Nuclear power is the name of the game right now. Minus one or two rather large exceptions, it’s a safe and clean way to produce large amounts of energy. It’s also one of the most common elements of superhero origin stories. SuperGuy gets his power because he took an injection of radiation, or got some splashed on him, or he accidentally took a cosmic shower. We’re going to investigate the whys and hows of this today, and how, actually, powers by radiation might be one of the most dangerous ways to get superpowers.
Although perhaps not a particularly clever name, Radiation Man is a fairly old and unheard of Marvel villain, first shown in 1963. He was born as Doctor Chen Lu, China’s leading scientist in nuclear radiation. Chen Lu is contracted by the Chinese military to develop enough nuclear power capable of stopping Thor (that Thor). Instead of creating a weapon, Chen saw an opportunity for world domination (don’t we all?). He turned the experiment on himself, received superpowers, and became one of Thor’s rivals. His powers include emitting radiation, radiation and force field projection. His character page actually describes him as a walking nuclear reactor.
Before we go too far, I am going to answer your unasked question: yes, his creation probably definitely had to do with the anti-Communist sentiment of the 1960s and the looming atomic threat.
Next, we’ve got Red Hulk, who is a bit of a special case. He was introduced in 1963 by actual name, General Thaddeus Thunderbolt Ross. Mostly, he was set to be an adversary for the Hulk, needing to take him down. It was only in 2008 that he was introduced as Red Hulk. The fatal creation of another supersoldier program and he, more or less, fought for the side of the good after. His powers are similar to the Verdant Hulk’s – he can both emit and absorb radiation.
And those are only supers who have powers to control radiation. Let’s not forget those who had powers caused by radiation: Daredevil, Fant4stic (sorry), Doctor Manhattan, Spider-Man (irradiated spiders count), like all the Hulks, let’s be honest probably Captain America, Captain Atom, Firestorm, and a whole slew more.
Let’s start off with the usual: what do the powers mean? For villains, it tends to be seen as the usual evil men possessing a great power. Usually with a tinge of Cold War sentiment, too. Science gone wrong is a popular trope.
For heroes, let’s just say that you’re not going to find a quote unquote ‘normal’ superheroes with powers of radiation. Think of Hulk. Think of his more eloquent kin Red Hulk. Even if Red Hulk can reason, they’re still massive brutes who can possibly juggle cars if they wanted. Radiation is not a subtle power for superheroes. It makes the tank heroes, the Jekyll and Hyde heroes, the ones that can cause untold destruction.
Without sounding too much like an anti-nuclear advertisement, let’s talk a little about radiation. What is it, where does it come from, how can I grow an extra arm, etc.
Certain elements have isotopes, and sometimes, those isotopes are radioactive. Generally, the radioactive isotopes are more prone to decaying into other, more stable isotopes. That’s why we use uranium, a lot of the time. All isotopes of uranium are radioactive.
Now, in order to get more stable, these radioactive elements will under 3 different kinds of decay. Alpha, beta, and spontaneous fission. Let’s just refer to them as this: alpha is when they give off an alpha particle, beta is when they give off a beta particle and turn into something new, spontaneous fission is when they split in two.
When they undergo these processes, they’re quite energetic. Sometimes they give off an energy pulse – those are our favorite. Gamma rays!
That’s all radiation is, really – energy given off from those sort of processes, via particles (alpha, beta) or rays (gamma!)
So that’s a basic what of radiation, and it’s not too difficult to see why it can be used as both a power source and a power in itself. It’s very hard for us to conceptualize radiation with tiny, nearly invisibly particles, especially to the point where we can use it as a power source. Something so foreign to us is perfect for creating superpowers, as we’ve got a larger suspension of disbelief for things we don’t understand.
Of course, that’s not the only reason we tend to pick on radiation. A lot of heroes were made in the comicbook Silver Age, roughly 1956-1970 and smack-dab into that good ol’ Cold War where everyone thought they were going to die from nuclear annihilation. People didn’t know a lot about nuclear power, but they knew that they could die from nukes. More than a healthy amount of fear.
