Episode 19


From the rear of the Unit Four control room, Sergei watched as the Chernobyl operators prepared for the test on the generator. On the curving front wall, he could see the circular control rod display, with two operators seated below it, wearing the standard white uniform. It was two o'clock on the afternoon of Friday, April 25, 1986, and Sergei had been joined by the turbine specialist from his team “How much longer?” his acquaintance asked.

“A while yet. They have to reduce power slowly. This reactor gets touchy.” The experiment would simulate the sudden loss of offsite power, with its accompanying scram. The massive rotor of the generator would also coast to a halt, but it would continue to produce some electricity as it slowed, and the test was to demonstrate that this power could be used to keep pumping water through the core. In the past, during similar experiments, there had been problems. But the plant was ready to try again. While still above twenty percent power, the experiment would be run. Below that level, the reactor was too hard to control.

The time for the test was approaching, and the shift supervisor paced back and forth, glancing down at the papers in his hand. He gave some orders.

“What now?” Sergei's companion asked.

“They're turning off the emergency cooling system for the reactor,” Sergei said. “During the test it could screw things up. They won't need it anyway. They have some feedwater pumps, just in case.”

The shift supervisor took a call, frowned, and spoke to the management representative standing nearby. Then an announcement was made: the test was on hold. The load dispatcher had asked that Unit Four keep producing power for a few more hours due to a shortage of electricity in the Ukraine.

Sergei turned to his friend. “Let's take a break.”

Sergei yawned. He was determined to wait it out, as was his companion. It was after midnight now and the test still had not been run, but there was light at the end of the tunnel. The plant was reducing power again. A tall, broad-shouldered shift supervisor, who had come on duty a few hours before, was monitoring the reactor's progress, while the same management representative, a trim man with graying hair, stood nearby.

Suddenly, one of the operators announced that reactor power was dropping fast. Too fast. The automated system being used to insert the control rods had not been adjusted properly. The shift supervisor cursed as he moved to the control panel, where he was joined by the reactor engineer, a chubby young man with a thin mustache. There was a flurry of orders and adjustments, but it was no use. Reactor power had plunged to a mere one percent, far below the minimum required for the test.

Sergei glared at the ceiling. He had wasted the entire evening waiting for a test that could not be run.

“It shouldn't take them long to get power back up, right?” Sergei's friend said.

Sergei shook his head. “No, it's not that simple. It'll take a long time. Many hours. The core's ‘poisoned’ now. There's a chemical reaction that takes place in the fuel if you don't run things right. Sort of like flooding a car engine.” Sergei was going to explain further, but the management representative had begun berating the control room crew. Core output must be raised, the manager said, and the test completed. The shift supervisor and reactor engineer began arguing against such an attempt.

“Let's take a walk,” Sergei said to his friend. “No use listening to this.”

Once outside, Sergei lit a cigarette, and the two strolled towards the cooling pond and the distant lights of fishermen. “That manager is wasting his time. Poisoning makes it very hard to get the nuclear reaction going again right away. The only thing you can do is pull out control rods like crazy. But with this type of reactor you've got to keep a certain number of them in the core at all times just to keep things stable. They won’t get enough power back for hours.” Sergei tossed his cigarette. “I don't know about you, but I'm tired. Let's find out when they'll try again, and then get some sleep.”

When the two returned to the control room, Sergei was surprised to see that preparations for the experiment were continuing.

“It looks like they're going on,” Sergei's friend whispered.

“Yeah,” Sergei nodded. “I guess I was wrong.” He could see the operators were pulling more control rods out of the core. But could they get back up to twenty percent power for the test and still keep the reactor under control? Additional pumps were now turned on to ensure that enough cooling liquid would continue to flow past the fuel after the test was started. But as the new pumps moved water faster through the core, the reactor engineer reported that power level was dropping off again. Sergei quickly realized why. In the RMBK design, too much unboiled water in the core acted like a brake on the reactor. To compensate, the operators began pulling out even more control rods. By now, Sergei thought, they must be close to the maximum number that could be removed while still maintaining control of the nuclear reaction.

