Chernobyl: The end of a three-decade experiment

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Since the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986, an area of more than 4,000 square kilometres has been abandoned. That could be about to change, as bbdiscovered during a week-long trip to the exclusion zone.

“This place is more than half of my life,” says Gennady Laptev. The broad-shouldered Ukrainian scientist is smiling wistfully as we stand on the now dry ground of what was Chernobyl nuclear power plant’s cooling pond.

“I was only 25 when I started my work here as a liquidator. Now, I’m almost 60.”

There were thousands of liquidators – workers who came here as part of the mammoth, dangerous clean-up operation following the 1986 explosion. The worst nuclear accident in history.

Gennady shows me a coffee table-sized platform, installed here to collect dust. This reservoir’s bed dried out when the pumps taking water from the nearby river were finally switched off in 2014; 14 years after the remaining three reactors there were shut down.

Analysing dust for radioactive contamination is just a small part of the decades-long study of this vast, abandoned area. The accident turned this landscape into a giant, contaminated laboratory, where hundreds of scientists have worked to find out how an environment recovers from nuclear catastrophe.

On 26 April, 1986, at 1:23AM, engineers cut power to some systems at Chernobyl nuclear power plant’s number 4 reactor. It was a critical point in a test to understand what would happen during a blackout. What engineers did not know was that the reactor was already unstable.

The cut-off slowed turbines that drove cooling water to the reactor. As less water turned to more steam, the pressure inside built. By the time operators realised what was happening and tried to shut down the reactor, it was too late.

A steam explosion blew the lid off the reactor, exposing the core to the atmosphere. Two people in the plant were killed and, as air fuelled a fire that burned for 10 days, a cloud of radioactive smoke and dust was carried on the wind around Europe.

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