• Fauzia Haque

Clocking Chernobyl

On April 26, 1986, Ukraine suffered from the worst nuclear disaster the world had ever faced. Chernobyl’s fourth reactor within the nuclear power plant complex exploded, resulting in a disastrous radioactive mess that continues to impact the city and the rest of Ukraine.

What Happened?

Thirty-four years ago, the reactor’s chemical explosion was the outcome of a severely flawed design and the faulty errors made when constructing the power plant. The catastrophe led to a critically concentrated amount of radioactive contamination within Chernobyl and its surrounding areas. It has become the only historical nuclear accident to inflict radiation-related casualties. An unexpected flow of power during the fourth reactor’s system examinations absolutely obliterated not only the machinery but also caused the radioactive energy within the system to blow. The defective construction, which was also a result of the isolation that the Soviet Union had faced due to the Cold War, of the reactor system led to a massive release of radioactive material and radiation. The Chernobyl reactor was built following the RBMK design created by the Soviet Union in the 1970s; RBMK was meant to mean a “high-power channel reactor,” but with the multiple imperfections and lack of safety precautions, especially for the control rod outline and another variable coefficient, the 1986 disaster was inescapable.

The Science Behind Nuclear Reactors

Nuclear energy was first utilized in the generation of electricity on December 20, 1951, at an experimental reactor site in Idaho as authorized by the Atomic Energy Commission, whereas the first power plant to generate electricity for commercial use from nuclear energy was located in Pennsylvania during the mid-1950s. Nuclear power plants are designed with multiple safety features, which differed from the RBMK reactor design in the Soviet Union; the modern design more heavily used now includes a containment building to isolate materials to prevent a meltdown, control rods that control the speed of the atoms’ split during the nuclear fission reaction as the water heats up and condenses to operate turbines, backup systems with substitute pumps and generators; and steam vents with coolants that ensure that the steam released does not cause overheating that would lead to a breakdown. The extreme precautionary and preventive emergency measures and preparedness allowed for the guarantee that a similar accident to Chernobyl would not occur. Fuel rods typically require three percent of the isotype, Uranium-235 (U235), while the fission is regulated with the control rods that absorb extra neutrons. Nuclear power itself has proven to be a beneficial energy source to generate electricity as it does not create substantial harm to the environment or atmosphere; it does not directly create excess carbon dioxide, air pollution, or any significantly damaging radioactivity. However, it is not as widespread due to the immense amount of expenses needed for a power plant’s construction, especially with the difficulty in building, the risks associated with a possible accident, public controversy, nuclear waste, and the lack of energy efficiency.

How Was Chernobyl Affected?

As a result of the disaster, one plant worker died immediately on impact while another had passed away in the hospital; within the following weeks, at least 134 people were diagnosed with acute radiation syndrome (ARS) and 28 people had lost their lives due to irradiation. In three months alone, 30 firemen and operators were killed by the impact and exposure of the blast. Even in the next several years of the accident, 6,500 people had developed thyroid cancer where 15 of them had passed. 350,000 people were forced to relocate and evacuate the area, causing the power plant complex and the nearby town of Pripyat to become ghost towns. Immense amounts of radioactive materials and compounds polluted the atmosphere and contaminated the environment adversely, causing social and economic havoc. Streets, homes, and parks were polluted with radioactive depositions, especially of iodine-131 and caesium-137, while even the rain had been contaminated. Health conditions related to the exposure of radiation during the explosion were even diagnosed around 2004, almost 20 years after. Any further diagnoses are not significantly nor relevantly attributed to the Chernobyl blast and have been slimmed down to a very minimal margin of possibility.

Nearby ecosystems and wildlife were also severely impacted by the depositions of radioactive substances. Plants and animals were consuming and taking up the hazardous concentrations of iodine, caesium, strontium, and more. The agricultural industries of not only Ukraine but also neighboring countries, such as Russia and Belarus, took a huge hit as livestock feed and crops were contaminated, causing harvests, meat, and milk to not be a feasible option in feeding their populations. Fungi and berries reportedly contained high amounts of caesium within forests and caused an ongoing radiation transfer chain between plants, animals, and humans. Mortality rates increased while reproduction rates decreased in wildlife and the bioaccumulation of radioactive caesium remained prevalent within marine life.

Is Chernobyl Safe Now?

Improvements were made to the RBMK design to align more with safety culture and international industrial activities. Currently, there are 10 operating RBMK reactors in Russia alone. Chernobyl’s cleanup and recovery process cost 235 billion dollars and took 600,000 workers, whose health is being continuously monitored. Ongoing resettlement efforts to areas near the damaged site are in progress with protective methods set in place. The nuclear power plant complex, especially the Unit 4 reactor, was contained. Although there is no significant prevalence of radiation-related illnesses anymore, the health industries of countries affected are still wary of ARS and cancers. In 2011, Chernobyl was declared a tourist attraction. However, scientists are still wary as they estimate that the area will be inhospitable for 20,000 years. The area still remains under constant investigation as scientists and researchers are still discovering newfound impacts of the explosion.


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RBMK Reactors - Appendix to Nuclear Power Reactors. (2019). World Nuclear Association. Retrieved from https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/nuclear-power-reactors/appendices/rbmk-reactors.aspx

The History of Nuclear Energy. (1985). U.S. Dept. of Energy. 1-28. Retrieved from https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/The%20History%20of%20Nuclear%20Energy_0.pdf

Chernobyl Accident 1986. (2020). World Nuclear Association. Retrieved from https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/chernobyl-accident.aspx

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Blakemore, Erin. (2019, May 17). The Chernobyl disaster: What happened, and the long-term impacts. National Geographic. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/topics/reference/chernobyl-disaster/#close

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