September 26, 2017

Photo Essay: Nuclear Reactions On the Periphery of Disaster

When I signed up to go visit the Chernobyl disaster site, I was imagining the photos of the ghost towns I'd seen—or, what turned out to be the ghost town of Chernobyl, Pripyat.

I didn't really think much about the actual reactor that blew up. It didn't occur to me that we would be able to get very close to it or inside the power plant at all.

I was wrong. Boy, was I wrong. And I was not prepared mentally for what I was to experience while at Chernobyl.

And it's true, you can't go into the actual explosion site. It was quickly covered with a concrete "sarcophagus" after the accident to contain the molten and highly radioactive remains of the blast—a lethal combination of uranium, zirconium, graphite, and concrete that created perhaps the deadliest substance in the world, corium.

When that sarcophagus began to crumble and compromise the quarantine of the amalgam at the core—which had solidified into a shape dubbed "The Elephant's Foot"—several countries around the world pitched in to fund a brand-new safety containment structure.

That one, which was completed last November, covers up most of what was left to see of the rubble. It's expected to last 100 years.

Thankfully, the accident of April 26, 1986 was isolated to just one reactor, Number 4. Reactors 1-3 still worked and were more or less untouched functionally by the accident—though Number 1 had already experienced a meltdown of its own back in 1982 (something that wasn't disclosed publicly until several years later).

The first three reactors were shut down in the wake of the disaster, but only temporarily.

In fact, Reactor 1 continued to operate through 1996. Reactor 2 only shut down in 1991 after it caught fire. And Reactor 3, the final straw for the electricity-producing capacity of the plant, didn't shut down until the year 2000.

By 2015, the State Inspectorate for Nuclear Regulation of Ukraine had ordered all three of those reactors to be officially decommissioned—typically a slow, bureaucratic process to complete.

That is to say, don't hold your breath.

But those weren't the only reactors at the Chernobyl Atomic Plant (Чорнобильська атомна електростанція).

Construction had begun on two others, Numbers 5 and 6.

And though it was never completed, there's enough of Reactor 5 to walk through and get a pretty clear sense of what Number 4 must've been like before a star called "Wormwood" (чернобыль) poisoned the waters (if you believe in conspiracies and prophecies and such).

Thank goodness we had a nuclear physicist in our group.

Our first stop was to the cooling tower of Reactor 5...

...which was so radioactive that we had to limit our meandering to the interior periphery of the hyperboloid-shaped structure.

Most cooling towers for nuclear power plants use water or steam to give off excess (or "waste") heat that's not needed in the process of producing power.

And when you've got a reactor that's designed to generate up to 1000 megawatts, you can bet it's going to get pretty hot.

After the conflagration at Reactor 4, however, its successors—both 5 and 6—were doomed to a state of arrested development, Number 5 having been halted at only 70% complete.

They have not, however, been stabilized into a state of arrested decay.

As quickly as things can fall apart when their completed versions have been abandoned suddenly...

...the abandonment of anything that was never finished leaves it particularly vulnerable.

And that which is left unfinished is even more susceptible to vandalism and the encroachment of the elements.

As the surrounding wilderness advances and consumes them, and various forms of life make their recovery (some, at a snail's pace)...

...there's a limited opportunity to witness firsthand anything that's recognizable beyond just being a radioactive ruin.

Some of the floors never got their final layer of concrete poured over their reinforcements.

Rebar is rusting and buckling. Rivets are popping out. Catwalks are wobbling. Elevator shafts are ravenous for fallen legs and dropped wallets and phones.

Standing water is collecting, stagnant, and surely irradiated.

What went up is stuck up there, and it's not coming down without a fight.

And when it does come down, it will do so spectacularly, in a cascade of red oxidation and regret.

And yet for now, it still stands there in the shadow of the newly-contained Reactor 4, which is doing its best to not only keep everything in, but also keep everybody out.

Some workers have been assigned to tend The Elephant's Foot, but their shifts last mere minutes.

Initially, the liquidators (a.k.a. the clean-up crew) could only spend a maximum of a minute or two in there—and, even then, many of them perished from radiation illness.

More than 31 years later, the maximum duration that anyone can stand inside Reactor 4 is just double what it was back then.

But since no reactions ever actually occurred inside Number 5, visitors can take their time exploring the relic.

That is, as long as they avoid the radioactive hotspots caused by the fallout, as it was in such close proximity to the epicenter of the disaster, just a mile and a half away (or so, as the crow flies).

Not only that, but every step must be watched. This place is a death trap—yet another disaster waiting to occur.

If I'd been alone, I probably wouldn't have gone in. But since I was with a group, I didn't really have the option of staying behind.

But now, I can't unsee those sights. I can't unthink those thoughts. I can't put my broken heart back together, as it shattered into increasingly tiny fragments every time I visited someplace new in the surrounding area.

And even though I've been back to LA for over a week, I can't shake the feeling that I had throughout my time in the Exclusion Zone.

I wish it would wear off. But I'm not sure that it should.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Abandoned Hospital Where Radiation Illness Fills The Air
Photo Essay: The Secret Soviet Radar Base Powered By Chernobyl
Photo Essay: Boeing Rocketdyne Santa Susana Field Lab, Declassified & Decontaminating
History in the Making

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