The Chernobyl disaster (also referred to as the Chernobyl accident or simply Chernobyl) was a catastrophic nuclear accident that occurred on 26 April 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the town of Pripyat, in Ukraine (then officially the Ukrainian SSR), which was under the direct jurisdiction of the central authorities of the Soviet Union. An explosion and fire released large quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere, which spread over much of the western USSR and Europe.
The Chernobyl disaster was the worst nuclear power plant accident in history in terms of cost and casualties. It is one of only two classified as a level 7 event (the maximum classification) on the International Nuclear Event Scale, the other being the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011. The battle to contain the contamination and avert a greater catastrophe ultimately involved over 500,000 workers and cost an estimated 18 billion rubles. During the accident itself, 31 people died, and long-term effects such as cancers are still being investigated.
The disaster began during a systems test on 26 April 1986 at reactor number four of the Chernobyl plant, which is near the city of Pripyat and in proximity to the administrative border with Belarus and the Dnieper River. There was a sudden and unexpected power surge, and when an emergency shutdown was attempted, an exponentially larger spike in power output occurred, which led to a reactor vessel rupture and a series of steam explosions. These events exposed the graphite moderator of the reactor to air, causing it to ignite. The resulting fire sent a plume of highly radioactive fallout into the atmosphere and over an extensive geographical area, including Pripyat. The plume drifted over large parts of the western Soviet Union and Europe. From 1986 to 2000, 350,400 people were evacuated and resettled from the most severely contaminated areas of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. According to official post-Soviet data, about 60% of the fallout landed in Belarus.
Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus have been burdened with the continuing and substantial decontamination and health care costs of the Chernobyl accident. A report by the International Atomic Energy Agency examines the environmental consequences of the accident. Another UN agency, UNSCEAR, has estimated a global collective dose of radiation exposure from the accident “equivalent on average to 21 additional days of world exposure to natural background radiation”; individual doses were far higher than the global mean among those most exposed, including 530,000 local recovery workers who averaged an effective dose equivalent to an extra 50 years of typical natural background radiation exposure each. Estimates of the number of deaths that will eventually result from the accident vary enormously; disparities reflect both the lack of solid scientific data and the different methodologies used to quantify mortality—whether the discussion is confined to specific geographical areas or extends worldwide, and whether the deaths are immediate, short term, or long term.
On 26 April 1986, at 01:23 (UTC+3), reactor four suffered a catastrophic power increase, leading to explosions in its core. This dispersed large quantities of radioactive fuel and core materials into the atmosphere:73 and ignited the combustible graphite moderator. The burning graphite moderator increased the emission of radioactive particles, carried by the smoke, as the reactor had not been encased by any kind of hard containment vessel. The accident occurred during an experiment scheduled to test a potential safety emergency core cooling feature, which took place during a normal shutdown procedure.
Steam turbine tests
In steady state operation, a significant fraction (about 7%) of the power from a nuclear reactor comes not from fission but from the decay heat of its accumulated fission products. This heat continues for some time after the chain reaction is stopped (e.g., following an emergency SCRAM) and usually requires active cooling to avoid core damage. RBMK reactors, like those at Chernobyl, use water as a coolant. Reactor 4 at Chernobyl consisted of about 1,600 individual fuel channels; each required a coolant flow of 28 metric tons (28,000 liters or 7,400 U.S. gallons) per hour.
Experiment and explosion
Aerial view of the damaged core on 3 May 1986. Roof of the turbine hall is damaged (image center). Roof of the adjacent reactor 3 (image lower left) shows minor fire damage. At 1:23:04 a.m., the experiment began. Four of the Main Circulating Pumps (MCP) were active; of the eight total, six are normally active during regular operation. The steam to the turbines was shut off, beginning a run-down of the turbine generator. The diesel generators started and sequentially picked up loads; the generators were to have completely picked up the MCPs’ power needs by 01:23:43. In the interim, the power for the MCPs was to be supplied by the turbine generator as it coasted down. As the momentum of the turbine generator decreased, however, so did the power it produced for the pumps. The water flow rate decreased, leading to increased formation of steam voids (bubbles) in the core.
The radiation levels in the worst-hit areas of the reactor building have been estimated to be 5.6 roentgens per second (R/s), equivalent to more than 20,000 roentgens per hour. A lethal dose is around 500 roentgens (~5 Gy) over 5 hours, so in some areas, unprotected workers received fatal doses in less than a minute. However, a dosimeter capable of measuring up to 1000 R/s was buried in the rubble of a collapsed part of the building, and another one failed when turned on. All remaining dosimeters had limits of 0.001 R/s and therefore read “off scale”. Thus, the reactor crew could ascertain only that the radiation levels were somewhere above 0.001 R/s (3.6 R/h), while the true levels were much higher in some areas.