The Chernobyl Power Complex, lying about 130 km north of Kiev, Ukraine, and about 20 km south of the border with Belarus, consisted of four nuclear reactors of the RBMK-1000 design (see information page on RBMK Reactors), units 1 and 2 being constructed between 1970 and 1977, while units 3 and 4 of the same design were completed in 1983. Two more RBMK reactors were under construction at the site at the time of the accident. To the southeast of the plant, an artificial lake of some 22 square kilometres, situated beside the river Pripyat, a tributary of the Dniepr, was constructed to provide cooling water for the reactors.
This area of Ukraine is described as Belarussian-type woodland with a low population density. About 3 km away from the reactor, in the new city, Pripyat, there were 49,000 inhabitants. The old town of Chornobyl, which had a population of 12,500, is about 15 km to the southeast of the complex. Within a 30 km radius of the power plant, the total population was between 115,000 and 135,000.
The RBMK-1000 is a Soviet-designed and built graphite moderated pressure tube type reactor, using slightly enriched (2% U-235) uranium dioxide fuel. It is a boiling light water reactor, with two loops feeding steam directly to the turbines, without an intervening heat exchanger. Water pumped to the bottom of the fuel channels boils as it progresses up the pressure tubes, producing steam which feeds two 500 MWe turbines. The water acts as a coolant and also provides the steam used to drive the turbines. The vertical pressure tubes contain the zirconium alloy clad uranium dioxide fuel around which the cooling water flows. The extensions of the fuel channels penetrate the lower plate and the cover plate of the core and are welded to each. A specially designed refuelling machine allows fuel bundles to be changed without shutting down the reactor.
The moderator, whose function is to slow down neutrons to make them more efficient in producing fission in the fuel, is graphite, surrounding the pressure tubes. A mixture of nitrogen and helium is circulated between the graphite blocks to prevent oxidation of the graphite and to improve the transmission of the heat produced by neutron interactions in the graphite to the fuel channel. The core itself is about 7 m high and about 12 m in diameter. In each of the two loops, there are four main coolant circulating pumps, one of which is always on standby. The reactivity or power of the reactor is controlled by raising or lowering 211 control rods, which, when lowered into the moderator, absorb neutrons and reduce the fission rate. The power output of this reactor is 3200 MW thermal, or 1000 MWe. Various safety systems, such as an emergency core cooling system, were incorporated into the reactor design.
One of the most important characteristics of the RBMK reactor is that it it can possess a ‘positive void coefficient’, where an increase in steam bubbles (‘voids’) is accompanied by an increase in core reactivity (see information page on RBMK Reactors). As steam production in the fuel channels increases, the neutrons that would have been absorbed by the denser water now produce increased fission in the fuel. There are other components that contribute to the overall power coefficient of reactivity, but the void coefficient is the dominant one in RBMK reactors. The void coefficient depends on the composition of the core – a new RBMK core will have a negative void coefficient. However, at the time of the accident at Chernobyl 4, the reactor’s fuel burn-up, control rod configuration and power level led to a positive void coefficient large enough to overwhelm all other influences on the power coefficient.
The disaster began during a systems test on Saturday, 26 April 1986 at reactor number four of the Chernobyl plant, which is near the city of Pripyat and in proximity to the administrative border with Belarus and the Dnieper river. There was a sudden and unexpected power surge, and when an emergency shutdown was attempted, an exponentially larger spike in power output occurred, which led to a reactor vessel rupture and a series of steam explosions. These events exposed the graphite moderator of the reactor to air, causing it to ignite. The resulting fire sent a plume of highly radioactive fallout into the atmosphere and over an extensive geographical area, including Pripyat. The plume drifted over large parts of the western Soviet Union and Europe. From 1986 to 2000, 350,400 people were evacuated and resettled from the most severely contaminated areas of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. According to official post-Soviet data, about 60% of the fallout landed in Belarus.
The accident raised concerns about the safety of the Soviet nuclear power industry, as well as nuclear power in general, slowing its expansion for a number of years and forcing the Soviet government to become less secretive about its procedures. The government coverup of the Chernobyl disaster was a “catalyst” for glasnost, which “paved the way for reforms leading to the Soviet collapse”.
Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus have been burdened with the continuing and substantial decontamination and health care costs of the Chernobyl accident. A report by the International Atomic Energy Agency examines the environmental consequences of the accident. Another UN agency, UNSCEAR, has estimated a global collective dose of radiation exposure from the accident “equivalent on average to 21 additional days of world exposure to natural background radiation”; individual doses were far higher than the global mean among those most exposed, including 530,000 local recovery workers who averaged an effective dose equivalent to an extra 50 years of typical natural background radiation exposure each, Estimates of the number of deaths that will eventually result from the accident vary enormously; disparities reflect both the lack of solid scientific data and the different methodologies used to quantify mortality – whether the discussion is confined to specific geographical areas or extends worldwide, and whether the deaths are immediate, short term, or long term.
Thirty one deaths are directly attributed to the accident, all among the reactor staff and emergency workers. An UNSCEAR report places the total confirmed deaths from radiation at 64 as of 2008. The Chernobyl Forum predicts the eventual death toll could reach 4,000 among those exposed to the highest levels of radiation (200,000 emergency workers, 116,000 evacuees and 270,000 residents of the most contaminated areas); this figure is a total causal death toll prediction, combining the deaths of approximately 50 emergency workers who died soon after the accident fromacute radiation syndrome, nine children who have died of thyroid cancer and a future predicted total of 3940 deaths from radiation-induced cancer and leukemia.
In a peer reviewed publication in the International Journal of Cancer in 2006, the authors of which, following a different conclusion methodology to the Chernobyl forum study, which arrived at the total predicted, 4000, death toll after cancer survival rates were factored in, the paper stated, without entering into a discussion on deaths, that in terms of total excess cancers attributed to the accident:
The risk projections suggest that by now Chernobyl may have caused about 1,000 cases of thyroid cancer and 4,000 cases of other cancers in Europe, representing about 0.01% of all incident cancers since the accident. Models predict that by 2065 about 16,000 cases of thyroid cancer and 25,000 cases of other cancers may be expected due to radiation from the accident, whereas several hundred million cancer cases are expected from other causes.
Also based upon extrapolations from the linear no-threshold model of radiation induced damage, down to zero, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that, among the hundreds of millions of people living in broader geographical areas, there will be 50,000 excess cancer cases resulting in 25,000 excess cancer deaths.
For this broader group, the 2006 TORCH report, commissioned by the European Greens political party, predicts 30,000 to 60,000 excess cancer deaths.
In terms of non-scientific publications, two affiliated with the anti-nuclear advocacy group Greenpeace, have been released, one of which reports the figure at 200,000 or more. The Russian founder of that regions chapter of Greenpeace, also authored a book titled Chernobyl:Consequences of the Catastrophe…, which concludes that among the billions of people worldwide who were exposed to radioactive contamination from the disaster, nearly a million premature cancer deaths occurred between 1986 and 2004.
The book however has failed the peer review process five reviews were published in the academic press, with four of them considering the book severely flawed and contradictory, and one praising it while noting some shortcomings. The review by M. I. Balonov published by the New York Academy of Sciences concludes that the value of the report is negative, because it has very little scientific merit while being highly misleading to the lay reader. It also characterized the estimate of nearly a million deaths as more in the realm of science fiction than science.
On 26 April 1986, at 01:23 (UTC+3), reactor four suffered a catastrophic power increase, leading to explosions in its core. This dispersed large quantities of radioactive fuel and core materials into the atmosphere and ignited the combustible graphite moderator. The burning graphite moderator increased the emission of radioactive particles, carried by the smoke, as the reactor had not been encased by any kind of hard containment vessel. The accident occurred during an experiment scheduled to test a potential safety emergency core cooling feature, which took place during a normal shutdown procedure.
At 1:23:04 a.m. the experiment began. Four of the Main Circulating Pumps (MCP) were active; of the eight total, six are normally active during regular operation. The steam to the turbines was shut off, beginning a run-down of the turbine generator. The diesel generator started and sequentially picked up loads; the generators were to have completely picked up the MCPs’ power needs by 01:23:43. In the interim, the power for the MCPs was to be supplied by the turbine generator as it coasted down. As the momentum of the turbine generator decreased, however, so did the power it produced for the pumps. The water flow rate decreased, leading to increased formation of steam voids (bubbles) in the core.
