Early in the morning of April 25, 1986, nuclear engineer Alexander Akinhov was busy preparing his night-shift team for a special test they were about to conduct at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant #4 in northern Ukraine. The team was trying to see how an emergency water cooling system would work in the event of a complete loss of power at the plant. The plant’s backup diesel generators had never been able to get up to full speed quickly enough to power the coolant pumps needed to cool the reactor in the event of a power failure. So, the idea was that maybe the plant’s steam turbine could be used to generate enough electric power to run the plant’s coolant pumps for the 45 seconds needed until the diesel generators could fully kick in. Three earlier tests had been carried out at the plant since 1982 but none had been successful. Each time, the system was modified in some way. This time, Akinhov and his team were hoping for success.
At 1:23:04 am, the experiment began. Steam to the plant’s turbines was shut off and the emergency diesel generator started per plan. But 36 seconds into the test something began to go horribly wrong. The system’s steam turbine generator was slowing as was planned but the system began allowing more water to be converted to steam to increase power. The plant’s automated control system then began to insert control rods into the reactor core to limit the power rise. But it was too late. For Akinhov it was one of those “Oh crap” moments. Even before steam levels grew to explosive levels within the plant, it’s now believed that a series of nuclear explosions occurred 53 seconds after the experiment began. These sent a plume of debris almost two miles into the air. Three seconds later, the steam buildup ruptured the reactor, blew the top off the building and sent even more radioactive material airborne. And so began the greatest nuclear power plant catastrophe in history. Akinhov immediately reports, “The reactor is OK, we have no problems.” He later dies from radiation sickness.
The hot debris from the explosions set part of the complex on fire and the fire department arrived 20 minutes later. The firefighters, unaware of the escaping radiation, headed straight into the area, unprotected, to fight the fires. The next day, the nearby town of Prypiat was ordered to be evacuated. Busses took the 40,000 residents away to Kiev on short notice with only what they could carry. Meanwhile the radioactive cloud spread north to Belarus and west, covering most of Ukraine, Poland and over Germany and France. Three days later, Moscow was aware of the extent of the catastrophe but agreed that the annual May Day parade in Kiev go on as scheduled to avoid panic and to assure people that there is no danger. Thousands of people were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. The full extent of the tragedy and the cost of its containment eventually lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union, three years later.
Today, after 32 years, the effects of the released radiation are still being seen. 31 people died within a few days of the accident but no one really knows how many were affected. Estimates range from 10,000 on the low end to over 100,000 on the high end. Belarus, absorbed an estimated 70% of the nuclear fallout and has experienced a sharp rise in birth defects since 1986. For anyone, the long-term effects of radiation exposure are a sobering reminder of how terrible nuclear radiation can be.
In the years immediately after the disaster, the Soviets built a somewhat primitive concrete tomb, called a sarcophagus, to cover the reactor. This sarcophagus will eventually deteriorate and a larger new containment structure is now finally nearing completion over the remains of the reactor. Radiation from the reactor will continue for the next 100,000 years and the area around the plant probably won’t be safe for people to live for at least 20,000 years. Here is a photo of the actual nuclear material taken 10 years after the accident. It’s actually a mixture of molten nuclear material combined with concrete and debris.
So this place sounded like just the right kind of destination for our intrepid twosome. Guided tours make the full-day trip from Kiev regularly and Tanya and Jay wanted to see this place first-hand. Eight other travelers joined them, along with a guide and driver, in a van whose shock absorbers had seen better days. The Chernobyl power complex is actually made up of four reactors, including the damaged reactor #4. The other three have all been shut down and are undergoing the long-term process of de-commissioning. The complex is surrounded by a closely guarded 30-kilometer “exclusion zone” where visitors are carefully checked in and out and are required to pass through two different radiation detector stations as they exit. Everyone in T and J’s group was issued hand held detectors which all started beeping wildly whenever especially contaminated areas were approached.
The tour consisted of four primary sites: the town of Chernobyl, the reactor complex, a nearby village and the abandoned town of Prypiat which was closest to the accident. Chernobyl town is about 7 km from the reactor complex and now serves principally as a housing and support services area for workers de-commissioning the power plant. Employees work 15 days at a time, then leave the area for another 15 days before returning.
Visitors are allowed no closer than 300 meters from the nearly-completed containment structure and for some reason photos are not allowed to be taken, but we got some anyway.
The eeriest part of the day was walking around the abandoned town of Prypiat. This town, built in 1970 served as a model Soviet community for the 40,000 people associated with the nuclear plant. Schools, cafeteria, apartment blocks, movie theatre and hotel were all part of what the Soviets wanted to portray to the outside world as life in the progressive USSR. It’s pretty much been left as it was when it was abandoned right after the accident. The amusement park area was scheduled to open just a few weeks after the disaster.
Since 1986, some of the buildings have simply collapsed due to the elements and poor initial construction.
Some people, who were not fortunate enough (or not) to live in Prypiat lived in a few nearby villages. These folks were evacuated later and left behind the remains of their homes, school, grocery store and kindergarten/nursery.
After several hours exploring areas within the exclusion zone, our van driver and guide took the group 5 kilometers down a lonely single lane road to one of the weirdest places our gruesome twosome had ever visited, the abandoned Cold War relic, Radar Duga-1. This was a huge super-secret antennae system build by the Soviets in 1976 as an early warning to track potential incoming US missiles. This thing was like something straight out of the X-Files. The cover story was that the road leading to the antennae was the entrance to a boy scout camp, but it’s hard to believe anyone nearby would ever buy that idea. Duga-1 sent out extremely powerful radio signals, which unfortunately disrupted commercial broadcasts, aviation communications and amateur radios resulting in complaints from several countries. Some speculated that Duga-1 was designed for Soviet weather control or mind control experiments but NATO intelligence figured out pretty quickly what Duga’s real purpose was, as well as determining pretty accurately where the antennae was located. It was shut down in 1989 when the Soviet Union collapsed.
The day ended with not only a reminder of the colossal waste of preparing for nuclear conflict but also a somber reminder of the people who suffered so terribly as a result of the worst nuclear power plant accident in history.