Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Chronicle of Severe Days - The last film of Vladimir Shevchenko

"When, at 9:00, an engineer climbed up to the roof of the building, peered in at the wreckage and reported what he saw - a white-hot glare in a pile of rubble and billowing smoke, Bryukhanov refused to believe it.

Chiefs, directors and engineers from agencies involved in atomic energy boarded a jet to Kiev and from there took a helicopter to Chernobyl. By noon they were hovering 650 feet over the plant. Gazing into the gaping wound of pipes, girders and rubble in the central hall, they saw the lid of the reactor, cherry-red with heat, tilted up like the damper of a flue. Abandoned tangles of fire hose hung into the crater. A black circle of graphite lay a hundred yards around the plant. Though they had no radiometric equipment, it was clear they were looking at a very serious problem. They were also gaining a nice tan as the radiation seared their faces.

The cauldron below was brewing up every element and isotope in the periodic chart. As uncountable billions of neutrons shot around in chaos, they smashed into atoms, breaking them up and sending off more neutrons. Some isotopes existed for nanoseconds. Others boiled out into the sky to live for tens of thousands of years. Many of the elements and molecules, such as lead, were deadly for their chemical properties, let alone their radioactivity.

Communist Party leaders in Pripyat reported the town still calm. Teams were practicing for the May Day games. Several weddings were taking place. Fearing panic more than radiation, the leaders began to discuss the pros and cons and possibilities of evacuation. A roadblock was set up to prevent anyone from entering or leaving the town.

Firemen, unaware of that they were fighting an unquenchable atomic fire, assaulted the roof and aimed hoses into the flaming crater. They peered over the edge into the deadly abyss. Within seconds they absorbed enough radiation to kill them. They assumed that their violent nausea and overwhelming fatigue were caused by the smoke of burning chemicals. They assumed the toasted brown of their skin was from thermal heat.

The fire itself was no ordinary fire. At first, it was mostly burning tar on the roof. At some point, however, the thousand tons of graphite from the core ignited. Graphite is often used in industry because withstands temperatures in excess of 2,500 degrees centigrade. Once it starts burning, however, it is very hard to extinguish. Water turns to steam before it reaches the flames. If there happens to be a white-hot core of melted nuclear fuel nearby, the steam decomposes into hydrogen and oxygen. As the hydrogen rises away the heat, it ignites. In effect, the firemen were literally killing themselves to feed the fire.

The local defense militia was called in. Young soldiers were given gauze masks and cloth jumpsuits. And estimated 3,400 were assigned to clean nuclear fuel and graphite from the roof. They had no idea that they would be running through an environment of 10,000 to 20,000 rad per hour. They were allowed ninety seconds there, enough time to grab a chunk of something and toss it into the crater. After that minute-and-a-half shift, they could retire on a disability pension and take home a cash bonus to ease the consequences.

The world had never coped with such a disaster. No one had any idea what to do. The logical thing was to bury the fire and the tons of radionuclides that remained in the ruins of the reactor. The air force sent a fleet of helicopters. One by one they landed on the bank of the Pripyat River. Nuclear engineers, physicists and deputy ministers shoveled sand into bags as if doing penance in hell. Later they were helped by a hundred local farmers who had volunteered without knowing the kind of fire they were supposed to put out. Eventually someone thought of spreading out parachutes, filling them with sand and having the helicopters lift them by their cords.

Helicopter pilots had to fly low so the sand bombs wouldn't stir up so much radioactive material or punch through the floor of the reactor. They also dropped loads of boron, to absorb neutrons, lead, to shield the radiation, and dolomite, which would break down into carbon dioxide and help smother the flames.

The pilots and crews received radiation at a rate of several hundred rad per hour. Crew members had to lean out the doors into the upward flood of radionuclides to see when to release the loads. In a single flight they would take in several years of allowable dosage. They flew until they were too weak and nauseated to hold the controls of their helicopters."

(Glenn Alan Cheney - PRIPYAT.COM)