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Fast-Killing Radiation

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Once upon a time, nuclear radiation was a good way for people to gain superpowers or 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. However, as bad as radiation is in Real Life, fictional media likes to kick it up a notch with lethal doses off the scale.

This trope covers any instances of radiation being far more fatal than it should be. Sure, ionizing radiation is already deadly enough with its ability to destroy DNA on a molecular level and cause cancer and radiation sicknesses, but even in the most highly concentrated areas, death by radiation is usually a slow burn that arises from complications of the human body undergoing life-threatening mutations. At fastest, it would take one or two days to die from radiation greater than 3,000 rem or 30 grays. In fictionland, radiation suddenly has the potential to kill people in mere hours, minutes, or seconds, if not cause a flat-out instant death. It doesn't matter how potent the concentration is or how large of an area it occupies most of the time. As soon as a character comes into contact with a short dose of radiation in a short period, they're dead. This is usually Hand Waved with radiation-measuring devices going Off the Scale, but short of some fantastic Toxic Phlebotinum at play, very little explanation is given as to how radiation can behave in such a lethal way not seen in reality.

While present in any form of media that features nuclear power or fallout (or similar equivalents thereof) in their settings, Fast-Killing Radiation primarily shows up in video games as a game mechanic for players to be wary of, as it can be an ever-present obstacle that can inflict Damage Over Time. The severity of radiation exposure will vary depending on location and concentration, but the threat of radiation-induced death is still quick enough to put constant pressure on players to either find safe spots to rest or use anti-radiation items and gear to resist its effects a little longer.

Sub-Trope of Artistic License Nuclear Physics and Hollywood Science. Compare Perfect Poison, for another unrealistically fast-acting toxin, and Instant Sedation, for drugs that quickly sedate people on the spot.

No Real Life Examples, Please! This type of scenario is unlikely in real life and there have been no known cases of people dying from radiation on time scales of minutes or seconds. On average, 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). The closest things possible that are capable of delivering a fast radiation kill in real life could be the Elephant's Foot in the early days of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 (it has lost much lethality since) and Jupiter's moon Io, which has radiation levels measuring up to 3,600 rem/day due to being inside the planet's primary Van Allen radiation belt, but it would still take a few hours at least to kill a human. So, while technically possible, it would require situational circumstances that are far too rare and impractical for this to happen.

And for anyone wondering if the sun's radiation would do it, while the star does output a whopping 3.8 * 10^26 watts, a majority of its energy is in the visual spectrum, which is decidedly non-cancerous. Remember that the sun is a giant nuclear fusion plant, not fission, so the elements that make it up (hydrogen fusing to helium) are much less volatile than the heavy elements such as uranium and plutonium that are used in modern nuclear power plants. To get close enough for the higher-frequency radiation such as ultraviolet light to start causing severe damage, you're more likely to die from the thermal radiation than the nuclear radiation by that point.

Video Game Examples:

    open/close all folders 

  • Assassin's Creed: Valhalla: Justified. Due to Yggdrasil being the machine that boosts the magnetic field of the entire planet, it emits outrageous levels of radiation, and as a result, the underground facility in which it's located now has extremely high temperatures, on top of several other side effects. The Reader tells Layla that she'd only survive for less than two minutes there before the radiation becomes lethal.
  • Subnautica: After the crash of the Aurora, the reactor is severely damaged and will spread radiation throughout a large area until you fix the reactor. This will rapidly deplete your health, but can be healed with a normal health pack or simply protected against by the easily acquired radiation suit.

    Adventure Games 
  • Maniac Mansion: You can have your characters microwave water from the swimming pool and then open the door. After doing so, they get just enough time to shout about "radioactive steam" before a cut to their Instant Gravestone in the yard.

    Eastern RPGs 
  • Genshin Impact: Balethunder is the game's equivalent to radioactive fallout, being concentrated Electro energy so potent, it can be fatal in short doses. Exposure to raw Balethunder will whittle down your character's health bar to zero in 20-30 seconds without Electrograna protection (depending on how beefy their HP is), but if you're unfortunate enough to end up in Electro water contaminated by Balethunder, then it will take less than 5 seconds for your characters to die in it.
  • Tower of Fantasy:
    • Trying to explore a region when your level or suppressor rank isn't high enough, or trying to go out of bounds via the sea, will expose the player character to harmful Omnium radiation, slowly reducing your health until you die or get out of the place fast enough. Vera doesn't have this problem as the researchers found a way to strengthen the populace's resistance to the radiation and the radiation gradually subsided in that region.
    • If you run down the timer in a Wormhole stage, the game will indicate your Suppressor is "overloading" and inflict a damage-over-time on your character, forcing you to finish the stage before your character dies.

