What exactly happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and how it all ended
Troubles begin when catastrophes happen. Whichever it may be, the catastrophe usually remains unexplained and incomprehensible. Why did the sole of this completely new left sandal fall off, while the right one is ok? Why did only one of the thousands of cars that had passed through the frozen puddle that day hit the ditch? Why on April 26, 1986, during a completely usual process at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, everything began to develop quite differently than usual, not as described by the regulations and as common sense dictates? However, let’s give the floor to the participant of abovementioned events.
Employees of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. 1984
Where is Chernobyl and What happened there?
“On April 26, 1986, at one twenty-three am, Alexander Akimov, shift supervisor of Unit #4 of the ChNPP, ordered to turn off the reactor at the end of the works that are carried out before the power unit is shut down for the planned repair. Leonid Toptunov, the reactor operator, removed the cap from the reactor safety system button, preventing accidental mistakes, and pressed it. According to this signal, 187 control rods of the reactor began to move downward into the core. The headlights on the screen illuminated, and rods indication arrows came into motion. Standing half-turned to the control panel of the reactor, Alexander Akimov noticed this; he also saw the arrows of the unbalance indicators of the automatic control rod flashed to the left, as it should be, which meant a decrease in reactor capacity. After that, he turned to the safety panel, which he observed in the experiment.
Then something happened that could not be predicted even by the most unrestrained fantasy. After a slight decrease in power, the reactor suddenly began to increase at an ever-increasing rate, alarms appeared. Toptunov shouted about the emergency increase in power. However, it was beyond his power to do anything. All he could do was hold the reactor safety system button; the CPS rods were in the active zone. There are no other means at his (or anybody else) disposal. Akimov shouted: “Shut the reactor down!” He jumped to the console and de-energized the electromagnetic couplings of the drives of the CPS rods. His action was correct but useless. After all, the logic of the control system, that is, all its elements of logic circuits, worked correctly, the rods were in the active zone. Now we know: after pressing the reactor safety system button, there were no correct actions, there was no means of salvation… Two powerful explosions followed with a short interval. Reactor safety system rods stopped moving not having done even a half way. At one twenty-three am, the reactor was destroyed by the power of the prompt neutrons. This is a crash, the ultimate catastrophe that can ever happen on power reactor. Nobody have ever prepared for it.”
This is an excerpt from Anatoly Dyatlov’s book “Chernobyl. How it was”. The author was the deputy chief engineer of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, who at that time was present on Unit #4, who became one of the liquidators. He was recognized as one of the perpetrators of the tragedy; he was sentenced to ten years in prison, whence he was released after two years of being dying from radiation. He managed to write his memoirs before he died in 1995.
If you were not really interested in physics in school and vaguely imagine what is happening inside the reactor, you probably did not understand what was described above. To make it simple, it can be explained as follows.
Imagine that we have tea in the glass, and the tea is boiling on its own (just imagine that we have such a strange tea). To ensure it did not break the glass and did not fill the kitchen with hot steam, we regularly drop metal spoons into the glass — in order to cool it down. The colder tea we need tea, the more spoons we put. And vice versa: to make the tea hotter, we take out the spoons. Of course, carbide and graphite rods, which are placed in the reactor, operate on a slightly different principle, but this does not change the essence much.
Now try to remember: what is the main problem the power plants around the world are facing? The major problem for power engineers are not about fuel prices, not drinking electricians and not crowds of “green” picketing their checkpoints. The biggest trouble in the life of any power engineering is uneven power consumption by the customers of the station. The unpleasant habit of mankind to work during the day, to sleep at night, and even to wash, shave and watch TV shows at the same time leads to the fact that instead of smoothly flowing, the quantity of produced and consumed energy all the time drastically changes; this causes blackouts and other troubles. After all, instability in the operation of any system leads to failures, and getting rid of excess energy is harder than producing it. Nuclear power plants have especially great difficulties with this, because it is impossible to “explain” the chain when it should go more active, and when it is better to slow down.
Engineers at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. 1980
In the early eighties, the USSR began slowly exploring the possibility of rapidly increasing and reducing the power of the reactors. As a theory, this method of controlling energy loads was much easier and more profitable than all the others.
