Trope Workshop:Chernobyl Disaster
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"Tell me, how does an RBMK reactor explode?"
I am prepared to explain that right now. But first, a little background on physics.
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.
Anyway, to figure out why an RBMK reactor can explode, first we have to understand how a nuclear fission reactor works in the first place. 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, collide with it and break it apart too, letting more neutrons find more Uranium atoms in a chain reaction. And 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. Because 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 more energy to break it apart than it gives up when it breaks. On the other hand, U235 is much happier to break apart - unfortunately, it's about as rare as common sense. So, out of a large block of Uranium, only a small amount can actually split. Only the U-235 is actually fissile.
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 in fact to actually find their way to the next atom and split it. For a fast neutron, the probability that it will cause another fission is really low. Either you need a lot more U-235 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 called 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 Isreal 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 first Hanford Reactors, built in the United States for the Manhattan project used Graphite - pencil 'lead' - as a moderator. 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. 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, 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.
So, the Soviet Union looked at this and though; 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 Powerfule 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 goof 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 availably 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 - an action creates a stronger action in the same direction - 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 explosions.
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 - so 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 somehow is removed, the moderator is still present in the form of the graphite to keep the reactor 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.
But - 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, and more and more fuel was used up. the negative reactivity from the fuel heating up, no longer counterbalanced the positive reactivity from the steam boiling.
This balance changed with old fuel. 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 reactors 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 sort of 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.
But, luckily, 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 stabilise.
But, if the reactor is pushed to the point that it is capable of achieving criticality on the Prompt 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 manages to stay together in a critical assembly against the energies that are being very rapidly liberated. A reactor which has going 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.
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, 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 appearr about 6 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 appearr 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 is stalled and effectively impossible to start.
This is important. Because after a few hours more, 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.
the Chernobyl reactor was happy around about 30 Rods of reactivity. At this point, fresh fuel was being added frequenctly 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 wasn't thought to be a safety limit - it was simply economic. The reactor was far more likely to stall at low reactivity margins, resulting in downtime and lost energy production - or surprise blackouts.
But, below 30 rods of reactivity, another insidious effect began to occur.
The Control rods of an RBMK reactor are manufactured from boron. Boron absorbes 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 absorbtion 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 postivie 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 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 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.
The tests however, still had to be completed.
Over the next three years the test is attempted a further two times - failing each time. 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 can each move 12 Megalitres of water per hour. And there are 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. Everything attached to the lid - the fuel channels, the control rods, would then be pulled out of position, potentially to the point where they would jam in place, leaving the reactor endlessly accelerating itself while all the remaining water boiled off.
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 was the teacher who would not let you have your pudding, without eating your meat. But at the same time, Dyatlov was fair - if you ate your meat you got your pudding. It didn't matter - the appearrance of him in the room always ratcheted the tension up. Everyone was afraid of making a mistake under his watch because he would be merciless. Nothing would be overlooked.
Also 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 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 700.
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 hard 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.
According to some, Akimov objects to Dyatlov. There is a discussion between the pair. Dyatlov overrules him. What is certain, is that Akimov restarts the reactor.
But the reactor doesn't want to start.
The Xenon poisoning is so strong, the reactor is effectively completely poisoned out.
Akimov and Toptunov withdraw control rods. They withdraw almost all the control rods they can but still the reactor does not want to start. They disconnect some of the emergency rods from the computer control, and withdraw them from the core. Of the two hundred and eleve 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.
It's barely enough 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 high - risking liquid water being ingested into the steam turbine. This would destroy the turbine. An automatic emergency shutdown is triggered, threatening to terminate the chain reaction and finish the test again.
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.
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. Power level remains constant throughout the test.
For forty seconds, everything proceeds as normal. Everything looks normal.
The test is apparently succesful. The stalling generator is able to maintain the pumps for long enough for the generators to start.
There is no moment of forboding. There is no sense of impending doom.
With the test almost completed, Akimov calmly chooses to shut down the reactor - instructing Toptunov to smother it. 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. The button immediately forces all control rods to be inserted into the reactor at once.
This should terminate the reaction.
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 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, a 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.
Power begins to rise - it rises far faster than it should. Steam forms. Reactivity increases. Heat increases. More steam forms. In a small section of the core - either through a unique combination of fresher fuel, 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 time it takes for each neutron to find the next atom. Fuel elements shatter.
In one moment, the reactor power is in the hundreds of megawatss. 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. For one brief instant, Chernobyl Reactor 4 has become a nuclear bomb.
Water in the reactor surrounding this point is flash boiled. The steel structure of the reactor itself is melted and boiled by the intense release of energy. Above this pocket of rapidly expanding steam is a slug of liquid water. As far as the rest of the reactor is concerned, nothing unusual is happening - it is currently shutting down.
This changes in an instant. This bubble of steam rapidly expands, ramming the remaining water in the reactor out of its way. The fuel rod channelsburst open, flooding the core chamber with high pressure steam. In moments, 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. The lid drops back down onto its side, a tangle of control and fuel rods trailing behind it like some hideous medusa. The bottom plate of the reactor blasts downwards to the foundations, bursting every single pipe beneath. Any remaining water in the core immediately flash-boils to steam.
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. Trugub sees every single pressure relief valve at once open - something that should theoretically be impossible. The datalogger records the moment as a surge in water level in the steam drums, and as a momentary push back against the force of the main circulating pumps.
