The Chernobyl disaster, occurred in April 26, 1986 is, without a doubt, the worst nuclear disaster in human history. Until the Disaster of Fukushima in 2011, it was the most severely rated nuclear disaster by the International Nuclear Event Scale, but unlike Fukushima, who was contained comparatively easier and was caused by a mix of hubris and natural accident, the Chernobyl disaster is unanimously considered worse due to the amount of contamination it generated and the level of human hand involved on it.
To put in short, a growing ball of incompetence, which began with an unseen fault in the design of the nuclear reactor, added to a rushed attempt to make a long-delayed security test finally happen, degenerated in a tragic chain of human errors that culminated in the explosion of the nuclear reactor No. 4 in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, on Ukrainian SSR. The Soviet bureaucracy, taken by surprise, initially tried to deal with it with their traditional formula of secrecy and pretension of normality, only to be caught when the nuclear cloud of radiation was detected by neighborly European countries less than a week later with the consequent uproar, forcing then to admit the disaster to the world. In the end, their rushed measures to evacuate the population around the still burning reactor (mainly in the city of Prypiat, the dormitory city of the reactor employees) and to contain the radioactive disaster transformed what used to be a model booming town into a Ghost Town practically overnight.
In the aftermath, the whole event, along with the nuclear contamination of whole sectors of Ukraine and Belorussia and a still unknown amount of deaths (less than one hundred directly attributable to the explosion, fallout, and cleaning efforts, but untold thousands due to increasing cancer rated related with the radioactive contamination), it single-handedly destroyed both the good reputation of the Soviet nuclear program and the trust on the safety of nuclear plants as civilian energy sources. The event was also retrospectively the initial point of the discontent that would end in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the The Great Politics Mess-Up, as it was the first time soviet people saw their government having to admit they fucked it up and caused people to question and distrust current and previous governmental decisions. Finally, the event lodged itself on popular culture, with the image of the desolate Prypiat displacing Hiroshima as the inspiration for the modern image of nuclear destruction.
Tell me, how does an RBMK reactor explode?
I am prepared to explain that right now.
Everybody knows about Chernobyl. Everybody knows either one of two things. The accident was caused by gross incompetence. Or the accident was caused by a gross design error. Or the accident was caused by both. Yes, that's three things - but this isn't the Spanish Inquisition.
In the intervening decades, reality itself has been consumed by competing narratives, as stories and villains are created by those with their own vested interests. Whether those interests are selling books, making a mini-series, promoting the safety of nuclear power, hiding the culpability of the system, or just not being the final resting place for the big finger of blame - the result is the same. The Truth, such as it is and what there is of it, is unrecogniseable from the fiction.
This is one possible narrative. There are no villains in Chernobyl. There are just people who went to work one evening, working as the system required of them, and the reactor, working as physics required of it.
To figure out why an RBMK reactor can explode, first we have to understand how an RBMK reactor works. It's not actually that complicated. A uranium atom splits - small particles called neutrons fly out from the atomic shrapnel and they each find another uranium atom. When they collide with it, they break it apart too, letting more neutrons find more Uranium atoms to break in a chain reaction. Out of each split we get energy. Once split, the fragments snap apart as the energy holding them together is released - like cutting an elastic band. These fragments explode away, run into the atoms next to them at high speed and all that speed is turned into heat. Heat is used to boil water. This steam turns a turbine. This turbine turns an electric generator and, eventually you get electric power out of it.
Now, it's not quite that simple. Big, heavy atoms like Uranium come in multiple different versions - called Isotopes - sort of like different models of the same car. They're all Uranium, but they're all slightly different at the same time. The most well known, are Uranium 235, and Uranium 238. U238 is by far and way the most common - on the order of 99% or more of Uranium on Earth is U238. It's a big, heavy fat atom that doesn't really like to split - it takes a very fast neutron to break it apart - and the neutrons released by U238 fission aren't fast enough in turn to cause a further fission.
On the other hand, U235 is much happier to break apart - taking a lot less energy to do so. Unfortunately, it's about as rare as common sense. Out of a large block of Uranium, only a small amount is actually useful in a reactor.
Out of the ground, less than 1% of your Uranium fuel is actually fuel.
More than that, in order to have a chain reaction, the neutrons released by one atom splitting have to be able to cause further atoms to split. Otherwise everything just runs down. It turns out, that the neutrons released by fission are extremely fast - too fast to split U235 but still not fast enough to split U238. For a fast neutron, the probability that it will cause another fission is really low. Either you need a lot more U235 around it to get the probability up, or you need to find someway of slowing it down. If you slow it down - the probability of fission goes way up. This is done by a Moderator.
For most reactors, this moderator is water. Ordinary - albeit extremely pure - water. Water is a good moderator, but it has one slight drawback - it absorbs neutrons. Absorbed neutrons do not get to go and make another fission happen - they just turn the water radioactive. Using water to moderate a reactor absorbs so many neutrons, that the quantity of U235 in the reactor fuel has to be increased. This process is called enrichment. It's expensive and energy intensive - and it turns out if you enrich Uranium to about 80% U235 it can be used to make an atomic bomb.
Which, naturally, is why Israel got so pissy about Iran having the ability to enrich Uranium. The difference between safe reactor fuel and weapons-grade bomb fuel, is time in the centrifugal oven to bake.
Now, doesn't it seem eminently sensible to find a way to build a reactor that will be happy on regular, non-enriched Uranium?
Canada did it with the CANDU reactor. Instead of regular water, a CANDU reactor uses 'heavy' water. 'Heavy' water is like ordinary 'Light' water, except the Hydrogen atom that's the H in H2O is a little different. It has one neutron and one proton, rather than just a single proton. It absorbs less neutrons, which means more neutrons are free to cause more fission. In fact, Heavy Water is so effective that CANDU reactor doesn't need enriched fuel. The Nazis appearred to have tried a similar appoach, and the destruction of their Norwegian Heavy Water factories stalled their weapons program. On the other hand, heavy water - while common - is still fairly expensive.
What if you could build a reactor that ran on natural uranium, that didn't need heavy water?
The very first self-sustaining nuclear reactor - Chicago Pile 1 - used blocks of Graphite as a moderator. It ran at so low a power, it didn't require cooling.
The first Hanford Reactors also used graphite. They also used regular, light water as a coolant to keep the reactor from melting down with its own heat. This hot water was dumped merrily into the local river along with whatever contamination it picked up along the way. Of course, somebody had worked out that if the reactor lost cooling water, it would very quickly begin to run out of control so the Hanford reactors were built miles from anywhere inhabited. They never generated a watt of electricity- but they did create the Plutonium for your nuclear weapons.
