Written by in section: Health > Catastrophe
Medically Reviewed by Dr. Aj Thomas MS, MBA & Updated on Jun 8, 2016
Secrets of Chernobyl nuclear accident you've never heard of
City of Pripyat

Chernobyl became a name synonymous with horrors of nuclear accident. It gained worldwide attention when reactor number 4 exploded on April 26, 1986 in Soviet Ukraine releasing more than 190 tons of radioactive materials into the air and contaminating the surrounding areas.

Read more: Chernobyl - quick facts about world’s worst nuclear disaster

 

Many of the facts behind the tragedy is common knowledge nowadays because of the magnitude of the tragedy. However, there are many other facts that remain hidden from the public eye even to this day.

All information listed below were resourced from numerous survivor interviews and secret soviet documents now declassified.

The people mentioned in this list were there and were closely involved with the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in many ways.

It is important to note that none of these hidden secrets are no less horrifying than the accident itself.

Most of the photographs taken near the reactor appear grainy not because of lack of good equipment but due to the fact that radiation was damaging the film rolls inside the cameras.

Here is a list of incidents and stories you've never heard of anywhere else.

 

All equipment used for cleanup are now missing

Immediately after the accident thousands of machines and equipment were brought in from all parts of Soviet Union to clean the reactor buildings and surrounding areas.

The clean up lasted for many months and later many machines used in the operation near the reactor had to be buried deep underground along with the fire engines that initially came to put out the fires.

Other comparatively less contaminated machines were abandoned in various specially marked graveyards because they were still highly irradiated.

Slowly it was being reported that locals and various criminal gangs were coming in and trying to scavenge spare parts for selling in black-markets. It was visible from the deteriorating conditions of the machines stored there.

One of the largest graveyard with abandoned machines in 1987 is Rassokha located some 40 km south-west of the stricken reactor.

Rassokha in 1987
Rassokha in 1990s

Abandoned here are more than 1600 military helicopters, tanks, military armored personal carriers, bulldozers and many other military equipment along with civilian buses, tankers, trucks, fire engines and emergency vehicles.

They were all in perfect working condition but there was no viable way to decontaminate these machines.

The high doses of radiation they were emitting would continue to do so for hundreds of years.

Rassokha in 2006
Rassokha around 2006

This is a photo taken as recent as 2006 and all these machines seems to be there where it was abandoned. A closer look however revealed that many of the machines were in deplorable mechanical conditions after whatever was left from the scavenging activities.

Rassokha in 2016
Rassokha in 2016

In this recent satellite photo, you can see all of them missing! GPS coordinates: 51°09'16.16"N 29°58'57.41"E

No one knows for sure where they disappeared, but one thing is for sure, these irradiated machines pose a big health hazard for everyone trying to use them as scrap metal or even be located in the vicinity of these machines.

They still emit on an average 10 to 30 roentgens per hour. The lethal does for human beings is 500 roentgens in 5 hours.

 

Workers in doubt

Just a day before the explosion at reactor 4, when the Chernobyl nuclear power plant workers were preparing for the experiment, there were many people present at the power plant who were unsure if the experiment should go forward.

They believed that the reactor had a defect and it was unstable for an experiment that will have to disable many safety features.

Unfortunately, their bosses did not share the same doubts and they insisted that the tests be completed on the unstable reactor on schedule.

In fact, the exact experiment was conducted in 1981 and 1985 and the results were inconclusive with indications that the test did not produce the desired results or otherwise had failed in its objective.

 

Lack of information sharing

A similar reactor (RBMK-1500) in Soviet Lithuania almost had a meltdown when it was operating under low power.

This RBMK reactor had a design fault (positive void coefficient) which made it highly unstable at low power configuration.

Had this information be shared with all other operators of the same reactor design, then the Chernobyl disaster could have been avoided.

Unfortunately, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant operators were not aware of this problem.

 

An accident waiting to happen

Before the accident on April 26, 1986, there were 104 minor accidents at the Chernobyl power plant.

About 35 such incidents were directly attributed towards operator errors.

However, majority of the other accidents were due to design flaws combined with construction defects which later got aggravated due to flaunting of security protocols and management error during the exploitation of the reactors.

On the whole the plant was doomed from the very beginning due to this lax attitude towards safety procedures.

 

Usual routine

After the accident on April 26, 1986, the residents of the city of Pripyat saw people scrubbing the streets with soap like form and water.

It did not raise any alarm bells among the residents because this was not the first time they had seen such a sight.

On previous occasions of minor accidents, the same procedure was used in the city of Pripyat.

 

Wild animals

Immediately after the accident, wild horses and other animals were brought into the contaminated zone to study the effects of radiation.

Due to the lack of human beings living in the exclusion zone, the population of these animals have grown into large packs. They seem to be healthy even though their bodies are highly irradiated and are contaminated with radionuclides.

