Chernobyl, Ghost of the Past

Chernobyl Nuclear PlantThe Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station, originally known as the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station, was built in 1977 in the Ukrainian SSR (Soviet Socialist Republic) near the border between Ukraine and Belarus. It consisted of four nuclear reactors, with two more planned but never completing construction. Although Reactor #4 had been operating without incident for two years, it was found that the emergency procedures for monitoring the reactor were faulty and was being tested. At 12:54 A.M. on April 26th, 1986 alarms sounded indicating a bubble of steam was building up in Reactor #4; unfortunately, these safety alarms were turned off and not much later at 1 A.M., Reactor #4 exploded and subsequently suffered a nuclear meltdown.

To put into perspective the amount of radiation produced by the accident, Reactor #4 released well over two-hundred times as much radiation as the two atom bombs (Little Boy and Fat Man) dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. The first firefighters arrived roughly a half hour later, and were surprisingly unaware that they were in danger of the radiation being produced, although others state that they knew about the radiation beforehand and that regulations dictated they should not have been near the plant, but that they did so anyway on moral grounds. Eventually, up to 800,000 firefighters would be brought in from across the USSR, and many would later die due to overexposure to radiation combating the fires at Reactor #4.

On the fourth day after the explosion it was discovered there was a possibility that the fuel rods may melt through concrete and end up in a large module of water, which would result in a geothermal explosion leveling 124 miles, or 200 kilometers which would be ten times more powerful than an atomic weapon. In an attempt to cool down the reactor, helicopters were used to dump sand and water onto the reactor, although one helicopter pilot suffered mid-flight from the radiation causing his Mi-8’s rotor blades to strike a nearby crane before crashing to the ground. The water module was not remotely controlled, forcing two volunteers to be found to manually release the water; they did not return from their endeavor, but successfully gave their lives preventing a geothermal explosion.

After the incident, both the cities of Pripyat and Chernobyl were evacuated by the government, leaving over 63,000 square miles affected by radiation despite up to 4.5 million people still living in the affected areas. Roughly 7 million people, mostly from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia were affected by the disaster, and roughly 148,000 people are listed as invalids in the aforementioned countries. It was even recorded that sheep in England were required to be killed after absorbing radiation emitted from the incident. Chernobyl TodayToday the site of the accident is surrounded by the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, also known as the Zone of Alienation and the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation. It is a thirty kilometer area devised originally by the USSR, now maintained by the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, and is supposedly home to almost 200 samosely, or “self-settlers,” although they live there illegally, as well as poachers who illegally hunt game and wildlife within the zone. It is possible to take official tours inside the Zone however, as scientists and thrill-seekers are allowed to enter on tours with proper safety measures and tour guides. Surprisingly, scientists recently discovered radiotropic fungus living inside of Reactor #4 that has evolved to consume gamma radiation.

Exclusion ZoneThere are still many effects of the Chernobyl disaster visible today, from deformed children to the abandoned city of Pripyat to the “Red Forest,” a forest filled with reddish-colored trees that died from radiation exposure, now considered to be one of the most radioactive places in the world. To contain the Reactor #4 facility, a new structure is planned called the New Safe Confinement, which is intended to stop the spread of radiation into the environment. The area is now controlled by the State Agency of Ukraine on the Exclusion Zone Management, or SAEZ, which monitors and maintains all activities related to the Zone, such as resettlement, research, preservation, etc. Attention is still being drawn to the subject from films such as “Chernobyl Diaries,” to the videogame Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare which depicted a surprisingly faithful recreation of Pripyat. Although the worst effects of the disaster are fading away, the event should still be remembered as the possibilities of what may happen if the power of nuclear energy and radiation are not properly respected and controlled.

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