The British Government, aware of this risk of a runaway reaction, built the Windscale Piles to be Air cooled - with giant fans blowing air over hot graphite and metal. These then went and caught fire. In the end, the solution was to use graphite and an inert gas, like carbon dioxide, to cool the core.
This was still extremely expensive.
The Soviet Union looked at this and thought; We can build a graphite moderated reactor, cool it with regular light water and so long as we don't fuck up, we'll have a shitton of free energy.
We know the result already. But that's being a little bit churlish. These people weren't fools.
This why an RBMK reactor is different to every other reactor built anywhere else in the world. It's in the name - Reaktor Bolshoy Moshchnosti Kanalnyy - Big Powerful Channel Reactor. The majority of modern nuclear reactors are basically big pressurised kettles, filled mostly with pressurised water. This water either boils in the kettle- or it is under such a high pressure that it remains liquid and is used to boil water in a second circuit. In an RBMK reactor, the fuel is contained in more than 1600 vertical channels cut through the graphite moderator. Inside these channels, light water flows as coolant. It enters a pair of drums high above the reactor where any steam bubbles in the water seperate and are drawn off to the turbine to generate power - while the liquid water is recirculated, being mixed with cooler water coming back from the turbine. Interspersed within these channels are more than 200 others - each contaning a control rod. These control rods are also cooled by liquid water - but at a much lower temperature.
The main steam circuit on an RBMK reactor operates at somewhere around 270 degrees and 60-odd Bar of pressure. The control rod circuit operated at 70 degrees.
The light water in the channels still absorbs neutrons sure - but because there's so much less of it, the reactor will still run on natural unenriched Uranium. It also means that, since each fuel assembly has its own individual channel, it can be removed, moved and replaced without shutting down the reactor. This is a feature few other reactors have - most reguire a shutdown to open the reactor vessels to refuel. This is good for fuel economy, good for efficiency, and good for creating weapons grade plutonium on the sly if you were that way inclined.
The people who designed the Chernobyl reactor weren't fools. There was recklessness in the design, but definite intent. There were compelling reasons for making the decisions they did. It made a big, powerful reactor cheap and easy to build, while improving the reactor's fuel economy and general uptime. And you could potentially fuel a weapons program with it.
The one clear drawback with this should be obvious. When the cooling water boils, its replaced by a bubble of steam. This steam absorbs far fewer neutrons than liquid water - meaning more neutrons available for fission, which means more fission, more heat, more steam, more neutrons, more fission.
This is called a Positive Void Coeeficient. It is an example of positive feedback - where an action creates a stronger action in the same direction. Positive feedback is like setting a ball rolling at the top of a hill, it's only going to start rolling faster as it gets further down. Engineers love positive feedback -it usually results in entertaining results.
This is potentially problem for an RBMK reactor specifically because the water does not act as a moderator - more correctly, it provides little to no moderation. On a conventional reactor, the water also provides moderation. If it is boiled away by heat, the moderation in the reactor reduces, neutrons get faster, the probability of fissions gets lower, less fission happens and the problem self-corrects. On an RBMK reactor - even if all the water in the core is somehow removed, the moderator is still present in the form of the graphite to keep the reaction going.
It would be dangerous to have a reactor which behaved like this. The engineers who designed Chernobyl were, of course, aware of this. But real physics is not that simple. As the fuel heats up and gets more energetic, it responds to neutrons differently. The hotter it gets, the harder it is for a neutron to cause a fission. Hotter fuel is less likely to fission - so an increase in power will actually reduce the ability of the fuel to fission and create power - in effect an automatic brake provided free by simple physics. This is called Negative feedback, and is basically the same as you feeling a tug in the steering wheel of your car, and steering the other direction to compensate.
Positive feedback acts to destabilise. Negative feedback acts to stabilise.
If the negative feedback from the fuel heating is stronger than the positive feedback from the steam boiling, the reactor's power level will self stabilise and everything will be fine.
For a large part of the reactor's life this was true. But this changed as the reactor got older.
Where a reactor had been running for several years- the fuel gets more and more depleted. In addition, more and more poisons are added, each of which absorbs neutrons differently or introduces additional hazards into the reactor. The reactor in Chernobyl had been running for about three years. After this time, changes in the fuel meant that the negative feedback from the fuel heating was no longer enough to counterbalance the effect of the void coefficient. The reactor operated in a positive feedback loop.
An increase in power, left unchecked would create a further increase in power. Only the reactor's control rods kept the reactor under control, The majority of these control rods inserted from the top of the reactor. Some inserted from the bottom. They served to absorb any excess neutrons in the core and act as the final brake on the reactor to keep it in control, to keep the reactor critical.
Fission reactors are at their happiest when they're critical. A critical reactor is a reactor running in a balanced steady state at a constant power. It's the desired state of being. Every fission is creating one further fission and that's it. A reactor that is supercritical, is a reactor that's accelerating - each fission creates more than one further fission. A reactor that is subcritical, is a reactor that's decelerating - each fission creates less than one further fission.
The reactor is moved from state to state by adding or removing reactivity. Reactivity is like the throttle and brake on the reactor. It's not really the current power level - it's close to the potential change in power level. Positive reactivty means fission is more likely to happen than it is now - which will cause an increase in power. Negative reactivity, means making fission less likely to happen - which will cause a decrease in power.
In theory, there is no limit to the amount of negative reactivity you can add - all it does is stop the reactor faster. But there is a limit to the positive reactivity.
When an atom fissions, the vast majority of neutrons are released instantaneously - at the moment of fission. The neutrons fly away, get themselves moderated, and in the space of microseconds find more atoms to collide with and split. The scientists of the Manhattan project called this a 'Shake' and it is an extremely short interval of time - from nanoseconds to microseconds. These are called Prompt neutrons.
Fission with prompt neutrons happens so quickly, that there is little to no mechanical process capable of controlling and regulating it. If the universe had been created in such a way that there were only prompt neutrons - controllable fission power would likely be impossible.
Had this been the case, the Chicago Pile 1 experiment could have had a far more amusing result.
Luckily for the citizens of Chicago, a very small fraction of the neutrons released by a fission event are delayed - they happens seconds, to minutes later. It is this small fraction of delayed neutrons which enables every nuclear fission reactor to be controlled. It is possible therefore, to have a reactor which is critical on the combination of the Prompt, and the Delayed neutrons. In fact, this is how things normally are. Even a supercritical reactor, will take seconds to minutes, to change power output. There's time there for the process machinery of the reactor to respond to changes and stabilize.
