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The Soviet Union was a kingdom that sat upon a throne of corrupt communism. For decades, rulers like Joseph Stalin lied to the world about events and crises that could impact millions or billions of individuals. But what would happen if these arrogant overlords lied to the world and their citizens about the worst human-made disaster in the entirety of modern history? The answer to this question would be on April 26, 1986, in Chernobyl, Ukraine when the RBMK Reactor No. 4 exploded inside of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. This disaster that could have been avoided entirely ended up costing thousands of lives all at the expense of the greatest Soviet Union scandal in the history of the state. Now the world wanted answers to complex questions that the Soviet Union didn’t dare answer. How does an RBMK reactor explode? Who were the victims? How many lives were lost? What is the cost of lies?
Chernobyl was Nuclear Reactor No. 4 inside the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine. On April 26, 1986, a test was being run on Reactor No. 4 to ensure that the reactor core could maintain balance if power were to go out inside the power plant (U.S. NRC). Nuclear reactors require a steady flow of water to keep the fission inside the reactor under control to ensure extreme temperatures don’t cause the reactor to meltdown. In Chernobyl, if the power were to be lost, it would take 60 seconds for the backup generators to engage and restore water flow to the core (U.S. NRC), but by then, the core would have already melted down. In nuclear reactors, cell division (fission) caused by neurons striking unstable uranium atoms produces energy, and in turn, produces heat. This heat turns water into steam, which rotates a turbine to create electricity. The solution in Chernobyl was to use the remaining electricity in the turbine for the 60-second gap to keep the water flow moving in the pumps. However, due to the circumstances Anatoly Dylatov created, the reactor core was poisoned and the power in the core plummeted.
In nuclear fission, an element called Xenon is created (U.S.NRC). At normal power, this element burns away instantly due to the high temperatures, thus not affecting the core (U.S. NRC). However, in Chernobyl, the test that was being run at one in the morning was supposed to have been run ten hours earlier. In that ten hours prior to the test, the reactor power was dropped from the standard 3,200 MW to 700 MW (U.S. NRC). When the test was pushed off, the power was kept the same. This caused the temperature to decrease, which caused a Xenon buildup over ten hours as it was unable to burn away (U.S. NRC). This in turn poisoned the reactor core. When the test was finally resumed and the power was reduced further to 400 MW (the required power level to run the test), the power instead plummeted to 30 MW (U.S. NRC). In an attempt to restore power to normal, Chief Engineer Leonid Toptunov and Engineer Aleksandr Akimov removed all but six of the control rods (control rods are made of Boron, which reduced reactivity) and completely stopped water flow to the core. After several minutes, the two men were only able to raise the power to 200 MW (U.S. NRC), but 400 MW was required to run the test. The supervisor of the test, Anatoly Dylatov wanted the test done that morning, so he ordered the engineers to raise the power to 400 MW. As a result of all of the control rods being pulled out and the water flow being halted previously, the power surged far past the maximum of 3,200 MW. Aleksandr Akimov then pressed the emergency shutdown button, AZ-5 in an attempt to stop the power surge. Pressing AZ-5 inserted all of the control rods at once to reduce the reactivity. However, nobody in the plant knew that the first part of the control rods to enter the core was not boron, It was graphite.
The tips of the control rods were made of graphite; graphite accelerates reactivity. Once the control rods were inserted, the graphite caused another power surge. This power surge ruptured fuel channels in the core which fractured the control rods, making them fixed in position (U.S. NRC). The fixed control rods endlessly accelerated the reaction with the graphite tips stuck in the core. This caused every molecule of water cooling the reactor to instantly convert to steam, sending the power skyrocketing. The power in Reactor No. 4, designed to run at 3,200 MW, went beyond 33,000 MW (U.S. NRC). This caused the 1,000-ton lid to be blown off the reactor, destroying the power plant roof. In under a second of the lid being blown off, oxygen from the environment rushed into the core, mixing with hydrogen, causing Reactor No. 4 to explode (U.S. NRC).
This explosion released a lethal amount of ionizing radiation into the air. This caused a giant blue beam to extend into the night sky. The smoke from the fire in the reactor would be enough to spread radiation over a 150,000 square kilometer radius and drift over to Belarus, Russia, and Sweden (IAEA). Firefighters rushed to the scene and started fighting the immortal flames. What no firefighter knew was that they were fighting a radiation fire. The obliterated core of the reactor was giving off 15,000 roentgen of radiation, which is equivalent to 150 sieverts (U.S. NRC). Eight sieverts of radiation induce death in two weeks. Some of the workers within the plant tried to manually insert the non-existent control rods into the core which was also blown to pieces. Some ended up looking directly into the exposed core in an attempt to restore water flow. All of these workers' attempts would fail, as they would all perish in a few weeks. In the first four months after the explosion, 28 workers and firemen would die (U.S. NRC). Among these dead included Aleksandr Akimov and Leonid Toptunov. Most of the firemen and workers were transported to Moscow, but the efforts to save their lives would be for the most part, useless. The bodies of the firefighters would be laid to rest in lead and zinc coffins, submerged in concrete, underneath meters of packed soil in an attempt to isolate the radiation still radiating off of the corpses (IAEA). Most of these firemen received well over eight sieverts of radiation in their fruitless attempts to put out the fire at Chernobyl.
