Planet Earth

“Kills in 5 minutes”: where the most dangerous nuclear waste on Earth is located

It is believed that Chernobyl, which has long been turned into an exclusion zone, no longer poses a danger. The site’s radioactive threat level has indeed decreased over the years, but there is still a dangerous location that can be fatal if approached.

On December 8, 1989, an article was published with the headline “What is happening inside the Sarcophagus?” The article presented photographs that for the first time showed a giant radioactive stalactite, resembling an elephant’s leg, formed from solidified lava. These photographs, both black and white and color, taken with different magnifications and lighting, have gained worldwide fame.

The discovery of this strange object occurred in the late autumn of 1986. After several months of work, the team of liquidators of the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was finally able to penetrate the underground corridor of the emergency fourth reactor. Inside the so-called bubbler pool, where a narrow passage led, they discovered solidified lava flowing out of the active zone.

The radioactive stalactite that formed, which was later called the “elephant’s foot,” was gray in color with metallic highlights and glassy inclusions on the sides. Experts immediately assumed that this mass contained lead, which was dropped from helicopters to cool the reactor zone by melting this metal. The preliminary estimate of the object’s weight was 11 tons.

Radiation sensors literally screamed that it was impossible to approach the found place! As one of the eyewitnesses recalled, the search engines found a toy horse on wheels somewhere, tied a measuring sensor to it and pushed it towards the “elephant’s foot.” Having returned the wheeled vehicle back, they gasped – the device showed 14.5 thousand roentgens per hour: the radiation level exceeded the lethal dose for humans by 20 times!

The radiation level was measured, but how can we take samples from this most dangerous object? Specialists built a system from a self-propelled cart and an electric drill mounted on top. The structure approached the stalactite, but it was not possible to drill a hole in it – the material turned out to be too hard. One after another, attempts failed.

In the end, one of the military men, risking his own life, quickly ran up to the object and began hitting the hardened mass with an ax. He still managed to break off a small piece of material, which was enough for analysis. The desperate officer was immediately evacuated to the hospital by helicopter. Nothing is known about his further fate.

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The results of the study of the radioactive substance showed that there were no traces of lead in it, but it contained silicon dioxide, uranium, zirconium, titanium, magnesium, graphite and silicate glass in excess. That is, in fact, the entire set of nuclear fuel radionuclides born in the hellish kitchen of the Chernobyl accident. The glassy mass was simply nicknamed “Lava”. This super-dense substance, practically resistant to drilling, could only be damaged when fired at with a Kalashnikov assault rifle and armor-piercing shells.

Still dangerous

By the mid-1990s, the outer layers of the elephant’s foot began to turn to dust and the mass began to crack. The intensity of its radiation noticeably decreased, and specialists began to approach it more often, of course in protective suits. In 1996, the facility was even visited by the deputy director of the New Confinement project – we are talking about the enterprise that operates the sarcophagus over the 4th reactor.

Subsequently, experts established that the mass of the future “elephant’s foot”, before taking its current position, traveled a path of more than two meters through pipes and cracks. There were concerns that radioactive substances could penetrate deeper into the ground and come into contact with groundwater, threatening the lives of people who use this water. However, as of 2016, no movement of the mass was recorded any deeper. The only thing is the ongoing nuclear decay, which makes the “elephant’s foot” several degrees warmer than the environment.

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However, even such radiation is still dangerous for a person near the object as it can overcome any defense mechanisms of our body and modify the bonds that hold DNA together, and therefore lead to all sorts of damage at the cellular level. In particular, it can lead to uncontrolled cell proliferation, which causes cancer.

According to experts, after 30 seconds of being near the “elephant’s foot” a person will feel dizzy and tired, after two minutes he will begin bleeding and develop fever, after 4 minutes vomiting and diarrhea will be added to them, after another minute the level of infection in the body will reach a critical level, after which irreversible processes will begin – death will occur in two days. The Elephant foot is likely still the most dangerous waste product on the planet.

This place, according to experts, will remain radioactive for an incredibly long time – for 100 thousand years, although every year the level of radiation will gradually fall. But it’s still dangerous there. In 2019, a new insulating structure was urgently built over the 4th power unit in order to completely protect the external environment from the ongoing emissions of huge amounts of isotopes. The new sarcophagus is designed to last 100 years.


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