and movies that we all love would be dead long before their stories ended. I’m a stickler for detail and sound world building but when it comes to radiation it seems that at a certain point you’ve just got to say ‘to hell with it’ and start writing.
Spoiler Warnings for the Fallout series, Jericho, The 100, Battlestar Galactica, The Divide, Z for Zachariah, Swan Song, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, The Strain, Dominion, The Happening… fuck it. Just assume that I’m going to ruin all the post apocalyptic stories for you.
I’m not a doctor or a scientist, I’m just a writer, so my knowledge of radiation only goes so far because my research has always been about how to use it in stories, not how to power nations, destroy cities or save lives. So I’m going to be talking in layman’s generalities here, I promise not to go into the differences between Fission and Fusion bombs if you promise not to bite my head off if I get some terminology wrong.
So, like all the best things in life; hot sauce, cologne and butt plugs, radiation is perfectly safe and actually enhances the lives of everyone involved when it’s implemented by a professional. When used incorrectly by an amateur, or when something just happens to go horribly wrong, however, it can really ruin your day. Considering that nobody wants to bother with a story about a routine, hassle free day, just assume that any story with radiation in it is going to have things go tits up to one degree or another.
Everyone knows about radiation therapy, about how doctors can harness the power of the atom to cure cancer. Except it doesn’t so much “cure” the cancer, as it just straight up kills it. It’s like getting Godzilla to fight for you, sure he’s probably going to win the battle but there’s going to be some property damage. Ask anyone who’s had radiation therapy and they’ll likely tell you that the remedy is damn near worse than the illness. So while it’s not exactly a walk in the park, radiation can actually save your life if used properly.
Alongside this, we’ve got nuclear energy – which is pretty fantastic. Now, I’m not going to get into the pro’s and con’s of nuclear energy, TL:DR it makes a tonne of energy but also makes some nasty radioactive waste which is difficult to deal with. Contrary to the popular, and hysterical, opinion, it’s actually pretty safe – until something goes wrong and then it’s really, really bad. But that’s why it’s so safe in the first place, there are currently a few hundred nuclear power plants dotted around the globe and there’s only been a few dozen serious incidents since the 1950’s. That’s not that bad in the grand scheme of things, but of course it all comes down to your view of the risk and rewards.
(Full disclosure, I’m Australian – and despite having the world’s largest reserves of Uranium, depending on who you ask, we don’t actually have any nuclear reactors in our country. So this may colour my view of nuclear energy, as my chances of suddenly glowing in the dark one night due to a meltdown are pretty slim. Mind you, both the United States and England used my country for nuclear testing a few decades back, so if I did happen to have any concerns they’d be vaguely justifiable. Also, just to wrapt his tangent up – radiation doesn’t actually make things glow, that’s another misconception.)
Funnily enough though, if it’s specifically radiation that you’re worried about then a nuclear power plant melting down should concern you more than a nuclear explosion. There’s only so much radioactive material that can fit inside a nuclear weapon, so it’s more the blast that you’ve got to worry about. A nuclear plant that’s gone into meltdown however, that’s got a whole lot of radioactive material just waiting to get out and ruin your day. This is why Hiroshima and Nagasaki were both reinhabited within a few years but Chernobyl is still basically deserted years later, the amount of radiation in both the former sites were a hell of a lot less than the later.
The Fallout series has you running around a nuclear wasteland, travelling through areas that are drowning in radiation, getting attacked by radioactive monsters or just straight up eating irradiated food. If you want to raise your resistance to the radiation beforehand, you can pop some pills or eat certain foods. Curing the radiation poisoning is just as simple, you can either hook yourself up to an intravenous drug that is so common that it basically grows on trees, or simply see your local wasteland doctor. The series doesn’t take into account the fact that all your clothes and gear become radioactive right with you, and curing yourself of radiation poisoning without decontaminating your gear means you’re just going to get poisoned all over again. And don’t even get me started on eating irradiated food, that is just so bad on so many levels. If you actually managed to survive long enough after that Darwinian blunder to take a shit, the shit itself would be radioactive too.
The TV series Jericho handled it pretty well, the town is scared of black rain right after the nuclear attacks so they seal themselves up in basements and a mine. This later turned out to be a non-existent threat for the town of Jericho in particular, but it still makes sense as a legitimate concern. Also, one character who was actually exposed early on suffered some serious radiation poisoning and died a pretty painful death shortly after. A few episodes in and the characters are at a trading ground where a merchant doesn’t want to risk trading certain metal items because they hold onto radiation. It was a cool little reminder that the US had been nuked a few times over despite the town of Jericho itself being spared.
