The Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster

"Every atom of Uranium is like a bullet penetrating everything in its path - metal, concrete, flesh.  Now Chernobyl holds over 3 trillion of these bullets. Some of them will not stop to fire for 50,000 years". - Chernobyl, TV Mini-Series, 2019
As the province of Ontario is looking to adopt cleaner sources of energy to reduce its share of greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear energy may be a deceptively attractive source of "clean" energy when one looks back to the extreme dangers associated with nuclear energy. In this regard, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster is a sober reminder that nuclear energy does not come with its own extreme risks and dangers. With warming global temperatures, increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, rising water levels, and increasing floods, an account of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster as it occurred is timely, especially as Ontario is in the process of carrying out its $25 billion "Nuclear Refurbishment Plan".  For others, learning some of the more important facts surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear disaster may prove to be a precursor to the highly anticipated TV mini-series drama, Chernobyl. 

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred on April 26, 1986, after a critical failure blew apart a Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station reactor.  While U.N. agencies accounted for some 4,000 deaths from the resulting radiation exposure, the ultimate death tool remains a disputed facts.  What is also known is that hundreds of thousands of cancer deaths have also been linked to the Chernobyl disaster.  As with any type of major disaster, whether it be the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers, the Tsunami that destroyed the Fukushima nuclear reactor, or even Ontario's recent experience with major floods across the province, the lives and physical security of first responders are always exposed to heightened risks. The same held true about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. As with most other major disasters, often little is understood about the extreme and often unpredictable dangers that come with major disasters.

Construction of the Chernobyl nuclear reactors began in the 1970s, with the first nuclear reactor reaching completion in 1977.  The town of Pripyat, a town that was built on the Chernobyl nuclear site, is a testament to the extent to which knowledge about the extreme dangers associated with nuclear energy was very much in its infancy.  The town of Pripyat was not only inhabited by Chernobyl workers but also their families.  The intentions behind the town of Pripyat and its location on the Chernobyl nuclear site went much further than offering workers and their families a nearby place to live.  The town of Pripyat was also to serve as a model that would inspire futuristic atomic Soviet Union cities.  On the date of that the Chernobyl disaster began, Pripyat was home to some 49,000.  So how did the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occur?

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster began with routine tests in one of the reactors early in the morning of April 26. The test in question was intended to simulate a transfer of power from Chernobyl's steam turbines to backup generators in the event of a power outage.  An unexpected rise in the reactor's energy output began as the steam turbines at Chernobyl began to spun down, and the flow of water coolant tapered off.  A further unexpected error occurred when Chernobyl's boron carbide control rods were lowered back into Chernobyl's reactor.  Normally, boron carbide rods would have the effect of impeding uranium fission reactions at Chernobyl. However the control rods also included a graphite tip designed to boost the efficiency of Chernobyl's nuclear reactor.  The end result was an increase in fission reactions during the few seconds before the boron carbide portion of Chernobyl's control rod entered into the affected reactor.  

The failed testing at Chernobyl lead to a sudden surge in power that lead to overheating and cracking of uranium fuel rods, thereby blocking the control rods from full insertion.  The graphite portion of the Chernobyl control rods created a "feedback loop" rather than the expected effect of drawing down the reactions inside the core. The end-result was a 33,000 megawatts spike (the equivalent annual energy consumption in the State of New York) in Chernobyl's reactor, eventually leading to a dangerous steam explosion that destroyed the Chernobyl reactor casing and blowing up the upper plating through the plant's ceiling. Critical instruments used to read the power output inside Chernobyl's core ceased functioning, leaving workers at Chernobyl unable to predict the rapidly increasing reaction that would, within just a few seconds from the first, lead to a second major explosion.  The second explosion at Chernobyl blew apart the core, and ended the nuclear chain reaction within, but further spreading the contaminated metals and radioactive fallout. The second explosion is said to have been similar to the "Massive Ordnance Air Blast" or, "Mother of All Bombs" built by the U.S. military.

Unbeknownst to local firefighters who arrived immediately after the explosions, radiation levels around Chernobyl's reactor spiked to 5.6 roentgens per second, reportedly enough cause a lethal dose in less than 1 minute.  While Chernobyl's 4th reactor continued to burn for well over a month, firefighters that arrived at Chernobyl immediately after the explosions were nevertheless able to mitigate the damages of the nuclear disaster by extinguishing fires around the Chernobyl reactor building and roofs of surrounding buildings.

Shockingly, radioactivity alarms were triggered at a nuclear station in Sweden. Despite efforts by Soviet officials to underplay the massive nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, calling it a mere "accident", news of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster could no longer be contained from the world.  Efforts by the Soviet Union to contain the Chernobyl incident have created smoke screens that have rendered an accurate reconstruction a challenging task, even by the most renown historians of our time.  Much of today's account of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was made possible through what has come to be known as the "Chernobyl Liquidators": Chernobyl employees; firefighters; Soviet Armed Forces soldiers; civilian scientists and journalists who contributed to efforts aimed at mitigating the damage from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Firefighters that were the first to arrive on site to attempt to extinguish the fires received fatal doses of radiation.  Some died within two weeks or less from the date of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, with some coughing up pieces of their own internal organs, blood and mucus, sometimes as many as 25 times a day, throughout this two-week period of time.  Due to high levels of radiation still present in their bodies, most of these victims were buried beneath zinc and concrete shielding, with some even being buried bare feet because they couldn't fit a pair of shoes onto their swollen feet. Of those who survived beyond the two weeks period, over 200 suffered from acute radiation sickness, leading to high rates of cancer.  As many as 485 towns surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear disaster had to be evacuated.  Even in the 21st century, mortality rates remained significantly and unusually high in areas that were otherwise inhabitable.