On April 26th, 1986, reactor number 4 of the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine, experienced a series of controls failures that ultimately resulted in a nuclear meltdown. The power plant and the nearby city of Pripyat were evacuated and closed off to the public. After all this time, we still don’t have a definitive death count, but recent discoveries have warned us that the number could soon rise.
While only two people were immediately killed in the meltdown, radiation led to 29 other deaths in the following few days. The number of complications caused by the radiation remains unknown, though wildlife with birth defects such as too many limbs, multiple heads, and other strange mutations have been spotted for years following the disaster. Today, the reactor is still too dangerous for people to enter without extreme caution and a very good reason.
One of the most significant sources of radiation in the Chernobyl site is the Elephant Foot that was formed from molten core and core insulation when the meltdown happened. The mass of lava-like stone called corium was the single most dangerous thing on Earth shortly after it formed.
The rock that could kill
Chernobyl’s Elephant Foot, shortly after it oozed out of the reactor, was so radioactive, 30 seconds near it was enough to cause radiation poisoning, 300 seconds of exposure was enough to deliver a lethal dose, and anyone who stood near it for more than five minutes was sure to die within two days. While the mass of corium has cooled over the past 32 years, it is still a great danger to the scientists who study it.
The Elephant’s Foot puts out 1/10th of its original radiation today, but that’s still enough to make a person standing near it sick within an hour. The mass of rock itself isn’t going anywhere either, as scientists expect it to stick around for at least another century. The greater danger lies in what it’s currently doing.
A threat at large
While the corium has cooled significantly, it still burns hot enough that it is eating away at the plant’s concrete floor. Scientists worry that the mass will eventually break through to the ground below, and then into the water table not much farther down. If this were to happen, the contamination could spread to the nearby towns, causing widespread radiation poisoning.
Currently we don’t have a way to stop the corium from progressing downwards, but we hope that if we keep a close eye on it we might be able to prevent the death toll from Chernobyl from rising any higher.