Chernobyl: A Horror Bestseller That Broke An Entire Nation

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Walking down the luminous avenues of modern science, you’re struck by the sight of an enormous castle. Prostrated somewhat stealthily in the distance, it’s smug in the knowledge of its majestic. Graceful buttresses and glowing archways of Uranium, plutonium and all sorts of radioactive elements mask the standard air of dilapidation characteristic of a haunted house. It shines its brilliant light all around , powering many a houses. Welcome to the haunted house of nuclear physics, whose earliest foundations were laid by sir Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics. You’re greeted by his smiling face as you jangle through the front gates. He points to a set of the whorled staircases where a set of familiar and unfamiliar faces stand guard. You follow the trail of hushed chatting and land at the threshold of massive halls simmering in luxury. Populated by bulbous pillars and grim-looking physicists, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. The walls are gilded grey silver of uranium 235 and plutonium 239 , baroque with huge paintings- ‘The plum pudding model of an atom’ , portrait of Enrico Fermi, with floors of radioluminescent radium. Is that Einstein waving at you from the balustrade? The Curies . Henry Becquerel. JJ Thomson. James Chadwick. Neil Bohr. Your gaze slides to the palatial windows and you see a drab looking backyard studded with gravestones. Just like every other haunted house, this house has its monsters: its shadowy corners swaddled in cobwebs and dust under the carpet and the ghosts in the attic and we’ll intake to face this one by one….. leaving some nooks and crannies for another day.

The tale of Chernobyl possesses all the right elements that scream of a horror bestseller- a set of defiant idiots who chose to forget what they were dealing with, harrowing acts of heroisms, omnipotent entities that can seemingly make you disappear and Deaths. A lot of deaths !

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On that night of 26 April 1986, the cowled form of the grim reaper armed with his celebratory scythe walked the streets of the new city of Pripyat and the old city of Chernobyl exhaling poison in the breaths of its inhabitants. A burning orange orb in the distance and swirling white tendrils of smoke and ashes set the stage for this unprecedented, bloody tale of horror.

Before returning to this night it’s pertinent to brush up on our history. Chernobyl has had a rich history from the mediaeval times. It had seen its fair share of foreign occupations and wars from the Ukrainians and the Bolsheviks, to the polish and the red army and of course the Nazis.

Chernobyl was a humble town, based on the banks of the river Pripyat, situated130 north of Kyiv, Ukraine. In the 1970s, the ministry of energetics, Ussr chose it for its sparse population and abundant and easy water supply, to be the site of the first Soviet nuclear reactor. Thus in 1977 the power plant came into the existence, located nearly 15 km from the old city of Chernobyl. The new city of Pripyat was born. 13 km from the power plant it was home to the personnel working away at the power plant and their families. It was a beating breathing city full of hope and promise , where couples took walks by the beach and teenagers rode on the famous Ferris wheel . Where parents sent their kids to school in the anticipation of a bright future and took a bus to the cinema. The Soviet Union had great plans for the power plant. It was to become the world’s biggest with 12 reactors out of which 4 were already functioning and 2 were still under construction. These were the Soviet-made RBMK 1000 nuclear reactors .RBMK reactors were of a pressure tube design that used an enriched U-235 uranium dioxide fuel to heat water, creating steam that drives the reactors’ turbines and generates electricity. In most nuclear reactors, water is also used as a coolant to moderate the reactivity of the nuclear core by removing the excess heat and steam. But the RBMK-1000 used graphite to moderate( to slow down neutrons in order to make them more efficient for the fission to take place) the core’s reactivity and to keep a continuous nuclear reaction occurring in the core.

The reactivity or power of the reactor is controlled by raising or lowering 211 control rods, which, when lowered into the moderator, absorb neutrons and reduce the fission rate.

One of the most important characteristics of the RBMK reactor is that it can possess a ‘positive void coefficient’, where an increase in steam bubbles (‘voids’) is accompanied by an increase in core reactivity. As steam production in the fuel channels increases, the neutrons that would have been absorbed by the denser water now produce increased fission in the fuel.

