In the wee hours of April 26, 1986, a routine safety test at the VI Lenin Nuclear Plant turned into catastrophe. A freak power spike caused the uranium fuel rods to overheat, quickly turning the water coolant into steam, resulting in a massive explosion.
A second explosion caused the radioactive material to burst into the atmosphere and prevent any more coolant from reaching the reactor. A few workers were killed right off the bat. Most of the technicians, and the firefighters who responded, suffered excruciating deaths from radiation over the following weeks.
Today, we know this disaster site simply as Chernobyl.
Like a specter, that terrifying moment still lingers in the abandoned plant and the nearby town of Pripyat, which looks frozen in time since it was abandoned some three decades ago.
Perhaps the most ominous lingering lives on in a frightful photograph taken in 1996, some 10 years after the disaster. Nuclear inspector Artur Korneyev was handed the daunting task of descending into the bowels of the reactor and locating the fugitive fuel.
Reaching a temperature between 1,660 and 2,600 degrees C (3,020 and 4,712 degrees F), the uranium rods cracked and melted into lava, emitting lethal doses of radiation equal to millions of chest X-rays, IFL Science reported. The lava melted the surrounding materials—graphite, boron, sand—to form a molten, radioactive substance called corium.
The heat was so intense that it melted through the steel beams and concrete under the reactor. The rogue material then poured into the basement of the powerplant—where it eventually cooled and solidified. The heaping, radioactive mess now has the appearance that’s led some to dub it the “elephant’s foot.”
It was this elephant’s foot that Korneyev was tasked with finding. Not only did he find it, he made sure to bring back the photos to prove it.
The most famous image reveals the Chernobyl epicenter that was once powerful enough to kill any human in its vicinity. By 1996, when Korneyev found the fuel, it was emitting 10 percent of its initial radiation; and it still emits heat and dangerous levels of radiation to this day.
For Korneyev, even five minutes of closeup exposure would be enough to cause radiation sickness. The courageous nuclear inspector probably took a quick reading and snapped a few photos, but he’s still alive today.
— Daily Star (@Daily_Star) June 11, 2019
The image itself is haunting and terrifying. The photo is grainy with ghostly shapes and distortions from apparent overexposure—not because of the camera quality but due to the radiation affecting the film (this was before the wave of digital cameras).
Korneyev does suffer from cataracts and other health issues as a result of radiation exposure working in the plant for three years. Now, for health reasons, he’s not allowed to return there.
“Soviet radiation,” he jokingly told the New York Times in 2014, “is the best radiation in the world.”
In The Aftermath
Officially, the death toll from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster cites that several dozen people were killed. That number is open for speculation. Meanwhile, the cancer outbreaks that resulted range in the thousands.
The Soviets enlisted laborers to build a hasty concrete “sarcophagus” encasing the reactor soon after the incident, blocking some of the radiation. A more long-term solution went underway in 2010, a massive steel arch (the size of two Manhattan blocks) called the New Safe Confinement, which would house both the plant and sarcophagus.
Sheathed in a stainless-steel cover to prevent rust, the design is meant to contain any radioactive fallout should the unstable structure crumble or collapse. Now positioned in place, the arch is expected to last 100 years (or as long as 300 years), until further measures are taken to clean up the site.
“It’s an amazing structure,” the project’s director Nicolas Caille told the New York Times. “You can’t compare it to anything else.”