Created By: zarpaulus on February 25, 2012 Last Edited By: zarpaulus on July 16, 2012

Improbably Deadly Radiation

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Trope
Seen It a Million Times

Once upon a time, nuclear radiation was a good way for people to gain superpowers or to create monsters. But as time wore on people came to realize that radiation was more likely to give you cancer or melt your skin off. As such nearly every mention of radiation in media became a hazard to be avoided.

In Real Life people are exposed to about 81 mrem of radiation each year, not counting X-ray machines or medical radiation, it takes 50 rem to start developing tumors and a lethal dose is about 400 rem or 2 grays (that's about 5,000x greater than the normal background level).

  • Played Up to Eleven and combined with Artistic License Physics with the Psychlos in Battlefield Earth, they explode when exposed to the slightest bit of radiation. Humans, however, are able to survive in irradiated areas and form villages in such places.
  • One of the more realistic portrayals was in Stargate SG-1 when Daniel Jackson was exposed to a very high dose of radiation.
    Carter: "We think his right hand was exposed to the equivalent of over eight to nine grays of neutron radiation resulting from direct contact. Full body exposure of over seven. "
  • The somewhat zombiefied Owen in Torchwood is permanently killed when a flood of radioactive water from a nuclear reactor disintegrates him.
  • Subverted in Freefall during the colony ship salvage arc: the moment Sam and Helix learn there's radiation in the ship, they start panicking and screaming, even though Florence points out the radiation is well within safe levels.
  • Throughout the Fallout series, areas that have been dumping grounds for toxic waste or the site of bomb hits are radiated. The more time you spend in them the higher your rad count climbs, eventually causing illness and death if you don't get it cured.
  • Real Life: Microwave radiation from many consumer goods, such as cellular phones and microwaves, simply because it has the word "radiation" in it, is assumed by many people to be quite harmful, despite being non-ionizing. There are countless urban legends, wive's tales, hoax emails, and troll videos on Youtube regarding the "dangers" of microwave "radiation".
  • Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: Spock makes his Heroic Sacrifice by hastily working inside the Enterprise's dilithium chamber without a radiation suit.
  • The Pripyat levels in Modern Warfare are surrounded by invisible pockets of radiation that act like a Border Patrol. If you go too far out of bounds, you'll rapidly die of radiation poisoning.
  • The CSI franchise used it twice. CSI: Miami had an ep about trying to find a radiation-exposed woman before she got other people sick. The CSINY one had radioactive material planted in a book that a couple of people besides the intended victim died from. And it almost killed the coroner, Sid.
  • There's a novel from the 80s called The Dorset Disaster by Alexander Sidar that's got this trope all through it. It's about a nuclear explosion in Connecticut and was written as though it were a record of an actual event.
  • Battle for the Planet of the Apes got into this with the Forbbiden Zone. Caesar, Mandemus and Mac Donald had to get in, find the tapes of Caesar's parents, view them, and get out quickly so they weren't contaminated with radiation.
  • The Nevil Shute novel On the Beach has this as its central theme. Everyone's waiting to die from the advancing fallout of a nuclear war.
  • The Last Ship is a novel involving a nuclear war and the ship full of survivors that could be the last on Earth. They were searching for a place free enough of radiation to go ashore.
  • Truth in Television: Radium was once thought of as a cure-all and a decorative paint for clocks and such. Many of the workers who made the products died, and in the case of the radium drink, those who used it died. There's one rather famous case where the victim's lower jaw began to rot.
  • On an episode of Bones a corpse was feared to be radioactive because it was visibly glowing (it wasn't). Most things that are radioactive don't glow, and most things that glow aren't radioactive.
Community Feedback Replies: 42
  • February 25, 2012
    TBTabby
    Subverted in Freefall during the colony ship salvage mission: the moment Sam and Helix learn there's radiation in the ship, they start panicking and screaming, even though Florence points out the radiation is well within safe levels.
  • February 25, 2012
    DrakeClawfang
    Throughout the Fallout series, areas that have been dumping grounds for toxic waste or the site of bomb hits are radiated. The more time you spend in them the higher your rad count climbs, eventually causing illness and death if you don't get it cured.
  • February 25, 2012
    nman
    Real Life:
    • Microwave radiation from many consumer goods, such as cellular phones and microwaves, simply because it has the word "radiation" in it, is assumed by many people to be quite harmful, despite being non-ionizing. There are countless urban legends, wive's tales, hoax emails, and troll videos on Youtube regarding the "dangers" of microwave "radiation".