Now let us retrace our steps to the night before the single worst nuclear disaster in the history of mankind which threatened to choke the whole of Europe with arms of roiled radioactive clouds.

It was the afternoon of April the 25th. The air was saturated with the customary dose of summer cheer. It was almost a week to mayday when the city’s first amusement park was to be unveiled to the citizens of Pripyat. the operators at Chernobyl had begun reducing the power at the reactor number 4 in preparation for a safety test ( how ironical !), which they had timed to coincide with a routine maintenance shutdown. I suppose a little context is mandated.

Introducing to you Viktor Brukhanov, the director of the Chernobyl atomic energy station. He was a soft-spoken man, well liked by his employees with a burned out look about him. He had devoted his adult life to the communist dream of bringing electricity to the households of the USSR. By the spring of 1986, he was on the brink of personal triumph for the Chernobyl power plant was among the best performing nuclear plants in the soviet union and Pripyat, the city of his creation, attracted specialists from all over USSR. Now 50, Brukhanov was expecting news of promotion to Moscow along with state awards for the plant- despite being forced to cut corners and cook books to meet the quotas and having helped to cover up a serious accident in 1983, Brukhanov had also signed off on the launch of the stations most advanced nuclear reactor number 4, even though a key safety test had not been carried out. this test was was to determine whether, in the event of a power failure, the turbines would spin long enough to keep the coolant pumps running during the brief gap before the emergency generator kicked in and had been carried out the previous year too with unsuccessful results. New modifications were to be tested on this present afternoon. At about 2 pm , the reactors cooling system was disabled to keep it from interfering with the test. About this time, the twist in our plot lands in the form of a temporary delay in the test and the shutdown to accommodate the region’s energy needs. At around 11:10 pm, the operators finally get the permission to continue the test whilst an unaware night team marches to their doom, with Aleksandr Akimov as the unit shift chief, to take reigns of a task they were not instructed about. Among them is a 25 years old leonid toptunov, a graduate from the Moscow engineering and physics institute – the soviet equivalent of MIT. Well trained, independent and something of a ladies’ man , the moustachioed Totunov has been a senior reactor operator for just two months. A sleep derived Anatoly Dyatlov oversees the long overdue safety test. One of the most experienced nuclear engineers at the Chernobyl, dyatlov is far from liked by his staff with his dictorial airs and terse ways. Born to peasant parents, Dyatlov had run away from his home when he was only 14, finding work as a mere electrician. He had worked his way to the Moscow engineering and physics institute. After working in a military environment, installing reactors in the USSR’s military submarines, the grey-haired Siberian had assumed control of the chernobyl power plant at the age of 42. When the ill fated test began, toptunov, obliovious to the various design flaws of the reactor, skipped a step in assuming control of the reactor accidentally allowing the power output to skip to nothing. The problem with low power mode is xenon 135 which is also called neutron poison. Formed by the decay of iodine in the reactor, xe has a high probability of absorbing neutrons. Under normal operation, the production and reduction of xenon 135 is balanced. If you lower the power , there is more production of xenon 135 making the reactor very difficult to control because you cant increase the reactivity(because neutron poison !). the right course of action would be to shut down the reactor and let the xenon decay itself( half-life 10 hours). This is what Toptunov intended to do. But, Antony Dyatkov, the senior manager in the room threatened to fireToptunov, forcing him to increase the power toward the level required for the test. In violation of the plant’s safety guidelines, the operators proceeded to remove most of the control rods. If you remove the control rods, you increase the reduction of xenon there by increasing reactivity. Then there is the positive void coefficient, which basically means that more thermal activity aka reactivity leads to less cooling water and more steam which leads to still more reactivity. the reactor has been pushed to a very unstable state. The power finally stabilises albeit at a lower than preferred value and plant supervisors order the test to proceed . the automatic emergency shutdown system and other safety features are turned off.

