Thirty-five years after the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine exploded in the world’s worst nuclear accident, fission reactions are smoldering again in uranium fuel masses buried deep inside a mangled reactor hall. “It’s like the embers in a barbecue pit,” says Neil Hyatt, a nuclear materials chemist at the University of Sheffield. Now, Ukrainian scientists are scrambling to determine whether the reactions will wink out on their own—or require extraordinary interventions to avert another accident.
Sensors are tracking a rising number of neutrons, a signal of fission, streaming from one inaccessible room, Anatolii Doroshenko of the Institute for Safety Problems of Nuclear Power Plants (ISPNPP) in Kyiv, Ukraine, reported last week during discussions about dismantling the reactor. “There are many uncertainties,” says ISPNPP’s Maxim Saveliev. “But we can’t rule out the possibility of [an] accident.” The neutron counts are rising slowly, Saveliev says, suggesting managers still have a few years to figure out how to stifle the threat. Any remedy he and his colleagues come up with will be of keen interest to Japan, which is coping with the aftermath of its own nuclear disaster 10 years ago at Fukushima, Hyatt notes. “It’s a similar magnitude of hazard.”
The specter of self-sustaining fission, or criticality, in the nuclear ruins has long haunted Chernobyl. When part of the Unit Four reactor’s core melted down on 26 April 1986, uranium fuel rods, their zirconium cladding, graphite control rods, and sand dumped on the core to try to extinguish the fire melted together into a lava. It flowed into the reactor hall’s basement rooms and hardened into formations called fuel-containing materials (FCMs), which are laden with about 170 tons of irradiated uranium—95% of the original fuel.
The concrete-and-steel sarcophagus called the Shelter, erected 1 year after the accident to house Unit Four’s remains, allowed rainwater to seep in. Because water slows, or moderates, neutrons and thus enhances their odds of striking and splitting uranium nuclei, heavy rains would sometimes send neutron counts soaring.