25 Years Later: Chernobyl

Tomorrow marks the 25th anniversary of the tragic disaster that ruined Chernobyl and affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. I’ve read the story many times over the years, fascinated by the insane breakdown of events that put them in that predicament, and it gets more interesting every time I read it. But it also depresses me greatly.

The greatest weakness in the system was humanity. We caused the catastrophe. Humans are a stupid, self-serving, arrogant bunch. And that arrogance changed Chernobyl and the surrounding towns – basically making them unlivable for the next thousand years. That’s when it will be safe to move back. But there will still be radiation for up to seventy thousand more years.

I read a report a few years ago that covered every single event in the chain that caused the breakdown of the system. In that essay, it mentioned that an emergency valve or hose or a shutoff switch was locked with a padlock because they were so sure they wouldn’t need it. So what started out being a routine maintenance drill turned out to be the worst nuclear disaster in the history of the world. And the casualty toll is still climbing.

If you’ve never heard the full story of what happened there, it’s fascinating, and I would suggest you read it. It really breaks down to being a simple chain reaction of human overreaction that could easily have been avoided. The energy climbs too quickly, so they shove the control rods all the way into the coolant. It starts falling too quickly, so they pull them all the way back out. These are little things that we are guilty of over and over in our lives. Swerve into the left lane a little bit so you swerve hard into the right. You go too far so you swerve too far back to the left. Before you know it, you’re upside-down in the ditch.

But this simple domino effect caused them to overreact to the point of catastrophe.
The temperature rose too quickly again, so they shoved them all the way back in the coolant. And that’s when they cracked and got stuck. A couple of explosions, and suddenly a thousand gallons of coolant water is flash-boiled, causing immense steam pressure to blow the thousand-pound concrete cap off the core. With the coolant reservoir now empty, the graphite insulators catch on fire and the radioactive smoke billows out the roof of the number 4 reactor. And what’s worse is that when the firemen got there, they thought they were fighting a routine electrical fire.

The whole thing gets me pretty emotional every time I read it, but like I said, it’s an intense, very dramatic and fascinating read. So many things were done wrong, any of which could have changed the fate of that city. And now, twenty-five years later, Chernobyl is a ghost town. Some say the silence there is deafening.

So go with me on a journey. Please, take the time to educate yourself and find out what really happened there. I think we owe it to ourselves to learn from this, so as not to repeat their mistakes. And we owe it to the Russians as sort of a reading requiem.

There are two sites I would recommend. Seeing how I cannot seem to locate my original source, just go to the Wiki article, which is surprisingly complete. It’s very technical, but if you take your time, you can get through it with a pretty good understanding of what happened. So read this first.

Then with the knowledge of what happened there, go look at this other site, that I’ve been visiting on and off for the last ten years or so. It’s by a woman who rides her motorcycle through Chernobyl and takes pictures. Her English isn’t very good, but her words are poignant and touching. And her pictures are haunting. She’s very humane. Click here to see her photo journal. It’s neat to go ahead and read her telling of the events too, because she puts it in kind of lay terms very briefly telling you what happened there 25 years ago.

I shall tomorrow respectfully bow my head for a moment of silence in memory of those lost at Chernobyl. Then I shall have a drink for them.

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