On April 26, 1;23 am the test officially begins and fails after for a puny 36 seconds. Without the requisite water coolant to maintain temperature, the power spikes to unmanageable levels. Akimov presses the az-5 , reinserting all the control rods at once however in a disquieting culmination of a series of unfortunate events , the rods jam inside due to the excessive pressure inside with only the graphite tips meeting the core, setting off the nuclear reaction resulting in an explosion that rips through the 1,000 metric ton concrete and steel lid and rupturing all 1660 pressure tubes. air reaches the reactor resulting in a graphite fire. the metal of the fuel tubes reacts with water , producing hydrogen and this hydrogen explodes . burning debris flies in all directions and lands on the roof of a neighbouring reactor. A blackout engulfs the plant as the air fills with dust and graphite chunks, spewing out toxic radiation. walls collapse. equipments fail . The night shift main circulating pump operator, Valery Khodemchuk who was working in the now collapsed part of the building was likely killed immediately. His body was never recovered and is still entombed in the reactor debris.

What follows is complete and utter pandemonium. Panic-stricken Men, covered in burn marks run through the rubble, looking for their comrades, closer to death with every breath that they took. Dyatlov orders emergency cooling convinced it was only a hydrogen explosion (caused by hydrogen accumulating in the emergency tank of the safety control system ) while Akinov calls the fire department. The firemen come thinking this to be another one of the plant’s standard fires, oblivious to the fact that 27 of them would be lying in sealed coffins of zinc and concrete before the month was over. What stands out through the whole incident is Dyatlov’s absolute refusal to believe that reactor was destroyed . Despite seeing the chunks of graphite scattered around outside. Despite the testimony of witnesses who saw the reactor blow up. Despite his employees falling sick left and right due to radiation poisoning. 2 junior technicians, Kudrayavstev and Proskuryakov were sent by him to lower the presumably seized control rods manually. Despite explanations from Yuvchenko( who had … ) that there were no control rods left, they went to survey the damage; Yuvchenko held open the massive door into the reactor room and the other three proceeded in to locate the control rod mechanism; after no more than a minute of surveying the reactor debris, enough for all three to sustain fatal doses of radiation, they returned, their skin darkened with “nuclear tan” in reaction to the high dose of radiation. They were the first to die in the Moscow hospital. But, Dyatlov was still sure that the reactor was intact and he reported this to his superiors who relayed this message further up the chain of command. When Dyatlov inevitably fell sick, he was replaced by Formin and Stinikov. Fomin kept pressing the staff to feed water to the reactor and transferred more people to Unit 4 to replace those being disabled by radiation. Stinikov was ordered to climb the roof of unit C and survey the damage. When he came back, his skin red from radiation and reported the extent of damage, Brukhyanov and Fomin, refused to believe him and ordered that water continued to be fed into the reactor which turned radioactive and did more bad than good. A government committee with Valery Legasov, deputy director of Kurchatov institute of atomic energy was set up with Boris Shcherbina, Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers and Head of the Bureau for Fuel and Energy, as the head of the investigation. They were surprised by the pieces of graphite lying around when they reached the plant. They had not been told of a graphite fire. General Pikalov set out in a truck fitted out with radiation apparatus to measure the radiation levels. He established that graphite in reactor 4 was still burning. After the explosion, Some of The residents of Pripyat had gathered around on the railway bridge now called ‘ the bridge of death’ , which provided a clear view of the plant. They spoke of beautiful flames in all colours of the rainbow dancing in the distance. Who is to say how many of them beckoned their own ends closer, that night.

On the 27th of April clay, sand, boron and lead which are neutron absorbers were dropped on the reactor to slow down the emissions. It was later found out that hardly any of it actually made it to the core.

At 14:00 the evacuation of Pripyat and the neighbouring villages began . The residents were given two hours to gather all their belongings. They were asked to carry only the bare minimum that could sustain them through the next two days. 115000 people left their homes unbeknownst to the fact that they were never to return.