Of course, this program was not discussed publicly; the station personnel could only guess why such “planned repairs” became so frequent, and the rules of working with reactors changed. On the other hand, nothing uncommon was done to reactors. And if this world was regulated only by the laws of physics and logic, then the fourth power unit would still be in the service of a peaceful atom.
For so far, no one could really answer the main question of the Chernobyl disaster: why, at that time, the power of the reactor did not decrease (although the rods were applied), but, on the contrary, inexplicably increased?
After several years of work, the two most authoritative bodies, the USSR Inspectorate for nuclear and radiation safety and the IAEA special committee published documents, each with plenty of facts about the course of the accident, but without a single answer — why it happened. On numerous pages of these detailed studies, one can find offers, regrets, fears, indications of shortcomings and forecasts for the future, but there is no intelligible explanation for what happened. Largely, both of these reports could be reduced to the phrase “Something boomed”.
“No, well, this is slander! The staff of the IAEA spoke more culturally. In fact, they wrote: “It is not known for certain what caused the power jump that led to destruction of the Chernobyl reactor“
On the contrary, less formal researchers, had numerous versions, each and every more beautiful and more convincing. If there were not so many of them, we could have believed one of them.
Different institutions, organizations and scientists with a world name declared the perpetrators: incorrect design of the rods;
- incorrect design of the reactor itself;
- the error of personnel who reduced the reactor capacity for too long;
- a local unnoticed earthquake that occurred exactly at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant;
- ball lightning;
- still unknown to science particle, which sometimes occurs in a chain reaction.
There is no book enough to list all authoritative versions (unauthoritative, of course, as always, they look more interesting and include such wonderful things as spiteful Martians, crafty churches and angry Jehovah).
These strange methods of radiation protectıon
For the layman, the list of items that are usually required to be distributed to the public in the event of a radiation hazard seems incomplete. Where is the accordion, boa and net? However, in fact, things on this list are not so useless.
Someone seriously believes that five layers of gauze will save you from gamma rays, instantly piercing the steel? Of course, no. However, the radioactive dust, which has already absorbed the heaviest, but no less dangerous substances, will less intensively enter your respiratory tract.
Isotope of iodine, one of the shortest living elements of radioactive release, for a long time stays in the thyroid gland and causes it great harm. It is recommended to take iodine pills to make sure there is enough in your thyroid gland and your body will not take more from the air. However, overdose of iodine is a dangerous thing, so it is not recommended to take too much.
Milk and vegetables would be the most useful when exposed to radiation, but, alas, they are the first to get infected. Then comes the meat, which was fed on vegetables and gave milk. Therefore, it is better not to eat berries, fruits and vegetables in the contaminated region. Especially mushrooms: the concentration of radioactive chemical elements there is the highest.
The explosion killed two people: one died immediately, the second survived and was taken to the hospital where he died. The firefighters arrived first in the place of the disaster and set to do their work — extinguishing a fire. They slaked t in canvas robes and helmets. They did not have any other means of protection, and they did not know about the radiation threat — only a couple of hours later they have heard first information that this fire is something different from the usual one.
Rescue works at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant
By morning, the firefighters extinguished the flame and began to faint — the radiation damage began to affect them. 136 employees and rescuers who were on that day at the station received a huge dose of radiation, with one in four died in the first months after the accident.
In the next three years, about half a million people were engaged in rescue works (almost half of them were conscripted soldiers, many of whom were sent to Chernobyl virtually forcibly). The very place of the catastrophe was filled with a mixture of lead, boron and dolomites, after which a concrete sarcophagus was built above the reactor. Nevertheless, the amount of radioactive substances released into the air immediately after the accident and in the first weeks after it was enormous. Neither before nor after such radiation appear in places of dense human habitation.
The deafening silence of the Soviet authorities on the accident did not seem so strange as it would be now. Hiding bad or exciting news from the population was so in the then practice that even information about the sex maniac operating in the district could not reach the ears of a serene public for years; and only when the next Fisher or Mosgaz (famous USSR serial killers) killed dozens (or even hundreds) of victims, the precinct was given a task to bring to the attention of parents and teachers the fact that children should better not run alone down the street.
