Chernobyl: A Three Part Series, Thirty Years Later

Chernobyl: A Three Part Series, Thirty Years Later

On April 26, 1986, one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters took place just outside the small town of Pripyat, Ukraine.  A while back, I took a dive into the wormhole of what went down at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and how the world tried to handle the repercussions of nuclear energy released on an uncontrolled scale.  We here at understand that our readers are mostly comprised of people held back in second grade and focused most of puberty trying to find out what to do with a hard on, so we tried to simplify things as best we could.  We are talking about nuclear issues here, so bear with us.  I am far from an expert on the subject and, given my deranged form of humor, one should consider this satire.  In the end, however, my goal is to have you to a point where you can talk intelligibly to others about the disaster, even if the conversation occurs in between chicken wings and sips of shitty beer.  Let us begin.

First of all, sign up for FAM, follow us on twitter (@firstandmonday) and join our message board (“The Forum” – where we discussed the subject and I took questions from the members that I plan to address).

Part I – Understanding the Plant

Implicit in the concept of understanding what went down in the moments leading up to the explosion is a basic understanding of a super complex process known as nuclear fission.  Some of the smartest motherfuckers alive struggle to comprehend exactly how it works, so bear with me, because I can barely tie my shoes.  I remember first looking at how the plant was designed and seeing graphs/images that forced my head to spin.

Today, you will read all about interesting and grandiose articles touting numbers and facts.  Trust me, we will get to the point of discussing images of humans running through nuclear puddles, the vast water reservoir beneath the plant and deformed goats.  That will occur later, because I believe one should have a basic concept of the plant before one can comprehend why estimates on the death toll range between roughly 100 people to almost 900,000 people.  That last sentence, standing alone, tells one resounding issue: the smartest people on the planet didn’t really know how to handle the incident and we still don’t understand the impact it caused.

Again, if you happen to be a nuclear physicist, you probably already get this, but you are also smart enough that you would have grave difficulty explaining it to Jim Breuer, so let us take the wheel.

The Plant

The Vladimir Ilych Lenin Nuclear Power station consisted of four operating reactors at the time of the disaster.  The ultimate goal was to have six operating reactors, but construction of the last two was halted after reactor number 4 blew up.  Three of the four reactors continued operating long after nuclear rain befell much of western Europe, ultimately being finally decommissioned in the late 1990’s.

“Go ahead, name a plant after me, bitch”
“Go ahead, name a plant after me, bitch”

RBMK Class Reactor

The RBMK (we won’t try to write out what the hell those letters stand for in Russian) is a class of nuclear reactors that utilized graphite rods as control mechanisms.  At the time, the design was the oldest of the commercial classes being utilized and the design is largely considered a significant factor (coupled with drunk rooskie operators and builders) in the ultimate failure.  It should be noted that there are still RBMK blocks being utilized to generate power to this day.

Basically, this is how that class of reactors worked.  Let’s start with a hot Russian babe, just to get your mind right.

“Backhand my backend, please"
“Backhand my backend, please”

When talking at the water cooler (pun intended), remember that the main difference between the RBMK class of reactors and what we utilize for the most part today, is how the blocks are cooled and encased.  American reactors utilize a huge steel and concrete barrier as the final method of encasing the structure, which is considered far more effective at harnessing radiation.  Simply put, the reactor design used at the Lenin power plant was not capable of withstanding the force created in the accident.

The differences don’t stop there, either.  One other notable deficiency is that the cooling mechanism utilized different materials to cool, moderate and generate power, via reactivity.

The RBMK class utilized a graphite moderation mechanism that allowed for the use of fuel that was not possible with those that used water as the moderation mechanism.  In retrospect, this asset is simultaneously considered to be a major design deficiency.  See, the Soviets utilized the RBMK reactors to generate plutonium, along with power.  The class utilized light water for a coolant, along with graphite rods (Anna Kournikova gives me a graphite rod).  It is unique to use in the former Soviet Union.  In other words, after Chernobyl, experts realized the obvious – the risk outweighed the gain.

"Rods and Such"
“Rods and Such”

Okay, one thing often discussed with the RBMK plants is something called “positive void coefficient.”  Basically, the void coefficient is integral in keeping nuclear reactions in check.  Here in the States, we utilize the same water system to moderate and cool the reactor.  In the RBMK plants, two different components were utilized for moderation and cooling.   One can see the difference just by comparing the above graphic to the following graphic.


Boiling water generates steam and water is a better cooling mechanism than steam.  Steam exists within in the nuclear core of a reactor and when the proportion of water and steam changes in the core, so does the reactivity.  In a situation (like in the U.S.) where there is an increase in steam, the system is designed to have a resultant decrease in reactivity, or negative void coefficient.  In comparison, the RBMK reactors (which utilized different materials to moderate and cool), steam may result in a reduction in cooling, but the moderator continues to operate and the nuclear reaction continues.  The result, at least in the case of Chernobyl, was a situation where steam increased and water decreased, thus causing an increase in unabsorbed free neurons and increasing reactivity or a “positive void coefficient.”  In other words, the very mechanism designed to cool the reactor had the possibility to create an exponentiation in reactivity.  The increased reactivity caused increased heat, more steam and less cooling.  Well, the end occurred with a boom, because the accident at Chernobyl involved an increase in power over 100 times what the reactor was rated to handle.

Okay, sorry for the headache.  As we stated, some of the smartest people on earth had to take time to figure out the complicated reaction that took place in 1986, and there was a significant amount of variables in play.  At the end of the day, it was a combination of design, coupled with dire construction practices, inadequate safety mechanisms and human operation error that caused the ultimate explosion.

Let’s round things out with another hot Russian babe.


So, now you have a basic understanding of the plant itself, at least one of the portions relevant to Chernobyl.

Remember that this is a three part series and the parts to follow will address questions that our members posed, including the interplay of design and operating error, as well as the heavily disputed impact, which is best analyzed by the ecology of the area surrounding the plant.

Let’s not forget that this nuclear plant aimed to be a symbol of Soviet technology.  Working at the plant was a revered occupation.  The Soviets built an entire city to house workers of the plant (Pripyat).  That city was so new that portions of the recreational features never even saw operation, but stand still to this day, a stark, still picture of the dangers of nuclear radiation unharnessed.


Stick around for the next few parts to this series.  I promise to discuss some of the more tangible details, but felt it important to give people a foundation they can refer to when the read all the other “top-10” articles you will see around the web today, the 30th anniversary of this epic disaster.

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