One of the operators now reported that signals from the reactor might cause an automatic scram before the test was started. The shift supervisor conferred with the manager, and then the worrisome signals were turned off. More control rods were withdrawn. How many will they pull? Sergei leaned back against the wall with fatigue. They‘ve got to be at the limit.

The clock passed 1:20 a.m. A nearby printer came to life, and the reactor engineer studied the fresh output from the plant computer. Sergei saw the engineer’s look of concern as he reported that too many control rods had been withdrawn from the core to ensure proper control. There was more discussion, and then the test continued. It was important, and it would soon be over.

Sergei was shifting from curiosity to concern. Operating the reactor under the present conditions was like driving a car with both bad brakes and a sticky, unpredictable accelerator. But, then again, he reassured himself, this car was just slowly cruising along.

“Getting close,” Sergei's friend said.

“Yes,” came Sergei's flat reply. He had just heard an order to turn off the scram signal that was to occur at the start of the test. This would allow the crew to repeat the experiment if things didn't go right the first time. Sergei knew the test wasn’t designed that way. Was this how they always did things? On the fly?

With preparations complete, the shift supervisor announced the start of the experiment. Valves were closed in the plant, and the steam supply to the turbine-generator was suddenly cut off, simulating the effect of losing offsite power. Still producing some electricity, the massive rotor of the generator began coasting to a halt, and several of the pumps supplying water to the reactor drifted to a stop along with it. Meanwhile, other pumps continued to cool the reactor core.

The test was only a few seconds old when an operator reported that power in the reactor was gradually increasing. Sergei nodded. With less water traveling up through the core, that was expected. But then another reading came, and another. Core power continued to rise, and there was a hint of fear on the reactor engineer's face. The test was only thirty seconds old, and the reactor of Unit Four was not responding properly.

“We may have to scram,” Sergei whispered. “Things aren't right.” He pointed at a control panel. “You’ll see a blip upwards in power just as the rods start in.” Even before Sergei finished, the reactor engineer, beads of sweat glistening on his forehead, asked that the test be stopped. Like a car coasting down a slight incline, the Unit Four reactor was slowly picking up speed.

The shift supervisor thought hard for a moment, the manager looming behind him, and then firmly pushed the scram button, ordering all control rods into the core. Sergei squinted at the power meter, expecting it to jerk up as the graphite tips of the control rods entered the reactor, and then to plunge as the boron in the rods began bringing the atomic fission to a halt. It was one final push on the car’s sticky accelerator before slamming on the brakes. . .

Sergei flinched as the lights on the control panels flared. One of the operators yelled that the control rods were not going all the way in. Another voice announced that reactor power had gone right off the scale.

That’s not right. Not right!

A deep rumble swept into the control room from the direction of the reactor hall as the shift supervisor punched at switches, trying to get the control rods to move further into the core. But the accelerator of the nuclear reactor had been pressed too many times. It was stuck. The core was now speeding up fast -- and the brakes weren't working.

Sergei watched in disbelief as alarms sounded and lights flashed. Banging and cracking could be heard in the distance. The shift supervisor didn't know what was happening, nor did the reactor engineer. The manager's face was pale. Water flow into the reactor was at zero, someone announced. More buttons were pushed.

“What's going on?” Sergei's friend asked in an anxious voice, as the floor vibrated beneath them.

Sergei didn’t answer. They‘ve lost it. If the power surge didn't stop, the reactor could damage itself. There could be steam leaks. Some radiation might be released . . .

The thunder and clanging grew worse. It had been half a minute since the scram button had been pushed. The shift supervisor barked out more orders.

Kablaaack-WUMPFF! Sergei was thrown back against the wall by a huge shock wave. The floor beneath him crumpled, and debris crashed down from above. The room went dark.