But, if the reactor is pushed to the point that it is capable of achieving criticality on the rompt neutrons alone - before any of delayed neutrons are emitted - then things get interesting. Instead of a power increase that happens on the order of seconds to minutes - now the only limiting factor the the reactor's power increase is the time it takes for a neutron to find an atom to fission and however long the reactor maanaged to withstand the energies that are being very rapidly liberated. A reactor which has gone prompt critical, has become, in effect, a really, really shit nuclear bomb. The big difference being that bombs take advantage of physics, inertia and a dozen other things to keep the reaction going that few nanoseconds longer it takes to go from 5 tons of TNT, to 15 Kilotons of TNT.
Scientists at the Manhattan project, for whatever reason, called this interval a 'Dollar' of reactivity. Once you get a reactor past that point - unless it's a type specifically designed to go there and self recover - the reactor will be destroyed. Importantly, this does not have to happen within the entire reactor - it can be limited to a very small part of the core where conditions align like the stars over R'lyeh.
At the Chernobyl reactor, Reactivity was added by fresh fuel, by removing control rods and by boiling water to make steam. Reactivity was removed by increasing water flow, adding control rods, heating up the moderator and fuel, and by another factor.
The shrapnel left over from fission creates what's known as 'fission products'. Most of these are hideously radioactive. Many of these are effective at absorbing neutrons. Absorbed neutrons reduce reactivity, which has to be compensated for either by withdrawing control rods, or by removing the used fuel and replacing it with fresh fuel. One of the most effective neutron absorbers is an isotope of Xenon, called Xenon-135.
It starts to appear about six hours after the fission events that effectively 'created' it. The amount of it that's created, is in direct proportion to the quantity of fission that happened six hours ago. So if a reactor is run at full power for a long time, and then throttled down, Xenon will continue to appear according to that fuel burned six hours previously. It's a bit like the exhaust from your cars engine magically taking longer to form after the combustion in the cylinders. Normally, with the reactor in a steady-state, Xenon is created as quickly as it is consumed - the physics balances out. It can make it very difficult to increase or reduce power - if power is reduced too quickly, and the Xenon continues to build, the reactor might even be stalled by it.
It can also mean that, if the fuel in the reactor has been burned for a long time - there may not be sufficient reactivity in the remaining fuel to overcome this Xenon pit. The reactor will stalled and effectively impossible to start.
This is important. After a few more hours, the Xenon goes away. More than that, Xenon which absorbs a neutron also 'goes away' - it's no longer Xenon-135 and it's massive ability ot hoover up neutrons is suddenly gone.
Keeping all of these positive and negative reactivities in balance is the job of the Senior Reactor Engineer, who manipulates the reactor core's systems and control rods to achieve the required stable power output. The Engineer has only so much control as the rods will give them.
Finally, there is the concept of the Reactivity Margin. And that's basically the count of control rods left inside the reactor, which are required to maintain criticality. The higher the reactivity margin, the more control rods remain in the core and the more reactivity can be added to the core. A reactor with fresh fuel will have a very high reactivity margin. A reactor with old fuel, or with xenon poisoning, will have a low reactivity margin. Other factors like Xenon can push the reactivity margin down. It may seem that a low reactivity margin might be 'safer', because now there's less reactivity that can be added by the control rods (which are already out of the reactor at low margin). At a high reactivity margin, the control rods are inside the reactor. More of them can be withdrawn, to push the reactor further into the supercritical - more positive reactivity can be added to the reactor.
Yhe Chernobyl reactor was happy around about 30 Rods of reactivity. At this point, fresh fuel was being added frequently enough to keep the reactor stable, but not so frequently as to be uneconomical. The official limit, was somewhere around 15 Rods of reactivity.
This was not considered a safety limit. Running at low reactivity margins could be a mark of skill of the reactor operator. A low reactivity margin meant less scope for moving power around the reactor and keeping things in balance. There was a risk that individual channels could be inadvertantly overloaded - leading to broken cooling channels and the release of radioactive steam to the environment.
It was never thought of as a safety limit.
But, below 30 rods of reactivity, another insidious effect began to occur.
The Control rods of an RBMK reactor are manufactured from boron. Boron absorbs neutrons, which reduces power. The deeper they go into the reactor - the more neutrons are absorbed - the slower the reactor goes. They can also be moved independently of each other - which changes where and how power is produced throughout the reactor, to compensate and balance for old and fresh fuels and how they're distributed through the reactor.
But, at the tip of the control rod on a telescoping extension, is a single slug of graphite and the end of a telescopic rod. The graphite tip of the control rod acted as a displacer. Its purpose was to push water out of the control rod channel, to remove it and its neutron absorption effect after the rod was withdrawn. In effect, instead of giving the control rod an action of -1,0 - they are something like -1,+1. They graphite displacer gives the control rod a stronger control action. It makes it more powerful by adding reactivity after the rod is withdrawn.
This led to an interesting effect.
If a number of rods in the same area of the reactor were inserted at the same time, and were in the same vertical position as they moved, a small amount of positive reactivity could be momentarily added to the bottom of the reactor. This would cause an uptick in power for a few seconds before the boron control rod travelled the entire height of the core and finally quenched the reaction.
This was not thought to be much of a concern - power changes in the reactor after all, take longer than it takes for the rod to travel. It was just something the RBMK reactor did. Methods to mitigate it had been known and discussed for a decade prior Chernobyl Disaster, but were not seen as too much of a big deal. An RBMK reactor cannot explode, after all.
It would also reflect badly on the designers if the reactor they had overseen were found to have a potentially fatal flaw. It was quietly buried in the documentation and just sort of forgotten about. Until 2 years later
We do not yet know how an RBMK reactor explodes. But we know what we need to know.
The Disaster Day (or, a reactor that does explode)
The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, and the city of Pripyat beside it, had been the brainchild of Viktor Bryukhanov. Bryukhanov had taken the city and its power plant form a paper concept, to a living, thriving thing. By 1986 Pripyat had become a model for the best in Soviet life. The shelves were well stocked, the apartments comfortable and the amenities accessible. There is a hotel, a swimming pool, multiple schools and a 'Palace of Culture', where residents can indulge in their hobbies.
Pripyat is what the Soviet Union wishes it was.
By 1986, four reactors had been completed at Chernobyl, with two more under construction. Pripyat and Chernobyl at this time are planned to be the largest nuclear power complex in the entire world. Chernobyl Reactor 4 was finished in 1983, a few weeks ahead of schedule, earning Bryukhanov an award from the government. On the other hand, there have been some corners cut. Fireproof materials for the roof were not available, so conventional materials were used. Some safety tests were failed when initially attempted - but the deadline was looming, so the reactor was put into service anyway.
This was normal. Deadlines still had to be met. The reality of the Soviet Union, rarely if ever matched the paperwork.
The tests however, still had to be completed.