    Also, if you knew the name of that episode of Stargate SG 1, I'd look it up real quick on Netflix to get you the numbers/dialogue.
  • February 25, 2012
    Premonition45
    Star Trek II The Wrath Of Khan: Spock makes his Heroic Sacrifice by hastily working inside the Enterprise's dilithium chamber without a radiation suit.
  • February 25, 2012
    KTera
    The Pripyat levels in Modern Warfare are surrounded by invisible pockets of radiation that act like a Border Patrol. If you go too far out of bounds, you'll rapidly die of radiation poisoning.
  • February 25, 2012
    zarpaulus
    ^^^ "Meridian", the second to last episode of season 5.
  • February 25, 2012
    chicagomel
    The CSI franchise used it twice. CSI Miami had an ep about trying to find a radiation-exposed woman before she got other people sick...if any one recalls more details, feel free to add. I believe it involved radiation-laced orange juice. The CSI NY one had radioactive material planted in a book that a couple of people besides the intended victim died from. And it almost killed the coroner, Sid.

    • There's a novel from the 80s called The Dorset Disaster by Alexander Sidar that's got this trope all through it. It's about a nuclear explosion in Connecticut and was written as though it were a record of an actual event.

    • Battle For The Planet Of The Apes got into this with the Forbbiden Zone. Caesar, Mandemus and Mac Donald had to get in, find the tapes of Caesar's parents, view them, and get out quickly so they weren't contaminated with radiation.

    • The Nevil Shute novel On The Beach has this as its central theme. Everyone's waiting to die from the advancing fallout of a nuclear war.

    • The Last Ship is a novel involving a nuclear war and the ship full of survivors that could be the last on Earth. They were searching for a place free enough of radiation to go ashore.

    Truth In Television: Radium was once thought of as a cure-all and a decorative paint for clocks and such. Many of the workers who made the products died, and in the case of the radium drink, those who used it died. There's one rather famous case where the victim's lower jaw began to rot.
  • February 26, 2012
    abk0100
    I'm kind of confused about this. Is it really a trope? I mean, we don't have tropes like Fire Burns You or Cant Breathe Underwater or Cant Survive Getting Stabbed Through The Heart.

    Or is this supposed to be Artistic License: Radiation?
  • February 26, 2012
    69BookWorM69
    I think this is useful, especially since radiation was formerly used as the description says.
  • February 26, 2012
    aurora369
    This is an aversion of a trope "Radiation is Magic". Perhaps we should have that trope too.
  • February 26, 2012
    nman
  • February 26, 2012
    zarpaulus
    This trope is specifically about how every mention of radiation in a work is as a deadly hazard when in Real Life it takes a rather high dose to kill.
  • March 8, 2012
    Antigone3
    Artistic License: Radiation might be a better name for this, as a subtrope of Artistic License: Physics. I'd also cut examples of people dying from massive doses (like Spock in STII, he knew he'd take a lethal amount of radiation before he ever opened the door).
  • March 8, 2012
    SeptimusHeap
    ^No snowclones for the sake of it. At best, Improbably Deadly Radiation.
  • March 8, 2012
    zarpaulus
    Show of hands everyone. Who votes for Artistic License: Radiation, and who votes Improbably Deadly Radiation?
  • March 8, 2012
    Lumpenprole
    How about "Radiation equals Anti-Life"?

