Silent heroes of Chernobyl nuclear disaster of April 26, 1986 still remain unknown and more and more often also forgotten. Urszula Roman, our Editor for Europe, recalls the course, causes and long-term effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
April 26, 1986 marks one of the greatest nuclear tragedies of the world.
As a result of irresponsibly and incompetently conducted nuclear experiment – reactor IV of nuclear power plant in Chernobyl in USSR, in part which is now Ukraine, crashed, and eventually nuclear reactor erupted and a huge amount of irradiated water vapor, water and debris structures got into the surrounding soil, air, and in the form of radioactive clouds got to the upper zones of atmosphere. Radioactive particles flew over Scandinavia, Poland, the Czech Republic and reached down to Bavaria.
It seems that the question of the possibility of avoiding Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe had been already exhausted, but 30 years after the event, it is worth recalling the course, causes and long-term effects of the disaster in Chernobyl.
What has exactly happened that day?
RBMK reactor used in Chernobyl was an adaptation of a civilian military reactor for plutonium production for the needs of nuclear warheads. The original design was created in the 50s, with one basic criterion: increase the production of plutonium for the needs of arms as soon as possible. Reliability was relatively unimportant.
As a result, the Chernobyl reactors and many other Soviet nuclear power plants had serious flaws. Under certain conditions could have become unstable and get out of control, rapidly increasing the intensity of the nuclear reaction. Devices to keep the processes in the core in check were imperfect. In addition, the reactor was not placed in a sealed and durable design.
Despite these drawbacks, the exact observance of the rules of use should have prevented any serious problems. On April 25 at Chernobyl experiment which – paradoxically – aimed at increasing the safety of the reactor was planned. However, due to the delay the final phase started until after midnight. In a hurry all the procedures had been broken and most of the automatic safety systems turned off. The reactor entered the extremely unstable state.
Similar experiments were performed at Chernobyl a few times, and those few times were successful. However, on 26 April 1986 something went wrong. Unstable reactor began to get out of control and the process launched the emergency stop. Unfortunately, the 211 control rods which should have slow down the reaction push the water out of the reactor and as a result the reaction speeded up further exceeding ten times its standard maximum power.
All the water in the core in the blink of an eye turned to steam under high pressure. Its powerful explosion threw weighing 1,000 tons of steel and concrete slab covering the core for several meters into the air. Moments later there was another explosion. As a result, reactor hall was torn.
The unknown heroes of Chernobyl
In the first hours after the disaster, no one realized the extremely serious situation. Sensors indicating impossibly high radiation were initially disregarded. When employees have realized the seriousness of the situation, attempts to flood the burning reactor were taken and people worked in its immediate vicinity. Others for a few hours were still serving machines. Most of them knew what they threatened, but remained on the spot with a sense of duty. 20 people operating the reactor hall and turbine have paid with their lives. Most died within a few weeks.
Next in line for the death were firefighters. Six firefighters, among a total of 186 that came to the place, died within a few weeks. All the others were given high doses of radiation. The obligation, however, has been fulfilled. The next day all fires outside the reactor, were extinguished.
However soon after that, another problem, which solution required next victims, appeared. A red-hot core melted and burned the holes under the reactor. There was a danger that in the end it would get to the large water tanks of the emergency cooling systems. That would have led to yet another explosion. Tanks could not be dried out remotely. So three volunteers in diving costumes entered the tanks and manually opened them and released the water. They knew what they were up to. The water was heavily irradiated. They felt nausea after they came out of water. All died within a few weeks.
Three divers were the last who died directly as a result of strong irradiation.
Humans vs. machines
After the fire ended, the reactor had to be protected – but the construction of the sarcophagus could not be completed without cleaning up the debris. Meanwhile, robots and other ideas to do this remotely failed. Their electronics was notoriously spoiled and all quickly refused to obey. So there was no other option but to use people with shovels.
Volunteers were mainly reservists, firefighters and students of the Kiev military schools. A total of 3828 persons. Standard military rubber suits with lead protector on were illusory. In the most contaminated zones every man could work only 40 seconds. During that time they would take the maximum permissible dose of radiation for life. In reality, however, many spent much longer time in the heavily irradiated zone.
The work, which robots did not complete for weeks, people performed in a few days. After the completion of clean-up everyone received a diploma, 400 rubles and was sent back home. Later, they got higher pensions. But what was the impact on their health as they were replacing machines is not known. They were not monitored by state in any special way.
Problems of ‘liquidators’ in present Ukraine
Of course, Chernobyl was fraught with consequences, not only because of the direct threat to life and the destruction made. The effects of Chernobyl continue today … some are positive as the increase of the safety of nuclear power plants, also in Russia today, but there are the more mundane ones, such as the problems of people whose lives have been marked by the Chernobyl forever. So called ‘liquidators’ of the catastrophe effects who had fulfilled their duty have been virtually forgotten by the authorities.
Therefore, the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster was ‘to honour the liquidators and the memory of its victims’. President Petro Poroshenko signed even a decree on that matter last December. In reality tough the state budget lacks the money for real help.
According to official statistics, the number of people in Ukraine, which suffered from the Chernobyl disaster, reaching over 2 million. These are those who were exposed to radiation and lived in contaminated areas. Of that number, more than 210 thousand people were ‘liquidators’ of the disaster. (Over 600,000 altogether coming from various Soviet Republics). Of these, in Ukraine, only 59 thousand are regarded as invalid and get some additional support. Each year their number decreases as they passed by on the new diseases. Stays in hospitals are financed by social insurance in Ukraine but all medicines, even drips need to be paid by themselves. The costs of treatment pose for majority an impenetrable barrier.
And although the Parliament of Ukraine has prepared a bill aiming at ensuring the protection of the health and additional financial assistance for these groups, Poroshenko vetoed it stating that the proposed changes do not correspond to a uniform policy on reforming the benefit system and they would be a significant burden on the budget. Hence, the situation of majority of Chernobyl victims in Ukraine still is not regulated.
Currently the ‘Zone’, as the closed surroundings of former plant are called, is mainly used as an attraction for adventurous tourists who can visit it with a local guide or by coach tours. Besides that, the region is also a study field for biologists who observe the growing animal populations and possible changes in their adaptation to life in the continuously irradiated area.
The construction of a new sarcophagus burring the remnants of the reactor is in the process, although it was scheduled to be completed 10 years ago.
The visible effects of the Chernobyl such as abandoned town of Pripyat make the strongest impressions but the most harming ones are the invisible ones which left wounds on the lives of thousands of people and their families impacted by Chernobyl disaster. And unfortunately it seems that despite the passage of 30 years the wound of some is still bleeding as the authorities failed to do their homework. Despite Poroshenko decree, the state did not improve the situation of Chernobyl ‘liquidators’ and families of victims.
Silent heroes of 26th of April 1986 still remain unknown and more and more often also forgotten.