Two sieverts of radiation is enough to cut your lifespan in half and ensure you die from cancer some ten years down the road. Any more than that can be lethal, but above eight sieverts will kill you in two weeks. On top of this staggering information, considering Chernobyl was pouring out 150 sieverts, radiation is arguably the worst way to die. It essentially liquifies your body from the inside out. The cellular structure is ripped apart, which in turn destroys the DNA and immune system. The skin blisters, than turns black, and falls off. Hair comes off in chunks along with the scalp and skin. Organs begin to decompose as they are thrown up and have to be scooped out of the victim’s mouth. Cartilage soon decomposes, followed by the muscle peeling off bones. Arteries and veins spill open which makes it impossible to stop the agonizing, unimaginable pain that has to be endured. In two to three weeks, death is met. If acute radiation sickness is endured, fatality will take around two to three months.
During those months of death, rescue efforts would be made after a long month of convincing the Soviet Union that Chernobyl wasn’t releasing only 3.6 roentgen of radiation. The nearby city of Pryp’yat’', Ukraine, inhabited by 50,000 civilians, would be evacuated. All of these civilians would have to leave their animals and pets due to the risk of them being contaminated with radiation. Soviet Union soldiers later traveled to the city and shot all of the animals, burying their bodies in concrete (U.S. NRC). Dogs, cats, horses, cows, every animal had to go, domesticated or not. Another 100,000 people were evacuated in nearby cities, and as the radiation spread further, 220,000 more (U.S. NRC). Meters of topsoil were to be dug up and buried underneath itself, forests were cut down, and boron and lead were sprayed all over abandoned cities and streets (U.S. NRC). Boron and sand were dumped on the exposed reactor in an attempt to smother the fire. Along with this, a suicide squad of three men was sent into the basement of Chernobyl in an attempt to stop the radioactive water from sinking into the groundwater. Thankfully, the operation was a success, and all three divers survived as the water shielded their bodies from the majority of the radiation. All three men lived healthy, full lives, and two are still alive today. At the center of the cleanup efforts were the liquidators. 600,000 Ukrainian men were gathered to shovel the graphite, which had been blown all over the Chernobyl Power Plant roof, back into the exposed reactor (U.S. NRC). These men had 90 seconds to shovel as much graphite as they could off the roof and into the reactor. If they looked over the ledge, they would be dead. If they took longer than two minutes, they would be dead. If they tripped or cut themselves on the graphite, they would be dead.
Now during the cleanup efforts, what was the Soviet Union doing? Nothing. After they realized the incident wasn’t just a couple of power plant workers being delusional, they finally decided to construct the first incident report. This court meeting took place in Vienna, Austria in August 1986, four months after the initial disaster (U.S. NRC). All the Soviet Union did during the meeting was ensure the world that the explosion was just a fuel channel rupture and nothing more. Even though there were 16 other reactors with the same fatal mistake in the Soviet Union, three still operating in Chernobyl, the state decided to ignore the pleas from scientists like Valery Legasov and insist the state could make no mistake that caused Chernobyl to explode.
Finally, over a year after the incident occurred, Anatoly Dylatov was put on trial. A final testimony was held which uncovered that the graphite tips were used for no other reason other than because it was cheaper to manufacture. It exposed Dylatov’s actions that led to the explosion and reactor meltdown, which would produce corium, the world’s most dangerous substance. The other 16 reactors in the Soviet Union weren’t fixed until two years after Chernobyl exploded. The final reactor in Chernobyl was shut down in 1999 after several continuous fires inside the building (U.S. NRC). A new concrete sarcophagus was finished in 2018 that now covers the remainder of the power plant. Cancer spikes were reported across Europe in the following years after Chernobyl, 1,800 of those cases were thyroid cancer in ages 0-14 (IAEA). The Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimates there were 4,000-93,000 fatalities as an outcome of Chernobyl. The Soviet Union death toll, unchanged since 1987, remains at 31 deaths.
What is the cost of lies? While that question may never be answered, the sacrifice of brave souls like the firemen, nurses, liquidators, soldiers, divers, and Chernobyl workers can be acknowledged. Despite living in a corrupt nation full of lies and scandals, these individuals rose to the occasion to prevent a disaster that could have wiped out the entire continent of Europe. Their sacrifices, made in attempts to cover the tracks of the Soviet Union, taught a valuable lesson for the future of nuclear energy and the future of Communism.
What is the cost of lies?
IAEA. “Frequently Asked Chernobyl Questions | IAEA.” International Atomic Energy Agency, International Atomic Energy Agency, 2019, www.iaea.org/newscenter/focus/chernobyl/faqs.
U.S. NRC. “REM (Roentgen Equivalent Man).” NRC Web, United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 9 Mar. 2021, www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/basic-ref/glossary/rem-roentgen-equivalent-man.html.
U.S. NRC. “Backgrounder on Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Accident.” NRC Web, United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 15 Aug. 2018, www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/chernobyl-bg.html.