April 26, 1986: The Chernobyl Disaster


WHAT HAPPENED? (1)


In case you haven't seen the hit HBO show Chernobyl, or just generally don't know much about the accident, Chernobyl was a massive nuclear disaster that occurred on April 26, 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukrainian SSR. It was the worst nuclear disaster in history.


A safety test on the RBMK-type nuclear reactor started the accident. A lot of stuff went wrong, kind of a perfect storm of unfortunate events, and a large amount of energy was released suddenly, followed by an open-air reactor core fire that released airborne radioactive contamination for 9 days. It was not contained until May 4, 1986.


The explosion itself killed 2 of the operation staff. 134 station staff and firemen were hospitalized, and 28 died in the days and months following. In addition to the immediate deaths, it is believed that several thousand people died in the long term due to cancer cases directly caused by the explosion.


The response to the disaster was delayed, which resulted in exposure to more people than necessary.

THE ACCIDENT


I won't go too much into the accident, because it is a lot of scientific jargon and the entire explanation is a little tough to understand. I looked up an explanation on r/ExplainLikeImFive for the most ley-person explanation I could find.


So, essentially, a reactor in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was going through a routine shutdown procedure. During said procedure, the team decided to test a few other emergency functions to ensure they were still working. But, a lot of mistakes were made. Many of the "control rods", which are inserted into the reactor to stop the reactions, were disabled. Not good. (2)


But, they decided to perform the test anyway. But, because of the various mistakes made up front (and lack of some key failsafes), the reactions became really powerful. So they begin to realize they've got a problem, so they insert the control rods to stop the reactions. But, as you recall, most were disabled. (2)


I'm going to directly quote this next part: "Here's where it gets tricky. Inside of where the control rods go is coolant water which is used to keep the reactions in check. However, pushing the control rods in, while stopping the reactions when fully inserted, takes up some of that coolant space, so for a moment, the energy of the reactor spiked and shattered the control rods." (2)


Okay, so now we've got some disabled control rods and some shattered ones. Unfortunately, at this point, they couldn't stop the reactions from continuing. The temperature of the coolant rose until it was steam, and boom, the entire thing burst open. The explosion blew the roof off of the building and shot a fireball into the sky as graphite and radiation began to spew out into the unsuspecting world. (2)


A second explosion occurred after the first, described by a survivor as a "very beautiful laser-like beam of blue light that appeared to flood up into infinity". The cause of the second explosion is not exactly known, though various hypotheses exist. But essentially, a very dangerous thing exploded and began to spew radioactive materials into the world. (2)


Another big issue: A combustible material was used to construct the roof that the reactor was in, and so ejected materials from the explosion started new fires, at least 5 of them adjacent to another reactor, which was still operating. Though it was recommended to shut down that reactor (reactor #3), the chief engineer refused and told his teams to keep working. However, eventually, the night shift chief made the decision to shut down reactor #3 and send most of the team home. (1)


Firefighters arrived shortly after the accident. They were not told how dangerous the situation was. They weren't briefed on the dangers of radioactivity or how dangerous the smoke and debris was. They didn't know the reactor had exploded, they thought it was just a regular electrical fire. 134 of the firefighters were hospitalized, and 28 died from the radiation poisoning. (1)

THE BOTCHED REACTION (3)


After 36 hours of radiation spewing into the air, Soviet officials began evacuating the city of Pripyat on April 27. They had been going about their usual routines, but a significant amount of residents had been experiencing headaches, coughing, vomiting and a metallic taste for a few days. They were told only to take vital belongings, as they'd be back soon.


But even before the delayed evacuation procedures was a delay in explaining what actually went wrong. The general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev was awoken a few hours after the explosion, but he was told in the accident, the reactor was still intact. There was no understanding that the reactor had exploded, or that there was any sort of emission into the atmosphere.


More than 18 hours after the explosion, nothing had been done. Nobody wanted to tell the higher-ups that the reactor was dead. It wasn't until almost 24 hours after the explosion that everybody was on the same page: The reactor's core was completely damaged, and radioactivity was being spread all over the city.


After almost an entire day of radioactivity being emitted into the world, officials tried to figure out how to stop it. Water? No, putting water on a nuclear fire could lead to an more intense blaze. Sand? But how would they actually get it to the reactor?


Hours later, while continuing to brainstorm, 3 further explosions illuminated the sky over the reactor. They didn't have any way to stop what was already out there, and now the problem was getting worse. It was the worst-case scenario. And they knew those explosions may have been an indication of further blasts to come.