Over the next three years the test is attempted a further two times - failing each time. In one case, an engineer forgot to turn the datalogger on. Finally, the fourth time, was April 26th, 1986. The test was succesful, and the reactor operators shut down the reactor.
Then it exploded.
The test was of a safety-critical system, but was not considered safety-crticial in and of itself. It was not really thought of as a test of the nuclear systems. The test program had been drawn up by an electrical engineer and from there it made its way to the desk of Nikolai Fomin, the station Chief Engineer. Fomin - only just back from work after a serious car accident - reviewed it, and not seeing it as potentially hazardous to the reactor, signed off on the proceedure.
The proceedure was less than clear about what was required from the reactor.
The test, was an attempt to answer a question. If offsite power was lost due to accident or grid failure, and no other sources of power were available to the reactor, how would the electrically driven cooling pumps be operated? These pumps had to be kept running - they could not be permitted to stop. The reactor did have emergency diesel generators, but these took a full minute to start up. The pumps themselves each required 30MW of power. They could each move 12 Megalitres of water per hour. And there were 8 of them - of which 6 were normally in use.
If, at full power, the reactor were to loose cooling water and the control rods were to somehow fail to fully insert, it was calculated that it would take just 40 seconds for the fuel channels in the core would begin to buckle and warp. They would loose all resiliance. A breach in just three fuel channels out of the more than 1600 in the reactor could introduce enough steam pressure into the reactor chamber to lift the lid off the reactor - like the lid on a boiling pot hopping. The test report predicted that this could have dramatic consequences.
Suffice to say, it was necessary to find another source of sufficient energy to keep the pumps running.
This was the reactors own turbine generator. At the first moment of an accident, the throttle valve to the turbine would close, but sheer force of inertia would keep the turbine and its generator spinning. Thousands of tons of steel rotating at 2500rpm may have just enough remaining energy to keep the reactor pumps circulating. Doing this, involved careful switching and regulation of the generator, both to keep the turbine from slowing too quickly, and to keep enough power flowing to run the pumps.
This test is important enough that Deputy-Chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov chooses to supervise it personally. Dyatlov was not well liked - by all accounts he was an abrasive man and very strict about professionalism. He had friends outside work - those who had come with him from his previous posting - but not many.
He was a man who dedicated himself to his work by day - and at night indulged in Soviet culture and art. He was the son of a Siberian river lamplighter, who now lit the lamps across all of Ukraine. He had worked with reactors for the Soviet Navy, he was the victim of an unreported accident - receiving nearly 200 rads. His son had died shortly afterwards.
He was feared for his harsh treatment of his subordinates - regularly dressing-down those who found themselves beneath his gaze. He was respected for his knowledge and experience - knowing every micrometre of the reactor and every corner of its workings.
Even he found somthing deeply unknowable about the core of Reactor 4.
lso in the control room of Reactor 04 that night was the team operating the reactor. There are three main areas of responsibility. The Reactor engineer is responsible solely for maintaining the balance of reactivity in the core, keeping the core alive and operating at a stable power point. A pump engineer is solely responsible for maintaining the flow of water through the reactor, and balancing it against the power produced to keep steam flowing to the turbine. The turbine engineer, monitors the turbine, condensers and generator, to make the best use ot steam generated.
The groundwork for the test is laid during the previous dayshift. The emergency core cooling system is disabled - a process which takes hours manually cranking valves closed - to prevent it from being triggered accidentally by the test. The dayshift operators also wind the power of the reactor down from its normal 3000 MW, down to 1500MW. The reactor operators measure core power based on the heat energy produced inside the core - the thermal power - a figure which is typically three times higher than the electrical energy output.
The test proceedure calls for the reactor to be at a self-sustaining power level. This is set around and about 700Mw thermal. Before they can do this, the day-shift are told to maintain power by the local grid controller.
It isn't until after midnight, and a shift change, that Chernobyl is given permission to reduce power. The dayshift has long gone home, and the night shift has taken over.
Aleksandr Akimov, the Shift supervisor, and Leonid Toptunov - who at age 25 was a Senior reactor engineer - will now be responsible for the reactor. Controlling the pumps, will be Boris Solyarchuk, overseen by Yuriy Tregub - a reactor engineer who stuck around from the dayshift to see what happened. The Turbine and its generator, are to be the responsibility of Igor Kirchenbaum. Observing, are two trainees - Viktor Proskuryarkov and Aleksandr Kudryavtsev. Elsewhere in the plant, a team from the turbine's manufacturer will take the opportunity to run vibration tests on the turbines. There are other hangers on in the control room, watching, curious about the test.
Just after midnight, Dyatlov orders the reactor's power be brought down to the test level.
Toptunov begins to work the power down. As he winds the reactor down, Xenon is still being produced according to the high power levels from 6 hours previously. Toptunov has to precariously balance a reactor that suddenly seems to be trying harder and harder to shut itself down, as more and more negative reactivity is added to the core by the Xenon. It gets harder and harder to reduce the power safely.
Under the gaze of Dyatlov, a mistake is made. To try and stabilise Power, a setting is switched. The setting has the opposite effect of that intended.
The chain reaction collapses. The reactor stalls.
With power below 30MW, the test is fucked. There isn't even enough energy to spin up the turbine. Proceedure calls for the reactor to be shut down. This would allow any Xenon in the reactor to decay, and make restarting it easier. Dyatlov overrides proceedure, commanding Power be raised immediately. This is not necessarily unsafe, provided the reactivity margins of the reactor aren't compromosied.
By some accounts. there is a discussion between Dyatlov and Akimov. There are no raised voices. There is no argument. It is a professional discussion. Is this a short term power reduction, or a short term shutdown? Both are documented in the reactor's operating manuals. One state prohibits a restart. One does not.
What is certain, is that the reactor is restarted.
But the reactor doesn't want to start.
The Xenon poisoning is so strong, the reactor is effectively completely poisoned out.
Toptunov begins to withdraw control rods. He does so haphazardly at first - until Tregub steps in to give him guidance on where to pull from. They withdraw almost all the control rods they can but still the reactor does not want to start. They disconnect some of the automatic rods from the computer control, and withdraw them from the core. Of the two hundred and eleven control rods, over two hundred are taken clear out of the reactor. They are all at the exact same, zero, position. The graphite displacers at the tip of the rod are now dead centre in the reactor, with a meter either side of the displacer being filled with liquid water.
The power level in the reactor grinds up to 200MW. The majority of the core is nearly inert. The reaction is pinned to the extreme top and bottom of the core, away from the poisoned centre.
There is barely enough power to spin up the turbine to the required speed, but the reactor is self-sufficient.
Dyatlov is satisfied. It's enough to complete the test.
