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Forum > Nuke Puke

Chernobyl redux


See Photos From the 1986 Chernobyl Disaster.

As the HBO miniseries Chernobyl comes to a conclusion, viewers will have been taken on a dramatic trip back to 1986, experiencing the horror and dread unleashed by the world’s worst-ever civil nuclear disaster.   And if you have the chance to watch the miniseries do so.

Thirty-three years ago, on April 26, 1986, a series of explosions destroyed Chernobyl’s reactor No. 4, and several hundred staff and firefighters tackled a blaze that burned for 10 days and sent a plume of radiation around the world. More than 50 reactor and emergency workers were killed in the immediate aftermath. The workers and emergency responders were not the only ones to risk their lives—a handful of photographers went to the scene as well, managing to capture images of some of the chaos and acts of heroism that took place in the weeks and months that followed. (For current images of Chernobyl and the surrounding exclusion zone, be sure to also see Visiting Chernobyl 32 Years After the Disaster, from 2018.) HINTS:View this page full screen. Skip to the next and previous photo by typing j/k or ←/→.
* Liquidators clean the roof of the No. 3 reactor. At first, workers tried clearing the radioactive debris from the roof using West German, Japanese, and Russian robots, but the machines could not cope with the extreme radiation levels so authorities decided to use humans. In some areas, workers could not stay any longer than 40 seconds before the radiation they received reached the maximum authorized dose a human being should receive in his entire life.# Igor Kostin / Sygma via Getty
* An aerial view of the damaged Chernobyl nuclear-power plant, photographed a few weeks after the disaster, in May 1986# Laski Diffusion / Wojtek Laski / Getty
* The majority of the liquidators were reservists ages 35 to 40 who were called up to assist with the cleanup operations or those currently in military service in chemical-protection units. The army did not have adequate uniforms adapted for use in radioactive conditions, so those enlisted to carry out work on the roof and in other highly toxic zones were obliged to cobble together their own clothing, made from lead sheets and measuring two to four millimeters thick. The sheets were cut to size to make aprons to be worn under cotton work wear, and were designed to cover the body in front and behind, especially to protect the spine and bone marrow.# Igor Kostin / Sygma via Getty
* A military helicopter spreads sticky decontamination fluid supposed to reduce the spread of radioactive particles around the Chernobyl nuclear plant a few days after the disaster.# TASS / AFP / Getty
* Liquidators clear radioactive debris from the roof of the No. 4 reactor, throwing it to the ground where it will later be covered by the sarcophagus. These "biological robots" have only seconds to work—time to place themselves by a pile of debris, lift a shovel load, and throw it among the ruins of reactor No. 4.# Igor Kostin / Sygma via Getty
* A team of human liquidators prepares to clear radioactive debris off the roof of the No. 4 reactor.# Igor Kostin / Sygma via Getty
* A liquidator, outfitted with handmade lead shielding on his head, works to clean the roof of reactor No. 3.# Igor Kostin / Sygma via Getty
* The remains of the No. 4 reactor, photographed from the roof of reactor No. 3# Igor Kostin / Sygma via Getty
* A photo from Soviet television shows a man who was injured in the blast at Chernobyl as he receives medical attention.# AFP / Getty
* A Soviet technician checks water taken from a stream near Kiev for radiation on May 9, 1986. Checks were being performed hourly to be certain that water supplies were safe to use in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear-plant accident.# Boris Yurchenko / AP
* A Soviet technician prepares a tank truck with a solution designed to decontaminate people's clothes and equipment in Kiev on May 9, 1986.# Boris Yurchenko / AP
* A Soviet technician checks the toddler Katya Litvinova during a radiation inspection of residents in the village of Kopylovo, near Kiev, on May 9, 1986.# Boris Yurchenko / AP
* An aerial view of the damaged Chernobyl nuclear plant undergoing repair and containment work in 1986# Volodymyr Repik / AP
* A bulldozer digs a large trench in front of a house before burying the building and covering it with earth. This method was applied to entire villages that were contaminated after the Chernobyl disaster.# Igor Kostin / Sygma via Getty
* An interior photo of a still-functioning section of the Chernobyl nuclear-power plant taken a few months after the disaster in 1986# Laski Diffusion / Wojtek Laski / Getty
* A Chernobyl nuclear-power-plant worker holds a dosimeter to measure radiation levels, with the under-construction sarcophagus, meant to contain the destroyed reactor, visible in the background, in this photo taken in 1986.# Volodymyr Repik / AP
* Following orders issued by Soviet authorities to mark the end of cleanup operations on the roof of the No. 3 reactor, three men were requested to post a red flag atop the chimney overlooking the destroyed reactor, reached by climbing 78 meters up a spiral staircase. The flag bearers were sent despite the dangers posed by heavy radiation, and after a group of liquidators had already made two failed attempts by helicopter. The radiation expert Alexander Yourtchenko carried the pole, followed by Valéri Starodoumov with the flag, and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Sotnikov with the radio. The whole operation was timed to last only 9 minutes, given the high radiation levels. At the end, the trio were rewarded with a bottle of Pepsi (a luxury in 1986) and a day off.# Igor Kostin / Sygma via Getty
* At Moscow's No. 6 clinic, which specializes in radiation treatment, a patient recovers after a bone-marrow operation. A doctor examines the patient in a sterile room. The examination is carried out in an individual, air-conditioned chamber via specially created openings to avoid direct contact and contamination.#