That makes radiation a fantastic use of supervillain motivation and power. As for giving powers … people knew radiation was powerful and could be destructive. ‘Powerful and could be destructive’ also fits many superheroes very well. So, without giving them constant access to this powerful weapon, it suited to instill powers on a few.
But how dangerous is it, really?
Let’s talk about bananas. Bananas contain potassium, and a very, very small portion of potassium is radioactive. Bananas emit radiation. Granted, it’s 1% of the stuff you get naturally every day, but 1 banana is equivalent to .1 µSv. That is, it’s equal to .1 microsieverts, a more formal system of measuring radiation. To put it into perspective, a fatal dose is 8 sieverts. 1, 000,000 microsievert is only 1 sievert. So you’d essentially have to eat a whole lotta bananas to feel anything. Your stomach would explode first, don’t worry!
So bananas aren’t dangerous at all, but it’s pretty cool that you can measure radiation in bananas. Let’s talk about the more lethal stuff.
We all know about the Chernobyl tragedy, but let’s focus on one particular part. The terrifying Elephant’s Foot.
When the Chernobyl meltdown occurred, a large mass of radioactive material collected together within the facility. At 1986, 300 seconds, 5 minutes, would be fatal. You’d be experiencing symptoms from 30 seconds. It’s not usually something that kills you quickly. Radiation works by playing with your DNA, mutating it. It wouldn’t kill you immediately. It’d take days of something that could reasonably be called torture.
Years later, it’s producing much less radiation. Still enough to be harmful to you after 500 seconds and fatal over an hour, but radioactive materials decay. Slowly, it’s becoming easier to contain, to the point where people are going to go in and prevent it from infiltrating drinking water.
Nuclear power can be incredible. It’s clean and it takes much less energy than burning fossil fuels. But it’s also incredibly dangerous and has to be taken care of. Playing with it won’t give you superpowers, at all.
Case in point is the tragic end of Louis Slotin. Slotin was working on the Manhattan Project (New York based project focusing on nuclear weaponry) when, one day, he was fiddling with a device. It was a plutonium core surrounded by two beryllium hemisphere. It’d later be called the ‘demon core’, as it had killed one man before Slotin.
He didn’t follow protocol correctly, as he had used a screwdriver to separate the beryllium hemispheres. His hand slipped and there was a burst of radiation from the plutonium.
It only lasted a few seconds, but Slotin thought quickly enough to drop the beryllium onto the floor and prevent the radiation from spreading the room and killing the other scientists. Unfortunately, it was too late for him. Slotin died 8 days later after radiation-induced trauma. He’d later be commended for his quick thinking in saving the other scientists.
It’s easy to see why we’re fascinated with radiation. It’s an invisible process capable of causing incredible power. We’ve given it to our villains because we fear it. We’ve given it to our heroes because we know the power it can inspire. And as we go on, we discover more about it, we might give it less frequently to our supers and let another mysterious, dangerous process take the spotlight.
Radiation Man was sent to stop Thor and tried to use his radiation powers to control the world. Red Hulk was a good, if somewhat volatile, man who tried to fight on the side of good. Both men could manipulate and absorb radiation, proving them to be powerful foes. Radiation is essentially caused by the energy from the release of decaying particles, either in particles or in rays. While it can also be incredibly useful in most ways, it can also be dangerous and deadly: as seen in the Elephant’s Foot, a radioactive mass from the Chernobyl incident, and the untimely death of Slotin, a scientist in the Manhattan Project.
Radiation Man – Marvel Biography
Red Hulk – Marvel Biography
How Radiation Works – Science, How Stuff Works
Nuclear Radiation and Health Effects, world-nuclear
How Does Nuclear Radiation Harm the Body?, LiveScience
Radiation Basics, NRC
Banana Radioactivity, Independent
Elephant’s Foot –
Chernobyl’s Hot Mess, nautil.us
Photos of Elephant’s Foot, rarehistoricalphotos
Analysis of Contents of Elephant’s Foot, Cambridge
Louis Slotin –
America’s Radiation Victims, NY Times
Louis Slotin Profile, Atomic Heritage Foundatio
Louis Slotin Becomes Second Victim, APS