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Thursday, December 1, 2022

This is what a power outage may mean for the nuclear waste at Chernobyl

A nuclear reactor in operation may utilise part of the energy it produces to operate its operations, while the long-defunct Chernobyl facility in Ukraine is fully reliant on external sources of electricity.

Consequently, when that electricity is interrupted, as Ukrainian authorities and the International Atomic Energy Agency claim has occurred as a consequence of Russian soldiers, difficulties may arise.

According to the latest information available on Wednesday, Chernobyl, site of the greatest nuclear tragedy in history when one of the plant’s four reactors exploded and burnt 36 years ago, is mostly powered by diesel generators. According to a former long-term employee of the facility who was familiar with the situation on the ground, some equipment was also operating on battery power, and firefighting systems, as well as radiation monitoring, had been impacted.

“There is no major effect on safety,” the International Electrotechnical Association of Engineers (I.E.A.E.) stated in a statement on Wednesday. However, what would happen if all of these backups failed and Chernobyl was left without any electricity for whatever reason?

The first two reactors of the Chernobyl nuclear power station were completed in the late 1970s, bringing the facility online in the late 1970s. Even though the third and fourth units, including the one that was destroyed three years later, were in operation by 1983.

That catastrophe, which was the consequence of an ill-conceived and ill-executed test, resulted in the deaths of more than two dozen persons in the immediate aftermath, the majority of whom died as a result of exposure to high quantities of radiation. The ensuing explosion of the reactor core released a cloud of radioactive particles that swept over areas of Europe, and many more individuals suffered long-term consequences, including cancer, as a result of the radiation exposure.

The plant’s last three reactors were subsequently decommissioned, the last of which was decommissioned in 2000. All of them have had their nuclear fuel removed, as well as their turbines and other power-generating equipment, which has been dismantled in large part as well.

There is no danger of a core meltdown at the facility since there are no active reactors, as there would be if a functioning plant lost power and was unable to pump water through the reactor. What occurred at the Fukushima reactors in Japan in 2011 was caused by an earthquake and tsunami, which knocked out the backup power systems at the plant.

As a result, if the water in storage tanks becomes too heated and boils away, the fuel will be exposed to the atmosphere and may catch fire. That was also one of the dangers associated with the Fukushima accident.

Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, workers had begun transporting some of these fuel assemblies to a long-term dry storage facility, which is scheduled to open in 2020 and be fully operational by then. When the fuel assemblies have cooled to the point where they may be securely exposed to the air, they are ready for dry storage.

One of the most significant sources of radioactive waste at Chernobyl, and one that is unique to the site, are the remains of the reactor building itself. During the incident, an estimated 200 tonnes of fuel was dropped on the reactor, which resulted in a lava-like mixture of molten concrete, sand, and chemicals being spilled on the reactor.

This extremely radioactive combination may be found throughout the reactor’s ruins, having spilled through entrances and drain pipes, as well as down stairwells and other areas of the complex, before solidifying and settling. Some of these fuel-containing materials, as they are referred as, are located in inaccessible locations and have only been explored by drilling holes into them.

Although it has happened on a few occasions recently, instances in which nuclear reactions have begun spontaneously in pockets of these fuel-containing materials have resulted in radiation levels rising dramatically. They have been seen and will have to be dealt with at some point in the future.

Workers would not know whether a new incident was happening unless both humidity and radiation were being monitored at the same time. According to a former employee who was familiar with the situation at the factory, the ventilation systems that were responsible for controlling humidity levels had ceased working.

Since 2017, a massive arched structure has being constructed over the site of the decommissioned reactor, with the goal of containing waste and preventing radiation leaks. The construction is also intended to facilitate the start of the job of removing garbage from the site for long-term storage, which is likely to take decades.

The plant had just been awarded an operating licence by Ukrainian officials last year, therefore the construction process had only recently began at that point. There are numerous huge cranes and other specialised equipment available to ensure that teams can operate in a safe environment. Most, if not all, of that labour would have been impossible to do without access to electricity.

A Boyle
I cover Science related topics for The National Era
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