Thank you for this important historical article.

I firmly believe that the Chernobyl disaster was instrumental in the unravelling of the USSR.

Chernobyl Wildfires Reignite, Stirring Up Radiation

Firefighters are struggling to control wildfires burning through the radioactive forest in the abandoned territory around the Chernobyl nuclear plant. The large fire is stirring up radiation in the area.

A field fire burning on Friday in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine.Credit...Volodymyr Shuvayev/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By Maria Varenikova

April 11, 2020

VINNYTSIA, Ukraine — Firefighters have struggled to control wildfires burning through radioactive forest in the abandoned territory around the Chernobyl nuclear plant, where radiation levels are considerably lower than they were immediately after the 1986 accident but still pose risks.

Radiation readings near the wildfires, where smoke is swirling about, have been elevated, with the wind blowing toward rural areas of Russia and Belarus for most of the past week. The wind shifted Friday toward Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, but authorities say the radiation level is still normal in the city, whose population is about three million.

But Saturday’s strong winds could spread the fires to the remnants of the nuclear plant and the equipment that was used to clean up the disaster, said Kateryna Pavlova, the acting head of the agency that oversees the area, in a telephone interview. “At the moment, we cannot say the fire is contained,” Ms. Pavlova said.

After the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, authorities created an area around the plant known as the Zone of Alienation, a rough circle with a nearly 18-mile radius, fenced off with barbed wire. Access to the zone is limited to workers who manage the site and tourists who take guided excursions.

Over time, radiation has settled into the soil, where its half-life ticks away mostly harmlessly. But the roots of moss, trees and other vegetation have absorbed some radiation, bringing it to the surface and spreading radioactive particles in smoke when it burns.

Already in lockdown because of the coronavirus, Ukraine is now also contending with fires in the post-apocalyptic landscape of the Chernobyl zone.

Wildfires break out there often but the blazes burning through dry grass and pine forests this spring, after a warm and dry winter, are far larger than the typical brush fires in the Chernobyl zone.

The Exclusion Zone Management Agency, the government office that manages the site, said the fires have burned through more than 8,600 acres over the past week. By Saturday, about 400 firefighters, 100 fire engines and several helicopters had been deployed to the exclusion zone.

According to the state center of radiation and nuclear safety, contaminated smoke is expected to reach Kyiv this weekend. However, the radiation level in the air, once smoke has disbursed far from the fires, is considered safe. It is expected to be about a hundredth of the level deemed an emergency.

The Exclusion Zone Management Agency is trying to protect critical infrastructure in the Chernobyl zone, such as the plant itself and the so-called “graves,” or parking lots of abandoned, highly contaminated trucks and tracked vehicles that were left from the original disaster, officials said.

“We have been working all night digging firebreaks around the plant to protect it from fire,” Ms. Pavlova said.

The cause has not been determined. One possibility is that a fire started intentionally by farmers to clear stubble from nearby fields had spread into the zone.

The Zone of Alienation is an eerie landscape of abandoned villages, equipment “graves,” empty fields and dense pine and birch forests, set aside in perpetuity as an experiment in mitigating nuclear disaster. The idea was to limit, through isolation, the lethality of radiation.

The danger is minimal today. Scientists say the average radiation level in the zone is about a quarter as harmful to human health as it was in the immediate aftermath of the explosion and fire.

Radioactive elements degrade at predictable intervals, called half-lives, that can vary enormously. The average particle half-life at Chernobyl is about 30 years.

The main risk from the fires comes from inhaling, via the smoke, small radioactive particles thrown years ago from the open core of the Chernobyl reactor, said Olena Miskun, an air pollution expert with Ecodiya, an environmental advocacy group.

“Wind can raise hot particles in the air together with the ash and blow it toward populated areas,” Ms. Miskun says. Also, radioactive particles can land on gardens or fields and later be consumed in food.

“We are lucky to have quarantine measures in place now,” she said. “People stay at home, walk less and wear masks,” anyway, because of the coronavirus threat.

Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Moscow.


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