The RBMK-1000 Reactor
The Chernobyl reactor complex just 80 miles north of Kiev, Ukraine is made
up of four Russian made RBMK-1000 water-cooled graphite moderated reactor
designed to make plutonium for nuclear weapons and modified to also produce
electricity. There are 27 RBMK's in the former Soviet Union. One distinguishing
feature of the RBMK design is its use of graphite to slow the neutrons produced
by the fissioning of uranium-235 atoms. Besides the RBMK reactors, the U.S.
Department of Energy operated a graphite-moderated reactor at Hanford,
Washington for the dual purpose of producing military plutonium and electricity
up until the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident. Within the reactor core of a
RBMK, nuclear fuel is placed in long separate vertical channels surrounded by
graphite, which is expected to absorb large amounts of heat as a safety feature
to give reactor operators ample time to take corrective action in the event of
While significant differences in both design and construction exist between the Chernobyl-style reactor and U.S. commercial power reactors, the nuclear
accident stands as an indictment of nuclear power technology and the
catastrophic consequences inherent in the fissioning of the uranium atom to
generate steam for electricity.
The Ongoing Consequences of the Nuclear Accident
At 1:23 a.m. on April 26, 1986, a catastrophic nuclear accident demolished
Chernobyl Unit 4. Power plant operators lost control of the reactor while
conducting experiments at low power. In an enormous explosion of the reactor
core, a mammoth amount of heat and disintegrated radioactive fuel violently
erupted into the atmosphere. An atomic fire burned for days before Swedish
authorities alerted the world to the return of nuclear fallout spewed high into
the atmosphere. Only months early, Soviet Life had propagandized that
operating the Chernobyl nuclear power plants was "safer than driving a car."
The facts are still coming forward:
There is roughly a 36 mile diameter "dead zone" surrounding the
reactors from which over 160,000 people were evacuated, permanently abandoning
over 600 years of continuous habitation and culture around the towns of
Chernobyl and Pripyat. Numerous "hot spots" of radioactive
contamination persist far beyond a "zone of alienation;" many areas
continue to emit radioactivity at levels ranging from 40 to 100
curies/kilometer2. As many as 150,000 people were dislocated in Belarus and
75,000 in the Russian Federation.
It is estimated that nearly 80% of Belarus was hit by iodine-131 fallout at
1000 curies/kilometer2, but because this isotope is short-lived (80 day
hazardous-life) it was omitted from the long-term forecasts and analysis despite
its extremely significant health consequences.
Vast tracks of agricultural land and bodies of water have been poisoned in
Ukraine, Belarus, western Russia, with significant radioactive contamination
persisting as far away as Poland, Norway and Sweden .
In an effort to avert a second nuclear catastrophe at the site, the
international atomic industry puzzles over its next move to prevent or contain
the eventual collapse of the colossal concrete tomb hastily erected at great
human sacrifice as a biological barrier. The concrete pillars supporting the "sarcophagus"
are crumbling and ready to burst over the highly radioactive remains of the
damaged reactor, which would result in another catastrophic airborne release of
radioactive particulate to the environment.
Wind and water continue to spread Chernobyl's deadly radioactive
contamination over even wider areas. Ground water flowing under the damaged
Chernobyl reactor is spreading an underground radioactive plume into the Pripyat
and Dnieper Rivers, threatening the city of Kiev's water supply.
Now, nearly ten years later, the Ukrainian government estimates 8000 people
have died in their country from the nuclear accident as a result of
radiation-related illness. The Ukrainian Ministry of Health places that figure
at 125,000 with disease rates, miscarriages and birth defects steadily rising.
Officials in Belarus estimate that roughly 2 million have suffered in some way
as a result of the nuclear meltdown. Birth rates have fallen 50% in Belarus.
Over 3 million Russians were exposed to the radioactive fallout in 1986. An
estimated 370,000 Russians are believed at significant risk for radiation
illness according to a recent Moscow medical conference. The relocation of
hundreds of thousands of people from additional contaminated zones has ground to
a halt for economic reasons, as has radiation monitoring of farming produce in
According to United Nation sources, Belarus currently spends 20% of its
national budget dealing with the Chernobyl aftermath while Ukraine devotes 4% of
its budget. In a report prepared by the Minister for Extraordinary Situations
and Protection of the Population from the Consequences of the Chernobyl
Catastrophe, the estimated total cost to Belarus from 1986 to 2016 is the
equivalent of 32 annual budgets from the republic's pre-accident period.
Chernobyl's Implications For U.S. Nuclear Reactors
The U.S. nuclear power industry is quick to point out that the Chernobyl
accident was a unique event that could never be repeated at a Westinghouse,
General Electric, Babcock and Wilcox or Combustion Engineering design. The
industry claims that Chernobyl was the product of a severely flawed reactor
design that could never be licensed to operate in the United States. Industry
proponents continue to claim that all U.S. nuclear reactors are designed to
ensure that radioactive materials would be contained in the event of a serious
accident. However, Chernobyl also had a containment building. The accident was
so severe that the containment design failed. Considerable evidence indicates
that U.S. containment designs can also fail. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory
Commission (NRC) in a 1990 study of the risks associated with severe accidents
at U.S. nuclear power plants concluded that none of the five different designs
it analyzed were capable of remaining intact during a severe accident. In
another NRC study of 24 U.S. reactors using General Electric's Mark 1
containment design, NRC concluded that "failure within the first few hours
following core melt would appear rather likely."
All aging U.S. nuclear reactors are vulnerable to component failure and
human error in design, construction and operation. Any U.S. nuclear reactor
could have an accident resulting in a catastrophic release of radiation to the
American public with similar or worse consequences as evidenced by Chernobyl.
Prepared by Paul Gunter, December 5, 1995
Nuclear Information and Resource Service, 1424 16th Street NW, #404,
Washington, DC 20036; 202-328-0002; fax: 202-462-2183; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org