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Chernobyl: Nuclear fire at 2000 degrees

By a fluke, the wind didn't cause the plume of nuclear fallout to drift over the 100 kilometres afar town Kiev with its 2.5 million inhabitants. Otherwise thousands of people would have died on the run!

The powerplant at Chernobyl on April 26th, 1986 in a view from the helicopter: Reactor number 4 had exploded
Picture by Ukrainian Society for Friendship and Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries

"The sun was shining and everything glittered in a snowy white. But there was no sign of life in the village. There were no foot traces in the snow, no smoke coming from the chimneys." Wladimir Gurbajew, a Russian movie producer, uttered these words when he was flying by helicopter over the evacuated villages in the restricted zone around Chernobyl. Wladimir Schwetschenko, one of Gurbajew's colleagues, suffered an agonizing death of lung cancer in a hospital in Kiev just a few months earlier due to a shoot at the radioactive reactor wreckage.

If radioactive radiation was visible, then maybe the Soviet documentarian would still be alive because he probably wouldn't have spent more than seven weeks in this highly contaminated area. If radioactive radiation was visible, then maybe the nuclear accident wouldn't have only been discovered two days later on Monday April 28th 1986 by a Swedish technician from the nuclear power plant "Forsmark" in Sweden.

The technician checked his legs for radioactive radiation like every morning and discovered radioactive dust! The implication was made that there had been an accident at "Forsmark". The whole plant was evacuated straight away.

In reality a high amount of radioactive fission products was catapulted high up into the air due to the so called "chimney effect" that was caused by two gigantic explosions during a nuclear accident in the Ukraine. The plume of nuclear fallout that was formed was blown from the USSR, to Lithuania, to Latvia, and to the Swedish coast by a North-West wind within 50 hours time.

While the Swedish were still wondering where the radioactive radiation had come from mass evacuations took place in 200 towns in a radius of 20 kilometres around Chernobyl.

In total more than 135000 people and 86000 animals had to be evacuated from the contaminated area. A platoon of approximately 1200 busses and 300 trucks and a length of 20 kilometres moved across the country.

That doesn't sound like a lot if you consider that the yearly traffic jam at the border crossing by Salzburg during the holidays already once had a length of 30 kilometres.

In reality it isn't long because you have to consider that the surroundings of Chernobyl were sparsely populated. The anyway only theoretical evacuation of a big town like Vienna or Bratislava in case of a nuclear accident in Bohunice would lead to traffic jams on all streets immediately.

We would almost have experienced a similar disaster because it was only by a fluke that Chernobyl's plume of nuclear fallout didn't drift over the town Kiev with its 2.5 million inhabitants 100 kilometres from Chernobyl. Otherwise thousands of the people on the run from the radioactive radiation would have died! 12 kilometres from Chernobyl the fire brigades were working non-stop.

At the beginning the fire brigades were trying to keep 30-meter-high explosive flames under control with foam and water. Some of the fire fighters weren't even wearing protective clothing.

It was those brave men, who prevented a bigger catastrophe: reactor block 3 did not catch fire! As a direct aftereffect of the accident 31 people, mainly helpers, died, a lot of them in agony. The death toll rose to 250 within the next year. A Soviet scientist said in an interview a few days ago that an estimated number of 7000 people died because of Chernobyl.

A fire extinguishing helicopter is approaching the the exploded reactor of Chernobyl emitting deadly radioactive material. Many pilots and firemen died.
Picture by Ukrainian Society for Friendship and Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries

There was a temperature of about 2000 degrees Celsius inside the building hence it was impossible to extinguish the fire with normal means. Water and foam vaporized within a few seconds. A mixture of boron (to stop the process of fission), lead (to absorb the radiation), clay, stones and sand (to suffocate the fire) was thrown into the open reactor off military helicopters.

The radiation source had to be sealed up to prevent the escape of more radiation into the atmosphere. The pilots' work took two weeks, for a lot of them it was fatal. Then the "raging reactor" how the former secretary general Michail Gorbatschow called it was buried beneath 5000 tons of sealing mass.

"The country needs electricity. Lots of electricity. There is no alternative to cheap nuclear energy." These words weren't uttered by some executive of the Communist Party from a safe distance like Moscow the capital of Russia but by Orlow, a reactor technician, who was treated at a hospital in Minsk against the damages and agony caused by nuclear radiation. Atomic energy – cheap energy: the critically ill technician Orlow wasn't the only one convinced of this idea – that was until the damages of the atomic explosion had become known.

The Soviet newspaper "Iswestija" estimates damages to be more than 1.2 billion Euros. 1.2 billion Euros - the hydroelectric power plant on the danube close to Vienna could have been built 13 times with this kind of money. Electricity from waterpower is something that will never lead to such a bone-crushing catastrophe. The Czech Republic also needs electricity. In part it comes from nuclear fission. There are 8 new nuclear power plants including Mochovce and Temelin still partly under construction. The young democracy needs the cheapest solution possible for the electricity problem. There are already enough economical and national problems to deal with.

It would be the end of the country if 1.2 billion Euros would have to be paid because of an accident in one of the antiquated reactor blocks of Bohunice - apart from the ten thousands of victims who live in the more densely populated area at the border of Austria.

< Read part 3 of the series: Tourist guide to the death zone

© A report by Tobias Micke (22-04-91) – Contact