Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Today in History: April 26, 1986 the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster

Today in Belarus, it is a Day of Remembrance for the victims of the Chernobyl disaster. April 26, 1986, a catastrophic nuclear accident occurs at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the town of Pripyat, Ukraine, under the direct jurisdictional control of the USSR. It was the worst nuclear power disaster in history in turns of cost and causalities. It is 1 of 2 classified as a level 7, the maximum, on the International Nuclear Event Scale. The accident itself caused the deaths of 31 people with the long-term effects still being felt and investigated.

The Chernobyl disaster was a sudden and unexpected power surge in the number four reactor. When the emergency shutdown was attempted, an exponentially larger power spike occurred causing the reactor vessal to rupture with a series of steam explosions. The graphite moderator of the reactor was exposed to air which caused an ignition. The resulting fire sent a plume of highly radioactive fallout into the atmosphere. The plume would spread and cover an extensive area including the nearby town of Pripyat. The city was not immediately evacuated. Many residents went about their day, oblivious to the events at the power plant. Within a few hours, dozens of people fell ill. Reports of severe headaches, metallic tastes in their mouths and uncontrollable fits of coughing and vomiting.

In the aftermath of the accident, 31 deaths were reported as the reactor staff and emergency workers. As of 2008, deaths from the radiation were noted as 64. Eventual deaths could reach 4,000 from exposure to high levels of radiation among emergency workers, evacuees and residents in the surrounding areas. Fifty would die from acute radiation syndrome. Nine children from thyroid cancer and 3,940 will died from radiation-induced cancers and leukemia. The actual number may be far worst as illnesses and connections to the disaster are still being investigated. In the investigation that followed, two official causes for the accident were determined. First, operator error due to the lack of knowledge of the nuclear reactor physics and engineering. Second, flaws in the operating instructions and design deficiencies.

Chernobyl today is a ghost town. The Dead Zone, as it is called by locals, is a no-man’s land. A “haunted beauty” of “deformed nature” as it was called in one article. Everything is irradiated. The irradiated soil has a half-life of 240,000 years. However, there are people working and living in the area. There are 4,000 engineers, technicians, specialists and laborers who work to make sure that the Number 4 Reactor is under control and decommissioning the other reactors. Other people are slowing moving back into the areas, despite risks of radiation-induced illnesses. There are doctors and nurses who look after the workers. In 2003, the area of Narodychi, Ukraine was deemed habitable again despite that the soil will be radioactive for another 26,000 years.

Today is the 30th anniversary of the disaster and people are slowing returning to the area despite the risks. The citizens of Belarus commemorate the day in remembrance of the victims. However, as citizens of the world with nuclear power being used by all, we need to remember Chernobyl as well. We need to be aware of the risks of nuclear power and take every precaution we can. The effects of this terrible disaster are still being felt and observed today.