    Another example: On an episode of Bones a corpse was feared to be radioactive because it was visibly glowing (it wasn't; if the corpse had been that radioactive, anyone walking within ten feet of it would have immediately dropped dead). Most things that are radioactive don't glow, and most things that glow aren't radioactive.
  • March 8, 2012
    Euodiachloris
    I vote Artistic Licence: Radiation.
  • March 9, 2012
    SeptimusHeap
    Would I Love Nuclear Power be a subtrope for this?
  • March 9, 2012
    TBeholder
    ^^ but, but, this would exclude a rant about how American safety standards on microwaves ("any doses that don't boil the brain outright are perfectly safe") are a golden truth only insane conspirologists may doubt? ;]
  • March 9, 2012
    SeptimusHeap
    Artistic License Radiation is too wide for this description. Also, Artistic License Indexes is intended as a catching ground for proto-tropes, not as a trope all in itself.
  • March 9, 2012
    zarpaulus
    ^^^ More like a contrast.
  • March 9, 2012
    SeptimusHeap
    If it's a contrast, then Artistic License Radiation is too wide a name. It would also cover what we call I Love Nuclear Power,
  • March 9, 2012
    Shnakepup
    Just a suggestion: in the description, "In Real Life people are exposed to about 81 mrem of radiation each year...", I'd change "mrem" to "millirem" to just make it more explicit, since you then say "rem" later on and it's not immediately evident that they're an order of magnitude different.
  • March 9, 2012
    SeptimusHeap
    ^Never mind that rem is an old unit. It should be Sievert.
  • March 9, 2012
    Shnakepup
    I'd mention both, as I've seen some books/movies use the old "rem" units as well (probably before "Sievert" caught on).
  • March 9, 2012
    zarpaulus
    "m" is the standard abbreviation in metric. My radiation biology class uses both, though mostly "grays".
  • March 10, 2012
    Antigone3
    Zarpaulus and Septimus Heap -- Improbably Deadly Radiation does sound better.
  • March 10, 2012
    moocow1452
  • March 10, 2012
    SeptimusHeap
    ^That could work as well.

    Also ^^: Septimus Heap and Tropers.Septimus Heap aren't the same thing.
  • March 10, 2012
    Mozgwsloiku
    Mass Effect has irradiated ammo - it is super effective against living targets and causes them to melt and splatter when they die.
  • March 10, 2012
    KTera
    Mass Effect 3 also has a mission set in a fuel refinery filled with green clouds of "radiation". You'll die nigh-instantly if you get too close to them, so they need to be vented before you can complete your objectives.
  • March 11, 2012
    TomWalpertac2
    • In Dead Space, You have to wrangle several loose balls of radioactive material (missile warehead cores?) that got loose when the USN Valor collided with the USG Ishimura. Standing too close to them for too long will begin to eat away at your health.
  • March 15, 2012
    zarpaulus
    Bump
  • March 15, 2012
    Shnakepup
    Now that I'm thinking about it, "Improbably Deadly Radiation" is a bit misleading because it makes it sound like real-life radiation isn't that big of a deal and that fictional examples are exaggerating it. This isn't necessarily the case...real-life radiation can very easily kill, even quickly, when there's a lot of it. This trope, instead, is for when even small amounts of radiation (that'd normally safe in real life) are treated as being deadly. For that reason, I think Zero Tolerance On Radiation is a much better name (or maybe phrase it as Zero Tolerance For Radiation).
  • March 15, 2012
    DragonQuestZ
    Um, a lot of the examples are radiation that would kill even the tolerant (like Star Trek II). Should we remove those, or call this something like Radiation Is Deadly?
  • March 15, 2012
    Shnakepup
    I guess it's up to zarpaulus, since he started this trope. I was just going by what I assumed he meant, but maybe I'm wrong.
  • July 16, 2012
    IridescentIndividual
    Stargate example discussed above, the episode is "Meridian" and the quote is as follows:

    CARTER: It was a device housing an unstable radioactive variation of naquadah. We think his right hand was exposed to the equivalent of over eight to nine grays of neutron radiation resulting from direct contact. Full body exposure of over seven.
  • July 16, 2012
    zarpaulus
    ^ Thank you!
  • July 16, 2012
    Octorok103
    There's an example in the Doctor Who episode Utopia. A chamber containing important but malfunctioning equipment gets flooded with deadly Stet radiation, vaporizing a person attempting repairs.
  • July 16, 2012
    PaulA
    ^ I don't think that counts. Made-up radiation can have made-up properties; as I understand it, this trope is when a real-life form of radiation is presented as being more deadly than it really is.
  • July 16, 2012
    chicagomel
    ooooh....some of mine probably don't count then. Or, most of them. Grrr.
  • July 16, 2012
    SharleeD
    Maybe "Radiation Is Always Deadly" would be better?
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