    First-Person Shooters 
  • Ashes 2063: There are three tiers to radiation poisoning, as seen by the colored bands in the HUD: green is slight buildup and does no harm (at least to Scavs), but yellow and read mean taking damage every 0.2 seconds or so, with the amount per tic increasing according to the severity. Taking in a Purge stim stops the radiation intake on the user, impedes damage from any poisoning present, and quickly drains rads once the user is in a non-irradiated location.
  • Borderlands 3: Radiation is an element that replaces slag from Borderlands 2. Enemies that are hit with radiation take damage over time, and if their health is reduced to zero, they explode, and any enemies nearby will be hit with radiation as well.
  • Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare: The Pripyat levels 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.
  • In Generation Zero, radiation (as with other environmental hazards) functions by draining the player's health at a set rate for as long as they are within its area of effect.
  • Half-Life: Throughout the series, being near or inside radiation/slime pits will trigger a warning message from Gordon's HEV Suit and his health will start lowering until he gets out of the area. This is also present in Black Mesa, which adds an interference effect to the HUD in order to emphasize the damage done; merely getting close to a source of radiation without taking damage is enough to add a "film grain" white noise effect to the player's vision.
    HEV Suit AI: Warning: hazardous radiation levels detected!
  • Halo: Reach: Inverted in spectacular fashion. After the mission "New Alexandria", the Covenant begin glassing the eponymous city, with Kat picking up a reading of 40 million Roentgens, later rising to 90 million, from their beam weapons. The thing is, this is roughly eight thousand times the lethal dose for humans, and Noble Team should have been reduced to radioactive goop for being anywhere near such a powerful radiation source, especially with their helmets off.
  • Metroid Prime Trilogy: Phazon is a Toxic Phlebotinum that is incredibly mutagenic and also emits radiation. Some minor enemies will immediately die when coming into contact with it. Samus without protection can't withstand it for long either and less than a minute of direct exposure (standing in it) will kill her. Metroid Prime and Metroid Prime 3 at least have suit upgrades that make her immune to Phazon, but in Metroid Prime 2, she's out of luck for the entire journey.
  • Perfect Dark: Joanna Dark was infiltrating a lab only for her superior Daniel Carrington to stop her as she was about to enter a room full of high-level radiation and orders her to use the cam spy. Should she disregard the order, she will die from exposure to it.
  • Prey (2017): Some broken canisters and enemies emit radiation. Once your rad meter is maxed, your health rapidly deteriorates and under direct exposure, you die within seconds. On the other hand, as long as you stay away from the affected area, even a maximum level of radiation poisoning doesn't have any lasting effect on you.
  • Quake II: The Expansion Pack Ground Zero has a level called "Water Disposal", which contains a reactor that Stepchild must enter in order to activate it. The problem is, once the reactor is activated, the player has a time window where they must get out of the reactor before the door closes. Once the doors are closed, there's no way to escape the area and everything inside of it (with the exception of Turrets) is killed. And in Stepchild's case, not even the "God" cheat code will save them.
  • S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Radiation exposure deals more damage the more it builds up. A full meter will damage a stalker so fast that even powerful health-regenerating artifacts cannot offset it. Vodka will purge a big part of the meter but make you woozy, antiradiation medicine purges all radiation but doesn't prevent you from taking in more, and a few artifacts will clean up radiation over time, usually with no harmful tradeoffsnote .
  • Titanfall 2: One section in the campaign has you jump-start a reactor that will kill you extremely quickly if you don't complete the section fast enough, but has no lasting effects once you exit the reactor.
  • Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus: There is one stage where Blazkowicz goes through a radioactive stage with as little protection as a single gas mask, being advised to find shelter before the radiation kills him, which deals health damage over time. How Blazkowicz manages to survive such exposure this long could be explained through him recently having obtained a new genetically-altered body to replace his old, dying one.

  • Star Wars: The Old Republic: Several areas, such as parts of the adventure zone "The Black Hole" on Corellia, contain radiation hazards that will kill an unprotected PC in seconds.

  • Bionic Commando: In the 2009 game, several parts of Ascension City are highly irradiated, and staying in them for too long (a couple of seconds) will instantly kill Nathan "Rad" Spencer.