Because of the positive void coefficient of the RBMK reactor at low reactor power levels, it was now primed to embark on a positive feedback loop, in which the formation of steam voids reduced the ability of the liquid water coolant to absorb neutrons, which in turn increased the reactor’s power output. This caused yet more water to flash into steam, giving yet a further power increase. During almost the entire period of the experiment the automatic control system successfully counteracted this positive feedback, continuously inserting control rods into the reactor core to limit the power rise. However, this system had control of only 12 rods, and nearly all others had been manually retracted.
At 1:23:40, as recorded by the SKALA centralized control system, an emergency shutdown of the reactor, which inadvertently triggered the explosion, was initiated. The SCRAM was started when the EPS-5 button (also known as the AZ-5 button) of the reactor emergency protection system was pressed: this engaged the drive mechanism on all control rods to fully insert them, including the manual control rods that had been incautiously withdrawn earlier. The reason why the EPS-5 button was pressed is not known, whether it was done as an emergency measure in response to rising temperatures, or simply as a routine method of shutting down the reactor upon completion of the experiment.
There is a view that the SCRAM may have been ordered as a response to the unexpected rapid power increase, although there is no recorded data conclusively proving this. Some have suggested that the button was not pressed, and instead the signal was automatically produced by the emergency protection system; however, the SKALA clearly registered a manual SCRAM signal. In spite of this, the question as to when or even whether the EPS-5 button was pressed has been the subject of debate. There are assertions that the pressure was caused by the rapid power acceleration at the start, and allegations that the button was not pressed until the reactor began to self-destruct but others assert that it happened earlier and in calm conditions.
After the EPS-5 button was pressed, the insertion of control rods into the reactor core began. The control rod insertion mechanism moved the rods at 0.4 m/s, so that the rods took 18 to 20 seconds to travel the full height of the core, about 7 meters. A bigger problem was a flawed graphite-tip control rod design, which initially displaced neutron-absorbing coolant with moderating graphite before introducing replacement neutron-absorbing boron material to slow the reaction. As a result, the SCRAM actually increased the reaction rate in the upper half of the core as the tips displaced water. This behavior was known after a shutdown of another RBMK reactor induced an initial power spike, but as the SCRAM of that reactor was successful, the information was not widely disseminated.
A few seconds after the start of the SCRAM, the graphite rod tips entered the fuel pile. A massive power spike occurred, and the core overheated, causing some of the fuel rods to fracture, blocking the control rod columns and jamming the control rods at one-third insertion, with the graphite tips in the middle of the core. Within three seconds the reactor output rose above 530 MW.
The subsequent course of events was not registered by instruments; it is known only as a result of mathematical simulation. Apparently, the power spike caused an increase in fuel temperature and massive steam buildup, leading to a rapid increase in steam pressure. This caused the fuel cladding to fail, releasing the fuel elements into the coolant, and rupturing the channels in which these elements were located.
Then, according to some estimations, the reactor jumped to around 30,000 MW thermal, ten times the normal operational output. The last reading on the control panel was 33,000 MW. It was not possible to reconstruct the precise sequence of the processes that led to the destruction of the reactor and the power unit building, but a steam explosion, like the explosion of a steam boiler from excess vapor pressure, appears to have been the next event. There is a general understanding that it was steam from the wrecked fuel channels escaping into the reactor’s exterior cooling structure that caused the destruction of the reactor casing, tearing off and lifting the 2,000-ton upper plate, to which the entire reactor assembly is fastened, sending it through the roof of the reactor building. Apparently, this was the first explosion that many heard. This explosion ruptured further fuel channels, as well as severing most of the coolant lines feeding the reactor chamber, and as a result the remaining coolant flashed to steam and escaped the reactor core. The total water loss in combination with a high positive void coefficient further increased the reactor’s thermal power.
A series of operator actions, including the disabling of automatic shutdown mechanisms, preceded the attempted test early on 26 April. By the time that the operator moved to shut down the reactor, the reactor was in an extremely unstable condition. A peculiarity of the design of the control rods caused a dramatic power surge as they were inserted into the reactor (see Chernobyl Accident Appendix 1: Sequence of Events).
