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The event that inspired nesting hawks and far too many video games.[1]
Splitting more than hairs
Nuclear energy
Icon nuclear.svg
Ionizing pages

Chernobyl is a city in Ukraine with a population of luminous green mutants and guys in sunrise suits[2] about zero.[3] It's often conflated with Pripyat, which has a population of even more luminous green mutants fewer people.

When the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station was built nearby in the 1970s, it became known as the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. And when it exploded in 1986, it became known as the Chernobyl disaster.

Spelling note[edit]

"Chernobyl" (Чернобыль) is the Russian form of the name, while "Chornobyl" (Чорно́биль) is the Ukrainian one. At the time of the accident, Russian was the dominant language due to its status as a lingua franca of the Soviet sphere of influence, so most writings related to the accident use the Russian transliteration. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian language was declared the official language of Ukraine, and so "Chornobyl" is more correct when referring to the present-day deserted town. Another common spelling is "Tschernobyl," which is used in German.

Moving along...

Nuclear disaster[edit]

The Chernobyl disaster is remembered as the most devastating nuclear accident to have ever occurred, and is often used as fuel for the anti-nuclear movement. Presented here is a short summary, for more details see the Wikipedia articleWikipedia.

On 26 April 1986, as a result of a poorly thought-out experiment, Reactor #4 suffered an uncontrolled power surge.

First, a brief note on nuclear physics. As radioactive material such as Uranium decays, various particles are released. If neutrons get absorbed by other Uranium atoms, those atoms become unstable and release more particles as well. Under normal circumstances this process isn't self-sustaining; that is, it is "sub-critical", and most of those neutrons will escape. For example, 100 atoms decaying will only only cause another 20 atoms to decay, and then 4 or so, etc. This rate of reaction can be altered through various means, such as changing the density or shape of the Uranium fuel or adding and removing other materials. A "moderator" acts to slow down neutrons, which increases the chance they get absorbed by the Uranium and thus speeding up this reaction, whereas a "neutron absorber" or "poison" absorbs the neutrons instead, slowing the rate of reaction. A reaction rate of 1 is self-sustaining or "critical", 100 atoms will decay causing 100 more atoms to decay, causing another 100 to decay, and so on. Above this is "super critical", e.g., a reaction rate of 1.1 will mean 100 atoms decaying will cause 110 atoms to decay, which causes 121, then 133, then 146, and so forth. Control rods contain absorbers, slowing it down. By adjusting the moderators and absorbers in the core, the core can be brought below or above critical as needed to alter the rate of decay and thus heat production.

Note that even while a core is "sub-critical", it is still producing a lot of heat, only the rate of heat generation is slowing down. Like most conventional power sources, nuclear power plants consume a bit of energy as well as produce it, mostly to pump the water through the system but a bit to run the computers and switches and so forth. In the event of a power failure or other accident, e.g., a powerline collapsing due to a storm, control rods would go into place and backup diesel generators would be turned on to pump cooling water through the reactor. But the diesel generators aren't instantaneous, and in the crucial minute between power failure and the diesel generators, the reactors could overheat and possibly suffer damage or a meltdown. However, there's still residual energy in the whole system that could be redirected. For instance, the turbines themselves are still spinning, and this energy could be redirected to the pumps, and in theory there would be enough energy to run the pumps until the diesel generators went online. And so, the managers of the power plant wanted to test this.

