Chernobyl fallout still raining down on 21st-century innovation.

How the afterglow of the infamous disaster can be seen in modern patent filings.

21st September 2019

Did you watch Chernobyl? Spoiler warning: it doesn’t end well.

Saying the recent TV series Chernobyl is thought-provoking is like saying the surface of the sun is quite warm, or that childbirth stings a bit. If you’re anything like us you were glued to all five episodes and had to keep reminding yourself that it

all

actually

happened.

Once we had picked our jaws off the floor and wiped away the tears after the final episode, we got online and started looking for answers to the 101 follow-up questions we had. We found some interesting stuff. Did you know that the Chernobyl explosion unleashed at least 400 times more radioactive fallout than the bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima in 1945?

Or that the abandoned exclusion zone has become one of the world’s most unique habitats, with thriving populations of wolves, eagles, deer, beavers and fish. Lack of human interference is considered to be the major factor in the success of these species, and the thought that we are seemingly more of a threat to wildlife than the worst nuclear disaster in history is a sobering one.

Another eye-opening fact we discovered is that guided tours of Chernobyl and Pripyat are fast becoming some of the most popular tourist activities in the Ukraine, with over 11,000 people visiting in 2018 and the number expected to explode in the wake of the SKY/HBO series.

Would you like to visit the amusement park in Pripyat?

Being IP experts, it wasn’t long before our search focus shifted to patents, and more in hope than expectation we started by looking for old Soviet Union patents with references to the RBMK style of reactor used at Chernobyl. Unsurprisingly there isn’t a lot to speak of. It appears that getting information out of the USSR during the Cold War is still as difficult as depicted in Tom Clancy novels. But we did uncover something. One patent filed in 1979 (over seven years before the incident): SU836373 ‘Steam turbine regeneration system’. It describes the exact problem the Chernobyl safety test was trying to simulate, describing what would happen in the event of a power failure and the need to use the dying turbine energy to maintain the water pumps while waiting for the back-up diesel generators to start up.

Sample pages from SU836373 — hope you can read Cyrillic.

Given that the last Chernobyl reactor wasn’t shut down until December 2000 (the full decommissioning phase only started in April 2015) and the fact that there are still 10 operational RBMK reactors across Russia, it is no wonder that there has been a constant trickle of patent filings relating to improvements in RBMK reactor safety features over the past 30 years, with the most recent example, relating to the handling of spent fuel elements, published in April this year.

The patent literature also contains specific references to the Chernobyl accident itself. We found many instances where it is cited as an example of the problem a patent is claiming to solve. Moreover, we found patents actually citing the accident as the cause of the problem it is solving. Over 100 patent filings tackle problems relating to cancers, tumours, birth defects or general health issues directly attributed to the radiation from the accident. New applications are still being filed to this day, but one could consider 26 April 1986 the earliest priority date for them all.

This should not be a surprise considering statistics such as those highlighted by research in the International Journal of Epidemiology, that found thyroid cancer rates in the region have increased by up to 3286% from 1970 levels.

Consequently, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus see more patenting activity than usual in the areas of cancer research and radiation management. Globally 14th, 39th and 43rd respectively in terms of total filings, focusing on patents relating to cancer or other radiation affected health and environmental problems, these offices move up to 9th, 27th and 22nd in the world. Belarus, a nation with a GDP similar to Bordeaux, sees more patents filed in these fields that France, a country that normally sits in 9th position.

Never has the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention” been more poignant.

Russia, Belarus & Ukraine highlighted in pink

We’re off to find a less depressing TV show to get stuck into, we hear ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is good…

Can you think of any other real-world events that may have had an unexpected impact on patent filings? Or another TV series that could have an interesting patent link? Follow us on social media and let us know.

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