Scientists monitoring the Chernobyl nuclear power plant say that nuclear fission reactions are occurring again in the reactor hall’s remains, some 35 years after the core exploded.
Sensors monitoring the masses of uranium fuel buried in the basement rooms of the reactor have detected rising levels of neutrons, signalling that the fission process used to create nuclear energy is occurring in one of the inaccessible rooms within the plant.
Although the levels are rising slowly, scientists are working to figure out the cause of the activity, and what action needs to be taken to prevent the risk of further radiation leaking out from the plant.
Maxim Saveliev, a researcher at the Institute for Safety Problems of Nuclear Power Plants in Kiev, Ukraine, said that there were ‘many uncertainties’ about the situation inside the remains of the reactor unit, adding that ‘we can’t rule out the possibility of [an] accident.’
It’s believed that around 95% of the original fuel from the reactor flowed into the plant’s basement rooms following the disaster in April 1986, forming solid ‘fuel-containing materials’ (FCMs.) A year after the explosion, a concrete-and-steel ‘sarcophagus’ was placed over the top of the reactor’s remains to contain radiation from the FCMs, with a larger, more secure ‘New Safe Confinement’ installed in 2016 at a cost of more than €1.5 billion.
Since then, neutron counts have stabilised in most parts of the plant, but Science Magazine reports that in the room concerned levels have almost doubled in four years.
Speaking to the magazine, nuclear material chemist Neil Hyatt described the situation inside the reactor hall as ‘like the embers in a barbecue pit.’
Ukraine has been exploring ways to remove the FCMs before they reach critical levels for several years, and is set to release proposals for doing so later this year. Current levels of radiation mean it’s too dangerous for humans to go in to stabilise the FCMs causing the fission reaction, with one option being explored being to develop a robot capable of withstanding radiation to insert boron cylinders into the deposits.
While there’s no risk of a continent-wide nuclear fallout like the one seen in 1986, Hyatt says that an exponential increase in fission could cause ‘an uncontrolled release of nuclear energy,’ with experts concerned that an explosion could cause a partial collapse of the old sarcophagus, filling the NSC with ‘radioactive dust.’
More than four decades after the world’s worst nuclear disaster, Chernobyl continues to throw up new problems for the scientists working to contain it.
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