Twenty Years After Chernobyl

Greenpeace Photo: a deserted secondary school near Chernobyl, Illinsty, Ukraine.

Nearly 20 years after the initial events of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of April 26 1986, the story is still unfolding. This month’s National Geographic Magazine tells of the “long shadow of Chernobyl” — grown children of the disaster now fear having their own children while some elderly residents return to their old homes inside the 1,000 square mile, still contaminated “exclusion zone.” The print article seemed to offer hope, noting that even the pines of the “red forest” — so called because they received so much radiation that it bleached the chlorophyl from them, and some say the trees actually glowed — are beginning to grow back now. But the multimedia companion materials tell a somewhat more morose tale.

A note at ibiblio, however, brings to mind how different our world was in 1986:

Chernobyl has become a metaphor not only for the horror of uncontrolled nuclear power but also for the collapsing Soviet system and its reflexive secrecy and deception, disregard for the safety and welfare of workers and their families, and inability to deliver basic services such as health care and transportation, especially in crisis situations. The Chernobyl catastrophe derailed what had been an ambitious nuclear power program and formed a fledgling environmental movement into a potent political force in Russia as well as a rallying point for achieving Ukrainian and Belorussian independence in 1991.

Time Magazine did a ten year retrospective and has an index to coverage, but Wikipedia’s entry is rich with detail and potential lessons.

One of the most interesting lessons may be that the reactor was not designed in ignorance of the instability that eventually caused the Chernobyl disaster, but as a reasoned and calculated approach to the problems of the time (makes me wonder what Henry Petroski would say about it). The reactor was designed to operate using light water and un-enriched natural uranium, a technical marvel so unique that the wikipedia entry on heavy water explains:

Heavy water is used in certain types of nuclear reactors where it acts as a neutron moderator to slow down neutrons so that they can react with the uranium in the reactor. Light water also acts as a moderator but because light water absorbs neutrons, reactors using light water must use enriched uranium rather than natural uranium, otherwise criticality is impossible. In effect to achieve criticality in a reactor, one must enrich either the moderator or the fuel.

Because uranium enrichment and heavy water production are both complex and costly, it’s easy to imagine the engineers proud of their accomplishment and accountants relieved. It’s the sort of scene that looks different in retrospect, but one that we’re quite familiar with.

The biggest lesson may be that the best plans and procedures can never be substituted for well trained, knowledgeable people. In this case, the plant’s operators had no training on the peculiarities of the reactor design, and so had no way of knowing how non-standard operations during the planned test would change the operating characteristics, safety, and stability of the reactor.

It is a sad irony that the reactor actually became less-stable during low-power operations, and sadder still that the operators had neither any knowledge of this, nor any indication of it in the control room.

And all of that was made worse by the fact that in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, operators had no way of knowing that the reactor had been breached, and they were all receiving deadly doses of radiation as high as 20,000 roentgen per hour.

Kerry Cupit’s Chernobyl gallery begins with a photo from that first day following the explosion at 1:23:47 that morning. While the plant operators were doubtful of any radiation risk, the firefighters and later “liquidators” were told nothing of it. The extreme levels of radiation were described by one firefighter as “tasting like metal.” He died soon after.

It wasn’t until the night following the explosion, with two people already dead and fifty-two hospitalized, that officials finally acknowledged the scale of the danger and ordered the the evacuation of Pripyat and the surrounding area.

The evacuation left a ghost town. And despite the disaster, this empty landscape has captured our imaginations. The fictitious story of Elena, the “kidd of speed” who toured the exclusion zone on motorcycle became legend in 2004, thanks largely to the eerie and dramatic photos of abandoned Pripyat.

Architectural photographer Robert Polidori visited in 2001. The resulting book, Zones of Exclusion: Pripyat and Chernobyl, is a study of the haunting desolation and, perhaps, of the serene beauty of these modern ghost towns. Jury Kosin’s Chernobyl album reminds us of the people consumed by the disaster. The photo at the top, of the secondary school south of Chernobyl, comes from Greenpeace.

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11 thoughts on “Twenty Years After Chernobyl

  1. Pingback: Twenty Years Ago Today «

  2. Pingback: Chernobyl Tour «

  3. Pingback: Chernobyl and Pripyat Satellite Photos «

  4. Tour Schedule:
    Start from Kiev, comfortable bus.
    Duration 7.30 to 21.00
    The main aim of the tour – Pripyat City, where is planned to stay for 4-5 hours. As well it is planned to visit Chernobyl town, abandoned villages and view ground of the sarcophagus ruined Unit No 4 of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

    [tags]Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Tour Chernobyl, tour to zone, Pripyat, abandoned town of Pripyat[/tags]

  5. Pingback: ISTP Dad : Twenty Years After Chernobyl - Has it Been That Long?

  6. I am very sad for the people who had friends or relatives that died during and after the chernobyl accident! I am glad that people honor them and this website is amazing!

  7. Hmm, took me 2 years to find this article. Let me start off by saying that the operators of this reactor were highly trained individuals, as are in the US. They knew that operating the reactor at such a low power was unsafe and objected several times to the low power testing, they were not idiots who had no clue. Their lead engineer, was the one who had no clue and pushed the test forward, threatening the operators with a trip to Siberia if they did not comply, comrade. Also, other contributing factors were that safety equipment was not operable, and they had a positive temperature coefficient of reactivity. Their temperature coefficient caused the reactor to make more power as it heated up. Reactors in the US will shut down as they heat up.

    Although, I have used Wikipedia several times to look some things up, which have been accurate, never have I used it as reference material. The site is not a valid resource. It most definitely is subject to opinion.

    As for earth day and the place being a habitat for wildlife, not so. The contamination has had a very negative impact on the ecosystem. I am sure at the writing of this article, there wasn’t enough evidence, but now there is. It ain’t pretty, google picture for it, you’ll see.

    As far as US power plants are concerned…I am pro nuke. No carbon emissions, no global warming. Yes there is the fuel that takes 3000 years to decay, but you can store it, where it will be safe. Or you can reprocess it. Thanks to Jimmy Carter, the latter is no longer an alternative, but would solve a lot of problems we are facing today with regard to the fuel. Can we have another meltdown? Yep, but Operators are held to an extremely high standard of knowing what is going on with the plant and go through a VERY rigorous schooling process, some say a ridiculous schooling process as far as the knowledge we need to know. It’s not college. Anyway, everything is governed by procedure and we can’t even pass wind without opening a book to tell us how to do it. All US reactors are required to have a containment structure to catch and radioactivity that might be released, even if we had a meltdown, it would be caught inside the vapor containment.

    All in all, this was a horrible disaster. There is also a lot of mis-comparison of this disaster to what can happen to US reactors. It’s a completely different design, and is not susceptible to the same problems. If you are anti-nuke, please just take a minute to learn the facts before spouting about how bad it is.

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