The April 1986 disaster at the Chernobyla nuclear power plant in Ukraine was the product of a flawed Soviet reactor design coupled with serious mistakes made by the plant operatorsb. It was a direct consequence of Cold War isolation and the resulting lack of any safety culture.
The accident destroyed the Chernobyl 4 reactor, killing 30 operators and firemen within three months and several further deaths later. One person was killed immediately and a second died in hospital soon after as a result of injuries received. Another person is reported to have died at the time from a coronary thrombosisc. Acute radiation syndrome (ARS) was originally diagnosed in 237 people on-site and involved with the clean-up and it was later confirmed in 134 cases. Of these, 28 people died as a result of ARS within a few weeks of the accident. Nineteen more subsequently died between 1987 and 2004 but their deaths cannot necessarily be attributed to radiation exposured. Nobody off-site suffered from acute radiation effects although a large proportion of childhood thyroid cancers diagnosed since the accident is likely to be due to intake of radioactive iodine falloutd. Furthermore, large areas of Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and beyond were contaminated in varying degrees. See also sections below and Chernobyl Accident Appendix 2: Health Impacts.
The Chernobyl disaster was a unique event and the only accident in the history of commercial nuclear power where radiation-related fatalities occurrede. However, the design of the reactor is unique and the accident is thus of little relevance to the rest of the nuclear industry outside the then Eastern Bloc.
The Chernobyl site and plant
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.
Immediate impact of the Chernobyl accident
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).
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.