The interaction of very hot fuel with the cooling water led to fuel fragmentation along with rapid steam production and an increase in pressure. The design characteristics of the reactor were such that substantial damage to even three or four fuel assemblies can – and did – result in the destruction of the reactor. The overpressure caused the 1000 t cover plate of the reactor to become partially detached, rupturing the fuel channels and jamming all the control rods, which by that time were only halfway down. Intense steam generation then spread throughout the whole core (fed by water dumped into the core due to the rupture of the emergency cooling circuit) causing a steam explosion and releasing fission products to the atmosphere. About two to three seconds later, a second explosion threw out fragments from the fuel channels and hot graphite. There is some dispute among experts about the character of this second explosion, but it is likely to have been caused by the production of hydrogen from zirconium-steam reactions.
Two workers died as a result of these explosions. The graphite (about a quarter of the 1200 tonnes of it was estimated to have been ejected) and fuel became incandescent and started a number of firesf, causing the main release of radioactivity into the environment. A total of about 14 EBq (14 x 1018 Bq) of radioactivity was released, over half of it being from biologically-inert noble gases.*
*The figure of 5.2 EBq is also quoted, this being “iodine-131 equivalent” – 1.8 EBq iodine and 85 PBq Cs-137 multiplied by 40 due its longevity, and ignoring the 6.5 EBq xenon-33 and some minor or short-lived nuclides.
About 200-300 tonnes of water per hour was injected into the intact half of the reactor using the auxiliary feedwater pumps but this was stopped after half a day owing to the danger of it flowing into and flooding units 1 and 2. From the second to tenth day after the accident, some 5000 tonnes of boron, dolomite, sand, clay and lead were dropped on to the burning core by helicopter in an effort to extinguish the blaze and limit the release of radioactive particles.
The accident caused the largest uncontrolled radioactive release into the environment ever recorded for any civilian operation, and large quantities of radioactive substances were released into the air for about 10 days. This caused serious social and economic disruption for large populations in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. Two radionuclides, the short-lived iodine-131 and the long-lived caesium-137, were particularly significant for the radiation dose they delivered to members of the public.
It is estimated that all of the xenon gas, about half of the iodine and caesium, and at least 5% of the remaining radioactive material in the Chernobyl 4 reactor core (which had 192 tonnes of fuel) was released in the accident. Most of the released material was deposited close by as dust and debris, but the lighter material was carried by wind over the Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and to some extent over Scandinavia and Europe.
The casualties included firefighters who attended the initial fires on the roof of the turbine building. All these were put out in a few hours, but radiation doses on the first day were estimated to range up to 20,000 millisieverts (mSv), causing 28 deaths – six of which were firemen – by the end of July 1986.
The next task was cleaning up the radioactivity at the site so that the remaining three reactors could be restarted, and the damaged reactor shielded more permanently. About 200,000 people (‘liquidators’) from all over the Soviet Union were involved in the recovery and clean-up during 1986 and 1987. They received high doses of radiation, averaging around 100 millisieverts. Some 20,000 of them received about 250 mSv and a few received 500 mSv. Later, the number of liquidators swelled to over 600,000 but most of these received only low radiation doses. The highest doses were received by about 1000 emergency workers and on-site personnel during the first day of the accident.
Initial radiation exposure in contaminated areas was due to short-lived iodine-131; later caesium-137 was the main hazard. (Both are fission products dispersed from the reactor core, with half lives of 8 days and 30 years, respectively. 1.8 EBq of I-131 and 0.085 EBq of Cs-137 were released.) About five million people lived in areas of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine contaminated (above 37 kBq/m2 Cs-137 in soil) and about 400,000 lived in more contaminated areas of strict control by authorities (above 555 kBq/m2 Cs-137).
The plant operators’ town of Pripyat was evacuated on 27 April (45,000 residents). By 14 May, some 116,000 people that had been living within a 30-kilometre radius had been evacuated and later relocated. About 1000 of these returned unofficially to live within the contaminated zone. Most of those evacuated received radiation doses of less than 50 mSv, although a few received 100 mSv or more.
In the years following the accident, a further 220,000 people were resettled into less contaminated areas, and the initial 30 km radius exclusion zone (2800 km2) was modified and extended to cover 4300 square kilometres. This resettlement was due to application of a criterion of 350 mSv projected lifetime radiation dose, though in fact radiation in most of the affected area (apart from half a square kilometre) fell rapidly so that average doses were less than 50% above normal background of 2.5 mSv/yr. See also following section on Resettlement.
