Chernobyl: Critical design flaw too sensitive to be made widely known

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Thirty six years ago this week, an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction destroyed one of the reactors at Chernobyl power plant in an incident that was initially hidden by the Soviet authorities. Some 28 staff members and emergency workers died from radiation poisoning in the days after the blast, as well as two who were killed instantly. Just two months ago, thousands of Russian tanks and troops rumbled into the power plant’s exclusion zone, churning up radioactive soil from the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster.

Rafael Grossi, head of the UN atomic watchdog, said on Tuesday, April 26 that the situation was “abnormal and very, very dangerous”.

Channel 4’s recent documentary ‘Chernobyl: The New Evidence’ revealed a secret cache of KGB files informing Soviet leaders that the power plant was like a huge time bomb, yet Moscow ignored the warnings.

A letter sent to Moscow read: “The design of the reactor also does not provide for a safety containment.”

The plant had what the documentary’s narrator described as a “critical design flaw”, the graphite control rods, something that was explained by British scientist Dr Claire Corkhill.

“After that point, the heating of the water from the energy that’s released, and the turning of the turbines to create electricity is exactly the same in a coal power station as it is in a nuclear power station.”

Control rods, Dr Corkhill explained, act as brakes for the nuclear reactor by helping to slow down the reactions and allow some form of control over how much energy is being released.

These control rods, inserted from the top of the reactor, reduce the heat emitted by the uranium. Withdraw these and the heat builds back up again.

The hazards first came to light in November 1975, not at Chernobyl, but 1,000km away at the city then still known as Leningrad, modern day St Petersburg.

The RBMK unit 1 reactor came close to catastrophe, as Dr Corkill explained: “When the control rods were fully exerted from the reactor, when they were put back in again there was a spike of reactivity.

“This was because the control rods were tipped with a material called graphite.

“They were tipped in this way to try and help lubrication. Now the problem with having a tip made of graphite is that graphite actually increases the reactivity.

“So when the graphite tips first enter the reactor, they could increase the reactivity and cause a spike.”

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The control rods were made of boron, which slowed the reactions down, but the graphite tips caused an initial spike and was one of the main factors that caused the explosion at Chernobyl.

While the engineers in Leningrad pulled their reactor back from the brink, those at Chernobyl failed to do so.

The documentary’s narrator explained that, despite the critical design flaw being common to all RBMK reactors, it was “too sensitive to be made widely known”.

Sergii Plokhy, professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University, told the documentary that the information was “top secret”.

Shockingly, he added: “The government officials did not believe that they were supposed to know too much about the reactors that they were running.”

On April 26, 1986, RBMK reactor number four at Chernobyl went out of control during an experiment, leading to an explosion and fire that destroyed the reactor building and released huge amounts of radiation into the atmosphere.

RBMK reactors do not have a containment structure – concrete and steel domes over the reactor designed to keep radiation inside the plant in the event of such an explosion.

As a result, radioactive elements were scattered over a wide area.

The graphite control rods also caught fire at high temperature as air entered into the reactor core, which further contributed to radioactive materials being emitted into the environment.

Moscow remained silent two days after the blast, only acknowledging it when increased radiation levels were detected in Stockholm.

The Kremlin continued to grossly downplay the issue, and refused to cancel May Day festivities.

After Chernobyl, a number of changes were implemented in the RBMK reactors, and only 10 remain in operation across the world — all of which are in Russia.

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