After President Harry Truman gave the orders to drop 2 atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, the concept of atomic or nuclear power was frightening to millions of people around the world. The science fiction B movies of the 1950s only fed the fear of nuclear power, but not in the remote town of Arco, Idaho.
December 20, 1951, the Experimental Breeder Reactor #1 (EBR1) lit up an array of 4 light bulbs. The nuclear reactor was not designed to produce electricity, rather is was designed to prove the theory of breeder reactors. The experiment went forward and on July 17, 1955, Arco was powered by the BORAX III, another nuclear reactor built near the EBR1. Powering Arco was only a temporary thing but did lay the groundwork for the future of nuclear generated electrical power. EBR1 also made history when it had small partial meltdown, but the reactor was quickly sealed off.
Yet, the old Soviet Union makes that claim that they had the first nuclear power plant. The APS-1 nuclear power plant at Oblinsk went into service on June 26, 1954, delivering a whopping 5 MW of electricity into the Soviet power grid.
The Soviet plant was followed by the Calder Hall 1 nuclear power plant which started producing 50 MW of power on August 27, 1956. This was the first commercial nuclear power plant.
Today, there are 442 nuclear power plants operating in 31 countries around the world, producing a combined 384 GW.
Between 1970 and 1977 the Soviet Union built units 1 and 2 of the Chernobyl Power Complex, located about 80 miles north of Kiev, Ukraine and only 12 miles south of the Belarus border. In 1983, units 3 and 4 were completed. Each unit was capable of producing 1,000 MW of electrical power. In 1986, unit 5 at the Chernobyl complex was over halfway completed.
On this day, April 26, 1986, workers at unit 4 began running a test that had been run the year before, to see how long unit 4’s turbines would keep spinning and producing enough power to keep the main circulating pumps working after the loss of the main electrical power. According to one description:
“A series of operator actions, including the disabling of automatic shutdown mechanisms, preceded the attempted test early on 26 April. By the time that the operator moved to shut down the reactor, the reactor was in an extremely unstable condition. A peculiarity of the design of the control rods caused a dramatic power surge as they were inserted into the reactor.”
“The interaction of very hot fuel with the cooling water led to fuel fragmentation along with rapid steam production and an increase in pressure. The design characteristics of the reactor were such that substantial damage to even three or four fuel assemblies can – and did – result in the destruction of the reactor. The overpressure caused the 1000 t cover plate of the reactor to become partially detached, rupturing the fuel channels and jamming all the control rods, which by that time were only halfway down. Intense steam generation then spread throughout the whole core (fed by water dumped into the core due to the rupture of the emergency cooling circuit) causing a steam explosion and releasing fission products to the atmosphere. About two to three seconds later, a second explosion threw out fragments from the fuel channels and hot graphite. There is some dispute among experts about the character of this second explosion, but it is likely to have been caused by the production of hydrogen from zirconium-steam reactions.”
“Two workers died as a result of these explosions. The graphite (about a quarter of the 1200 tonnes of it was estimated to have been ejected) and fuel became incandescent and started a number of fires, causing the main release of radioactivity into the environment. A total of about 14 EBq (14 x 1018 Bq) of radioactivity was released, over half of it being from biologically-inert noble gases.”
Ejected radiation from the Chernobyl explosion spread over all of Europe and was eventually detected in Canada and the US. From the time of the explosion as Chernobyl in 1986 to 2000, more than 350,000 people in Belarus, Ukraine and the Soviet Union have been evacuated from their homes. Besides those that died during the explosion and in the days after, the incidents of radiation caused cancer deaths have been steadily increasing and probably will for years to come. An area of nearly 1,000 square miles has been designated as Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation, or more commonly referred to as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone or just The Zone.
In some areas of The Zone, wildlife and plants are returning, but radiation remains in the soil and the bottom of lakes, streams and rivers. Some believe the effects of the Chernobyl disaster could pose a threat to the environment and human health for another 3,000 years.
When used properly, nuclear energy can be a great asset, but when we let it get away from us, it can be a devastating force, almost like what we saw in those old 1950s B sci-fi movies.
Sources for the above includes: World’s First Nuclear Power Plant – Tour; Tour the World’s First Nuclear Power Plant; The World’s First Nuclear Power Plant; Nuclear power plants, world-wide; Nuclear disaster at Chernobyl; Environmental Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident and their Remediation: Twenty Years of Experience; Chernobyl Accident and Its Consequences; Backgrounder on Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Accident; What is Chernobyl?; Chernobyl Accident 1986; Ruined Chernobyl nuclear plant will remain a threat for 3,000 years.