On April 28, the Swedish detect a surge in radioactivity as the shoes of their staff turn radioactive. On the same day, the Moscow news announces a grossly underplayed version of the disaster to the soviet civilians. The government radio broadcasts change to classical music , the general drill to prepare the people before announcing a tragedy. The west picks up on the disaster as a US satellite detects a fire blazing in the reactor . This smoke indicative of fire was censored out of the pictures published in the Soviet newspapers. The polish begins distributing iodine pills in the northeast of the country to protect children and infants against thyroid cancer. The Soviet government did this after a month of Chernobyl when it had no medical benefit ( because radioactive iodine is active only for 10 days) The Soviets conveniently denied the western accusation of mass casualties, reaffirming that there have been only 2 deaths and 197 hospitalisations.

On May 1st, the wind changes direction, flowing towards the may day celebrations in Kyiv. . The officials refuse to cancel the celebrations while the bureaucrats remove their own children from Kyiv. A week after the explosion, all the playgrounds in Wiesbaden, West Germany had been closed. While at Chernobyl, Two floors of bubbler pools beneath the reactor which had served as a large water reservoir for the emergency cooling pumps, flooded because of ruptured cooling water pipes and accumulated firefighting water. The smoldering graphite, fuel and other material above at a temperature of more than 1200 °C,started to burn through the reactor floor and mixed with molten concrete from the reactor lining, creating corium, a radioactive semi-liquid material comparable to lava. If this mixture had melted through the floor into the pool of water, it was feared it would create a serious steam explosion that would eject even more radioactive material from the reactor. It was therefore necessary to drain the pool.It is often stated that the three engineers, Alexei Ananenko (who knew where the valves were), Valeri Bezpalov, and, Boris Baranov, whose job was to hold a submersible light, volunteered. However, Ananenko later said that they were ordered by their superiors to go and would’ve been fired otherwise.All of them returned to the surface and according to Ananenko, their colleagues jumped for joy when they heard they had managed to open the valves. Ananenko and bezpalov are still alive . With the bubbler pool gone, a meltdown was less likely to produce a powerful steam explosion. To do so, the molten core would now have to reach the water table below the reactor. To reduce the possibility of this, it was decided to freeze the earth beneath the reactor, which would also stabilise the foundations. Using oil drilling equipment, the injection of liquid nitrogen began on 4 May. It was estimated that 25 metric tons of liquid nitrogen per day would be required to keep the soil frozen at −100 °C. This idea was soon scrapped and the room where the cooling system would have been installed was filled with concrete. Miners and Metro construction workers started to dig a tunnel under Unit 3 to construct a heat exchanger under the No.4 reactor

Other aspects of the cleanup, which involved up to 800,000 workers, included bulldozing contaminated villages, shooting contaminated pets and livestock, and burying huge amounts of contaminated topsoil. Radioactive emissions dropped sharply, possibly because the fire in the core had burned itself out. Meanwhile, Soviet officials finally closed schools in Kiev and advised residents to stay inside and not eat leafy vegetables. Fire brigade pumps drained the basement under the core of radioactive water. As a reward, the fire fighters received 1000 rubles each. Workers began pouring concrete under the reactor. The construction of a sarcophagus, a concrete and metal tomb to keep away the most dangerous waste in the world, began in June. A trial was held to sentence all those responsible on 3rd of July. The official death count claims that 31 people died as an immediate consequence of Chernobyl.How many lives were actually lost, households broken, hopes stolen, can only be left to conjecture? One of the mankind’s worst screw up is past us but what are left are memories of Chernobyl and a chunk of land uninhabitable for the next 20, 000 years. Memories of that ghost town Pripyat and memories of those men and women who had their skin melt off their bones. Who gave their lives to give the generations to come a chance at a better future built on better choices. Chernobyl – A cautionary tale that broke an entire nation!


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