May 21

Nuclear fuel in Chernobyl is smoldering again and could explode

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Tons of nuclear fuel on the ground floor of the damaged nuclear power plant seems to be starting to react again and shows no signs of stopping.

Nuclear reactions are taking place once again in the inaccessible ground floor of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine.

Researchers monitoring the plant famous for its 1986 explosion detected a spike in neutron numbers in an underground room called 305/2. This room is filled with bricks, and within it is a thick radioactive mixture of uranium, zirconium, graphite, and sand, all of which spills out onto the ground floor of the plant like lava, before hardening into a compound substance called fuel-containing material (FCM).

The increase in neutron levels indicates that these FCMs are undergoing a new fission reaction as the neutrons collide and split the nuclei of the uranium atom, thereby producing energy.

At the moment, this radioactive waste is smoldering “like the sparks in a barbecue tray”, says Neil Hyatt, a nuclear materials chemist at the University of Sheffield (UK). However, it’s entirely possible that these sparks ignite the data if “floated” for too long, resulting in another explosion.

This explosion will not be as devastating as the one that destroyed the plant in 1986, resulted in the deaths of thousands of people and formed a radioactive cloud over Europe, according to Maxim Saveliev, a researcher at the Institute for Safety Issues for Nuclear Power Plants (ISPNPP) in Kyiv, Ukraine. If nuclear material ignites again, much of the explosion will be contained within a steel-and-concrete cage structure known as The Shelter, which has been built around the remains of reactor No. year after the incident.

New Safe Confinement structure

Even so, even a controlled explosion would make the mission of eliminating FCM in the plant more difficult. The Shelter structure is old and likely to crumble due to the force of the explosion, flooding the area with rock and fallout (The Shelter itself is contained within a larger steel structure, called the New Safe Confinement. , completed in 2018).

Neutron levels have been steadily increasing in room number 305/2 over the past four years, according to Saveliev, and may continue to rise in the coming years without incident. It is possible that the nuclear matter will self-destruct during that time. But if neutron levels continue to rise, scientists will have to intervene.

Easier said than done, plant managers have yet to come up with a way to access the tons of radioactive material buried beneath the thick concrete layers of the room. Radiation levels are currently too high for humans to bear, but the radiation-resistant robots can dig a hole through rock and install controls that absorb neutrons into the room.

Ukraine hopes that between now and September, a detailed plan will be put in place to get rid of the smoldering FCMI in Chernobyl.


Tags

Chernobyl disaster, Nuclear


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