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Terrifying and Uplifting Facts about Chernobyl

The catastrophe that changed the way we see atomic energy and how we approach security still echoes through the mists of history. We cannot alter past deeds and influence our present, but we can observe and reflect. While some of the numbers and facts about the incident were truly horror inducing, many stories and heroic self-sacrificial acts acted as perfect examples of humanity at its best when we all unite to fight against a common threat and come up victorious against all odds. And despite all odds and dangers, nature persists.

The incident was undoubtedly the largest catastrophe in the history of atomic energy. A whole active zone of the reactor was wholly destroyed and the energy cell building partially collapsed. An enormous amount of radioactive particles was exhausted in the environment. The aftermath was terrifying.

    • Only one person died due to the initial explosion. It was pump station operator ValeriyHodemchuk. His body was not recovered. On the morning of the next day, engineering technician Vladimir Shashenok died in the medical room due to burns and severe spine cord damage.
    • On April 27, 1986, the infamous evacuation of Pripyat begun. 47.5 thousand people were moved within a day. During next weed people from the 10 kilometer radius were evacuated. For the whole May of 1986, 116 thousand people were relocated from the 30 kilometer exclusion zone.
    • Intense fires kept burning for 10 days straight with cumulative exhaustion of radioactive elements in the atmosphere exceeding 380 million Curie which is an enormous, nearly incomprehensible number when presented in Becquerel.
    • Heavy radioactive contamination spread to a territory of 200 thousand square kilometers with 70% of the territory belonging to Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. This is the single most impactful ecological catastrophe in the world.
    • The most contaminated areas were Northern territories of Kiev and Zhytomir districts of Ukrainian Soviet Republic, Gomel district of Belorussian Soviet Republic, and Bryansk. Radioactive rains covered huge territories of Northern parts of Russia and Nordic Europe. The trails of radioactive waste were found later in arctic territories of Russia, Norway, Sweden, and Finland.
    • Not many people know but the first official release of information by Soviet government occurred on April 28. Mikhail Gorbachev who was executive general secretary during the accident told in his interview to BBC that preparations for celebrations of May labor day were not canceled due to insufficient information about the incident. The government simply didn’t know the true scale of the catastrophe and failed to respond accordingly on the highest level while the infrastructure reacted “naturally” by following security protocols. On top of that, the officials did not want the population of the country to panic. The real speech about the scale of the disaster was made by the leader of country on May 14.
  • The governmental investigation put the blame on the management and employees of the NPP. Later on, the special committee created by the independent international atomic energy agency also conducted an investigation and strengthened the conclusion made by their Soviet colleagues.

First true liquidators were workers of the firefighting squad who started to work on the station immediately and arrived to the facility in 1 hour 28 minutes. In the morning, 240 Kiev firefighters were risking their lives at the station and managed to extinguish external fires by 6:35 AM. There were other countless unsung heroes including:

  • From 16 to 30 thousand (according to different sources) people from different government departments;
  • Over 210 military units with over 340 thousand men. 90 thousand of them participated in the most dangerous liquidation process during the April of 1986;
  • Over 18 thousand police officers;
  • Over 7 thousand scientists and employees of radiological and epidemiological facilities;
  • The overall count of liquidators reaches 600 thousand people from all corners of the Soviet Union.

The Aftermath of the Nightmare

Right after the explosion, the station was shut down completely. In the shaft of the reactor with burning graphite helicopters were dropping carbide of Boron, lead, dolomite. When the raging fire was calmed down, the bombardment changed and helicopters started using latex, resin, and other compounds to catch radioactive dust. By the June of 1986, over 11 thousand metric tons of dry and liquid materials were thrown at fires.

Inside the first sarcophagus were capsuled 95% of irradiated nuclear fuel from the destroyed reactor including 180 tons of Uranium-235 and 70 thousand metric tons of radioactive metals, concrete, glass, and several thousand tons of dust. The overall radioactivity of the deadly dust package was close to 2 million Curie.

The second sarcophagus was planned initially but construction and even planning were postponed several times. The construction was supposed to wrap up by 2015 but due to multiple setbacks and delays the finalization date was pushed to November of 2017.

  • The overall cost of the project is $2.65 billion with the cost of the sarcophagus itself is close to $1.9 billion. Over $800 million were offered by the European Bank of Development. The bank also expressed their readiness to finance the deficit if needed.
  • $7 million annually is a special additional funding issued by the government of Russia for the period of 2016-17.
  • Over $220 million were offered by the international community and over $40 million comes from the United States of America.
  • Several Arabian countries and China also expressed their desire to help the international effort in eradication of the catastrophic aftermath.

According to the archives of National Radiologic and Epidemiologic Register, acute radiation syndrome was found in 134 people at the NPP who were caught by the radiation within first 24 hours after the catastrophe. 28 of them died within several months after the incident and 20 other died within 20 years due to different reasons.

  • Within last 30 years, the Register was expanded by 122 cases of leukemia amongst liquidators with 37 cases having a great possibility of being induced by high radiation in Chernobyl. There was no further evidence that liquidators have higher chances of developing cancer compared to other people.
  • During the period from 1986 to 2011, 40 out of 195 thousand of Russian liquidators died due to different reasons but causes of death never differed from averages across the country.
  • Based on the information from the Register, from 993 fatale cases of thyroid cancer in children 99 could have been induced by radiation.[1]

What happened?

