The control room of reactor number four at the Chernobyl Power Plant was a maze of control panels. Dials lined every observable surface and the room was a cacophony of beeping, providing the backdrop for a menagerie of engineers, scientists
This was the scene on the evening of 25th April 1986 as workers prepared to run a routine test to determine how long coolant could be pumped into the reactor core in the event of a loss of power. What followed would live long in infamy. A combination of human error and flawed reactor design resulted in a devastating chain of events that led the complete meltdown of the core, major fires and eventually the single worst nuclear accident in human history. Up to 7 million people across Europe were affected by the disaster, with the results of significant exposure to radiation only now being observed in some communities.
In the aftermath of the event, the Soviet government scrambled to complete a cleanup process unlike anything carried out before. Around 600,000 “liquidators” – firefighters, engineers and other workers – were flown in to contain the flow of ionising radiation emitting from the plant and investigate exactly what had gone wrong. The most unlucky crews were required to pick their way through the destroyed core of the reactor and its surrounding rooms. They picked their way through the darkness, directed only by the relentless clicking of their Geiger Counters, which revealed the invisible killer swarming them at all times.
About 6 months after the explosions, workers exploring the rooms directly underneath the reactor reached an area that caused their instruments to scream. Just around the corner was an area so deadly that no living thing could safely go near it. The liquidators constructed a crude camera on wheels and gently pushed it into the near-darkness. What the camera saw was a wrinkled mass of melted nuclear fuel, sand, steel and concrete. It had disintegrated the reactor housing and seeped through the floor, settling in the space below. The mass remained unfathomably hot and released periodic puffs of steam, as if it were taking rasping breaths. Above all, the mass, which came to be known as ‘The Elephant’s Foot’, which despite measuring around one metre across weighed an astonishing two tonnes, was unbelievably radioactive.
Few photographs of this terrifying room exist but, amazingly, one that does was taken by one of the workers, standing just feet from it. The image was taken around ten years after the meltdown and the Elephant’s Foot was only emitting 10% of the radiation it once did. Still, though, just over 8 minutes of exposure would result in a lethal dose. We do not know what happened to the thinly-clad worker interacting with the mass in this photograph, but they would have certainly received a potentially life-changing dose of radiation. The grain throughout the photograph and the ghostly effect of the worker is not an artistic choice. These effects are created by the ionising radiation crackling throughout the room interacting with the photographic film.
Though the collection of data and photographs may have contributed to an untimely death for this worker, today photographic film is used to save lives for those continuing to work with radiation. Like a canary in the mine, darkening of strips of photographic film worn by scientists and engineers indicates a high level of radiation.
Born from a deadly combination of human error, lax attitudes to safety and poor design, the Elephant’s Foot remains a hazard. It is still hot and continues to eat through its surroundings. Should it penetrate further and reach water supplies, Chernobyl could once again rear its head as a major health emergency.
‘Til next time…