November 15, 2002
Biology 110 - Lab 3
1. Description of
Activity / Event
Who: It all began with some electrical engineers at the Chernobyl plant who had no idea that their little experiment would cause destruction and death in a matter of seconds. Other people involved in the incident included the firefighters, headed by Major Leonid Telyatnikov. Mikhail Gorbachev, general secretary of the Communist Party at the time, was practicing his new policy of glasnost (“openness”), and he was the first official in the country to talk about what had happened. He provided as much information as was known at the time; before he spoke on May 14, the government refused to disclose information about the accident.
What: To put it simply: Two massive explosions that would change things forever. On Apr. 25, 1986, some plant engineers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Chernobyl, initiated an unauthorized test of one of the plant’s four reactors. The engineers were in Unit Number 4, and they wanted to know what would happen if there was a power outage and steam stopped flowing to the turbines. Specifically, the engineers wanted to determine how long the turbine-generators would continue to produce electricity to run the water pumps necessary to cool the reactor after the normal electrical supply had been interrupted. They lowered the power level, disconnected power regulation and emergency cooling systems, and within seconds of the flow of steam being halted, an enormous heat buildup occurred in the reactor core, causing an uncontrolled chain reaction. Two tremendous explosions ensued within seconds of the power surge. Radioactive debris was carried over most of northern Europe by clouds. Total fallout from the accident eventually reached a level ten times that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II.
Where: The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Chernobyl, which is about 70 miles north of Kiev, in the Ukranian SSR (still the USSR at the time). The specific location was in Unit Number 4 of the plant. The area that would be affected, however, spanned thousands of miles worldwide, including much of northern Europe.
When: The first
step towards what would culminate in an out-of-control chain reaction began on
the morning of April 25, 1986. At one in the morning of that day,
the reactor’s power level was lowered, and technicians began to disconnect power
regulation and emergency cooling systems. Finally, at 1:23 a.m. the next day, the
flow of steam to the turbine was halted. Before the clock had struck 1:24, the
reactor had exploded. The two gigantic blasts occurred within three seconds of
each other. Firefighters were on the scene within moments.
2. Scope of Problem
– Affected Area
The seriousness and severity of the problem was—and essentially still is—extremely high. Considering that some of the radioactive isotopes remaining in the soil have half-lives of up to 30 years, and the fact that the reactor core will contain lethally-high levels of radiation for potentially a few hundred years, the Chernobyl incident is certainly one of the most terrible and critical problems in ages. As for affected area, the effects of the radiation—among other problems—were of almost global proportions. The explosions, which blew the roof off the plant, shot radioactive gases and debris over 3600 feet into the atmosphere. Clouds holding radioactive debris passed over many parts of northern Europe. About 135,000 people were evacuated from within 18 miles of the Chernobyl plant area, as well as other towns such as Pripyat. Other examples of the range of the problems: One day in May, Canadian officials reported that vegetables from Italy were contaminated with a radioactive iodine isotope. Member states of the European Community banned all fresh meat produced in Eastern Europe for quite some time. In the distant country of Lapland, reindeer meat was declared poisoned by the harmful emissions and declared unfit to eat. Other places affected included Great Britain, Scandinavia, Norway, Sweden, Germany and Denmark, among countless others. According to one report, in 1991, approximately four million people throughout the world live in regions where fallout has made farming, and normal life overall, unattainable.
3. Ecological Damage
Injury / Mortality: In the aftermath of Chernobyl, approximately 500 people were hospitalized for exposure to radiation. Of that number, it is reported that 203 people developed radiation sickness of high enough magnitude to require extensive medical attention for bone marrow failure, burns, organ failures, and such. Of them, a total of 31 people died, mostly workers and emergency personnel. Some were killed immediately or died soon after the accident as a result of radiation sickness. It is safe to say it would be impossible to determine how many total people have been killed, directly or indirectly, as a result of Chernobyl. However, dozens of causes of death have been reported, including cancer, leukemia, radiation poisoning, eating contaminated food and “Chernobyl AIDS,” which is depression of the immune system as a result of radiation exposure. Also, for some reason, some regions reported somewhat of an increase in legal abortions in the months after Chernobyl. In 1998, the Ukranian Health Ministry stated the official death toll to be 3576; however, some estimates run as high as 32,000. On a similar note over 400,000 people had to evacuate their homes.