    Puzzle Games 
  • Scribblenauts:
    • From Super onward, the Uranium object (and synonyms such as "Chemical Waste") will summon a glowing stone that will instantly kill any living thing it touches. The Uranium adjective causes an object to glow a sickly green and deal massive damage to anything that comes near it, usually resulting in instant death.
    • When exposed to radiation, organic life, including the player, will rapidly lose health until it proves fatal. The exception to this rule is if a condition is applied, such as using panacea or adding the adjective "invincible."

    Real-Time Strategy 

    Simulation Games 
  • Factorio: The popular "Krastorio 2" mod introduces radiation damage... which means that you can die in mere seconds from having uranium or its ore in your inventory, or even from standing near a uranium ore patch.
  • Rad Slimes in Slime Rancher emit a hazardous aura that can kill Beatrix in about 2 minutes if you don't get out of their ominously glowing green aura, but she quickly recovers in as many minutes if you get out of said aura and there are absolutely no lasting effects. Since the aura doesn't bother native wildlife like other slimes, or hen hens, or even plants, it's safe to assume it's type of radiation found only on the Far, Far Range that humans aren't accustomed to handling.

    Western RPGs 
  • Fallout:
    • Throughout the 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.
    • Fallout 3:
      • The radiation mechanic guarantees your death if you accumulate 1000 rads (you can have up to 999 rads for extended periods of time with no ill effects other than serious stat debuffs, but you will immediately die after spending one second in a muddy puddle even while wearing a Hazmat Suit or Power Armor). Many areas of the game subject you to low amounts like 1 or 2 rads per second, sometimes 7 to 15 in "dangerous" areas. Nothing you can't survive if you take Rad-X or wear radiation-resistant apparel to buff up your resistance and remove the radiation every now and then by taking Rad-Away. However, the entrance to Vault 87 is the single most irradiated area of the Capital Wastelands, capping up at a whopping 3933 rads/seconds. The rads per second start to skyrocket the closer you get to the entrance. The entrance itself actually counts as a fast travel location once properly discovered. Any Lone Wanderer who is foolhardy enough to fast travel to this location, even well prepared with maximum radiation resistance, will be dead within a second if they're not fast enough to pause the game and start popping rad away and booking it out of there.
      • Other spots fitting this trope include the Monongahela River in The Pitt note  (which starts off at "only" 250 rads/second but can reach 2,665 rads/second in some places) and the G.E.C.K control room in Vault 87 (which caps off at 200 rads/second).
      • The Project Purity control chamber is this when sabotaged by Dad to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Enclave and later when activated for real near the end, by either you or Sentinel Sarah Lyons. While the control chamber in gameplay isn't that irradiated, the moment you input the code and start the purifier a cutscene starts where your character keels over dead, even if they have max (85%) radiation resistance, implying that the radiation is just that lethal. The ending slides even show a puddle of radioactive green goo where you/Sarah Lyons fell! The Broken Steel DLC retcons this by having your character knocked out for two weeks but making a full recovery, though Sarah Lyons still die if she's the one who activated the Purifier.
    • Fallout: New Vegas: The game has less radiation sources than Fallout 3 (explained lore wise by New Vegas being hit with much less nuclear bombs than the national capital) but there is one spectacular exception with Dry Wells, which you can only access by nuking Legion territories at the end of the Lonesome Road DLC. The crater's rim caps off at 250 rads/second. Venture any further and the game doesn't even bother with radiation anymore, simply making your character drop dead right there and now.
    • Fallout 4 has the Glowing Sea, which was Ground Zero of a bomb strike outside of Boston and is still heavily irradiated hundreds of years later. While not quite as lethal as some of the areas in the other games, an unprepared Survivor won't last long there. A certain plot-relevant Super Mutant (who's immune to radiation) makes his hideout there because it guarantees that he won't get many visitors.
  • Mass Effect:
    • Irradiated ammo is highly effective against living targets and causes them to melt and splatter when they die.
    • Mass Effect 3: A mission set in a fuel refinery is 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.
    • Mass Effect: Andromeda: The planet Eos is badly irradiated due to the malfunctioning vault. Leaving the Nomad outside of specially shielded areas will kill the player in minutes, seconds in the case of the Level 3 hazards.

Non-Video Game Examples:

    Anime & Manga 
  • One-Punch Man: When Garou gains a power-up from God, he becomes radioactive, and the resulting radiation nearly-instantly kills everyone without protection or resistances in the immediate area, with one character stating that he would cause Earth to be uninhabitable in a very short time.