On the other hand, the low power levels are creating problems for Stolyarchuk running the pumps. Water is moving too fast through the reactor to boil. Water levels in the steam seperators are getting too low - reducing pressure and risking steam recirculating into the reactor. This would be bad for the pumps. An automatic emergency shutdown is triggered, threatening to terminate the chain reaction and finish the test.
Dyatlov orders the emergency shutdown to be overriden. This is not a violation of proceedure. It's permitted to disable the automatic emergency shutdown when the reactor is at low power levels.
The low power level still causes trouble. In order to make enough steam to keep the turbine spinning, hot water is being recirculated back to the reactor from the steam seperators, faster than it can be cooled. It is hot enough to begin to flash to steam inside the circulating pumps. Still, Stolyarchuk is able to stabilise flow and keep steam flowing to the turbine. The reactor is now stabilised - the difficult part is over.
At 1:40:03, Dyatlov orders the test be begun.
The datalogger is turned on. Kirchenbaum closes the throttle valve to the turbine. The turbine begins to coast. The generator is disconnected and switched over to directly supply half of the cooling pumps. For safety reasons, half of the pumps are left running at full power using grid electricity. Normally, the reactor would have shut itself down as soon as the throttle valve closed. But the automatic shutdown has been disabled. The reactor continues to operate at 200MW of power.
As the generator slows, so do the pumps. Less and less water moves through the reactor. More and more steam is generated. The positive void coefficient begins to take effect The reactor control system automatically compensates for this using the few rods it still has. Power level remains constant throughout the test.
For forty seconds, everything proceeds as normal. Everything looks normal.
The test is succesful. The stalling generator is able to maintain the pumps for long enough for the diesel generators to start.
There is no moment of forboding. There is no sense of impending doom.
With the test completed, Akimov calmly instructructs Toptunov to smother the reactor. There is a button on the reactor operator's control panel, hidden behind a wax-sealed guard labelled AZ-5. AZ-5, in this case, being translated as Emergency Protection System 5. It is one of a number of emergency power reduction and shutdown modes available to the reactor engineer. This button immediately forces all control rods to be inserted into the reactor at once to shut the reactor down as fast as possible.
This should terminate the reaction.
At 1:23:40, Toptunov puts his finger on the button and holds it. It has to be held in place, or else the rods will stop moving.
The control rods begin to move into the reactor core, sliding down their channels. The can move at a speed of 0.5 metres per second. It will take thirteen to fourteen seconds for the control rods to move the full height of the reactor.
The graphite displacers push forward, pushing water out of the reactor ahead of them. This water, which aborbs neutrons, is replaced by graphite, which moderates neutrons. Reactivity is added to the bottom of reactor, even as it is being removed from the top.
If multiple control rods are moving together, enough reactivity could be added to momentarily cause an overall increase in power.
At this moment, two hundred control rods are moving in unison, pushing reactivity down into the bottom of the core. More and more water is being converted to steam, creating voids which further increase reactivty.
So long as the reactor stays within the delayed-critical regime, this is not a problem. It will take seconds for the control rods to push through this regime - not long enough for the power to even start to run away with itself. This is what the designers expect will happen. This is what has always happened.
This is not what happens.
For the first second, power drops as it should. The boron shaft of the control-rod proper enteres the top of the core. The reaction at the top of the core is quenched. The loss of power from the top of the reactor, counterbalances the increase from the bottom.
This changes in a moment.
Power begins to rise - it rises far faster than it should. Steam forms. Reactivity increases. Heat increases. More steam forms. The control rods keep moving. The control room is filled a sound not unlike the moan of a massive engine coasting downhill, resonating through the entire structure of the building. Whatever is happening in the reactor hall is not seen by human eyes. Anyone in a position to see the lid of the reactor, would not have had time to leave the room.
The rate of increase in power triggers an alarm on Toptunov's panel. Three seconds after AZ-5 has been pushed, the power level has doubled to 500MW
The time is 1:23:43.
The control rods have travelled less than two meters. The graphite displacer tips are situated in the bottom of the core. There is no more water in the bottom of the control rods channels.
In a small section of the core - either through a unique combination of fresher fuel, an imbalance in the control rods, or slightly less poisoning, or a large steam void - the reactivity added by the control rod tips passes that one dollar mark for one brief instant. It becomes Prompt Critical. Instead of taking seconds or minutes to increase, the reaction is now only limited by the few microseconds it takes for each neutron to find the next atom.
In one moment, the reactor power is 500 Megawatts. The next, it exceeds 22000MW - eight times it's normal operating limit. It is drawn by the datalogger as a vertical line on the graph, running straight off the top. Power continues to accelerate. For one brief instant, Chernobyl Reactor 4 has become a nuclear bomb.
What happens next can only be guessed at.
Fuel rods shatter to dust and burst from their casings, instantly vapourising the water around them. The cooling pumps are momentarily thrown into reverse as this bubble of steam rapidly expands. Water levels in the steam drums surge.
The zircalloy structure of the reactor itself is boiled by the intense release of energy. Fuel channels burst apart flooding the core chamber with high pressure steam, instantly overwhelming the pressure relief system. In less that a second the reactor chamber overpressurises, blasting the reactor lid clean off the top of the reactor, tearing every single control rod and fuel rod channel free of the reactor stack, terminating the reaction.
The explosion rattles the men in the control room. But they have no idea what's really happened - there is no 'Core exploded' indicator light. Stolyarchuk sees this on his control panel as a water hammer. Toptunov sees alarms for steam pressure dumping into the reactor chamber. Akimov sees the control rods jam in place - indicator dials unmoving. He tries to disconnect the power to the clutches to let them drop under gravity in the core. Trugub sees every single pressure relief valve open at once - something that should theoretically be impossible.
The lid drops back down onto its side, a tangle of control and fuel rods trailing behind it like some hideous medusa.
For a two more seconds, the coolant pumps continue to run normally, picking up speed. There is still water enough in the remains of the cooling circuit to keep them supplied, even if they are now pumping water into an open reactor pit.
All of this water pours across superheated steel and graphite. It doesn't even boil - the sheer heat of the graphite cracks it apart, splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen, filling the open reactor core. A spark from any one of a hundred broken cables lights this off in one massive explosion - more powerful than the first.
The second explosion blows the building clean open, collapsing the souther pump room. The core of the reactor is ejected skywards in a fountain of radioactive debris. Fragments of burning graphite light spot fires across the remaining roof of the building. Radioactive fuel rods fall onto the turbine hall below. Finally, the remnants of the graphite in the reactor ignite, burning like the devils own barbeque, spewing hot radiation high into the atmosphere.