Plants / Animals / Land: One study believes that about 62,000 square miles of the former Soviet Union remain contaminated to this day. Plants and animals in the immediate area of Chernobyl and downwind of the plant were contaminated by fallout or radioactive particles in the air. Crops could not be harvested and most farm animals were killed to prevent their use as food. Today, almost 20 years after the accident, radiation levels are still so high in some areas that no native food can be grown or eaten. Many people today survive on food shipped in from safe areas. Farming in many places is still impossible because the main contaminants remaining in the soil, cesium-137 and strontium-90, are radioactive isotopes. They have have half-lives of 30 and 28 years, respectively. Many residents still face a constant health risk from the radioactive isotopes in the environment. The fallout that covered the western Soviet Union spread to parts of Europe, causing concern about food supplies there as well.
Pollution: This has
been covered in other areas of this paper, including what was put into the
atmosphere and where it was taken by winds and other means. Suffice it
to say that, as one additional note, even within the Chernobyl reactor core
itself there were seen pools of radioactive water, and certainly with all the
other forms the pollution took, there can be almost no doubt at all that many
water resources—rivers, seas, streams, even rain—were polluted. There is, in
fact, almost no conceivable way that such a vast resource as water could have
not been affected.
Ecological: As far as short-term consequences, people had to leave their lives and homes as they knew them. Many people got sick and many died. The land became unusable. In terms of long-term consequences, the land will be unusable for probably at least a couple hundred years. There may be genetic effects and/or mutations of the offspring of people who lived in the area at the time. No plants or animals will be able to live. This is all speaking “locally” to the area. On a more global perspective, however—“in the grand scheme of things”—it’s not nearly as bad. The other countries and areas that got debris and radioactive problems aren’t nearly as permanent so it’s not such a big deal globally.
Economic: The local economy was significantly impacted—practically destroyed, in fact—because people died, had to leave their homes and businesses, and lost their farms as well. The country as a whole suffered because of the blow to the economy, and also they had not only lost a major power source but the efforts to repair would cost millions or even billions. Again, speaking in terms of global significance, it was much more of a big deal as a short-term problem than a long-term one, at least in terms of how it affected the economy. Other countries changed the ways they handled power plants, had some shut down, and also of course helped out the people in need who had to leave by means of financial support (particularly working to put out the fires and such) as well as giving food and clothing. Long-term globally, however, the economy isn’t all that affected—unless we choose to help them build a new “tomb” for the reactor core, which would cost about $1.5 billion.
Social / Political: Gorbachev saw the Chernobyl incident as a way to help prove his relatively new policy of openness, which he called glasnost, by being up-front with the people of the country when the rest of the government wouldn’t talk. The incident forced the government to change the way they thought about nuclear power, including aspects such as their dependency on it, and also the risks and benefits. Mikhail Gorbachev emphasized that safety of people, animals, and their environment had to be the number-one concern. The government, when it finally “got around” to commenting on what had happened, was quick to point the finger at the foolish people who had been messing around with the reactor. Eventually, however, they were forced to realize and admit that, despite the fact that people had caused the actual incident, the type of power plant they used had some serious design flaws and was very dangerous itself, and didn’t take nearly enough safety measures to prevent such accidents. For example, there was no shell around the reactor to prevent radiation from escaping. The government and many agencies had to make stronger, more effective regulations regarding how plants would be operated. On an interesting note, the last reactor of the Chernobyl plant complex was shut down in December of 2000, and the plant was closed entirely forever.
5. Environmental Problem-Solving: Human intervention was certainly much more important at the time the crisis was occurring than it is nowadays. There were firefighters, people piloting helicopters left and right, dropping thousands of tons of various materials to put out the fire from the air and cover the exposed core. Engineers—much more intelligent than the idiots playing with the machine— had to drain a huge basin beneath the reactor, or else said reactor might collapse and create radioactive water vapors. Tens of thousands of people joined the effort to decontaminate as much of the surrounding area as they could. A great many people lost their lives working to contain the disastrous mess. Those are certainly the costs of such actions, but the benefits of the selfless people were perhaps much greater—had people not worked to control the exponentially large aftermath of the cataclysmic explosions, we probably cannot even begin to envision how much worse the situation would be today. Likely we would all be sharing much of Chernobyl’s same fate. Perhaps someday we will have the technology to be able to get rid of the remains of Chernobyl and such radioactive wastelands. For now, however, there is not much left we can do—especially considering that, even protected, we can only stand in such radiation for mere moments before we also fall victim to it.
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