The Chernobyl Nuclear Plant Disaster

28 years ago in the early morning hours of April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine (formerly part of the Soviet Union) exploded, creating what has been described as the worst nuclear disaster the world has ever seen.

Chernobyl is located about 81 miles (130 km) north of the city of Kiev in Ukraine, and about 12 miles (20 km) south of the border with Belarus.  The four reactors at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant were designed and built during the 1970s and 1980s. A manmade reservoir, roughly 8.5 square miles (22 sq. km) in size and fed by the Pripyat River, was created to provide cooling water for the reactor.

On 26 April 1986, at 01:23, reactor four suffered a catastrophic power increase, leading to explosions in its core. This dispersed large quantities of radioactive fuel and core materials into the atmosphere and ignited the combustible graphite moderator. The burning graphite moderator increased the emission of radioactive particles, carried by the smoke, as the reactor had not been encased by any kind of hard containment vessel. The accident occurred during an experiment scheduled to test a potential safety emergency core cooling feature, which took place during a normal shutdown procedure.
In most nuclear reactors, where water is used as a coolant and to moderate the reactivity of the nuclear core, as the core heats up and produces more steam, the increase in steam bubbles or “voids” in the water reduces the reactivity in the nuclear core. This is an important safety feature found in most reactors built in the United States and other Western nations.
But not in the RBMK-1000, which used graphite to moderate the core’s reactivity and to keep a continuous nuclear reaction occurring in the core. As the nuclear core heated and produced more steam bubbles, the core became more reactive, not less, creating a positive-feedback loop that engineers refer to as a “positive-void coefficient.”
Basically, when extremely hot nuclear fuel rods were lowered into cooling water, an immense amount of steam was created, which — because of the RBMK reactors’ design flaws — created more reactivity in the nuclear core of reactor number 4. The resultant power surge caused an immense explosion that detached the 1,000-ton plate covering the reactor core, releasing radiation into the atmosphere and cutting off the flow of coolant into the reactor.
A few seconds later, a second explosion of even greater power than the first blew the reactor building apart and spewed burning graphite and other parts of the reactor core around the plant, starting a number of intense fires around the damaged reactor and reactor number 3, which was still operating at the time of the explosions.
The explosions killed two plant workers, who were the first of several workers to die within hours of the accident. For the next several days, as emergency crews tried desperately to contain the fires and radiation leaks, the death toll climbed as plant workers succumbed to acute radiation sickness.

Most of the radiation released from the failed nuclear reactor was from iodine-131, cesium-134 and cesium-137. Iodine-131 has a relatively short half-life of eight days, according to UNSCEAR, but is rapidly ingested through the air and tends to localize in the thyroid gland. Cesium isotopes have longer half-lives (cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years) and are a concern for years after their release into the environment. 

On April 27, the residents of Pripyat were evacuated — about 36 hours after the accident had occurred. By that time, many were already complaining about vomiting, headaches and other signs of radiation sickness. Officials eventually closed off an 18-mile (30 km) area around the plant; residents were told they would be able to return after a few days, so many left their personal belongings and valuables behind.

Abandoned Pripyat

During the construction of the sarcophagus, a scientific team re-entered the reactor as part of an investigation dubbed “Complex Expedition”, to locate and contain nuclear fuel in a way that could not lead to another explosion. These scientists manually collected cold fuel rods, but great heat was still emanating from the core. Rates of radiation in different parts of the building were monitored by drilling holes into the reactor and inserting long metal detector tubes. The scientists were exposed to high levels of radiation and radioactive dust.

After six months of investigation, in December 1986, they discovered with the help of a remote camera an intensely radioactive mass in the basement of Unit Four, more than two metres wide and weighing hundreds of tons, which they called “the elephant’s foot” for its wrinkled appearance. The mass was composed of sand, glass and a large amount of nuclear fuel that had escaped from the reactor. The concrete beneath the reactor was steaming hot, and was breached by solidified lava and spectacular unknown crystalline forms termed chernobylite. It was concluded that there was no further risk of explosion.

Contamination from the Chernobyl accident was scattered irregularly depending on weather conditions, much of it deposited on mountainous regions such as the Alps, the Welsh mountains and the Scottish Highlands, where adiabatic cooling caused radioactive rainfall.

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Posted on May 23, 2014, in Useful Information. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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