However, the test required a specific set of conditions to be performed safely. Due to other needs, the power plant was forced to delay the test until the middle of the night, at which point an entirely different crew took over. An inexperienced crew that hadn't even been briefed on the test in the first place. To force the test through, the power was dropped too low for too long to cool off. But as every good nuclear engineer knows, Xenon is one of the elements created from nuclear reactions, and Xenon is a neutron absorber, thus causing the core to remain sub-critical. This is a problem that's been known since the development of the atomic bombs themselves, and under normal operating conditions nuclear power plants burn away the Xenon as it is produced.[4] If a reactor suffers from Xenon poisoning, a crew would have to restart the plant and slowly bring the core to critical and carefully burn off the Xenon, a process that usually takes a full day to do safely. But the current crew needed that test done ASAP, so to try to bring the core to critical again they pulled out almost all of the control rods. This worked, the core finally returned to critical... and then the Xenon burnt off all at once. So the core almost instantaneously went from being around the critical level to deep into supercritical territory, and probably reached a point where no crew could prevent a meltdown. But a local disaster was about to be made into an international catastrophe. The crew hit the equivalent of the SCRAM button to drop all the control rods back into place. However, the control rods' tips were made of graphite, a moderator, and thus the rods actually increases the reactivity rate for a short moment before the rest of the rod moves into place. This was bad enough, but there was already so much heat in the core that thermal expansion caused the rods to get jammed with the graphite tips in the core...

Seconds later, the pressure tubes of the reactor ruptured, exposing to the air the molten fuel and the graphite moderators, which instantly caught fire and possibly caused a secondary explosion, though this wasn't confirmed. Both the explosion(s) and the consequent fire released 50 tons of radioactive particles into the atmosphere that eventually spread outside of the USSR, releasing 400 times more radiation than the Hiroshima Bomb. A number of fireman and other rescue workers raced to the power plant; they made up the majority of the initial casualties.[5]

Over the next six months 200 tons of radioactive materials were sealed inside of a 300,000-ton shelter, called the Sarcophogus, which was made from steel and concrete. Its construction claimed the lives of 30 workers.

30 years later the previous containment structure was falling apart. 300 metres away from the reactor, where radiation levels are low enough for builders they constructed two halves of a giant steel arch taller than Big Ben mounted on two concrete runways, slid together the largest structure ever moved across land at 36,000 tons, sealing the previous containment facility within it. Inside the dome are attached two giant robotic cranes with ventilation and control systems that began the many years long dismantling of the reactor in what is easily the most impressive crane game in history. [6]

There is some controversy over the exact causes placement of blame. The direct cause of the explosion was the experiment that the reactor operators attempted to conduct — cooling the reactor using the kinetic energy of the turbine rotors after an emergency shutdown. The underlying cause of the explosion was the poor design of the reactor (inserting control rods with graphite tips which initially intensified the nuclear reaction instead of halting it) and the power plant itself (there was no containment building around each reactor which allowed the fire to spread the particles into the atmosphere).


Medals issued to the "Liquidators," or cleanup crew

As a result of graphite fire, radioactive particles were spread around the globe, which is how the world found out — glasnost having not really taken off yet. The first official account of a minor problem was doubted when increased levels of radiation caused an alarm at the Forsmark nuclear power plant in Sweden.[7]

Firefighters and other first responders were not fully aware of the danger they were in: although they were trained on the dangers of radiation and how to deal with radiological emergencies, as would be expected from a resident fire brigade at a nuclear power station, they did not at first realize the full extent of the accident — most of them assumed it was a turbine explosion or a small fire. 237 emergency workers suffered from acute radiation poisoning and of them 28 died in less than 3 months.

The "atomic city" of Pripyat (population about 50,000) that housed the power plant employees and the nearby regional capital of Chernobyl (population of 15 000) were evacuated. It is often said that personal belongings were left in the city until being looted recently, but this is not true. The residents were allowed to collect their things in an organized manner once the area was decontaminated. Only large low-value objects were left, such as beds. However, almost nothing was taken from public buildings such as the hospital. The Soviets didn't acknowledge or even warn the public about the incident until 36 hours later. Massive May 1 parades in nearby cities were held as scheduled. Some Soviet officials later admitted their lack of competence and attempts to "avoid panic".[8]

Nowadays, the remnants of the reactor are covered with a steel structure officially called "Object Shelter" but commonly known as the "sarcophagus." A popular misconception is that the sarcophagus is made from concrete. Actually, only the "stairs" on the north side are concrete, and the rest is assembled from steel elements resting on large steel support beams.[9] The plates are not welded to the beams, as this was impossible due to high radiation. An exclusion zone has been established around the Chernobyl plant, where settlement and all economic activity is forbidden. There were three more reactors at the site which continued to be operated for some time after the accident. The last one was shut down in 2000.

