Burning graphite and fuel ignited the asphalt roof over the turbine hall, and
within ten minutes of the initial explosions fire chief Leonid Telyatnikov and
his crew arrived to put it out. The entire area was lethally radioactive but the
firefighters wore no protection. Even under their clothing their skin burned to
a dark brown and they grew weak and nauseated until they couldn’t
The Soviet economy suffered chronic shortages in, among many other things,
building materials. Construction crews improvised and made do, adding sand to
concrete to make it go further, scrimping on reinforcement bars, salvaging
components from demolition sites, and so forth. Chintzy construction was a
hallmark of the Communist bloc and nuclear power plants, including the one at
Chernobyl, were no exception.
Not Your Father’s World History Part 19:
Until Chernobyl’s iodine-131 decayed, meat packers diluted contaminated beef 10-to-1 with “clean” beef.
“Children of party officials mysteriously disappeared.”
7 June 2006
Curious Article No. 28:
The Chernobyl plant’s basic design flaws are legendary, but as in the case
of Bhopal external factors also contributed heavily:
Since everything had to be done on the cheap and often hastily to meet
inflexible deadlines, quality control and safety took a backseat. Such problems
had plagued the Chernobyl plant during its construction including a screwup that
at one point leaked 200 gallons (830 liters) of radioactive water per minute
into the cooling pond. At the time of the meltdown, radiation detectors in the
building were virtually nonexistent and the door to the medical supply office
had been nailed shut.
People got hired and appointed largely through politics and ideology rather
than applicable expertise. Cronyism and bravado prevailed and the Soviet nuclear
industry was particularly hard hit. Dyatlov had only worked with small nuclear
submarine reactors. Bryukhanov was a turbine specialist, experienced with
coal-fired plants but only casually so with nuclear generation. Chief engineer
Nikolai Fomin was an electrical specialist from a non-nuclear plant who because
of his party standing had been chosen, through Bryukhanov’s influence,
over an experienced reactor expert.
Soviet bureaucrats were the world’s consummate foot-draggers. In January
Bryukhanov had duly submitted the testing request to the Ministry of Energy &
Electrification as well as the Central Nuclear Review committee. Neither moved a
muscle, as usual, so he went ahead with the test anyway without approval.
Information in general was tightly controlled by the KGB, and by standing
order all nuclear accidents were state secrets. Many had taken place over the
years including a meltdown of another RBMK in Leningrad and a steam explosion at
the Balakovsky nuclear plant in 1985 that killed fourteen workers, but the
people at Chernobyl knew nothing about them and so couldn’t learn from those
For many hours and against all evidence, Bryukhanov and Dyatlov insisted that
the core was still intact and issued various orders to get more cooling water to
it. Fomin, who had never really been the same since nearly being killed in an
auto accident the previous year, held his head and sobbed. At 3 AM Bryukhanov
assured his superiors in Moscow that everything was under control and that
radiation levels were low, while in reality his dosimeter had maxed out at 0.1
rems per hour and another one, capable of measuring ten thousand times that, had
broken. The burning core was actually pumping out as much as 15,000 rems per
hour. For comparison, the criticality accident that killed Harry Daghlian at Los
Alamos in Chapter 15 only exposed him to 500 rems. Telyatnikov and about forty
of his firefighters later died.
Saturday came and went without a peep from the state-run media. The 50,000
residents of the nearby company town of Pripyat could watch the fire but all
phone lines from the plant were cut to prevent news from coming out. On Sunday
officials evacuated the town, permanently as it turned out. Also that day
helicopter crews began “bombing” Unit 4 with sand, lead, and boric
acid to smother the fire and contain the radiation. A reasonable plan, though it
turned out that the radiation flux, and thus the danger to the crews, actually
rose during this operation more than threefold — to 1800 rems per
hour — due to all the dust being kicked up.
Late Monday night the world first learned about the accident when radiation
alarms went off at Sweden’s Forsmark nuclear plant. On Thursday they
evacuated everyone living within 30 km of Unit 4, about 120,000 people, though in
many cases the buses delivered them to areas where radiation levels were
actually far higher. The May Day celebrations went on in Kiev as if nothing had
happened, but parents noticed that the children of party officials had
Engineers feared the reactor core would melt through to all the water that had
pooled beneath it and touch off a steam explosion more violent than any thus
far, so on Friday miners heroically tunneled through and pumped in liquid
nitrogen by the truckful. On Tuesday TASS announced two dead and 204 radiation
burn victims hospitalized. That was all Kiev needed to hear and the next day its
people clogged all the roads and train stations trying to get out.
In total the explosions and fire had lofted about fifty tons of radioactive gunk
into the sky. The initial force had flung the 1000-ton slab covering the core
upward and it fell back and stuck at a near-vertical angle. Temperatures inside
exceeded 4000°F (2200°C) and held to at least 3000°F (1660°C)
for four days. Uranium dioxide fuel and sundry byproducts (over 450 including
radioisotopes of iodine, cesium, strontium, and plutonium), zirconium cladding,
graphite, concrete, serpentine, and reinforcement bars all blended into a
white-hot lava that invaded the rooms adjacent to and beneath the reactor and
then froze into a brownish glass.
The now independent Ukrainian government estimates that in addition to plant
workers, firemen, and helicopter pilots, 7000-8000 cleanup workers ultimately
died from radiation effects. Anatoly Dyatlov, who wrote extensively about the
incident and served some prison time, survived until 1995. Out of the 176
operators in the plant that night, Akimov, Tuptonov, Perevozchenko, and about
twenty others passed away within months.
Belarus bore the brunt of the fallout damage with about a third of its farmland
rendered uninhabitable. Had the wind been blowing the other way that would have
happened instead to Kiev, a city of 2.6 million dating back 1500 years.
Belarus’s second largest city, Gomel, did get seriously cooked and
pediatric thyroid cancers there have since gone up about 4500%. Since 1994 the
Belarusian government has been encouraging agriculture in even its most
pernicious regions using special techniques that should guarantee safe produce,
though dairy is still out of the question.
The worst pre-Chernobyl nuclear accident was the 1957 fire at the British
Windscale reactor. Analysts blamed a phenomenon called the Wigner effect in
which atoms in the graphite absorb energy from bouncing neutrons over time and
store it like little watch springs. At some unpredictable moment it can then
release itself in the form of a blast of heat. Some speculate that Wigner energy
may also have contributed to the Chernobyl meltdown.
In any event Don Bradley, Clyde Frank, and Yevgeny Mikerin point out in Physics
Today that while Chernobyl released about 50 million curies of radioactive
fallout, above-ground nuclear testing by the US and the USSR during the 50s and
60s put out 2 billion curies or about forty times as much. It’s safe to
say that many more Chernobyl victims will sicken and die from cigarette smoking,
alcohol abuse, impoverishment, and deepseated feelings of hopelessness and
despair than from its radiation. Here's a haunting
but at times unexpectedly charming photographic tour of the various Post-Chernobyl no-man's-lands
in Ukraine and Belarus, courtesy of gonzo motorcyclist Elena Filatova.
Gomel Coat of Arms © Vector-Images.com
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Text © Peter Blinn