Therefore, the next day after the accident the city of Pripyat was evacuated hastily, but quietly. People were told that they were being taken out for a day, a maximum of two, and asked not to take any things with them, so as not to overload the transport. The authorities did not drop a word about the radiation.
There were some rumors, of course, but the vast majority of residents of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia have never heard of any Chernobyl. Some members of the Central Committee of the CPSU had enough conscience to raise the issue of canceling the May Day demonstrations in at least the cities directly on the way of polluted clouds, but it was considered that such a violation of the eternal order would cause unhealthy excitement in society. Therefore, the residents of Kiev, Minsk and other cities had a great chance to run wild with balls and carnations under the radioactive rain.
However, it was impossible to conceal the radioactive emission of such a scale. The Poles and the Scandinavians were the first to panic — those radioactive clouds came to their countries from the east and brought many interesting things.
Of course, the government could continue to pretend that nothing is happening, but here we can justify Soviet officials a little: they were not yet such ghouls who dream how to turn two hundred and a half million people of their country into mutants covered with ulcers. From the very beginning, they consulted with scientists, trying to find out the degree of threat to the health of citizens of the regions neighboring Chernobyl. The content of these talks is either not fixed, or is still secret, but it seems that at that time the scientists were radiant with exceptional optimism.
Indirect evidence confirming that the scientists gave the government the right to silence about Chernobyl could be the fact that in 1988 the scientist Valery Legasov, a member of the government commission for the investigation of the accident, who organized the liquidation for four months and who voiced an official (very smooth) version of what was happening to the foreign press, hanged himself. In his office he left a tape record telling about the details of the accident, and that part of the record where the story about the authorities’ reaction to the events in the first days, was erased by unidentified persons.
Another indirect evidence of this is that scientists still radiate optimism. Even now officials of the Federal Atomic Energy Agency insist that only a few hundred people who took part in the liquidation in the first days of the explosion can be considered victims of the explosion. For example, the article “Who helped create the Chernobyl myth”, written by the experts of the FAAE and IBRAE RAS in 2005, analyzes the statistics on the health status of the inhabitants of the contaminated areas and, recognizing that the general population there is a little more sick, sees the reason only that, succumbing to alarmist sentiments, people run to the doctors with every pimple, and secondly, they have been living in stress for many years, caused by hysteria in press. They explain a huge number of disabled people among the first rescue workers saying “it is beneficial to be disabled”, and hinting that the main cause of catastrophic mortality among liquidators is not the consequences of irradiation, but alcoholism caused by the same irrational fear of radiation. Our atomic scientists use the phrase “radiation danger” only in quotation marks.
However, this is only one side of the coin. For every nuclear scientist, convinced that there is not yet a cleaner and safer energy in the world than the nuclear one, there will be a member of an environmental or human rights organization ready to sow the same panic with generous handfuls.
Greenpeace, for example, estimates the number of victims of the Chernobyl accident as 10 million, taking into account, however, representatives of the next generation, who will fall ill or be born sick in the next 50 years.
Between these two poles, there are dozens and hundreds of international organizations whose statistical research contradicts each other so much that in 2003 the IAEA had to create the Chernobyl Forum organization, whose task is to analyze this statistics in order to create at least somewhat reliable picture of what is happening.
Up to now, nothing is clear about the consequences of the disaster. The increase in the death rate of the population from areas close to Chernobyl can be explained by the mass migration of young people. Minor “rejuvenation” of oncological diseases — by the fact that people there are checked for oncology much more intensively than elsewhere; therefore, many cases of cancer are first seen at very early stages. Even the condition of mugs and ladybirds in the closed zone around Chernobyl is the subject of fierce disputes. It seems like the burdock grows well, and the cows are well fed, and the number of mutations in the local flora and fauna is within the natural norm. However, this is difficult to answer what the harmlessness effect of radiation is, and what the beneficial effect of human beings absence for many kilometers around is.