An inactive nuclear reactor continues to generate a significant amount of residual decay heat. In an initial shut-down state (for example, following an emergency SCRAM) the reactor produces around 7 percent of its total thermal output and requires cooling to avoid core damage. RBMK reactors, like those at Chernobyl, use water as a coolant. Reactor 4 at Chernobyl consisted of about 1,600 individual fuel channels; each required a coolant flow of 28 metric tons (28,000 liters or 7,400 US gallons) per hour.
To solve this one-minute gap, considered an unacceptable safety risk, it had been theorised that rotational energy from the steam turbine (as it wound down under residual steam pressure) could be used to generate the required electrical power. Analysis indicated that this residual momentum and steam pressure might be sufficient to run the coolant pumps for 45 seconds, bridging the gap between an external power failure and the full availability of the emergency generators.
This capability still needed to be confirmed experimentally, and previous tests had ended unsuccessfully. An initial test carried out in 1982 showed that the excitation voltage of the turbine-generator was insufficient; it did not maintain the desired magnetic field after the turbine trip. The system was modified, and the test was repeated in 1984 but again proved unsuccessful. In 1985, the tests were attempted a third time but also yielded negative results. The test procedure was to be repeated again in 1986, and it was scheduled to take place during the maintenance shutdown of Reactor Four.
The test focused on the switching sequences of the electrical supplies for the reactor. The test procedure was to begin with an automatic emergency shutdown. No detrimental effect on the safety of the reactor was anticipated, so the test program was not formally coordinated with either the chief designer of the reactor (NIKIET) or the scientific manager. Instead, it was approved only by the director of the plant (and even this approval was not consistent with established procedures).
According to the test parameters, the thermal output of the reactor should have been no lower than 700 MW at the start of the experiment. If test conditions had been as planned, the procedure would almost certainly have been carried out safely; the eventual disaster resulted from attempts to boost the reactor output once the experiment had been started, which was inconsistent with approved procedure.
The Chernobyl power plant had been in operation for two years without the capability to ride through the first 60–75 seconds of a total loss of electric power, and thus lacked an important safety feature. The station managers presumably wished to correct this at the first opportunity, which may explain why they continued the test even when serious problems arose, and why the requisite approval for the test had not been sought from the Soviet nuclear oversight regulator (even though there was a representative at the complex of 4 reactors).
The experimental procedure was intended to run as follows:
- The reactor was to be running at a low power level, between 700 MW and 800 MW.
- The steam-turbine generator was to be run up to full speed.
- When these conditions were achieved, the steam supply for the turbine generator was to be closed off.
- Turbine generator performance was to be recorded to determine whether it could provide the bridging power for coolant pumps until the emergency diesel generators were sequenced to start and provide power to the cooling pumps automatically.
- After the emergency generators reached normal operating speed and voltage, the turbine generator would be allowed to freewheel down.
The conditions to run the test were established before the day shift of 25 April 1986. The day shift workers had been instructed in advance and were familiar with the established procedures. A special team of electrical engineers was present to test the new voltage regulating system. As planned, a gradual reduction in the output of the power unit was begun at 01:06 on 25 April, and the power level had reached 50% of its nominal 3200 MW thermal level by the beginning of the day shift.
At this point, another regional power station unexpectedly went offline, and the Kiev electrical grid controller requested that the further reduction of Chernobyl’s output be postponed, as power was needed to satisfy the peak evening demand. The Chernobyl plant director agreed, and postponed the test. Despite this postponement, preparations for the test not affecting the reactor’s power were carried out, including the disabling of the emergency core cooling system or ECCS, a passive/active system of core cooling intended to provide water to the core in a loss-of-coolant accident. Given the other events that unfolded, the system would have been of limited use, but its disabling as a “routine” step of the test is an illustration of the inherent lack of attention to safety for this test. In addition, had the reactor been shutdown for the day as planned, it is possible that more preparation would have been taken in advance of the test.
At 23:04, the Kiev grid controller allowed the reactor shut-down to resume. This delay had some serious consequences: the day shift had long since departed, the evening shift was also preparing to leave, and the night shift would not take over until midnight, well into the job. According to plan, the test should have been finished during the day shift, and the night shift would only have had to maintain decay heat cooling systems in an otherwise shut down plant.
The night shift had very limited time to prepare for and carry out the experiment. A further rapid reduction in the power level from 50% was executed during the shift change-over. Alexander Akimovwas chief of the night shift, and Leonid Toptunov was the operator responsible for the reactor’s operational regimen, including the movement of the control rods. Toptunov was a young engineer who had worked independently as a senior engineer for approximately three months.