The explosions that had already taken place were putting nearby citizens in extreme danger, and the wind was picking up, carrying the radioactivity further throughout the city, raising the radiation levels from 40 to 330. The director of a Moscow nuclear-power research institute who had been called in to help named Armen Abagian demanded the city be evacuated. It had been 30+ hours and children and families were still running around in the streets with no idea of the radioactive atmosphere around them. But, the senior medical officer was reluctant to order an evacuation, believing the radiation dose not to be high enough yet. So while the police were wearing gas masks to step outside, the residents knew nothing.


Evacuations finally happened on April 27, with 50 minutes notice. To some citizens, it was a long-awaited relief to people who were beginning to suspect something terrible, but for others, it was a complete surprise. They were told to take necessary documents, food and clothing. For 36 hours, they were told absolutely nothing as the radioactivity soared. And in 50 minutes, they had to pack up their lives and leave.

SOME PEOPLE INVOLVED (4)


I didn't go into names above, mostly because it would get a bit confusing, but I did want to call out a few players, but good and bad, in the disaster.


Valery Legasov // Scientist

Legasov was the deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy and was brought in on the team to investigate the accident at Chernobyl. The people above him tried to cover up and downplay the incident, but Legasov tried vehemently to communicate the nature of the event, and wanted to be honest with the public. He eventually took his own life days before the results of the investigation were announced due to the strain the investigation put on his personal and professional life.


Vasily Ignatenko // Firefighter

Because the first responders didn't know what they were walking into, they didn't have the knowledge or protective gear to be fighting such a radioactive disaster. He came face to face with the exposed reactor and died of radiation poisoning 2 weeks later. His pregnant wife watched him die a slow, painful death and her baby died after birth because of it.


Aleksandr Akimov // Shift Supervisor

He refused to believe anything was wrong after being told that something was definitely wrong. He stayed behind for damage control once he realized the extend of the disaster. He and some of his crew tried to manually feed water into the reactor without gear, which made up for his delay in reaction, but cost him his life.


Mikhail Gorbachev // Leader of Soviet Union

He waited 18 days to issue a statement about what actually happened at Chernobyl, and the extent of the disaster's effect on the rest of the world.


There were many other people involved, (and I highly recommend the HBO show if you haven't seen it yet!) but those were some of the main ones. Many other people provided their expertise to salvage the situation, while others were crucial in the delay of information and further spread of radiation. Many were tried and convicted in criminal trials, including the former deputy chief engineer Anatoly Syatlov, the former plant director Viktor Bryukhanov, the former chief engineer Nikolai Fomin, the shift director of Reactor 4 Boris Rogozhin, the chief of Reactor 4 Aleksandr Kovalenko, and the USSR State Committee on Supervision of Safe Conduct of Work in Atomic Energy inspector Yuri Laushkin. They were sentenced to 10, 10, 10, 5, 3, and 2 years in labor camps respectively.

AFTERMATH


Though statistics can't be entirely sure of the exact effect on the human population, it is certain that there are some. From cancer to birth defects, people have seen the effects of Chernobyl beyond the original explosion. In fact, it is projected that by 2065, 16,000 cases of thyroid cancer and 25,000 cases of other cancers could be due to the radiation from the accident. It is hard to say exactly how many people lost (or will) lose their lives because of the explosions. (1)


According to the website chernobyl-international.com, 700,000 people risked their lives and exposed themselves to the radiation to contain the situation, and 40,000 of the men died. 70,000 of the others were disabled, and 20% of the deaths were suicides. Additionally, 99% of the land of Belarus was contaminated, and the contamination of the land continues to be a problem now. (5)


Though Chernobyl happened 34 years ago, but it is not something of the past. Specifically, children who were born to the people exposed to the radiation years ago are still impacted, creating a radioactive footprint that will likely exist for years to come. People are still being affected by the disaster to this day. (5)


Chernobyl is something that most people have heard about, but until the show, I didn't realize how much went into the cover-up of the event, and how much could have gone differently if action would have been taken immediately. Though the explosion happened 34 years ago today, the affects are still being felt, and may be for years and years to come.

REFERENCES:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_disaster#Human

2.https://www.reddit.com/r/explainlikeimfive/comments/34ystr/eli5_what_happened_at_chernobyl/

3. https://www.history.com/news/chernobyl-disaster-coverup

4. https://ruinmyweek.com/entertainment/hbo-chernobyl-actors-vs-real-life/

5. https://www.chernobyl-international.com/about-us/


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