Chernobyl nuclear disaster: 36 years later, what are the risks now?

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) — It’s been almost 36 years since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, but it’s in the news again after reports surfaced Wednesday morning that Russian forces cut power to the facility.

ABC13 reporter Tom Abrahams visited Chernobyl ahead of the 20th anniversary of the nuclear disaster that killed and injured countless people across generations. At the time, he and his photographer were the first American television news crew to visit in four years.

The meltdown and explosion occurred during a system test in April 1986. At the time, it was the Soviet Union’s most powerful nuclear power plant. When we visited, the damaged number four reactor was housed in a failing shell known as a sarcophagus. It has since been replaced, but the site still requires electricity to keep all the nuclear material still housed there cool.

On Wednesday, Tom spoke to Notre Dame’s civil engineer, Jim Alleman, who is working on the international effort to build the new safety dome.

“Chernobyl is a very vulnerable site that poses a high risk in terms of release of radioactive materials from the injured facility,” Alleman said. “Most of the spent fuel that was in this facility that was pulled out is just lying on the ground inside the originally failed reactor. But the spent fuel rods they pulled out they put in a cooling system. Cooling is crucial to keep the temperature under control.”

We also spoke to Tomoko Steen of Georgetown Medical School on Wednesday, who Congress called on to draw on her expertise. Steen says that while the power outage poses minimal threat, the much greater threat would be a dome breach or explosion.

“I think the main problem that causes fear is the lack of knowledge,” Steen said. “However, if the dome is destroyed and an explosion happens, then that’s a problem because the explosion means radioactive material is rising and spreading.”

Chernobyl itself will not be abandoned. The 19 miles around the plant are designated as the restricted zone. It is heavily guarded and is the workplace for hundreds of people.

Inside you will find scientists, military and other government employees. There is also the abandoned city of Pripyat, home to many Chernobyl workers and their families, and other houses buried underground because of radiation exposure.

Incredibly enough, many of the personal stories are archived at the Texas Medical Center, where researchers have studied the cross-section of medicine and low-dose radiation for decades. For them, Chernobyl is still relevant, especially given what is happening now. We spoke to two archivists who are responsible for the material catalogue.

“Access to the archive can be a way of making that connection and making something more accessible and understanding a little bit more about the lives of the people involved,” said Matthew Richardson, archivist at the McGovern Historical Center.

“You can learn a lot from these collections. They offer first-hand accounts from people trying to understand the long-term impact of these events,” said Sandra Yates, also at the McGovern Historical Center.

To learn more about this story, follow Tom Abrahams on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Copyright © 2022 KTRK-TV. All rights reserved. Chernobyl nuclear disaster: 36 years later, what are the risks now?

Dais Johnston

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