The test plan called for a gradual reduction in power output from reactor 4 to a thermal level of 700–1000 MW. An output of 700 MW was reached at 00:05 on 26 April. However, due to the natural production of xenon-135, a neutron absorber, core power continued to decrease without further operator action—a process known as reactor poisoning. As the reactor power output dropped further, to approximately 500 MW, Toptunov mistakenly inserted the control rods too far—the exact circumstances leading to this are unknown because Akimov and Toptunov died in the hospital on May 10 and 14, respectively. This combination of factors rendered the reactor in an unintended near-shutdown state, with a power output of 30 MW thermal or less.
The reactor was now only producing around 5 percent of the minimum initial power level established as safe for the test.Control-room personnel consequently made the decision to restore power by disabling the automatic system governing the control rods and manually extracting the majority of the reactor control rods to their upper limits. Several minutes elapsed between their extraction and the point that the power output began to increase and subsequently stabilize at 160–200 MW (thermal), a much smaller value than the planned 700 MW. The rapid reduction in the power during the initial shutdown, and the subsequent operation at a level of less than 200 MW led to increased poisoning of the reactor core by the accumulation of xenon-135. This restricted any further rise of reactor power, and made it necessary to extract additional control rods from the reactor core in order to counteract the poisoning.
Several organisations have reported on the impacts of the Chernobyl accident, but all have had problems assessing the significance of their observations because of the lack of reliable public health information before 1986.
In 1989, the World Health Organization (WHO) first raised concerns that local medical scientists had incorrectly attributed various biological and health effects to radiation exposureg. Following this, the Government of the USSR requested the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to coordinate an international experts’ assessment of accident’s radiological, environmental and health consequences in selected towns of the most heavily contaminated areas in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. Between March 1990 and June 1991, a total of 50 field missions were conducted by 200 experts from 25 countries (including the USSR), seven organisations, and 11 laboratories3 . In the absence of pre-1986 data, it compared a control population with those exposed to radiation. Significant health disorders were evident in both control and exposed groups, but, at that stage, none was radiation related.
Subsequent studies in the Ukraine, Russia and Belarus were based on national registers of over one million people possibly affected by radiation. By 2000, about 4000 cases of thyroid cancer had been diagnosed in exposed children. However, the rapid increase in thyroid cancers detected suggests that some of it at least is an artifact of the screening process. Thyroid cancer is usually not fatal if diagnosed and treated early.
In February 2003, the IAEA established the Chernobyl Forum, in cooperation with seven other UN organisations as well as the competent authorities of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. In April 2005, the reports prepared by two expert groups – “Environment”, coordinated by the IAEA, and “Health”, coordinated by WHO – were intensively discussed by the Forum and eventually approved by consensus. The conclusions of this 2005 Chernobyl Forum study (revised version published 2006i) are in line with earlier expert studies, notably the UNSCEAR 2000 reportj which said that “apart from this [thyroid cancer] increase, there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure 14 years after the accident. There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality or in non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure.” As yet there is little evidence of any increase in leukaemia, even among clean-up workers where it might be most expected. However, these workers – where high doses may have been received – remain at increased risk of cancer in the long term. Apart from these, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) says that “the great majority of the population is not likely to experience serious health consequences as a result of radiation from the Chernobyl accident. Many other health problems have been noted in the populations that are not related to radiation exposure.”
The Chernobyl Forum report says that people in the area have suffered a paralysing fatalism due to myths and misperceptions about the threat of radiation, which has contributed to a culture of chronic dependency. Some “took on the role of invalids.” Mental health coupled with smoking and alcohol abuse is a very much greater problem than radiation, but worst of all at the time was the underlying level of health and nutrition. Apart from the initial 116,000, relocations of people were very traumatic and did little to reduce radiation exposure, which was low anyway. Psycho-social effects among those affected by the accident are similar to those arising from other major disasters such as earthquakes, floods and fires.
According to the most up-to-date estimate of UNSCEAR, the average radiation dose due to the accident received by inhabitants of ‘strict radiation control’ areas (population 216,000) in the years 1986 to 2005 was 31 mSv (over the 20-year period), and in the ‘contaminated’ areas (population 6.4 million) it averaged 9 mSv, a minor increase over the dose due to background radiation over the same period (about 50 mSv)4.