There are many stories circulation in the internet about animals with double head or multiple limbs or other deformities.

However, it is important to note that many of these stories are fake and are hoaxes.

From a statistical point of view, many of the few birth defects that resulted in horrifying sights in the areas contaminated by the radiation fallout can also be found in other parts of the world that were not affected by Chernobyl or similar causes.

Needless to say, it is important to note that wild or farms animal products or plant products from contaminated areas near the stricken reactor and many other locations are unsafe for human consumptions.

They can increase the risk of developing cancers or other health conditions in individuals who are at high risk of developing the disease in the first place.

 

Human Resettlement

Few elderly people who were evacuated from the zone have decided to return to the contaminated areas despite fierce objection from the local authorities.

All the people evacuated from the contaminated zones were provided with new housing in the new areas where they were relocated.

However, the stress of leaving behind everything they knew all their lives were difficult for many to live with.

Some people decided to suffer no more and returned to the houses they had abandoned in the wake of emergency evacuations.

It hard for an outsider to understand the emotional attachment these people had for their homes and their actions are beyond any logical explanation.

 

People who never left

After the accident the radiation cloud spread over Europe unevenly and the resulting contaminated patches of land was scattered all over Europe.

The areas surrounding the immediate accident site received the heaviest contamination.

Due to the location of the reactor near the Russian and Belarussian border, territories of these countries also received heavy doses of radiation contamination.

Today more than 5 million people continue to live in contaminated areas of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.

The authorities have not taken any effort to relocate people from these areas. In some cases, like in south of Belarus, they have also encouraged agriculture and raising farm animals for food in contaminated lands.

People living in contaminated areas surrounding Chernobyl
People living in contaminated areas surrounding Chernobyl

Milk, Meat and vegetables from these regions have radionuclides that are 10 times higher than the internationally acceptable normal levels.

 

Missing household fixed elements

After the accident most of the household equipment and furniture left behind in the city of Pripyat and surrounding villages were removed and buried in unmarked graves.

This was done with the specific intention to prevent contamination from spreading and prevent scavengers and criminal gangs from moving these items out of the contaminated zone.

However, to the surprise of many, scavengers started to slowly remove from the zone anything left behind that was of value.

These included electrical fittings, doors, plumbing fittings, electrical wiring and even metal room heating radiators found in every apartment rooms which was part of the centralized heating system in the city.

Note the missing heating units inside the building being loaded illegally on to a truck
Note the missing heating units inside the building being loaded illegally on to a truck in city of Pripyat.

Today every house and apartment in the zone has been stripped of anything valuable that can be sold in the flea or black market.

It is horrifying to imagine the health effects on innocent people when these irradiated items will end up in households around the country.

 

An accident that never stopped

It may come as a surprise for many that the radiation contamination from Chernobyl fallout continues to spread due to various factors.

After the initial radiation fallout on the soil, the radionuclides started to move deeper into the soil over time.

At first the initial fallout was absorbed by bushes and small plants that brought it above the surface as they grew.

As time went by the remaining radionuclides sunk deep enough to get absorbed by large tree roots that brought them above the surface of the soil once again.

These radionuclides got embedded in the trees and can be found virtually in every component of the tree structure.

Forest fires are common problem during the warmer months in the contaminated areas.

These wild forest fires have the potential to disperse the radionuclides as aerosols back into the air, which is later carried at the mercy of wind to further contaminate new areas that were previously not contaminated.

Radionuclide particles in aerosol form can travel thousands of kilometers in the direction of wind flow and be inhaled by human beings in faraway locations.

Major forest fires take place at least once every five year in the Chernobyl contaminated forest areas and experts are very concerned about these phenomena.

Each forest fire creates a mini Chernobyl in the area. Experts say that each such incidents have the potential of redistribute up to 8% of the initial Cesium-137 fallout received by the contaminated area.

 

Illegal logging

Illegal commercial logging of Pine logs at Chernobyl
Illegal commercial logging of Pine logs at Chernobyl

This is a problem that has been one of the most difficult to tackle so far. The fact that the authorities are corrupt encourages various criminal gangs to engage in Illegal logging activities.

Most of the area surrounding the stricken reactor is covered with thick forest that has absorbed radionuclides like a sponge absorbing water molecules.

These trees are illegally cut and sold though black market that further pushes them into the commercial supply chain.

 

Work in the contaminated zone

There is a 30 km exclusion zone around the stricken reactor that is specially marked because it is highly contaminated.

However, many people continue to work inside this contaminated zone till this day. There were 4 working reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and two new reactors (Reactor 5 and 6) under construction at the time of accident at reactor number 4 in 1986.

After the accident, the Ukrainian government decided keep the reactor 1, 2 and 3 functioning.

