While taking a break from browsing Business Credit Reports, Chornobyl suddenly enters your thoughts. Maybe you took one look at an image of it online. Maybe you just decided to watch a certain miniseries again, and it is still stuck with you.
36 years have passed since the Chornobyl Power Plant met its demise, yet it is still fresh in the minds of many people. Fiction media such as the game series STALKER and the HBO drama miniseries “Chernobyl” introduce more people to this incident, prompting them to look it up in real life.
36 years later, Pripyat is still a ghost town. Radiation remains as its residents, although not in the same level as the incident since they are decaying. Still, they are to be taken seriously, and getting radiated isn’t worth it in the first place.
The same, however, cannot be said to Chornobyl liquidators, as despite facing an invisible killer, there was no choice but to get there and quickly clean up the mess around Pripyat. Meanwhile, the destroyed roof of the power plant needed a metal sarcophagus to shield the world from radiation.
Skipping straight to attempts to solve the disastrous problem, the biggest issue was that the roof of Reactor 4 was taken off thanks to the reactor’s explosion, which was powerful enough to do such a feat. With the roof open, the many chunks of graphite was an immediate threat due to their dangerous levels of radioactivity.
Another big problem they were facing was that because the burning reactor core was still undergoing nuclear fission, it might get hot enough to melt down through the structure, all the way through the flooded basement and pressure suppression pool. It might even melt through the earth. Either way, this may cause a far, serious explosion.
The fire had to be extinguished at all costs. The scientific man who was instrumental in the Chernobyl containment, Valery Legasov, suggested boronic acid mixed in sand dropped onto the core by helicopters above the roof.
For a few days, a total of 5000 tons of the material were dropped, but almost all of them missed the target, and when they did reach the core, they did little to cool it down.
Draining The Flooded Basement
Meanwhile, the basement of the power plant is flooded with radioactive water, and some of that same water was pumped in by firemen before while they were putting out the fire on the night of the explosion. In the basement were valves that when turned, drained “bubbler pools” beneath the reactor which acted as its coolers.
If that burning core melted through the basement and touched the water, the reaction would cause that supposed second explosion, which could devastate the other three reactors and the rest of the plant.
The job of draining the basement fell on three Chornobyl staff, donned in wetsuits and equipped with a flashlight. The water was only knee deep when they stepped in, and they managed to find the valves and completed the job. All three stepped out and were embraced as heroes.
Today, two of the men are still alive, while the third, Boris Baranov, passed away from a heart attack in 2005.
With the basement taken care of, the earth beneath Chornobyl was the next focused issue. A special fridge would have to be installed underneath the power plant in an attempt to cool the core. Miners were to dig by hand due to concerns that using pneumatic drills would compromise the fragile foundations of the power plant. Working 24 hours a day, their goal was achieved in a month but many died from exposure.
The work turned out to be redundant as the fridge was never implemented in the end. The core cooled down by itself and never melted through the earth.
Clearing The Roof Debris
Before the Sarcophagus can be built over Unit 4’s roof to contain the radiation, the debris must be removed. That roof, which is close to the iconic chimney, wasn’t the only home of radioactivity, as the graphite rained down on Unit 3 too.
Bulldozers would be great if it weren’t for the fact that the roofs were too unstable to support their weight. Tractors shielded with lead panelling were used to work on the roof of the turbine hall, but no higher than that. Instead, robots were at first used.
Most of them were remote controlled and were deployed from across Russia, Germany and Japan. Unfortunately, not even the robots could withstand the radiation. Because of that, there was no choice but to rely on the best robots.
Known as bio-robots, people who were sent to clear the debris were donned in hand sewn lead plated suits that can only be used once as the material absorbed too much radiation by the time they were done. To avoid a life threatening dose, for several seconds or so, a group would go and shovel the graphite out of the roof, then quickly dashed back inside. Another group of men would be next, and the cycle repeated.
The clearing of the graphite enabled the construction of the Sarcophagus over Unit 4’s roof to finally begin. While the construction was ongoing, several cleanup measures were taken in the Chornobyl area.
Pets, especially dogs, roamed around Pripyat carrying radiation. As miserable as it sounded, they had to be shot by soldiers to contain the spread. Some, though, survived and even gave birth to puppies. The dogs in Chornobyl today are mainly descendants of their family, and made most of their wild living in the surrounding woods. Some also received aid from people too, especially locals and a few organizations.
Meanwhile, everything in the 30km Exclusion Zone had to be cleaned. Trucks, apartments, cars, houses. Higher ranking liquidators got to be accommodated in ships moored at the Dnieper River, while the rest had to be billetted in tents.
Pripyat’s soil had to be dug up and replaced with topsoil. Vehicles were also buried in vast pits. Anything that couldn’t be properly contaminated were simply buried. A lot of vehicles were also dumped in the open field, the most prominent example is the Rossokha vehicle graveyard where many, including those that were used in service, were left to rot in radiation.
Liquidators were only given three sets of clothing and were expected to wear those same clothes for the next few months until the cleanup was complete. They were also given respirators or gas masks, but because it was around 30 degrees outside, they were barely used.
Finally, near the end of 1986, the Sarcophagus over Unit 4’s roof was completed. But it wasn’t intended as a final solution to the containment, since it can decay from the radiation. In 2011, the planned New Safe Confinement was put in place and construction was finished by 2018. It is a giant arch sitting over the roof and Sarcophagus.
It was built to last over 100 years, which by then, the decommissioning of Unit 4 would be concluded.
It is the first thing you will likely see if you are on the official Chornobyl tour today and see the power plant yourself.