The numbers of deaths resulting from the accident are covered in the Report of the Chernobyl Forum Expert Group “Health”, and are summarised in Chernobyl Accident Appendix 2: Health Impacts. A fuller, and most the most recent, account of health effects is provided by an annex to the UNSCEAR 2008 report, released in 2011.
Some exaggerated figures have been published regarding the death toll attributable to the Chernobyl disaster. A publication by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)6 lent support to these. However, the Chairman of UNSCEAR made it clear that “this report is full of unsubstantiated statements that have no support in scientific assessments”k, and the Chernobyl Forum report also repudiates them.
A particularly sad effect of the accident was that some physicians in Europe advised pregnant women to undergo abortions on account of radiation exposure, even though the levels concerned were vastly below those likely to have teratogenic effects. The foetal death toll from this is likely very much greater than directly from the accident.
UNSCEAR in 2011 concludes: In summary, the effects of the Chernobyl accident are many and varied. Early deterministic effects can be attributed to radiation with a high degree of certainty, while for other medical conditions, radiation almost certainly was not the cause. In between, there was a wide spectrum of conditions. It is necessary to evaluate carefully each specific condition and the surrounding circumstances before attributing a cause.
A valuable paper by Dr Zbigniew Jaworowski, former Chairman of UNSCEAR, on The Chernobyl Disaster and how it has been Understood is available from WNA. It argues that prevailing assumptions about the health effects of radiation led to a great deal of unnecessary suffering and harm.
The radiation levels in the worst-hit areas of the reactor building have been estimated to be 5.6 roentgens per second (R/s) (1.4 milliamperes per kilogram), equivalent to more than 20,000 roentgens per hour. A lethal dose is around 500 roentgens (5Gy, 0.13 coulombs per kilogram) over 5 hours, so in some areas, unprotected workers received fatal doses in less than a minute. However, a dosimeter capable of measuring up to 1,000 R/s (0.3 A/kg) was buried in the rubble of a collapsed part of the building, and another one failed when turned on. All remaining dosimeters had limits of 0.001 R/s (0.3 µA/kg) and therefore read “off scale”. Thus, the reactor crew could ascertain only that the radiation levels were somewhere above 0.001 R/s (3.6 R/h, or 0.3 µA/kg), while the true levels were much higher in some areas.
Because of the inaccurate low readings, the reactor crew chief Alexander Akimov assumed that the reactor was intact. The evidence of pieces of graphite and reactor fuel lying around the building was ignored, and the readings of another dosimeter brought in by 04:30 were dismissed under the assumption that the new dosimeter must have been defective. Akimov stayed with his crew in the reactor building until morning, sending members of his crew to try to pump water into the reactor. None of them wore any protective gear. Most, including Akimov, died from radiation exposure within three weeks.
- 1:26:03 – fire alarm activated
- 1:28 – arrival of local firefighters, Pravik’s guard
- 1:35 – arrival of firefighters from Pripyat, Kibenok’s guard
- 1:40 – arrival of Telyatnikov
- 2:10 – turbine hall roof fire extinguished
- 2:30 – main reactor hall roof fires suppressed
- 3:30 – arrival of Kiev firefighters
- 4:50 – fires mostly localized
- 6:35 – all fires extinguished
Chernobyl unit 4 is now enclosed in a large concrete shelter which was erected quickly (by October 1986) to allow continuing operation of the other reactors at the plant. However, the structure is neither strong nor durable. The international Shelter Implementation Plan in the 1990s involved raising money for remedial work including removal of the fuel-containing materials. Some major work on the shelter was carried out in 1998 and 1999. Some 200 tonnes of highly radioactive material remains deep within it, and this poses an environmental hazard until it is better contained.
A New Safe Confinement structure is due to be completed in 2016, being built adjacent and then moved into place on rails. It is to be a 20,000 tonne arch 108 metres high, 150 metres long and spanning 257 metres, to cover both unit 4 and the hastily-built 1986 structure. The arch frame is a lattice construction of tubular steel members, equipped with internal cranes. The design and construction contract for this was signed in 2007 with the Novarka consortium and preparatory work on site was completed in 2010. Construction started in April 2012 and is expected to take four years. The hermetically sealed building will allow engineers to remotely dismantle the 1986 structure that has shielded the remains of the reactor from the weather since the weeks after the accident. It will enable the eventual removal of materials containing nuclear fuel and accommodate their characterisation, compaction and packing for disposal. This task represents the most important step in eliminating nuclear hazard at the site – and the real start of decommissioning. The NSC will facilitate remote handling of these dangerous materials, using as few personnel as possible.
