6 Things You Didn’t Know About Chernobyl

The area around the entombed nuclear plant known as Chernobyl has become completely abandoned and scientists estimate that it will take 20,000 years before it becomes “safe” once again. Now a desolate wasteland silently bathed in radiation, it stands testament to the price paid for human error. 

Even though this disaster is well-known, many details are often left behind. Here are some of them:

It Wasn’t the First Soviet Nuclear Accident

Kyshtym

Chernobyl and Fukushima are level 7 disasters and regarded as catastrophic accidents. Next in line is the level 6 Kyshtym disaster. It took place in 1957 in one of the Soviet Union’s closed cities called Chelyabinsk-40 (formerly Ozyorsk) and because the city didn’t officially exist, they named the disaster after the nearest town. They employed secrecy of this magnitude because Chelyabinsk-40 was home to a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant that produced nuclear weapon-grade plutonium.

The accident occurred on September 29, 1957 when the cooling system for one of the tanks containing radioactive waste failed and went unnoticed. The resulting heat and pressure created an explosion that blew the 160-ton concrete lid right off. The radioactive cloud settled over a 20,000 square kilometer ( 7700 square miles) area. Sources say that 10,000 locals were evacuated over the course of 2 years but the number of people directly affected was much higher. The interesting thing is that the CIA knew about the accident but kept quiet in order to protect the United States’ own emerging nuclear industry.

The Soviet Union Kept Quiet About It

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The pivotal point in the Chernobyl disaster was the explosion of reactor no. 4, an hour past midnight on April 26, 1986. A massive radioactive cloud was well on its way through Europe by April 28th, when Soviet authorities made a 20 second announcement, giving no details regarding the magnitude of the accident. The rest of the world had to find out on its own.

Three days after the explosion, a Swedish nuclear power plant one thousand kilometers away from Chernobyl picked up radiation levels that set off its alarms. Nuclear engineer Cliff Robinson said that the readings were so high he thought nuclear war had broken out. Like a child who broke a vase, the Soviet Union admitted only when confronted. They also did their best to cover-up the extent of the disaster.

The Chernobyl Rain

Few things can be as evocative as black rain falling down from dark skies. Setting aside the metaphoric aspect, this is exactly what the people of Belarus saw in the wake of the accident. They received 20-30 times higher than normal radiation doses, the effects of which are still visible today. At the 20th anniversary of the disaster, Major Alexei Grushin broke the two-decade silence and explained that the black rain had been caused by Soviet pilots. They flew over Chernobyl and nearby Belarus, seeding the clouds with silver iodide, causing it to rain.

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They did so in order to protect major cities like Moscow, Voronezh and Nizhny Novgorod. Ah, the old sacrificing the few to protect the many technique. Works great for everybody, except for the sacrificed…

The Divers

While the pilots were battling it out in the sky, three volunteer divers willingly signed their own death sentences by diving in the water tank located under the defunct reactor. In order to prevent another steam explosion, that water had to be drained away from the smoldering debris. Above the water tank, a fire had been burning for several days and the resulting mix of graphite and fuel started to burn through the reactor floor. If it were to melt its way to the water tanks, another explosion would take place and even more radioactive material would be sent into the atmosphere.

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After the first explosion, broken cooling pipes flooded the plant with radioactive material and water. The three divers managed to open the sluice gates and drain the water, but they already showed signs of radiation poisoning by the time they were back. They died a short time later.

The Undead Forest

red forest

The nuclear plant was once surrounded by a pine forest called Wormwood Forest. Following the accident, those pines absorbed large doses of radiation, died and took on a strange ginger color, leading people to rename the place Red Forest. What’s strange about it is that almost three decades later, the dead trees and vegetation are still there. The exposure to radiation has killed off the organisms involved in breaking down plant matter. This build-up of dead brush could potentially fuel a catastrophic forest fire if decomposition rates don’t correct themselves.

It’s a Place Where Nature Can Go Wild

Wherever man sets foot, nature has to back down. Nature is quick to reclaim any place abandoned by humans, even if it’s the site of a nuclear accident. In the area surrounding Chernobyl, hundreds of wild deer, bears, boars, beavers and birds have taken up territory and they seem to be doing just fine.

Even stranger, life has even managed to use radiation as a food source. In 2002, a robot sent into the still highly radioactive reactor brought back samples of black fungi. They contained high concentrations of melanin and they seemed to be thriving in the reactor. Just as chlorophyll converts sunlight into chemical energy, the melanin in the fungi uses ionizing radiation to produce energy.

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This discovery could lead to new decontamination techniques that are self-sustaining and less harmful to the environment.

Ragnar Larsen

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