The radiation from the reactor core is so powerful, it is splitting the molecules of the atmosphere apart, ionising the atmosphere. A bright laser-beam of blue light reaches like a searchlight to the heavens, marking the birth of a new and terrible Godzilla.
That is how an RBMK reactor explodes.
More simply, the accident was inevitable.
"The Operating Procedures permitted operating conditions similar to those prevailing at Chernobyl Unit 4 on 26 April 1986 and they might have occurred without any intervention on the part of the personnel. We only need to assume a perfectly possible situation in which triggering of EPS-3 occurswhen the reactor is operating initially at rated power with an ORM of26 manual control rods. Under these conditions, approximately one hour after triggering of EPS-3 the ORM could have fallen to less than 15 manual control rods at a reactor power of 200-300 MW(th), and any further action, whether automatic or remote, to shut down the reactor could have led to a similar repetition of the events of 26 April 1986." - INSAG 7 The Chernobyl Accident: Updating of INSAG-1
No violation of procedures was required. The conditions that caused the explosion had the potential to occur automatically in the normal operation of the reactor.
The Crucial First Moments After the Explosion
At a guard post opposite reactor four, Yekaterina Ivanenko of the Pripyat city police department witnesses the explosion. She remains at her post for the entire night, until overcome by radiation. She will die within a month.
Petr Tolsiakatov is fishing in the reactor cooling ponds. The warm water always atttracts the biggest fish. He stays all night to watch the fire. Fortunately, the wind is blowing away from him.
Klavdia Luzganova of the Pripyat City police stands guard over the half-finished spent fuel building. She remains at her post all night, less than 200 metres from the burning reactor. She will succumb to radiation sickness on the final day of July.
A mobile laboratory is parked inside the turbine hall. The two men inside are employees of the turbine manufacturer, monitoring the turbine for unwanted vibrations. Graphite and burning nuclear fuel rain down upon them. Georgi Popov, and Volodomyr Savenkov will be fatally irradiated as they try to understand what has happened, and do their best to help.
At the moment of the explosion, Valery Khodemchuk is in the pump room. He will never leave. In room 604, Vladimir Shashenok is monitoring the reactor and steam turbine, conducting tests on the turbine itself. A pressure wave from the reactor ruptures every guage and manometer, flooding the monitoring room with superheated steam and shards of broken glass. He will not regain consciousness.
In a small control room close to the reactor hall Antaloy Kurguz is attending to his duties, and those of his colleague Oleg Genrikh - who is napping in a windowless room nearby. There are three open doors between him and Reactor 4. Before he can close the door, superheated steam floods the room, severely burning him. His actions save his colleague Oleg from the same fate. Both men make their way out of the ruins. Anatoly Kurguz will succumb to his injuries within three weeks.
Inside the de-arator corridor outside the control room, Reactor section foreman Valeri Perevozchenko witnesses debris rain down from the destruction of Reactor 4. He runs to the control room.
The explosion is dutifuly logged as two sharp shocks in the reactor 4 logbook by Dyatlov.
In the control room of Reactor 4, there is no 'Core Exploded' light. There is no information at all. There is only chaos, and a thousand indicator lights flashing in unison, reporting failures of systems that are no longer present. Indicators for the control rods show they've stopped less than a third of the way into the reactor. The indicators have frozen at the moment of explosion. There is no way for the men in control room four to know that the control rods have been torn free of the remnants of the reactor. Naturally, the reactor has to be intact. It's out of control. It has to be recovered to prevent a catastrophe.
This is what the men in room start doing.
The first order from Dyatlov is to start the emergency diesels - to get power to the control room and to the main circulating pumps. He runs to the auxiliary control room to try lower the rods by disconnecting the power to the drive motors to allow them to drop manually - this fails. He then runs to the Unit 03 control room to instruct them to shut down the reactor. Finally, he orders two trainee operators - Aleksandr Kudryavtsev and Viktor Proskuryakov - to the reactor hall to crank the control rods down manually.
Only moments after they leave does he realise the futility of this. If the rods have jammed, they won't be able to move them. Dyatlov tries to call the trainees back - but they have vanished into the clouds steam and dust filling the corridor outside.
The first communication from outside the room is a call from the Turbine Hall. The building's on fire. Chernobyl's own military fire brigade start moving immediately. The call goes from them, to Pripyat, and then to surrounding areas. It is not clear quite how bad the fire is - only that there's been some form of explosion between the third and fourth blocks.
Nobody understands that it's the reactor itself that has exploded. Nobody thinks they're being asked to put out an open reactor fire. It takes moments for the station's own firefighters to arrive. Some have no idea what they're facing. Others, recognising that they are working amongst things that look suspiciously like fuel channels, don't expect to survive the night. The air around them tastes of metal, the taste of radiation itself.
They get about doing what they do best - putting the fire out. Within two hours, nearly two hundred firefighters from the surrounding area will be tackling the fire.
In the control room, more reports of damage come in from around the building.
Radiation levels in the control room are high - but manageable. The control room dosimeter reads in Microroentgen per second - one measurement comes it at 800 - another in a different part of the room maxes it out at a 1000. That's high - but in a situation this dangerous it can be worked in. 500 Roentgen over 5 hours will kill 50% of those exposed to it. The control room is nowhere close to that. The values in the control room were believed to be correct. Radiation levels elsewhere in the plant are measured at the same upper limit of 1000uR/s - where in reality they could be far, far higher. Someone, somewhere decides to record this as 3.6R/hr - whether to keep results on equivelant scales, or to hide how oddly specific the 1000uR/s figure is, is not known.
A higher ranged meter is locked away in a safe where the ordinary workers can't get at it.
Elsewhere in Unit 04, Aleksandr Yuvchenko is in his office at the moment of the explosion. He crawls from the rubble, clawing his way forward through milky-white clouds of steam. He meets Yuri Tregub coming from the control room, and thye set about making their way to the pump room. On their way they meet Viktor Degtyarenko who has been half scalded by steam - but still insists he's OK. Viktor asks them to search for Valery Khodemchuk in the pump room.
Aleksandr enters the pump room to find nothing but rubble and stars. Above him, he can see the blue laser glow from the reactor. It is immediately obvious that something dreadful has happened - far more than a water hammer or hydraulic blast. He is saved from certain death by Yuri Tregub.
They both return to the building, where they meet Valery Perevoschenko, Aleksandr Kudryavtsev and Viktor Proskuryakov - in their way to the reactor hall. Aleksandr informs them that there is no reactor anymore - nevertheless, they insist. They have a job to do, and things may look different from above the reactor. Yuvchenko goes with the three to the reactor hall. One entrance is blocked, and the lift that his normally used has collapsed. One door remains. A strong man - he agrees to hold the damaged door open while Perevoschenko, Kudryatsev and Proskuryakov crawl through the doorway. Three men dissapearr into dense clouds of smoke and dust.
