Modern science has managed to change our lives in some miraculous ways. Examples range anywhere from organ transplants, bio-engineered farming, instant communications and countless other advancements. Science is revered as a field that aides people more so than anything, but, this doesn’t mean that everything always goes as planned. The topic I’d like to bring back to light is, as we’re approaching the anniversary, one of the biggest disasters to ever occur in the science world: The Chernobyl Disaster.
The first reactors of the Chernobyl nuclear plant were built in Pripyat, 130 km north of Kiev, in 1970 to harness an alternate form of energy. Pripyat was also created in 1970 with the sole purpose of housing the plants employees and their families. The plant itself didn’t begin operations until 1977 when reactor core one and two were started up, the remaining two cores were up an running by 1979 and putting out an astonishing 10 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. With the success of the plant the town grew in size, at Pripyat’s peak in 1986 the population reached nearly 50,000 residents.
During the time nuclear power was considered to be a safer form of energy and was dubbed “the peaceful atom” in Pripyat. However the atom didn’t remain peaceful for long. In 1982 reactor No. 1 experienced a partial meltdown that was kept from the public until 1985, this was a look at what the future would hold for the Chernobyl reactor. On April 26, 1986 reactor core No. 4 had a catastrophic system failure. The failure was multifaceted and can now be contributed to poor designs and inadequate materials being used during the construction of reactor No. 4. The official news release attributed the failure to “operator error”, which was later retracted and replaced with the aforementioned explanation.
The reactor failure itself was, and still is, the worst nuclear disaster to ever occur. The meltdown was classified as a level 7 event on the International Nuclear Event Scale, the only other event to reach level 7 was the 2011 Fukushima meltdown in Japan. When the reactor’s heat levels more than doubled staff tried to stop the core, however, it had already spiraled out of control by this time. The staff that stayed were exposed to extremely high levels of radiation and died within several days. Authorities in Pripyat actually told the media that this wasn’t a very severe accident and that it was nothing to worry about, they didn’t admit to the severity of the accident until another nuclear plant 1,000 km away in Sweden picked up “unusually high radiation levels” near them. During the evacuation of Pripyat the citizens were told to grab only the essentials and not to worry they will be back in their homes within 3 days, the town is abandoned to this day.
Within the first few days of the Chernobyl disaster, emergency units began creating a stone sarcophagus to cover up the core and trap a large amount of the radiation from escaping. This was a quickly created emergency resolution to contain only reactor No. 4. Surprisingly the remaining 3 reactors remained in operation after the accident up until 1991 when a fire began in reactor No.2 which led to the entire site eventually being shut down in coming years. The sarcophagus that was hastily created developed has been steadily deteriorating due to the incredible amount of heat and radiation that it has been exposed to, it is set to be replaced by 2016 with a larger insulated steel cover to prevent the the collapse of the previous one as well as the ultimate mass reintroduction of radiation to the atmosphere.
On top of the 31 deaths attributed to the initial meltdown its estimated that another 504 deaths were caused by radiation related to the accident. These numbers may climb in time as 135,000 people were evacuated from surrounding areas, of which, all received some dosage of radiation. The environmental after effects are incredible as well. A dose of 1,000 rads delivered within a day is considered fatal even 400 rads in a day can put the body at an extreme risk. Having said that there are places in Chernobyl that still generate 30,000 rads per hour (vicinity of the core), even the surrounding areas generate minor amounts of radiation that can become fatal if overexposed to. Despite being warned of radiation poisoning, there are still a handful of people living on the outskirts of Pripyat today. Animals have also been reappearing in the area, many of which have been seen with deformities due to the high amounts of radiation they receive.