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.
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.
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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