It seems an impossible task, to keep a disaster a secret, and yet that is exactly what the Soviet Union tried to do when disaster struck on April 26, 1986, at the No. 4 reactor in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near the city of Pripyat in the north of the Ukrainian SSR. Chernobyl is considered the worst nuclear disaster in history. In terms of cost and casualties, and it is one of only two nuclear energy accidents rated at seven, which is the maximum severity, on the International Nuclear Event Scale. The other disaster was the well known 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan that was caused by a tsunami.
On April 28, 1986, two days after monitoring stations in Sweden, Finland and Norway began reporting sudden high discharges of radioactivity in the atmosphere, the Soviet Union finally broke the news by way of their official news agency, Tass. Two days!! In the realm of nuclear contamination, two days is an eternity!! When the Soviet Union finally told the world, Tass simply said there had been an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. They didn’t say they had tried to hide it, but two days of no response tells me they did. The initial emergency response, together with later decontamination of the environment, ultimately involved more than 500,000 personnel and cost an estimated 18 billion Soviet rubles, which is roughly $68 billion US dollars as of the dollar value in 2019.
It was determined that the accident had started during a safety test on an RBMK-type nuclear reactor. During testing a simulation of an electrical power outage was used to help create a safety procedure for maintaining reactor cooling water circulation until the back-up electrical generators could provide power. These units had been tested three times since 1982, but they had failed to provide a solution. On this fourth attempt, an unexpected 10-hour delay meant that an unprepared operating shift was on duty. The power unexpectedly dropped to a near-zero level during the planned decrease of reactor power in preparation for the electrical test. The operators were only able to partially restore the specified test power, putting the reactor in an unstable condition. This risk was not made evident in the operating instructions, so the operators proceeded with the electrical test. Upon test completion, the operators triggered a reactor shutdown, but a combination of unstable conditions and reactor design flaws caused an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction instead.
The failure caused a large amount of energy to be suddenly released, followed by two explosions that ruptured the reactor core and destroyed the reactor building. One was a highly destructive steam explosion from the vaporizing superheated cooling water. The other explosion could have been another steam explosion or a small nuclear explosion, like a nuclear fizzle. The explosions were followed immediately by an open-air reactor core fire that released considerable airborne radioactive contamination for about nine days. The contamination fell onto parts of the USSR and western Europe, especially 10 miles away in Belarus, where around 70% landed, before finally being contained on May 4, 1986. In addition to the contamination released by the explosions, the fire gradually released about the same amount of contamination as did the initial explosion. As a result of rising radiation levels in surrounding regions, a 6.2 mile radius exclusion zone was created 36 hours after the accident. About 49,000 people were evacuated from the area, primarily the citizens of Pripyat. Later the exclusion zone was increased to 19 mile radius, and an additional 68,000 people were evacuated from the wider area.
When the reactor exploded, two of the reactor operating staff lost their lives instantly. Crews rushed to put out the fire, stabilize the reactor, and cleanup the ejected nuclear core. As a result of the disaster and immediate response, 134 station staff and firemen were hospitalized with acute radiation syndrome due to absorbing high doses of ionizing radiation. In the days to months afterward 28 of these 134 people died, and approximately 14 suspected radiation-induced cancer deaths followed within the next 10 years. Significant cleanup operations were taken in the exclusion zone to deal with local fallout, and the exclusion zone was made permanent. The cities in the zone remain abandoned.
By 2011, an excess of 15 childhood thyroid cancer deaths were documented among the wider population. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) has reviewed all the published research on the incident multiple times, and found that at present, fewer than 100 documented deaths are likely to be attributable to increased exposure to radiation. Of course, there is no way to be sure of that information, because “determining the total eventual number of exposure related deaths is uncertain based on the linear no-threshold model, a contested statistical model, which has also been used in estimates of low level radon and air pollution exposure.” When the expected deaths is viewed in “model predictions with the greatest confidence values of the eventual total death toll in the decades ahead from Chernobyl releases vary, from 4,000 fatalities when solely assessing the three most contaminated former Soviet states, to about 9,000 to 16,000 fatalities when assessing the total continent of Europe. In an effort to reduce the spread of radioactive contamination from the wreckage and protect it from weathering, the protective Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant sarcophagus was built by December 1986. It also provided radiological protection for the crews of the undamaged reactors at the site, which continued operating. Due to the continued deterioration of the sarcophagus, it was further enclosed in 2017 by the Chernobyl New Safe Confinement, a larger enclosure that allows the removal of both the sarcophagus and the reactor debris, while containing the radioactive hazard. Nuclear clean-up is scheduled for completion in 2065.” It is my opinion that if they had acted immediately to evacuate the people in surrounding areas, they might have reduced the number of deaths substantially. Keeping the accident a secret for two days was insane, and very likely criminal.
It’s no secret that various governments have had secret projects over the years to create bigger and better weapons of war to be used against enemy governments in the event of a war. I think that there are those who believe that only rogue countries do this sort of thing, but that isn’t so. In the United States, where Enrico Fermi, an Italian physicist and the creator of the world’s first nuclear reactor, and Leó Szilárd a Hungarian-German physicist and inventor; had both emigrated to America, the discovery of the nuclear chain reaction led to the creation of the first man-made reactor, known as Chicago Pile-1, which achieved criticality on December 2, 1942. This work became part of the Manhattan Project, a massive secret U.S. government military project to make enriched uranium and by building large production reactors to produce enriched plutonium for use in the first nuclear weapons. The United States would test an atom bomb in July 1945 with the Trinity test, and eventually two such weapons were used in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Of course, weapons of warfare are not the only use for nuclear power, but they are what most of us think about when we think about going nuclear.
In reality, much more has come from nuclear energy. In August 1945, the pocketbook The Atomic Age, became the first widely distributed account of nuclear energy. It discussed the peaceful future uses of nuclear energy and painted a picture of a future where fossil fuels would go unused. Nobel laureate Glenn Seaborg, who later chaired the Atomic Energy Commission, is quoted as saying “there will be nuclear powered earth-to-moon shuttles, nuclear powered artificial hearts, plutonium heated swimming pools for SCUBA divers, and much more.” Then, on December 20, 1951, came the first light bulbs ever lit by electricity generated by nuclear power at EBR-1 at Argonne National Laboratory West.
Nuclear power is still producing electricity today. The United States has more than 100 reactors, although it creates most of its electricity from fossil fuels and hydroelectric energy. Nations such as Lithuania, France, and Slovakia create almost all of their electricity from nuclear power plants. Uranium is the fuel most widely used to produce nuclear energy. I think most people have heard of the disasters at Chernobyl, April 26, 1986, Kyshtym, September 29, 1957, Three Mile Island, March 28, 1979, and Windscale, October 10, 1957. Some were worse than others, but all were scary situations. I don’t know how I feel about the use of nuclear power as opposed to fossil fuels, hydroelectric energy, or wind energy, because I think that quite possibly each has their place, and that it would be difficult to rely on just one type of fuel.
The United Kingdom, Canada, and the USSR continued to research and develop nuclear industries over the course of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Electricity was first generated by a nuclear reactor on December 20, 1951, at the EBR-I experimental station near Arco, Idaho, which initially produced about 100 kW. In the United States work was also strongly researched on nuclear marine propulsion, with a test reactor being developed by 1953…eventually, the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine, would launch in 1955. Then, in 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower gave his “Atoms for Peace” speech at the United Nations. In it he emphasized the need to develop “peaceful” uses of nuclear power quickly. The concern was over any further us in war situations. This was followed by the 1954 Amendments to the Atomic Energy Act which allowed rapid declassification of United States reactor technology and encouraged development by the private sector.