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The lessons of Chernobyl
25.04.07
MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Tatyana Sinitsyna) –

Ever since the explosion of Unit 4 on April 26, 1986, the word Chernobyl has come to symbolize the worst man-made disaster of the 20th century. It produced a tremendous radiation emission, human victims, broken lives, severe health problems, huge material losses, great stress, and radioactive contamination of enormous territories.

On the day of the tragedy, the winds took the rising plume of radioactive dust from the banks of the Pripyat River and carried it all over the world. Abnormal radiation levels were registered on tea plantations in the Caucasus Mountains, in California and even in the ice of the Antarctic. Europe was the hardest hit – dust settled in Poland, Bulgaria, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Britain and other countries.

Who was to blame for the disaster? It would seem that this question must have been exhausted by now, but it is being raised over and over again. “What is still unclear? The bodies in charge of nuclear and radiation safety and IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] experts have drawn their conclusions; the trial was held. There are no grounds to doubt the opinion of serious experts,” said Professor Alexander Borovoy from the Kurchatov Institute Russian Research Center, who headed a group of scientists in Chernobyl for many years.

“Journalists are still giving me a hard time, but I do not want to answer this question because it conceals the intention to condemn people who went through hell, those whose bodies and souls were burnt, who died an agonizing death. I have no right to be a judge of my late teachers who gave us nuclear energy and nuclear weapons that have protected us up to this day. Only one question matters for me: Has everything been done to avoid a repetition of Chernobyl? The answer is yes.”

In the 21 years since the accident, Chernobyl has been visited by thousands of experts from all over the world. They meticulously uncovered what had happened, conducted studies and drew conclusions together. Nevertheless, there are still people who call everything into doubt. They are engaged in heated debates and keep coming up with new, far-fetched hypotheses.

For instance, they conjure up the image of the KGB, which ostensibly “got scared by perestroika,” or they talk about a “nuclear explosion of plutonium,” which the plant’s personnel were allegedly producing in secret. Sometimes, the disaster has been blamed on an earthquake that for some reason was limited to Unit 4, or even presented as a terrorist attack. The conspiracy theorists discovered some yellow stains that they presented as evidence – traces of explosives. In reality, these stains were left by uranium acid. One version was truly fantastic. Its proponents claimed that a “nearby anti-ballistic-missile facility released large doses of radiation that affected the psyche of the night shift at the nuclear plant.”

But everything was much simpler than that. On the eve of the tragedy, at 2:25 p.m. on April 25, a young woman called from Kiev, and demanded in no uncertain terms that the station’s personnel should turn Unit 4 back on and put off an experiment that was already under way. The angry girl merely relayed the orders of her bosses. The engineers objected but eventually carried out the instructions. The unit worked for nine hours under dangerous circumstances, and finally exploded in response to the personnel’s inadmissible actions.

After the disaster, the term “Chernobyl-type reactor” became a synonym for mortal danger and unreliability. It is referred to by its Russian initials, RBMK, which stand for high-power channel-type reactor. One of the leaders of the Russian Green movement, Alexei Yablokov, categorized as insane the government’s decision to continue the mothballed construction of an RBMK-type reactor at the Kursk nuclear power station.

But experts maintain that the risk of an accident involving RBMK reactors is truly negligible: 1 million reactor years. “This means that if a reactor worked for the incredibly long period of 1 million years, it might explode by accident. But its average service life is between 30 and 40 years, so in practical terms the probability of an accident is zero,” explained Boris Gorbachev, a physicist from Chernobyl.

But the RBMK design still had a weak point: it did not fully consider the human factor and allowed an operator to interfere in its program (the upgraded version rules this out). It was assumed that a nuclear specialist simply could not make a mistake. But, regrettably, neither the director of the station nor the chief operating officer understood the physics of a nuclear plant; they were ordinary specialists in power engineering. Two years before the tragedy, government officials decided to assign nuclear power stations to the Ministry of Electrification; previously they had been part of the nuclear complex. This was the first step on the road to the disaster.

A protective sarcophagus (as high as a 25-storey building) was erected over the destroyed unit to contain the radioactive debris. It became a source of increasing concern because of a possible chain reaction – it contained 180 metric tons of radioactive fuel. The shelter was still spewing radiation and builders could not work in its vicinity. As a result, the sarcophagus developed cracks with a total area of about 1,000 square meters through which plutonium dust escaped. The structure of the old sarcophagus was unreliable because it rested on the unit’s surviving walls.

It was only 10 years after the disaster that the Chernobyl Shelter Fund (CSF) was set up to fund the Shelter Implementation Plan (SIP). Western countries agreed to cough up the required 1 billion dollars. The new shelter should reliably isolate the nuclear debris for about 100 years. It will be one of the saddest but also one of the most instructive monuments on Earth.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti. -0-