April 26, 2016

Chernobyl: The State Secret


Chernobyl: The State Secret

This story is excerpted from a much longer story on the state of the Russian nuclear power industry, published in Russian Life magazine in 2006.

The accident at Chernobyl was predicted three years before it happened.

A special inspection was carried out at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station in 1983. At that time, inspectors for Gosatomnadzor (State Oversight of Atomic Power) Yevgeny Simonov and Yuri Laushkin began issuing citations. They reported that there were a huge number of problems with the reactor type itself, that it was dangerous to work on, and that, sooner or later a serious accident would occur. But no one was listening. In fact, in 1986, after the explosion in the station’s reactor, Inspector Laushkin was one of the main defendants. He was convicted and sentenced to two years. He died in prison.

The fact that inspectors warned the leadership about the possibility of an accident at Chernobyl before it happened has only recently come to light. As to all of the other unpleasant and uncomfortable things that can be said about the Russian atomic energy industry, these hard realities, even to this day, 20 years after Chernobyl, are carefully ignored.

Chernobyl: Anatomy of the Disaster

Chernobyl
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.

The problems at Chernobyl began long before 1986, as David Marples writes in the introduction to nuclear engineer Grigory Medvedev’s book on the Soviet nuclear industry, No Breathing Room: “Several scientists at the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy expressed concern about the RBMK [the type of graphite-moderated reactor at Chernobyl] in the early 1970s.

More than thirty design flaws were reportedly uncovered, but none was corrected before the reactor first went into service. At least one official was dismissed for trying to draw attention to these defects.”

Remarkably, as Marples also reports, just prior to the Chernobyl disaster, in the spring of 1986, journalist Lyubov Kovalevska penned an article published in the weekly paper of the Ukrainian Writers Union, Literaturna Ukraina, in which she pointed out flaws in the plant’s construction and called the station “an accident waiting to happen.”

The accident occurred on April 26, 1986, during an otherwise quiet weekend. Unqualified technicians were conducting a bizarre and unnecessary experiment that, had they known the reactor’s built-in flaws (it does not operate safely at low power), they would not have ventured. When the experiment spun out of control through a series of incompetent decisions, every attempt to control the nuclear reaction worsened the situation, until the engineers desperately tried to reinsert the fuel rods in a last ditch bid to slow the reaction. This was the final, fatal error, because the rods were faultily constructed in a manner that ended up accelerating the reaction and leading to a massive explosion.

Medvedev described the scene:

“Flames, sparks, and chunks of burning material went flying into the air above the Number 4 unit. These were red-hot pieces of nuclear fuel and graphite, some of which fell onto the roof of the turbine hall where they started fires...

About 50 tons of nuclear fuel evaporated and were released by the explosion into the atmosphere... In addition, about 70 tons were ejected sideways from the periphery of the core, mingling with a pile of structural debris, onto the roof...and also onto the grounds of the plant... Some 50 tons of nuclear fuel and 800 tons of reactor graphite... remained in the reactor vault, where it formed a pit reminiscent of a volcanic crater.”

The fallout was immense, particularly in the Gomel region of Belarus. In fact, Belarus bore the brunt of the fallout, since the Chernobyl station lies just a dozen miles from the Ukraine-Belarus border and prevailing winds blew north and east.

Casualty figures are still not known, but certainly more than 2,000 persons are thought to have died as an immediate result of the accident and its cleanup (much of it done by heroic “volunteers” without adequate protective gear). Many thousands were put at risk for cancer due to the fallout of radioactive iodine. Over 135,000 persons were evacuated from their homes and villages.

The other three reactors at Chernobyl continued to operate for some time before they were taken out of operation. The last reactor, number 3, was shut down on December 15, 2000.

Worst Soviet & Russian Nuclear Power Plant Disasters.

Over the past half-century, there have been numerous emergency shutdowns, power losses, fires, cooling line breaches and other dangerous situations at Russian nuclear plants (particularly at Leningrad, Kola and Balakova).

According to official government data, since 1949, Russian nuclear energy plants have had more than 250 failures. Over this period of time, there have been some 385 “incidents” with varying degree of seriousness (including failures), in which 685 persons have been harmed, including 383 who have received serious radiation sickness and 56 who have died.

Below are just some of the most significant Russian nuclear accidents, with emphasis on those involving radiation leaks.

September 29, 1957: Chelyabinsk Waste Dump explosion

January 7, 1974: Explosion at Leningrad plant

February 6, 1974: Explosion at Leningrad plant

November 30, 1975: Leak at Leningrad plant

December 31, 1978: Fire and irradiation of workers at Beloyarsk plant

June 27, 1985: Explosion and leak at Balakovo plant

April 26, 1986: Explosion at Chernobyl reactor No. 4

December 28, 1990: Leak at Leningrad plant

July 10, 1992: Leak at Bilibino plant

October 1991: Explosion at Chernobyl reactor No. 2 leads to its permanent shutdown

December 21, 1992: Leak at Kola plant

January 19, 1992: Leak at Kola plant

March 24, 1992: Radiation leakage at Leningrad plant

September 12, 1992: Radioactive water leak at Kola plant

April 6, 1993: Explosion at Tomsk-7 chemical separation plant

May 15, 1997: Explosion at Novosibirsk factory of chemical concentrates

 

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