Research Paper: Chernobyl Disaster

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Chernobyl: The Disaster and Its Aftermath

The recent nuclear disaster in Japan has resurrected the ghost of Chernobyl in the public's imagination. The 1986 malfunction of the Ukrainian reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is still regarded as the worst nuclear disaster in history, although the Japanese crisis is still unfolding. The Chernobyl disaster "was the product of a flawed Soviet reactor design coupled with serious mistakes made by the plant operators. It was a direct consequence of Cold War isolation and the resulting lack of any safety culture" ("Chernobyl," WNA, 2011). The Chernobyl plant used a graphite moderator, unlike the "water-moderated, water-cooled reactor favored in the West" (Linneman 1987: 637). "Because of their confidence in the design of the reactor, the Soviets did not enclose the entire unit with a containment structure and had not developed either an off-site emergency plan or employed an off-site monitoring system" (Linneman 1987: 637). Additionally, the roof of the reactor was actually constructed of flammable material.

The incident occurred when the reactor crew "prepared to carry out a planned safety test involving one of the plant's eight turbine-generators" (Gillette 1986). The crew "inadvertently let steam voids form in the reactor's cooling water as it passed through the core" (Gillette 1986). One of the flaws of the reactor design was its "tendency to generate a sudden and uncontrollable burst of power if large steam bubbles or 'voids,' are allowed to form in the reactor core, as they did before the accident…as the fission accelerated, the reactor's heat output rose 330 million watts within three seconds. This triggered explosions of steam and hydrogen gas in the core that destroyed the reactor, blew the roof off the building and started a graphite fire in the core that spewed radioactive wastes into the atmosphere for the next 11 days" (Gillette 1986).

As well as the documented problem of the 'voids' inherent in the design, the reactor was in an even more unstable state than usual. The specific test the crew was conducting was to "determine how long turbines could spin and continue to supply power following loss of the primary electrical power supply. Similar tests had already been carried out at Chernobyl and other plants, despite the fact that these reactors were known to be very unstable at low power settings" (Kubiszewski & Cleveland 2009). During the test the operators had also disabled automatic shutdown mechanisms. When the dramatic power surge occurred this generated a steam explosion that destroyed the reactor core and killed several workers. The second explosion caused the graphite moderator to burst into flames, which was the main cause of the release of radioactivity into the environment (Kubiszewski & Cleveland 2009).

When reviewing the Chernobyl disaster, it is almost tempting to ask what the workers did right, rather than what they did wrong. Disabling the automatic shutdown mechanisms, performing a test on an unstable reactor, and failing to understand the fundamental operational principles behind the reactor (such as the dangers of it forming combustible voids) were the main causes of the meltdown. Soviet arrogance in failing to contain and protect the structure exacerbated the aftereffects. In terms of prevention of future Chernobyls, proper training of workers in the science of the equipment they are dealing with is essential. Ignorance and a… [END OF PREVIEW]

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