Hunching over, his back pressing against the trembling rear wall, Sergei covered his head as he was showered by bits of plaster and metal. The thunderous deluge soon ended, and gripped by shock and fear, he opened his eyes. A few emergency lights now illuminated the dusty scene as the operating crew, coughing and cursing, began to extricate themselves from the debris. Around them battered control panels hummed and sparked, while torn cables dangled from the ceiling, crackling with energy. In the distance, beyond the leaning walls and shattered glass, there was the hiss of steam and the gurgle of water running free. There were now loud questions: What happened? What was it? And orders, sounding more like demands, were given by the shift supervisor. Cooling water! The reactor must have water! Buttons were pushed, again and again, as the crew tried frantically to comply.

Sergei glanced at his friend, who was crawling to his knees. “You okay?”

“Yeah.” The man wiped at his chin, where a small cut was oozing blood, and the two pulled themselves upright, avoiding the cracks in the floor. “What the hell happened?”

“I don't know” Sergei replied.

The door to the control room flung open and a worker rushed in. Sergei heard him report that he had seen the top of the reactor in motion: the checkerboard of fuel channels had been jumping up and down a few moments before the blast. It was hard to believe. The steel columns above the core weighed several hundred pounds apiece. Soon, there also came reports of flames in the turbine hall, and the town fire brigade was called out.

More minutes passed, but it was still not known what had happened. Had there actually been an explosion in the reactor? The crew did not want to acknowledge such an idea. The reactor must be intact. It had to be. Clearly, the control rods must be pushed the rest of the way into the core, and the shift supervisor sent two young men, training for control room jobs, up to the refueling area to operate the rod mechanisms by hand. No one knew if radiation levels had changed anywhere in the plant. The instruments that might tell them were no longer working.

The trainees soon returned, and Sergei leaned forward, trying to hear their report. Even in the dim light, it was easy to see that both men were distraught. Their white suits were covered with a moist film of dirt and grease. They had climbed through rubble, they said, to get to the refueling floor, and . . . it was torn apart. The ten thousand ton lid of the reactor lay askew -- blown off. They could see fire belching up from below. The men in the control room immediately began to second-guess the report, telling the trainees they couldn't possibly be correct. The reactor must be intact!

Sergei did not have that faith. An open reactor. And on fire. If it‘s true . . . It wasn't hard to picture what it meant. Thousands of Rems per hour. Millions of milli-rems. He studied the two young workers as they answered more questions. They were soaked in sweat, their hands shaking, their faces flushed. If indeed they had edged up near the exposed core, they were dead men. And what of himself? His legs grew weak. Go! his mind began to scream. Go! Sergei grabbed his friend's arm. “Let's get out of here,” he whispered, trying to sound calm.

His acquaintance glanced back. There was determination in his eyes. “They might need me,” the man said. “For the turbine.”

“You don't know how bad it is!” Sergei said, squeezing his friend's shoulder. “High rads! Way too much.”

“There's a job to do,” his friend replied. He took a step away and with a look that mixed compassion with disdain, he motioned towards the door. “Go on,” he said softly. “You can help later.”

Sergei nodded. He wanted so badly to leave. To survive.

The way out of the plant proved difficult. Few lights remained, and the hallways were filled with debris and drenched by an acrid, metallic smell. Sergei passed by the entrance to the turbine hall and a blast of hot air greeted him when he peered inside. There was a hole in the roof, a jagged cut, and chunks of the ceiling had fallen onto a turbine. There were fires as well, and workers scrambling about the catastrophe. For a few moments Sergei stood transfixed in the doorway, but then regained his senses. Get out!

The sky overhead was crimson and shimmering when he finally burst outside onto the asphalt tarmac that surrounded much of the complex. He could see fire trucks parked near the cooling pond and started in that direction. Something crunched under his feet and then his toe struck a fist-sized rock. He kicked the black, angular object aside and continued on, stepping around other pieces of debris. Anxious to get further away, he broke into a run. The fire trucks represented safety. From there he could move on to Pripyat, just three miles distant. Out of breath, he reached the vehicles and then turned back to look.