For a few seconds, these 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. 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 one of the pump rooms, killing technician Valery Khodemchuk instantly. The core of the reactor is ejected to the sky, fragments of burning graphite lighting spot fires across the remaining roof of the building. Radioactive fuel rods fall onto the turbine hall below. 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 ionising the air itself splitting the molecules of the atmosphere apart. 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.
Or more simply, the accident was inevitable.
"The Operating Procedures permitted operating conditions similar tothose prevailing at Chernobyl Unit 4 on 26 April 1986 and they might haveoccurred without any intervention on the part of the personnel. We only needto 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 aftertriggering of EPS-3 the ORM could have fallen to less than 15 manual controlrods at a reactor power of 200-300 MW(th), and any further action, whetherautomatic or remote, to shut down the reactor could have led to a similar repe-tition of the events of 26 April 1986." - <--Cite Insag-77 when I fiogure out how to here--https://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/publications/PDF/Pub913e_web.pdf>
No violation of proceedures was required. The conditions that caused the explosion had the potential to occurr automatically in the normal operation of the reactor. (EPS-3 is a different automatic protection mode which was a fast power reduction rather than a total stop.)
The explosion is logged as two sharp shocks in the reactor 4 logbook.
In the control room of Reactor 4, there is no 'Core Exploded' light. There is no information at all. Power has been lost. 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.
The first communication from outside the room is a call from the Turbine Hall. The building's on fire. Naturally, the Fire Brigade are called. Nobody thinks they're being asked to put out an open reactor fire. 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 to hide how curiously specific the figure is. 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 time of the explosion. The entire room collapses around him, dust and steam turning the air a mily white. He meets Yuri Tregub from the control room, and sets about making his way to the pump room. On their way they meet Viktor Degtyarenko who has been scalded by steam. Viktor askes 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.
They both return to the building, where they meet Valery Perevoschenko, Aleksandr Kudryavtsev and Viktor Proskuryakov. Yuvchenko goes with the three to the reactor hall. A strong man - he agrees to hold the damaged door open while Perevoschenko, Kudryatsev and Proskuryakov enter the reactor hall.
They emerge high in the building - far above where the top of the reactor is supposed to be. There should be a crane beside them, but it has collapsed. Above them should be a roof - but there are only stars.
Below them 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 barbeque. The radiation levels are unimagineable. The very air around them is glowing blue, molecules of oxygen being torn apart by high energy gamma rays. The same thing is happening to the molecules that make up the DNA in their cells. The smoke they breath is aerosolised carbon and reactor fuel. In the few seconds it takes them to understand what they are looking at, all three receive a lethal dose of radiation.
Yuvchenko, who held the door, would receive radiation burns to his body from the dust on the door. He survives until 2008. Viktor Degtyarenko, Valery Perevoschenko, Aleksandr Kudryatsev and Viktor Proskuryakov will die within a month. Valery Khodemchuk is still entombed beneath the rubble of the pumproom, having never been found.
In the turbine hall, engineers work to keep the fires from causing an even bigger disaster. The turbine is lubricated by tons of flammable oil. The generator is 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. Reactor debris - broken fuel channels and pieces of hot nuclear fuel, have fallen onto the machinery. A single piece of reactor fuel has lodged on a transformer beside a turbine. It is radiating at at least Ten Thousand Roentgen an hour - a lethal dose in less than a minute.
The turbine workers slog through contaminated water and reactor debris to shut down the turbine. They are lethally irradiated. Viktor Lopatyuk, Vyacheslav Brazhnik, Anatoly Baranov, Aleksandr Lelechenko, Oleksandr Novyk and Kostyantyn H. Perchuk will die within a month.
Firefighters have arrived to tackle the blaze. Some have no idea what they're facing. Others 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. Firefighters clamber over chunks of reactor and graphite so radioactive they are glowing. They climb the rubblepile that is the pumproom, making their way to the roof of the building above the reactor.
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 radiation field is so powerful it turns Lieutenant Vladimir Pravik's brown eyes blue
The majority of the firefighters live to tell their story. Including a 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.
The reactor 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.
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 consiquences are unimagineable - so unimagineable as to be impossible.
He 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 feedwaters 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.
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. The facade that the reactor is intact begins to crack, but it is not yet broken.
Station Director Bryukhanov is in the station civil defense bunker with Chief-Engineer Fomin. They still do not understand that the reactor has been destroyed - despite Perevoschenko, Kudryavtsv and Prokuryakov looking directly into it. Dyatlov and Tregub repoer to the bunker, detailing their findings. Bryukhanov and Fomin need confirmation - the sickened engineers and firefighters apparently not being enought for them.
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 side of events.
Anatoly Sitnikov, Deputy Chief Operational Engineer from the now arriving dasyshift, is ordered to take the measurements
The station's high-range meter frys 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. 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. 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. The world is facing a catastrophe unlike any other in history. 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.
Sometime after mid-day Bryukhanov reports to Moscow 1000uR/sec as the maximum radiation dose in the vicinity of the plant. <--Cite primary source here https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/208405 -->
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 maintenence of their own petty fifedoms 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 - all the shit rolls downhill. 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 impliment them.
What happened afterwards:
-Attempts to mitigate.
- Valery Legasov. V.P. Volkov
- The Liquidation
- Insag-1. Scapegoating the operators. Insag-7. A 'truer' picture
Failsafe Failure Not only did the system intended to stop the reactor fail to achieve it's intented function, it in-fact did the exact opposite, triggerig the runaway which destroyed the reactor in the first place.