by Plutonium Page
On 26 April, 1986, the worst commercial nuclear accident in history occurred during a test at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which lies near the Belarus-Ukraine border, 100 km north of Kiev, Ukraine. At 1:23:58 am local time, the plant's Unit 4 reactor was rocked by a steam explosion, followed by a hydrogen explosion and a fire resulting in temperatures over 2,000°C. The 1,000 ton reactor lid was blown off the core, the nuclear fuel rods melted, and more than 100 times the radiation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined was released into the atmosphere over the 10 days that the fire burned.
Many of the small towns and villages close to Chernobyl were rendered uninhabitable, and radioactive fallout from the accident was detected all over Europe. On that day, the lives of over 130,000 people evacuees from the 30 km radius "exclusion zone" (left, click to enlarge) were changed in a way that is difficult, if not impossible, for most of us to imagine.
Most of the recent media discussion of the Chernobyl catastrophe has
focused on the controversy about the number of people who have died - and will die - as a result of the accident. In other words, the media has largely failed to see the people behind the statistics. The purpose of this post is not to discuss the numbers, but to put a human face on the legacy of that day in April 1986.
This post is dedicated to those who died, and those who are still with us today.
(A note to the nerds out there: for brevity, I am not going into extreme technical detail about the disaster. However, if you're interested, this article [pdf] is excellent.)
The reactor and the accident
Obviously, the first witnesses of the Chernobyl accident were the nuclear plant personnel. The UK Guardian/Observer has interviews with several of the technicians who actually survived what should have been lethal doses of radiation. So, before you meet them, it's important that you know at least a few more general details about the accident.
The Chernobyl nuclear plant was actually four RBMK reactors ("Reactor Bolshoi Moschnosti Kanalynyi" or "Channelized Large Power Reactor"). They had a number of inherent design flaws, and some of the specific problems with Unit 4 were kept secret by the KGB until 2003 (for those who can read Russian, click here for images of one of the documents).
As mentioned here, an rapid temperature increase in this type of reactor could potentially lead to an uncontrollable reaction, and subsequent meltdown. That is what happened in Unit 4, during a routine test. The events are summarized in the reactor power/chronology plot at the right (adapted from this source; click to enlarge):
- not enough control rods were in use to moderate the nuclear chain reaction
- coolant/water circulation was slowed down, and steam was produced
- the reactor power shot up to about 100 times normal
- the nuclear fuel heated and some of the control rods ruptured
- there was a massive steam explosion, followed by another explosion and a subsequent graphite fire that burned for 10 days.
Like the quote above the fold, from Dr. Legaslov, the safety violations were analogous to in-flight aircraft engine experiments, with absolutely catastrophic consequences.
Stories and interviews
The UK Guardian/Observer introduces us to Unit 4's chief mechanical engineer, Alexander Yuvshenko:
The hospital to which he refers is Moscow's Hospital Number 6, where most of the acute radiation exposure patients were treated - if they could be treated (pdf, a harrowing first-hand account of an American physician's visit to Hospital 6 after the accident). Most of the reactor staff who were there that night died.
"Liquidators" (photo at left) were the 600,000 soldiers who were assigned to decontamination/cleanup duty as well as construction of the sarcophagus (the structure built over the reactor). Some of the liquidators were called "bio-robots"; because of the intense radiation, mechanical robots were useless for cleaning up graphite and fuel, so humans did the job (click here for video footage).
Some of the liquidators were helicopter pilots. The Guardian article includes an interview with Sergei Volodin:
Volodin only told the author of the article that he has heart problems, and gave no further details about his health. He received a medal for his work as a liquidator/pilot as well as a special liquidators' pension.
"Certificate no. 000358":
Greenpeace has also published an amazing series of stories and interviews for the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster.
Anna ("Annya") Pesenko is a "child of Chernobyl" (photo, right, © Greenpeace /Robert Knoth). She was born in a village contaminated by the Chernobyl accident, and has had a brain tumor since she was four. She was given a number:
Elena and Irina are also "children of Chernobyl". There are thousands more.
In April 2000, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said:
We do not have the luxury of forgetting, either.
[Images from Progetto Humus unless otherwise noted.]