    Fan Works 
  • Two Sides of a Coin: When the interwarp engine is damaged, Jerrod Dalton incurs a dose of "somewhere north of forty [grays]" of triolic radiation, beyond the ability of even Starfleet medicine to treat, and dies within hours of the incident. This is a massive dose, enough that it really could kill nearly that fast.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Battlefield Earth: Exaggerated and combined with Artistic License Physics with the Psychlos. 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.
  • Star Trek: Both Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek Into Darkness feature climactic scenes in which Enterprise's damaged warp core is manually repaired, saving the ship at the cost of someone's life due to radiation exposure. In TWOK, it's Spock; the radiation is an intense light that blasts him as he's making the repairs, leaving him blinded and with severe burns on his face and neck. In ID, it's Kirk; the radiation is only visible as heat shimmer and he suffers burns on his face, but they're not nearly as severe as Spock's. In both scenes, Spock and Kirk die within a few minutes of the exposure.


    Live-Action TV 
  • The 100: The people living in Mount Weather break out in radiation burns if they so much as come in contact with the air from outside the bunker. Being outside without protection leads to an agonizing death in a matter of minutes. Fortunately, they have a treatment which can repair the damage almost as quickly.
  • Doctor Who:
    • In "The Ambassadors of Death", Doctor Lennox tries to speak to Brigadier to tell him where Liz is being held. Whilst waiting in a locked room in UNIT custody, someone manages to slip a single tiny radioactive reactor rod through the door into the room with him. By the time the Brigadier arrives, he's stone dead from radiation poisoning despite it not yet being even an hour.
    • Justified in "Smith and Jones", where the Doctor turns up the radiation in the X-ray room by 5,000% in order to kill a robot rather than a human (robots don't typically function for too long in radiated zones). While the Doctor is also exposed, the Doctor's Timelord biology means the roentgen radiation found in X-rays is mostly harmless to him and others around him as long as he expels it.
    • In "Midnight", the planet of the same name has an atmosphere so radioactive that it is instant death for anyone who goes outside, so the planet's crystalline surfaces can only be viewed through a sealed shuttle. This becomes a problem when the shuttle the Doctor is on breaks down in the middle of nowhere and something from the outside tries to get in. After the creature gets the passengers to turn on the Doctor, the stewardess ends up sacrificing herself to throw the creature outside, killing them both instantly. Justified somewhat since this is an alien plant rather than the types of radiation found on Earth.
  • In Farscape, Crichton builds a wormhole-controlling device with a nuclear power source. His ally turned enemy steals it and in the ensuing chase, the source is knocked open, meaning Crichton has to make a split-second jump towards the device to render it safe. He fails, absorbs a lethal dose of radiation and succumbs to his illness by the end of the episode.
  • FBI: International: In "The Soul of Chess", Russian assassins are using a new unidentified radioactive isotope to kill targets which is Hand Waved as being much deadlier than Polonium but with a much shorter half-life. Simply breathing it in is enough to kill a journalist and an unlucky housekeeper in a manner of minutes, and at the climax when Agent Kellett manages to inject the assassin whilst he's trying to kill her with it, the man drops dead in mere seconds.
  • The Librarians: Rasputin dies after being tricked into plunging the magical artifact Koshie's Needle, which can deliver a One-Hit Kill to even an immortal, into a conduit at Chernobyl, channelling all of its radiation into him in an instant.
  • Red Dwarf: The inciting incident which led to Lister being the last person left alive on Red Dwarf was an explosive radioactive leak of Cadmium II which wiped out everybody on board the ship. As seen in "Me2" especially, Rimmer and the others went down very rapidly, with Rimmer only having enough time to say "Gazpacho Soup!" before dying. It also seems to have reduced everyone into neat-looking piles of dust by the time Lister gets out of stasis. Of course, this might be Justified by the fact that the leak was caused by a fictional isotope of Cadmium. The little piles of dust are due to the main character being in stasis for several million years, rather than the radiation itself.
  • Stargate SG-1: In the episode "Meridian", Daniel Jackson is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation when an experiment with naquadria-enhanced military tech on the planet Kelowna goes awry. While Daniel is not instantly killed, his body begins to break down in a matter of hours and he only survives by Ascending with a little help from Oma Desala.
  • Torchwood: The somewhat zombiefied Owen is permanently killed when a flood of radioactive water from a nuclear reactor disintegrates him.
  • Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea: In "Sealed Orders", as the Seaview unknowingly approaches the Neutron Bomb's location, some of the crewmembers start to straight-up vanish out of existence.

    Tabletop Games 

  • Freefall: Subverted. 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.

    Western Animation 
  • The Simpsons: In the episode "The Blunder Years", we learn that the dead body that Homer found as a kid was Waylon Smithers' father. He died when he went into the power plant's core without a Hazmat Suit on and died within seconds of radiation poisoning.