Chernobyl reactors 1, 2, 3 and 4
Chernobyl reactors 1, 2, 3 and 4 (Sarcophagus encases Unit 4)

Worker were brought in from nearby cities every day for work and transported back outside the zone after work.

All three reactors were gradually shut down by the year 2000.

However, there are some small scale research laboratories and security forces that continue to operate inside the contaminated zone till this day.

It may seem like a strange idea, but it is important for these laboratories to continue studying the wild life and vegetation inside the zone to clearly understand the effects of ionizing radiation on living organism and to properly educate the public with the knowledge gained.

The security forces make sure that people do not take out any contaminated materials outside the zone into other parts of the country.

 

Decontamination of Kiev

Four days after the accident at Chernobyl nuclear power plant, large scale decontamination of the Ukrainian capital city Kiev took place.

The city was located at less than 100 km south of the stricken nuclear reactor.

More than 10,000 sample reading were taken inside the city and the results were shocking.

The radiation levels in the city of Kiev was more than 100 to 300 times the normal background radiation. Many of the streets were washed more than 30 times repeatedly to decontaminate the city.

City residences were in panic seeing the huge military presence and decontamination activities.

Many fled the city as soon as possible once the news got out that there had been an accident at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

 

Three Brave Men who literally saved Europe

Ten days after the initial explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, another potential disaster in the making was uncovered beneath the damaged reactor.

Immediately after the accident, large amounts of water were used in a futile attempt to put out the flames burning in the exposed reactor core.

The water came in direct contact with the radioactive materials in the reactor core and got heavily contaminated and it gradually started accumulating into a large pool underneath the reactor core.

Huge quantities of sand, clay and boron mixture were dropped from helicopters into the exposed reactor core in an attempt to bring the fire under control.

However, the immense heat inside the reactor core caused all these materials to form a hot molten lava like substance that was slowly burning through the reactor floor.

If the reactor floor were to be breached, then this lava like material would come in contact with the huge pool of accumulated water beneath the reactor setting off an enormous steam explosion that would release all the remaining 200 plus tons of radioactive materials into air.

The resulting contamination would have been so severe that the entire Europe would have been deemed inhabitable for tens and thousands of years due to radiation.

The only way to avoid this disaster was to drain the 20,000 tons of water that had accumulated beneath the reactor.

However, there was one big problem, the valves for the draining pipes were submerged and hidden deep in the dark radioactive pool of water and no one except Alexie Ananenko an engineer at the plant at that time knew the exact location of the required draining valve.

Everyone present there were aware that diving into the radioactive water was suicidal with absolutely no chance of survival.

Alexie Ananenko decided to sacrifice his life and two more brave men Valeri Bezpalov (a soldier engineer) and Boris Baranov (an ordinary plant worker) volunteered to join Ananenko in the mission to make sure that the task was completed successfully.

Alexei Ananenko and Valeri Bezpalov
Left: Alexei Ananenko and Valeri Bezpalov at Moscow's Hospital No. 6.
Left bottom: Medals awarded to the Chernobyl “Liquidators”.
Note the alpha (α) gamma (γ) and beta (β) particle rays over a drop of blood.
Right: A model of the damaged RBMK-1000 reactor 4 at Chernobyl.
Note the space below the reactor where water accumulated.

They suited up in wetsuits and using scuba equipment and a handheld torch, they were ready for the mission. The trio made one last request “please take care of our families after our death”

Once deep inside the pool of water, they were able to locate the draining pipes, but before locating the actual draining valves, their hand held torch failed due to radiation. Fortunately, they were able to locate and successfully open the valves in dark and resurface.

They were greeted by a group of colleagues who were jumping in joy realizing the importance of the task these three brave men had accomplished.

A fortnight later Ananenko and Bezpalov died at a specialty hospital in Moscow while Baranov managed to hold on a little longer. All three were buried in sealed lead coffins because their bodies were highly radioactive.

Months later experts established that the molten lava like material had indeed breached the reactor floor and poured into the empty pool area immediately after the water had been drained.

The actions of these brave men saved countless lives and their names should go down in history as true heroes!

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  • Last Reviewed on:Jun 8, 2016
  • Medically Reviewed by:Dr. Aj Thomas MS MBA
  • References:

     

    1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tE06IHG7hXw
    2. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL5zqVcBgpJjZQKbl3aQJf-yBcZ1WsLsDy
    3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-hHTFWXr90
    4. http://www.who.int/ionizing_radiation/chernobyl/who_chernobyl_report_2006.pdf
    5. http://www.unscear.org/unscear/en/chernobyl.html
    6. http://www.un.org/ha/chernobyl/docs/report.pdf
    7. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1890/14-1227.1/abstract?version=meter+at+4&module=meter-Links&pgtype=article&contentId=&mediaId=&
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