The day before the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, plant operators were preparing for a one-time shutdown to perform routine maintenance on reactor number 4. In violation of safety regulations, operators disabled plant equipment including the automatic shutdown mechanisms, according to the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR).

At 1:23 a.m. on April 26, when extremely hot nuclear fuel rods were lowered into cooling water, an immense amount of steam was created, which — because of the RBMK reactors' design flaws — created more reactivity in the nuclear core of reactor number 4. The resultant power surge caused an immense explosion that detached the 1,000-ton plate covering the reactor core, releasing radiation into the atmosphere and cutting off the flow of coolant into the reactor.

A few seconds later, a second explosion of even greater power than the first blew the reactor building apart and spewed burning graphite and other parts of the reactor core around the plant, starting a number of intense fires around the damaged reactor and reactor number 3, which was still operating at the time of the explosions.

Radioactive fallout

  • The explosions killed two plant workers, who were the first of several workers to die within hours of the accident. For the next several days, as emergency crews tried desperately to contain the fires and radiation leaks, the death toll climbed as plant workers succumbed to acute radiation sickness.
  • Most of the radiation released from the failed nuclear reactor was from iodine-131, cesium-134 and cesium-137. Iodine-131 has a relatively short half-life of eight days, according to UNSCEAR, but is rapidly ingested through the air and tends to localize in the thyroid gland. Cesium isotopes have longer half-lives (cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years) and are a concern for years after their release into the environment.
  • On April 27, the residents of Pripyat were evacuated — about 36 hours after the accident had occurred. By that time, many were already complaining about vomiting, headaches and other signs of radiation sickness. Officials eventually closed off an 18-mile (30 km) area around the plant; residents were told they would be able to return after a few days, so many left their personal belongings and valuables behind.

Health effects

  • Twenty-eight of the workers at Chernobyl died in the four months following the accident, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), including some heroic workers who knew they were exposing themselves to deadly levels of radiation in order to secure the facility from further radiation leaks.
  • The prevailing winds at the time of the accident were from the south and east, so much of the radiation plume traveled northwest toward Belarus. Nonetheless, Soviet authorities were slow to release information about the severity of the disaster to the outside world. But when radiation alarms began to go off at a nuclear plant in Sweden, authorities were forced to reveal the full extent of the crisis.
  • Within three months of the Chernobyl accident, a total of 31 people died from radiation exposure or other direct effects of the disaster, according to the NRC, UNSCEAR and other sources. More than 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer may eventually be linked to radiation exposure in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, though the precise number of cases that are directly caused by the Chernobyl accident is difficult (if not impossible) to ascertain.
  • Surprisingly, the overall rate of cancer deaths and other health effects related to Chernobyl's radiation leak is lower than was initially feared. "The majority of the five million residents living in contaminated areas … received very small radiation doses comparable to natural background levels (0.1 rem per year)," according to an NRC report. "Today the available evidence does not strongly connect the accident to radiation-induced increases of leukemia or solid cancer, other than thyroid cancer."
  • • Some experts have claimed that unsubstantiated fear of radiation poisoning led to greater suffering than the actual disaster. For example, many doctors throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union advised pregnant women to undergo abortions to avoid bearing children with birth defects or other disorders, though the actual level of radiation exposure these women experienced were too low to cause any problems. Even the United Nations published a report on the effects of the Chernobyl accident that was so "full of unsubstantiated statements that have no support in scientific assessments," according to the chairman of UNSCEAR, that it was eventually dismissed by most authorities.

Environmental impacts

  • Shortly after the radiation leaks from Chernobyl occurred, the trees in the woodlands surrounding the plant were killed by high levels of radiation. This region came to be known as the "Red Forest" because the dead trees turned a bright ginger color. The trees were eventually bulldozed and buried in trenches.
  • The damaged reactor was hastily sealed in a concrete sarcophagus intended to contain the remaining radiation: How effective this sarcophagus has been — and will continue to be into the future — is a subject of intense scientific debate. Plans to construct a safer and more permanent containment structure around the reactor have yet to be implemented.
  • Despite the contamination of the site — and the inherent risks in operating a reactor with serious design flaws — the Chernobyl nuclear plant continued operation for many years, until its last reactor was shut down in December of 2000. The plant, the ghost towns of Pripyat and Chernobyl, and a large area surrounding the plant known as the "zone of alienation" are largely off-limits to humans.
  • There are, however, exceptions: A few hundred former residents of the area have returned to their former homes, despite the risks of radiation exposure. Scientists, government officials and other personnel are allowed on the site for inspections and other purposes. And in 2011, Ukraine opened up the area to tourists who want to see firsthand the after-effects of the disaster.

Chernobyl today

The region today is widely known as one of the world's most unique wildlife sanctuaries. Thriving populations of wolves, deer, lynx, beaver, eagles, boar, elk, bears and other animals have been documented in the dense woodlands that now surround the silent plant. Only a handful of radiation effects, such as stunted trees growing in the zone of highest radiation and animals with high levels of cesium-137 in their bodies, are known to occur.

But that's not to suggest that the area has returned to normal, or will at any point in the near future. Because of the long-lived radiation in the region surrounding the former Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, the area won't be safe for human habitation for at least 20,000 years.[2]

[1] During the preparation of the article were used the materials of the site http://tass.ru/spec/chernobyl

[2] During the preparation of the article were used the materials of the site https://www.livescience.com/39961-chernobyl.html