Science: Recalling the Chernobyl Disaster of 1986

The Story:

Given the ongoing war in Ukraine, this may be a good time to recall a disaster that occurred there 36 years ago. In April 1986 a combination of operator error and design flaws led to an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction in the Chernobyl plant that released tremendous amounts of energy into the surrounding environment. The damage was worsened as explosions (the number is disputed — at least two) ruptured the reactor core and demolished the reactor building, leaving an open-air reactor core fire.

What Happened:

The reactor explosion killed two engineers and severely burned two others. Due to the inhalation and absorption of radioactive materials during the emergency response, 134 station staff and firemen were hospitalized. Of those, 28 died in the following days or months. There were 14 other suspected radiation-induced deaths among that group over the next ten years. Broader public-health consequences for the region are difficult to quantify but certain.

For a long time, Chernobyl stood along as the only such disaster on that scale, until in 2011 analogous events played out in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster. The Chernobyl disaster in particular, though, stymied the development of nuclear power in the rest of the world, and helped cement the continued centrality of carbon-based fuels in the way industry is run.

Strange New Worlds:

The nuclear power industry depends on fission reactions: atoms break up and the event causes other atoms to break up, each breaking atom releasing energy. This system has its positives: it releases very little carbon into the atmosphere, for example. But as the two disasters mentioned above show, it has its down side.

There has been work toward an alternative system of nuclear energy, one that would depend upon fusion and arguably be less susceptible to such disasters. Fusion, though, may still be far from commercial use.



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