The consensus report of the Chernobyl Forum, a collaboration of 8 UN agencies and the governments of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, projects the disaster will eventually cause a total of 4,000 additional cancer fatalities, and suggests that psychological impacts caused by fear of radiation combined with inappropriate emergency response were a bigger cause of suffering than radiation itself.[10] This conclusion is extremely at odds with the worldview of anti-nuclear activists, who often attack the report and single out the World Health Organization from the collaborating agencies for alleged collusion with the nuclear industry or the IAEA.[11] Several alternative "counter-reports" were also published.[12]

On the positive side, Chernobyl has become an unlikely wildlife sanctuary due to the lack of human presence, and the animals that thrive there are mostly surprisingly normal.[13] While a few parts of Chernobyl have suffered greatly such as the Red Forest, even the most contaminated parts have vastly diverse wildlife where Lake Hlybloke, the most contaminated waterway in the world has greater species diversity than any other Chernobyl lake. Gray wolves flourish especially in the exclusion zone and are in the process of spreading from the zone.[14]

Wormwood "revelations"[edit]

And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.
Revelation 8:10-11, KJV

Certain Christians and other woo supporters who would know better if they looked things up outside the Bible claim that "Chornobyl" is Ukrainian for "wormwood." This is to fit the disaster into the Revelation of John, a series of hallucinations claimed to be a prophecy of the end times.[15]

While "wormwood" may refer to any plant in the genus ArtemisiaWikipedia the word used in the Book of Revelation (αψίνθιον, apsinthion, or άψινθος, apsinthos) most probably refers to absinthe wormwood[16], Artemisia absinthiumWikipedia. "Chornobyl" (literally "black plant" or "black grass") is Ukrainian for mugwortWikipedia (Artemisia vulgaris),[17] a plant different from wormwood both in appearance and symbolism.

The wormwood claim was first made by one Serge Schmemann in the New York Times a few months after the disaster,[18] citing "a prominent Russian writer" — who, curiously, has never come forward since, or been named by Schmemann. Funny, that.[19]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  3. A few hundred, actually. Have pity for them.
  4. Xenon poisoning
  5. Chernobyl Gallery
  6. Inside Chernobyl's Mega Tomb, American Experience
  7. Forsmark: how Sweden alerted the world about the danger of the Chernobyl disaster, European Parliament
  9. Photos from the construction of the "sarcophagus"
  10. Chernobyl: the true scale of the accident, WHO
  12. See the Wikipedia article on The Other Report on Chernobyl.
  13. Mycio, Mary Do Animals in Chernobyl’s Fallout Zone Glow? The Guardian. Retrieved August 31, 2018.
  14. Choi, Charles Q. (July 1, 2018) Chernobyl's Radioactive 'Wildlife Preserve' Spawns Growing Wolf Population. Live Science. Retrieved August 31, 2018.
  15. Chernobyl: The Taste of Wormwood The Forbidden Knowledge (archived from 12 Sep 2012 22:58:12 UTC).
  16. Absinthe. Retrieved on 6 January 2016.
  17. Look for чорнобиль hereWikipedia
  18. Discussion on "Above Top Secret"
  19. Chernobyl: a documentary story, by Yurii Shcherbak, (ISBN 0312030975) makes extensive mention of the 'wormwood' meaning of chernobyl, and though the book has a 1989 copyright date (New York: St. Martin's Press), that does not necessarily mean it had not been published, or otherwise circulated, earlier in the Soviet Union. This could, plausibly, be the "prominent Russian writer" Schmemann refers to. (However, though the book makes extensive mention of wormwood, it makes no reference at all to the Bible -- and if Schemann had known the work in question and cared about intellectual probity, he would presumably have provided an actual citation.)