Little do they know, they are breathing pulverised graphite and reactor fuel.
Somewhere beyond, lurking in the rubble, is the maw of hell itself. Graphite in the core burns a hot red beneath the tangled gorgon's hair of broken control rods and fuel channels torn free from the reactor. The spent fuel pools have been filled with graphite thrown from the reactor which is glowing like a demonic barbecue. Radiation levels are unimaginable. The very air itself is being chemically torn apart by force of radiative energy.
The three men return to Aleksandr Yuvchenko after a few moments.
Yuvchenko tries to clamber through the door, to see what they saw with his own eyes.
Perovoschenko insists. There is nothing there to see.
Aleksandr Yuvchenko, who held the door, would receive radiation burns to his body from the dust on the door itself. He will spend a year in hospital. and will survive until 2008. Viktor Degtyarenko, Valery Perevoschenko, Aleksandr Kudryatsev and Viktor Proskuryakov will die within a month. Proskurakov's hand, where he shone his torch around a corner into the reactor hall proper, is severely burned by radiation.
In the turbine hall, reactor debris - broken fuel channels and pieces of hot nuclear fuel, have fallen onto the machinery. A single piece of hot reactor fuel has lodged on a transformer beside beside turbine 7. It is radiating at at least Ten Thousand Roentgen an hour - a lethal dose to a human being in less than a minute. Still, engineers work to keep the fires from causing an even bigger disaster. The turbines are lubricated by tons of flammable oil. The generators are cooled by hydrogen gas. The release of either of these could make a terrible situation far worse. A fire spreading inside the turbine hall could threaten the other three reactors and their safety systems.
The turbine workers slog through water contaminated by reactor debris to shut down the turbines. They are lethally irradiated. Viktor Lopatyuk, Vyacheslav Brazhnik, Anatoly Baranov, Aleksandr Lelechenko, Oleksandr Novyk and Kostyantyn H. Perchuk will die within a month.
Outside, Firefighters clamber over chunks of reactor fuel and graphite so hot and radioactive they are glowing. They climb the rubble pile that is the pump room, making their way to the roof of the building above the reactor, tackling the burning fragments of the core itself.
Major Leonid Telyatnikov - head of Chernobyl's own firefighting unit - will survive until 2004 despite climbing to the roof of the building multiple times. He is listed as an official casualty of the disaster nevertheless. Most of those who went onto the roof will die within two weeks. These are Vasily Ignatenko, Viktor Kibenok, Vladimir Pravik, Vladimir Tishura, Nikolai Titenok and Nikolai Vashchuk.
The majority of firefighters live to tell their story. Including one truck driver who managed to pick up a chunk of irradiated graphite wondering what the fuck it was.
By 5am, the fires are under control.
Only the reactor itself is still burning.
Neverhtless. operators continue to try to save it. Valery Perevoschenko, Aleksandr Kudryatsev and Viktor Proskuryakov return to the control room to report the reactor as being destroyed. Despite the radiation giving them an insidious nuclear tan, and despite them already being in the opening stages of radiation poisoning, they are not believed. Akimov insists the reactor can be saved - they have to be wrong.
Nuclear reactors do not explode.
Of course they have to be wrong. The alternative is that an open nuclear reactor is spewing hot fission products into the upper atmosphere. The alternative is the radiological sterilisation of the Soviet Union - of a future Europe where life is short and painful and large swathes of the world are left utterly uninhabitable. The consequences are unimaginable - so unimaginable as to be impossible.
Nuclear reactors do not explode.
Akimov orders an engineer to manually open the emergency cooling system valves which had been closed prior to the test - this will take hours. He then leads Leonid Toptunov to the ruined feedwater rooms near to the reactor core. They wade through water contaminated with dust from fuel and shattered graphite, spending hours beneath the core manually opening valves to try and flood water into the reactor they still believe to be intact. This is, in fact, futile. Any water which makes it to the reactor is instantly vapourised, only serving to fuel the fire. The rest, floods the galleries beneath the reactor.
Ivan Orlov, Leonid Toptunov and Aleksandr Akimov will die within three weeks. Akimov is so irradiated, the skin on his legs detaches like a loose sock while he is in hospital. To his final day, he insists he has made no mistakes.
Dyatlov tours the station perimeter with Tregub, surveying the ruins. It's clear that something catastrophic has happened - far more catastrophic that a burst steam line or an explosion in the de-aerators. Tregub compares what they are witnessing to Hiroshima. Dyatlov admits that not even is his nightmares could he have imagined something like this. The facade that the reactor is intact begins to crack, but it is not yet broken.
Station Director Bryukhanov is woken by the one phone call no director wants to receive. His personal driver brings him to the burning station, along with Chief-Engineer Fomin. Already, he knows he's going to prison, but he sets about trying to save the situation anyway. Deep below ground in the cocooning station civil defense bunker. they do not understand that the reactor has been destroyed, Dyatlov and Tregub report to the bunker, detailing their findings.
Nuclear reactors do not explode. Something else must've happened. Bryukhanov and Fomin need confirmation.
Dyatlov is overcome by radiation before he can provide it. He will survive until 1995. He lives long enough to write a book explaining his understanding of events.
Anatoly Sitnikov Deputy Chief Operational Engineer from the now arriving dasyshift - and friend of Dyatlov - is ordered to take the measurements in his place.
The station's high-range meter fries itself the moment it's turned on. The fire-brigade has a lower-range meter that can still read up to 200R/hr. (In three hours, a lethal dose). Sitnikov and his team use these to measure radiation around the plant. Many of their measurement are somewhere beyond the top of the scale, but it's not5 clear how far. By 10am, there is only one place left for Sitnikov to measure - the roof of Reactor 4.
He climbs through the building and steps out beneath the ventilation shaft. Around him are fragments of fuel and graphite still steaming from the heat of their own radiation. The needle on his meter pegs all the way to the right as he steps towards the ledge. Something awful has happened, but this is his job. Below him should be the roof of Reactor 4.
Instead, he peers down into the still burning core itself. In daylight, the full horror is visible.
The lid is off. The entire graphite stack is burning. A Global nuclear catastrophe is happening in the Soviet Union. He reports this to his superiors.
Anatoly Sitnikov receives 1500 rads - certain death two times over. He will die on the 30th of May. For the entire time that he can speak, he refuses to blame anyone for what happened.
The reactor, unconcerned by, or uninformed of, the requirement to conform to Bryukhanov's report, continues to burn.
The Initial Post-Disaster Measures
April 26th, 1986 is a beautiful spring morning.
