Maybe it was just because we lived near an airbase that housed nuclear missiles when I was growing up, but as a child it seemed to me that the biggest threats to the world were anything that had the word Nuclear in their title. When I first heard about the idea of a nuclear power plant, the idea just sounded plain wrong to me.
On 26th April 1986 it seemed all the scary stories about nuclear this and that had come true, when the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, in Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union), exploded.
The Chernobyl power plant consisted of four nuclear reactors, and it was reactor number 4 that failed on that fateful day, but not through normal use. Engineers were actually performing a test on the reactor to do with its cooling system. In the case of an emergency shutdown the reactor still needs to be cooled, and the test was intended to see if enough power could be generated to drive the water pumps from the residual energy in the steam turbine.
The test failed, and led to the reactor going into a positive feedback loop, where the cooling of the system wasn’t sufficient and so more and more power was generated. The core got hotter and hotter until eventually it exploded.
The resulting fire sent radioactive material up into the air, which eventually fell not just over the local area around the power plant, but over most of Europe and the Soviet Union. This only became apparent when radioactive particles were discovered on the clothes of workers at a Swedish nuclear power plant. After ascertaining that the source of the particles was not local, the Swedish scientists traced the radiation back to the Soviet Union, and this was the first that the West knew of the Chernobyl disaster, two days after the event itself.
The story dominated news reports worldwide for weeks, whilst the western world tried to piece together what had happened from the tightly controlled information coming from official sources. Remember this was a time period where the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West was still at its height, so the Soviets generally wanted to keep the details under wraps.
At the time nobody knew quite what to expect following the accident, but as time has gone by it has become apparent that in addition to over fifty deaths among workers at Chernobyl, and several hundred more from the emergency crews that attended. Perhaps far worse than this though is that thousands of others have been affected by the radiation, and there have been numerous reports of babies who were affected whilst forming in the womb.
The area surrounding the reactor is now little more than a wasteland, with the nearby town of Pripyat, which was evacuated after the accident now left in a decaying and crumbling state as it lies within a 19 mile exclusion zone around Chernobyl.
However, the thing which surprised me the most on writing up this post was the fact that the remaining three reactors at Chernobyl remained in use for years afterwards. Reactor 2 suffered a fire in 1991 and was then shut down, then reactor 1 was decommissioned in 1996, with the final reactor 3 being switched off in 1999.