The 100 handles radiation a bit more freely, certain groups have a genetic resistance to radiation while others just melt/rot within minutes of exposure. Neither of those situations make sense, but hey – the show’s title has nothing to do with its percentage of realism so I’m happy to just go with it. Along with this there’s a looming threat in the later seasons, with black rain that acts more like acid rain and a death wave of radioactive flames that engulfs the whole world because all of the remaining nuclear plants are going into meltdown simultaneously. First, it’s called black rain because all the radioactive soot, ash and dirt that gets blasted up into the atmosphere has to fall down in the rain at some point, it’s not just black because reasons, and it doesn’t burn it just irradiates. Secondly, while a planet wide chain of meltdowns would be very bad it would also be quite anticlimactic, with everyone just dying in an invisible haze of radiation. But The 100 is all about ramping up the dramatic tension at every possible turn, so we’ve got black rain that burns and a planetary radioactive firestorm. Exciting!
There was a bit of radiation in Battlestar Galactica, but like Fallout, that series was about a ruined civilisation so advanced that they had anti-radiation medications. Radiation was handled really well in The Divide, a movie so depressing that you feel physically exhausted after watching it. One guy gets irradiated, gets all close and personal with two others and then all three of them start suffering the effects. It was interesting how their physical decay sort of reflected their moral decay, but that’s a discussion for another day. Z for Zachariah handles radiation really well, one of the main characters gets a decent dose and nearly dies.
Swan Song handles radiation like a joke, people just run around it for years on end with little to no adverse effects, and let’s not even touch the fact that the whole story is a cheap rip off of The Stand.
It just goes on like this. Resident Evil: The Final Chapter has a town of people living in a tower that sits at the rim of a nuclear impact crater. That bomb only went off ten years prior, at the end of the second movie, so they’re all sure as hell dead.
At the end of season three of The Strain, the world’s most infuriating brat sets off a nuclear bomb at the Statue of Liberty due to some serious daddy issues. The protagonists are in Redhook, less than two and half kilometres (that’s 1.5 miles to you Seppos) away, and their plan for survival is to pull a Marcus Fenix and hide behind a chest high wall. Yeah, no – they’re dead.
In season 2 of Dominion, a supposedly really smart character just walks into a nuclear reactor that’s flooded with radiation. He had plenty of time to jump into a radiation suit, so why didn’t he? Did the nuclear power plant just not have any? Did an employee have to sacrifice their life every time any kind of maintenance needed to be done? Did they all draw straws every time this needless heroic sacrifice had to be performed, or something? That shit didn’t make any sense at the end of Fallout 3 and it makes just as little sense here. When it comes to radiation, it’s always hit or miss and this is due to conflict between realism and storytelling.
Basically, radiation is just plain difficult to work with. If you want a good idea of what dealing with radiation would be like in real life, go watch The Happening. People hysterically running away from what amounts to gusts of wind because the major threat is invisible and silent and pretty boring but still really deadly, I swear! I’m not saying that people would lay in front of a lawnmower or feed themselves to a lion, but a fair few people would certainly opt for a quicker end if the radiation got them. So yeah, The Happening does sort of work as an example, surprisingly. What I’m saying is, radiation is basically the type 2 diabetes of threats, you should probably take it more serious but ‘out of sight, out of mind’ and all that… aaaand you’re screwed.
It’s why we need black rain that burns like acid rain and planetary wide waves of explosive radiation, they’re clear and present threats that can be avoided or overcome. It’s why radiation poisoning can be cured on the spot with a 200 year old bag of medicine, it’s a pro-active breakfast of champions that works instantly and lets you get on with the important business of saving the world. We watch, play and read nuclear fiction to be entertained, not to be bored to death with harsh yet paradoxically boring minutia of real world radiation. Nobody wants to watch a movie about running away from an invisible cloud followed by weeks of having tubes in every orifice while trying to stay hydrated and avoid infection in the intensive care unit.
Radiation in fiction is basically magic, it does whatever the writer needs it to do to move the story along. Despite previously saying that I’m a stickler for details, I’m actually okay with this as long as it’s handled properly and consistently. If you try and get too realistic it gets unwieldy and kills all your characters, so you can ease back a little bit and bend a few rules. This is fine, just as long as you don’t take it to the point that the radiation is no longer a serious threat. At least have your characters poop blood for a few days if they’re desperate enough to eat a radioactive taco.
I guess the point I’d like to close with is that this lax attitude in regards to verisimilitude comes with a warning. Just like beating all of the Gears of War games obviously doesn’t prepare you for the horrors of a real war, no matter how badass they make you feel, playing Fallout or watching The 100 doesn’t give you a realistic understanding of radiation. If you actually want to know the banal horrors of radiation and what to do in the event of some sort of meltdown or nuclear attack, I recommend doing some research on the subject. Good luck though, it’s pretty dry stuff.