The Chernobyl Shelter Fund, set up in 1997, had received €864 million from international donors by early 2011 towards this project and previous work. It and the Nuclear Safety Account, set up in 1993, are managed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). The NSA had received €321 million by early 2011 for Chernobyl decommissioning and also for projects in other ex-Soviet countries. The total cost of the new shelter is estimated by the Ukraine government to be €935 million. In April 2011 an extra €550 million was pledged for the Shelter Fund, including €120 million from EBRD, €110 from EC, and £28.5 million from the UK. In December 2012 the Ukraine government said that €90 million just received from EBRD would enable completions of the NSC project, bringing total contributions to EUR 740 million, €550 million of this from international sources.
Used fuel from units 1 to 3 is stored in each unit’s cooling pond, in a small interim spent fuel storage facility pond (ISF-1), and in the reactor of unit 3.
In 1999, a contract was signed with Framatome (now Areva) for construction of a radioactive waste management facility to store 25,000 used fuel assemblies from units 1-3 and other operational wastes, as well as material from decommissioning units 1-3 (which are the first RBMK units decommissioned anywhere). The contract included a processing facility, able to cut the RBMK fuel assemblies and to put the material in canisters, which would be filled with inert gas and welded shut. They would then be transported to dry storage vaults in which the fuel containers would be enclosed for up to 100 years. This facility, treating 2500 fuel assemblies per year, would be the first of its kind for RBMK fuel.
However, after a significant part of the ISF-1 dry storage facility had been built, technical deficiencies in the concept emerged in 2003, and the contract was terminated amicably in 2007. Some further work on the structure has taken place since, but EBRD says that the licence for ISF-1 is unlikely to be renewed after 2016. It currently holds much of the spent fuel from units 1-3, and will apparently hold all of it by the end of 2013. Most of the fuel assemblies are straightforward to handle, but about 50 are damaged and require special handling.
Holtec International became the contractor in September 2007 for new interim spent fuel storage facility (ISF-2 or SNF SF-2) now being completed by mid-2014 for the state-owned Chernobyl NPP. Design approval and funding from EBRD’s Nuclear Safety Account was confirmed in October 2010. The facility will accommodate 21,217 RBMK fuel assemblies in dry storage for a 100-year service life. It was licensed in March 2013, allowing stage 2 to proceed to 2015.
In April 2009, Nukem handed over a turnkey waste treatment centre for solid radioactive waste (ICSRM, Industrial Complex for Radwaste Management). In May 2010, the State Nuclear Regulatory Committee licensed the commissioning of this facility, where solid low- and intermediate-level wastes accumulated from the power plant operations and the decommissioning of reactor blocks 1 to 3 is conditioned. The wastes are processed in three steps. First, the solid radioactive wastes temporarily stored in bunkers is removed for treatment. In the next step, these wastes, as well as those from decommissioning reactor blocks 1-3, are processed into a form suitable for permanent safe disposal. Low- and intermediate-level wastes are separated into combustible, compactable, and non-compactable categories. These are then subject to incineration, high-force compaction, and cementation respectively. In addition, highly radioactive and long-lived solid waste is sorted out for temporary separate storage. In the third step, the conditioned solid waste materials are transferred to containers suitable for permanent safe storage.
As part of this project, at the end of 2007, Nukem handed over an Engineered Near Surface Disposal Facility for storage of short-lived radioactive waste after prior conditioning. It is 17 km away from the power plant, at the Vektor complex within the 30-km zone. The storage area is designed to hold 55,000 m3 of treated waste which will be subject to radiological monitoring for 300 years, by when the radioactivity will have decayed to such an extent that monitoring is no longer required.
Another contract has been let for a Liquid Radioactive Waste Treatment Plant, to handle some 35,000 cubic metres of low- and intermediate-level liquid wastes at the site. This will need to be solidified and eventually buried along with solid wastes on site.
In January 2008, the Ukraine government announced a four-stage decommissioning plan which incorporates the above waste activities and progresses towards a cleared site.