The State Apparatus of the Soviet Union begins to grind into work. It is made of Bureaucrats and Punch-clock officers. It is made of apparatchiks whose sole concern is the desperate maintenance of their own petty fiefdoms and priviliges in the apparattus. It is made of the true believers doing everything they can to make this new society work.
Sometimes these are the one person.
Valery Legasov is a career Communist party member. He has denounced colleagues to the KGB. He is committed to making the Communist system work. He has already begun to push for a tightning of safety regulations and a change in attitudes towards risk. He is deputy directors of the Kurchatov institute - specialising in inorganic chemistry and the ionisation of noble gasses. He knows very little about nuclear reactors - they are a different side of the Institute. Still, in a country where all the animals are equal, as a respected scientist in a high-ranking position, he is definitely more equal than most. He has a luxury house, a housekeeper and a personal driver - all provided for by the State.
On the morning of April 26th, his Saturday has begun as it always did. Legasov wonders whether he should go to the university to take care of some work, spend some time with his wife and friends relaxing, or attend a Party meeting.
Legasov finds the party meeting exactly as fulfilling and exciting as expected. All production targets are being met. All farming targets are being met. All ministers and ministries are performing at peak efficiency. At this level of the Soviet Bureaucracy, nothing ever goes wrong. Except for one little thing that'd happened overnight.
The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant has transmitted a secret code - 1-2-3-4.
There's been an incident at the plant - the incident involves explosives, and there is a radiological hazard.
Nobody is too concerned. Nothing goes wrong. Nothing can go wrong. This high up in the party, Soviet designs are flawless. The only flaws are with the people who implement them.
Legasov is appointed to a Commission to investigate what's happened, along with another government functionary - Boris Scherbina. Scherbina is formerly the Minister for Construction, for the Oil and Gas Industry. He is now Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers.
In Pripyat, there is confusion and indecision amongst the authorities. Beneath the springtime sunshine, people of the city for the most part remain in the dark. Many citizens of Pripyat go about their days as if nothing has happened. A mayday funfair has just been completed, with a brand-new ferris wheel and dodgem cars. They will never be used. Schoolchildren prepare for the upcoming May Day parades.
Soldiers in respirators walk alongside children in t-shirts. Weddings are held with armoured cars going past. The air around them seethes with radiation - thousands of times more powerful than normal background levels. Film footage taken on the day is blistered by flashes from hot particles. Fragments of the reactor and its fuel rain down from above. Shards of uranium and pulverised graphite sand settle into the soil, into the cracks in the road, into people's hair.
Few realise the danger the plant now represents. Only those who are relatives of the plantworkers, or the firefighters, know better - and only they know that their loved ones haven't come home. At Pripyat hospital, the firefighters are plantworkers are treated for their symptoms. Their contaminated clothes - intensely radioactive with fallout from the core, are dumped in the basement. They remain there to this day, still radioactive enough to give a dangerous dose of radiation.
Lyudmila Ignatenko - wife of Vasily Ignatenko, attends the hospital to try and find her husband. By the time she finds him, he is already on a helicopter, being rushed to a secret hospital in Moscow.
The city council, still trying to grasp the depths of the hazard and what exactly has happened, does what comes naturally to the Soviet authorities. They seal off the city and cut all outside phone lines. The 'radio', piped in by cable, pipes through tepid music rather than the usual propaganda leading to murmured speculation that an important party official has just died and the State was working out how to break the news to the People.
Evacuations are discussed - but to where. It's not exactly clear what's happened and how bad the radiation is. In the city, it's still below the upper limits. And everyone will notice a city the size of Pripyat being evacuated. People will wonder why the city downwind of the local nuclear plant was suddenly evacuated....
Above all else, the Soviet authorities fear panic. Panic threatens the appearance of the apparattus to be in control. And this threatens the Apparratus itself. Panic must be avoided, and so the city is not told.
Nevertheless, Ukrainian authorities ready busses at Kiev on their own initiative.
Legasov, Scherbina and the Commission make the long journey to Kiev in Ukraine, then on to Pripyat. By the time they arrive, it's late evening and the sun has already begun to set. The sky is burning orange - but above the reactor it has turned a sickly purple.
Legasov muses that the big distinguisher between a nuclear power plant and a regular one is that nothing should be coming out of a nuclear power plant.
The first meeting with the city council does not go well. Requests to evacuate are denied. Boris Scherbina insists that the council is overreacting.
The commission overflies the reactor the next morning. It is immediately clear that, what has happened, involved more than a hydrogen tank explosion. Not only is the entire roof blown off - but it's possible to look straight down into the burning reactor core. Only distance saves the men in the helicopter from the fate of the power plant workers of the night before. Steaming fragments of the reactor are visible. Radiation levels are measured at hideous levels.
Igor Kostygin - a photographer in the helicopter - takes photographs as they overfly the core. The radiation is so intense it destroys the film. Only one image is useable.
36 hours after the explosion, the order to evacuate Pripyat is given. The citizens of Pripyat are told they will be gone for no more than three days. Everything they own - their cars, their homes, their furniture, their pets, even their children's toys - are left behind for time to claim.
By Monday - Pripyat is empty.
What happened afterwards
Legasov and the commission face a problem unlike any in the history of mankind. Ho human being has ever been faced with an open, burning nuclear reactor. They set to work with solving it.
They don't even know what exactly is happening, or what has happened to the core. There's no way of knowing. Is enough of the reactor core left intact to cause a renewed criticality?
Could the reactor restart itself, all on its own, and begin spewing fresh, hot fission products high into the atmosphere. An active, uncontrolled, open, burning nuclear reactor is an unfathomable nightmare. It is the incarnation of a slow, lingering death for thousands, and a short, sick, life for millions more.
A single armoured personell carrier drives up to to the base of the reactor building. The vehicle's armour provides just enough protection to the occupants that they can make their measurements.
-Attempts to mitigate.
- Valery Legasov. V.P. Volkov
- The Liquidation
- Insag-1. Scapegoating the operators. Insag-7. A 'truer' picture
- Artistic License Nuclear Physics: Only apparent after the fact, though.
- Failsafe Failure: Not only did the system intended to stop the reactor fail to achieve it's intended function, it in-fact did the exact opposite, triggering the runaway which destroyed the reactor in the first place.
- The book Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (Known in UK as Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future), by Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich, is probably one of the most famous accounts of the event and its aftermath.
- The videogame S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl
- HBO 2019 series Chernobyl,which also takes a lot from Voices from Chernobyl
- Chernobyl Curs
- In one of the Tomb Raider tie-in comics, "A Sinister Truth", Lara had to go Chernobyl to find Alex's little sister, Weiss, who was hiding there for protection from Trinity.