Chernobyl Remembered

By Robby Kile

The Accident

On April 25, 1986, early in the morning, operators at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant near Pripyat, Ukraine, began a test of their backup power supply during a planned outage of Unit 4.  The first step of the test was to reduce the power in the reactors to about 20 percent power. By 2:00 pm, power had been reduced to 50 percent, and grid operators ordered the reactor to hold at a steady power to meet demand. At 11:10 pm, the power reduction resumed and, by 12:05 am on April 26, the reactor was at an appropriate power to conduct the test. At 12:28 am, the power dropped to one percent, far too low to conduct the intended test. Rather than abandon the test, operators decided to bring the reactor back up to power, and after about 45 minutes, power was stabilized near 6 percent, and emergency shutoff signals were disabled, in violation of operating procedure. Finally, at 1:23 am on April 26, 1986, the test began. Due to conditions beyond the test design, power began to rise rapidly, and control rods had been removed too far to compensate for unanticipated conditions, and by the time rods could be reinserted, the power had already increased to an estimated 100 times normal operating levels, leading to rapid boiling and a sudden steam explosion (not a nuclear explosion).

It’s well worth noting that only the RBMK reactors designed in the Soviet Union could undergo this exact progression of events and lead to the rapid power increase that ultimately blew the roof off the reactor building. And those reactors – and their operating procedures – have since been modified to ensure nothing like the Chernobyl accident ever happens again.

A key feature of most nuclear power plant designs is the containment dome, which (as its name would suggest) contains radioactive materials in the event that the reactor system fails to contain it, and Soviet RBMK reactors lacked containment.

The Aftermath

Following the events of April 26, 1986, radioactive material continued to be released for ten days. The largest single release of radioactive material took place on the day of the accident, as the graphite used in the reactor burned. Within three months of the accident, 28 first responders died of radiation-induced injuries, prompting the evacuation of 115,000 people from the nearby areas. In the following years, an additional 220,000 people were evacuated. An addition 19 emergency responders have died since 1987, but these deaths are not all linked to radiation impacts.  Since the accident, study of the health impact on those affected has been a major scientific endeavor, including decades of study on the long-term impact of exposure to ionizing radiation. Between 1986 and 2005, over 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer had been diagnosed in those affected by the accident, but neither these cases, nor any cancer deaths, have been attributed to the accident. The public dose from the incident was only a few times higher than the annual background in the area, according to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation.

Today, dose levels in the area around the plant have largely returned to safe levels. Some areas still have extraordinarily high dose rates, but today the habitable spots are far larger than the contaminated areas. The damaged reactor is now contained by the largest moveable structure humanity has ever created.

The Sarcophagus enclosing destroyed unit 4, courtesy of Wikimedia commons

The Sarcophagus enclosing destroyed Unit 4.         Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons

The Sarcophagus is over 800 feet wide, 355 feet high, and 492 feet long with a weight of almost 80,000 pounds. Every year, scientists and tourists visit the Chernobyl exclusion zone, whether to study the impact of radiation on the area or to see the site of one of the most well-known accidents in history.

Sources

  1. INSAG-7  “The Chernobyl Accident: Updating of INSAG-1.”  International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group (IAEA) 1992
  2. NUREG-1250  “Report on the Accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station” US NRC January 1987
  3. The Chernobyl Accident “UNSCEAR’s assessments of the radiation effects” United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, 2016.
  4. “Chernobyl: The end of a three-decade experiment.” BBC News. February 14, 2019.
  5. “World’s largest moveable steel structure shelters sarcophagus at Chernobyl.” PHYS.org, April 27, 2017.

 

Robby KileRobby Kile is a graduate student in Nuclear Engineering at the University of Tennessee Knoxville where he studies reactor and fuel safety. Robby also enjoys advocating for nuclear science and technology online, in the classroom, and in public

8 thoughts on “Chernobyl Remembered

  1. Madan Dev

    Long time back, I went to Chernobyl with the People-to-People Citizen Ambassador group led by ANS leaders, during the on-going radioactive clean-up process at the site. All the residential places and streets were totally empty and vacant. We could not see anyone there except few radiation protection suited workers at the site. Farther, few miles away from the site, we saw an old man, alone by himself, in a totally deserted village, was doing some yardwork. We asked our guide, why that old man was still there while everyone was escorted out of the village due to the high radiation environmental damage to the area. The guide told us that the old man did not want to leave his house where he was borne and had lived all his life, and certainly at his old age, he did not have many more years to live, so he did not want to relocate. Now, here is the mystery-during the last Chernobyl Nuclear Accident anniversary, I saw, in a newspaper, the picture of that very old man doing the yardwork and that refreshed the memory of my tour to Chernobyl site, with few tears dripping from my eyes.

  2. DAVID KUNSEMILLER

    I would add one comment and one correction to your article, which was concise and well written. The new Sarcophagus to which you refer is indeed a marvel of modern engineering, construction and international cooperation. However, its proper name is the Chernobyl New Safe Confinement System and it is much more than a just a sarcophagus and is deserving of an article devoted to just it. My comment is that I too believe that the estimates of impact on the environment and peoples in the immediately surrounding countries of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia have not been fully accounted for. The exclusion zone today (although occupied by some indigenous people and Chernobyl site workers who are shuttled in and out) is still largely un-inhabited and there are still some radioactive contamination hot-spots found by the various surveys that are performed.
    I enjoyed your article and encourage you to continue.

  3. William Gloege

    Follow up on Chernobyl is important because it’s widely viewed as nuclear power’s worst accident. I visited Eastern Europe recently and noted this “deadly, dangerous” place is a booming tourist destination! Many come to see the blossoming wildlife explosion (speaking of explosions) in the region.

  4. Paul Rittmann PhD CHP

    This event was the worst imaginable accident at nuclear electricity plants with no containment building. The explosions left the reactor core open to the environment, and on fire. The only way to have greater impact on the neighboring community would be to cut the core into pieces and mail them to people.
    Worst Case Scenario — It’s always best to know the worst!

  5. Jerry Cuttler

    I have a 30-update update on the condition of the Chernobyl firefighters who suffered and were treated for acute radiation syndrome. 28 of the 134 died soon after the accident due to acute radiation disease; 106 remained alive. From among these 106 persons, 22 died during the next 19 years, which gave a mortality rate of 1.09% per year, i.e., slightly higher than the mortality rate in Poland in 2001. Their cancer mortality was similar to the cancer mortality in Central Europe. As of 2016, 30 years after the event, the number who died increased from 22 to 26, which gives a mortality rate of 0.82% per year. (7 of the 26 died from cancer.)

  6. William Monti

    Thank you for a well written description of the event that I will share with non technical friends.

  7. Lawrence Forsley

    Sadly, I fear that injuries or deaths resulting from Chernobyl have been undercounted. One was a colleague who was a child in Poland at that time who later had multiple medical complications possibly related to Chernobyl. Another colleague, Yan Kucherov, supervised the Chernobyl cleanup and died from leukemia several years ago.

  8. Howard Shaffer

    Thank you for writing that the accident was far less devastating than the Fear Campaign of nuclear opponents say.

    ANS has a Chernobyl page on it’s website. I had the privilege of writing the revision still posted http://nuclearconnect.org/chernobyl-in-brief. It was written to be one page for the public.

    Of course there was no nuclear weapon sized explosion, but the first explosion, or energy release, was from the power excursion, and in the fuel. This broke the water tubes and a second explosion followed. It was from the chemical reaction between the graphite and steam – the way the Gas Companies used to make “city gas” – reacting coal and steam.

    I’m interested in your comments on my work.

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