Oh . . . A huge column of bluish flame was belching up into the sky behind the Turbine building, with thick puffs of black smoke climbing even higher. Closer, atop the Turbine building roof, firemen were at work, while their comrades on the ground hurriedly unrolled more hoses and struggled to get them up the wall. One firefighter came down off the ladder, clutching at his stomach through his thick coat. Staggering toward the trucks, he kicked at the dark rubble littering the ground, and in a brief, horrible moment, Sergei realized what the rocky objects were. Graphite! Chunks from the reactor's core, intensely radioactive, had somehow been blown up through the roof and landed here. Here. Terror again coursed through Sergei's body. This place was not safe. Not safe at all. He turned and ran.

Sergei awoke, sticky and uncomfortable, atop the bed in his apartment. On the way into town he had peeled off much of his plant uniform before plopping down, exhausted. He had lain there, shaking, trying to decide what to do. Now it was 8:00 a.m. He must have drifted off. Sunlight was streaming through the thin curtains as he relived the night and its terror. It hadn't been a dream, Sergei knew. It had been very, very real.

His joints uncharacteristically stiff, he stepped onto the balcony, squinting in the light. Five kilometers away he could see the Chernobyl plant. Beside one of the tall ventilation stacks, the reactor building of Unit Four was now a blackened hulk, from which a dark column of smoke was rising.

That's it then. It was really gone. He had witnessed the impossible: the destruction of a nuclear reactor. And he had panicked. But the fear had now subsided, to be replaced by shame. He ran, like a coward. You ran. Laughter drifted up from the street and Sergei peered over the railing. A group of children seemed to be on their way to school. Those kids should be indoors. Surely someone told them!

Just how bad was it? Sergei suddenly realized he could find out. As a gift before leaving the United States, he had been given a self-reading dosimeter like those used in American plants. He located the finger-sized metal tube in his bags, checked that the needle inside was close to zero, and then laid it on the balcony railing.

After a shower, Sergei stepped back into the springtime breeze on the balcony to pick up the dosimeter. It had been thirty minutes. The needle would probably still be hovering around zero, he thought, as he held the small tube up to the light. But the thin black line was near the high end of the scale. 500 milli-rems.

500! That can‘t be right. Can‘t be! Sergei checked again, and then looked beyond the apartments of Pripyat to the burning reactor. At this distance? Is it possible? For the first time, he noticed a faint smell in the air, an acrid, almost metallic odor. Maybe . . . maybe it‘s true. He began to feel sick to his stomach and stepped back inside.

Weakly, Sergei sat on the bed. Had he underestimated the true impact of what had happened? Had he been trying to fool himself? The dosimeter indicated a radiation level of nearly one Rem per hour. That was tens of thousands of times higher than normal. It meant one shouldn't stay in Pripyat for very long. A few days at most. Nausea was building up within him as he tried to reassure himself. He was jumping to conclusions. The dosimeter could be broken. And there were children in the street. Surely that was a good sign. A funny taste filled Sergei’s mouth, and he got up to get a drink of water. He had barely taken a step when his stomach began convulsing, and he flung himself toward the sink.

Sergei perched on the edge of the thin cot, dining on crackers and water, his striped hospital gown hanging about his shoulders. It was midnight now, and he felt much better than when he had slowly climbed the steps of the clinic that afternoon. He had barely managed to keep down the potassium iodide tablet given to him upon his arrival. Sharing his room this night were two others who told similar stories of nausea a few hours after the explosion: a laborer working the night shift at a construction site near the plant, and a fisherman who had been at the cooling pond.

And they were not the worst, Sergei knew. Anxious for a cigarette, he taken a short stroll that led him past other wards where the firemen and operators lay, their skin blistered and burnished to a reddish black. Among them lay his friend and companion from the night before. A team of physicians had already arrived from Moscow and were evacuating the sickest patients. Sergei could only feel lucky. As near as the doctors could tell, he had not absorbed a lethal dose.

They explained that he would feel much better for a few weeks, and then the symptoms of his exposure would return. He would use that time well, Sergei thought. He would volunteer for whatever was needed. He would redeem himself.


End Post 19



He could accept a nuclear accident in his own country, if it were just a bump in the road to progress. But Yelena -- and the baby!


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