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Archive for March 25th, 2009

Elena at Chernobyl

Elena at Chernobyl

Next month marks the 23rd anniversary of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster in Ukraine. 

I stumbled onto Elena’s site several years ago, but had misplaced the URL until just recently.  She travels a lot on her Kawasaki Ninja (ZZR-1100) and one of her favorite riding destinations leads North from Kiev, towards the Chernobyl “dead zone”, which is about 80 miles from her home.  She has photographed and documented her motorcycle radiation travels into the “Zone of Alienation” and it’s well worth the read.

As background — On Friday evening of April 25, 1986, the reactor crew at Chernobyl-4, prepared to run a test early the next day to determine how long the turbines would keep spinning and producing power if the electrical power supply went off line. While dangerous they ran this test previously.  Several alterations were made to the generators to lower the power output.  As a part of the preparation, they disabled some critical control systems – including the automatic shutdown safety mechanisms.

Shortly after 1:00 AM on April 26, the flow of coolant water dropped and the power began to increase.  At 1:23 AM, the operator moved to shut down the reactor in its low power mode and set-off a chain of events.  In a matter of seconds the reactor went from 5% output to 100 times its normal level.  The coolant water flash-boiled, triggering a huge steam explosion which leveled tons of concrete and steel including the 2000 ton cap on the nuclear containment vessel.  Many of the 211 control rods melted and then a second explosion, whose cause is still the subject of disagreement among experts, expelled fragments of burning radioactive fuel core and allowed air to rush in — igniting several tons of graphite insulating blocks.  Once graphite starts to burn, it’s almost impossible to extinguish.  Hundreds of volunteers died on the scene ill prepared for this type disaster.

WPPSS Cooling Tower - Satsop

WPPSS Cooling Tower - Satsop

The public alert about the release of radioactive material didn’t come from Soviet sources, but from Sweden on April 27 where workers at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant (680 miles away) were found to have radioactive particles on their clothing and they were determining the source. It took 3 days before all permanent residents of Chernobyl were evacuated due to unsafe levels of radioactivity.   It took 9 days and 5000 tons of sand, boron, dolomite, clay and lead dropped from helicopters to put out the graphite fire. Over 2M acres (or 1/5 of the usable farmland in the Ukraine) was, and still is unusable.

There have been military and research reactor deaths (e.g. Idaho; Tokai-mura), but the Chernobyl disaster has the distinction of being the only commercial nuclear power plant where radiation-related fatalities occurred.  The last 2 reactors at Chernobyl remained operational and online until shut down in 2000.  Chernobyl has been renovated and is now home to more than 500 residents. Those include nuclear scientists, maintenance officials for the Chernobyl power plant, liquidation officials, doctors, physicists, and most of all, radiation physicists. Visitors to the Zone of Alienation can stay at a local lodge in the Chernobyl suburbs.

While I like taking long motorcycle rides on empty roads the requirement of a Geiger counter mounted to the handle bar would be a deterrent!

Footnote: the northwest has it share of  “reactor rides.” There is Trojan (decommissioned), Columbia Generating Station (near Richland/Hanford and only pacific northwest running plant), and WPPSS at the Satsop site which shines on as a $2.25B economic default.

Photo courtesy of Elena web site.

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