It’s 26th April 1986 and the technicians in control of reactor number 4, at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power plant (approximately 100km North of Kiev in Ukraine), are about to have a really bad day at the office. During a routine safety test things went a ‘little bit tits up’, resulting in the worst nuclear disaster in history (and may still be today, but that point is up for debate...more later).
Power surges during the test created an increase in temperature causing the cooling water to rapidly turn to steam. Technicians at the plant failed to follow set protocols leading to damage to the containment structure; this damage then prevented control rods entering the reactor fully. Further temperature increases happened as a result, leading to a high pressure steam explosion followed just seconds later by a larger more violent explosion as the reactor was exposed to the air.
Radioactive fallout was released into the atmosphere as a result of the explosions and also over the next weeks, as fires spewed out contaminated particles. The Russian government did not inform anyone of the situation until, on the 28th April, countries in Northwestern Europe reported high levels of radiation in their skies, at which point the disaster was announced to the world.
2 people died instantly as a result of the initial explosions and many firemen who attended the scene (and who prevented a far greater release of radioactive fallout due to their actions) subsequently died of radiation induced cancer. The overall number of people who have died as a result of the disaster is unknown due to the radiation spreading over many countries and the reluctance of the then USSR to admit is casualties to the world; however estimates range from 100’s to millions.
The local town of Chernobyl and the close by city of Pripyat were evacuate days after the explosions (a total of 152 surrounding towns and villages in total) and it is estimated up to half a million people were re-located. Over the past 32 years the abandoned cities have slowly been re-claimed by nature. 10 years ago, after realising many people were entering the site illegally to view them, official tours were started by government sanctioned tour companies.
As a result of the meltdown there is a lump of highly radio active material inside what is left of reactor 4 building, which is known as the ‘elephants foot’. To be close to it for to long will kill you (apart from 1 guy apparently...see below) and it is slowly / eating through the floor underneath it… it is feared that should the “elephants foot’ reach the water table below it, it would cause an explosion and contamination spread many times greater than the initial incident produced.
There is a containment plan in place which has been funded by many nations. At present this plan stretches in stages until 2064, by which time it is hoped the whole site will be completely encased. The most recent phase of the plan was implemented in November 2016 when a dome was placed over the site of reactor 4 (see video below).
As stated above this was, and in some cases still is, considered the worst nuclear disaster in history, achieving a level 7 (the highest), on the scale used to record such events. Only one other incident has achieved the same rating and that was the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011. There are some who consider that the Japanese government have suppressed many of the details of the incident and the amount of contamination it produced.
1). The initial incident happened at night and local authorities underplayed the incident, not informing locals of its severity. Many people carried on for 24-36 hours in full exposure to the radioactive contamination, without any knowledge (this included some workforce).
2). Some of the remaining reactors (ie numbers 1, 2, 3…all within 200 meters of reactor 4), continued in operation and producing power for years after, with the last one being de-commissioned in 2000.
3) The picture below is presumed to be a ‘’Selfie’ (using a tripod) by an Artur Korneyev, who is thought to have made many visits to the ‘elephants foot’ over the years, since his first trip a few weeks after the disaster. He has apparently taken many journalists to visit it and states that ‘any fears they have are purely psychological’?!
4) the ‘Elephants foot is thought to be a lava composite of Uranium, concrete (from the floor it melted through), remains of the control rods and metals from the reactor. It’s thought to weigh 11 tons.
5) a normal reading for radiation is considered to be 0.3 mSv/a (Sievert). During the tour we took a reading of 64.3 mSv/a on one of our dosimeters.
6) displaying the kind of sense of humour required by a guy who constantly visits the most dangerous lump of magma on the planet without dying, Artur Korneyev stated “ Russian radiation….best in the world!”
7) Also extremely near the Chernobyl site was the secret ‘Duga’ Radar complex. This cold war relic was an ‘over the horizon’ radar and was part of the Soviet Union Inter Continental Ballistic Missile, early warning system. It produced such an intense signal it became known as the ‘Woodpecker’ due to the repetitive pulsing noise it made on radios in Western Europe. Due to the Chernobyl disaster it was decommissioned in 1990. Pics below.
Above is the ‘Duga’ Radar Array.