Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

ONE DAY left in this Mid-Year Campaign. This is our hour of need.
If you value independent journalism, please support Common Dreams.

Join the small group of generous readers who donate, keeping Common Dreams free for millions of people each year. Without your help, we won’t survive.

The New Safe Confinement arch over what was once Reactor Four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine is the world's largest mobile steel structure. (Photo: Clay Gilliland/Flickr/cc)

The New Safe Confinement arch over what was once Reactor Four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine is the world's largest mobile steel structure. (Photo: Clay Gilliland/Flickr/cc)

Chernobyl Radiation Surge 'Cause for Concern,' Say Scientists

One nuclear scientist said the situation is "like the embers in a barbecue pit." 

Brett Wilkins

Scientists monitoring the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine are detecting increased fission reactions inside an inaccessible chamber built around the radioactive ruins of a reactor that suffered a catastrophic meltdown in 1986—and they aren't sure why. 

"There are many uncertainties, but we can't rule out the possibility of [an] accident."
—Maxim Saveliev, ISPNPP

New Scientist reported this week that since 2016, researchers have detected a 40% surge in neutron emissions from a sealed room containing large amounts of corium, a highly radioactive and hardened lava-like material containing much of the uranium fuel from Reactor Four of the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant, the site of history's worst nuclear disaster. 

Scientists say the increased emissions are indicative of a growing nuclear fission reaction, but they don't know whether the surge will burn itself out, as has previously occurred in other parts of the former plant, or if further intervention might be necessary. 

"There are many uncertainties, but we can't rule out the possibility of [an] accident," Maxim Saveliev of Ukraine's Institute for Safety Problems of Nuclear Power Plants (ISPNPP) told Science earlier this month. 

Saveliev said that neutron levels are rising slowly enough that scientists should have a few years left to determine how to best address a threat that Neil Hyatt, a nuclear chemist at the University of Sheffield in Britain, desribed as "like the embers in a barbecue pit." 

Hyatt told Science that the threat cannot be ignored because the rainwater that collected inside the damaged reactor due to flaws in the sarcophagus hastily built to entomb it in the months immediately after the disaster is now receding following the construction of the New Safe Confinement (NSC). This massive steel arch, completed in 2019, is the world's largest mobile steel structure. It covers the damaged reactor and is designed to prevent further radioactive leaks. 

However, water slows neutrons, and as NSC does its job and water levels inside the structure continue to fall, scientists fear that the fission reaction will accelerate "exponentially," according to Hyatt, causing "an uncontrolled release of nuclear energy."

Hyatt told New Scientist that the situation is "cause for concern but not alarm," adding that additional acceleration in neutron production could require further intervention. 

ISPNPP says it believes the risk of a catastrophic containment failure in the near future is low, and that it is working on ways to diagnose and address the cause of the surging fissile emissions. One possible solution involves deploying a robot that can drill holes in the hardened radioactive material and then insert boron cylinders to absorb neutrons like control rods do in a normally functioning nuclear reactor. 

The April 26, 1986 explosion at Reactor Four—the result of a flawed reactor design and inadequately trained personnel—caused widespread ecological devastation, considerable loss of life, and sand rendered a 1,000-square mile area around the town of Pripyat in what was then the Soviet Union unihabitable for all but a handful of human beings who returned to their homes despite the risk. 

The massive containment and cleanup effort following the meltdown cost tens of billions of dollars and won't be completed until the latter half of this century. 

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Just ONE DAY left in our crucial Mid-Year Campaign and we might not make it without your help.
Who funds our independent journalism? Readers like you who believe in our mission: To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. No corporate advertisers. No billionaire founder. Our non-partisan, nonprofit media model has only one source of revenue: The people who read and value this work and our mission. That's it.
And the model is simple: If everyone just gives whatever amount they can afford and think is reasonable—$3, $9, $29, or more—we can continue. If not enough do, we go dark.

All the small gifts add up to something otherwise impossible. Please join us today. Donate to Common Dreams. This is crunch time. We need you now.

As US Rolls Back Reproductive Rights, Sierra Leone Moves to Decriminalize Abortion

"I'm hopeful today's announcement gives activists in the U.S., and especially Black women given the shared history, a restored faith that change is possible and progress can be made."

Brett Wilkins ·

'Indefensible': Outrage as New Reporting Shines Light on Biden Deal With McConnell

The president has reportedly agreed to nominate an anti-abortion Republican to a lifetime judgeship. In exchange, McConnell has vowed to stop blocking two Biden picks for term-limited U.S. attorney posts.

Jake Johnson ·

Assange Makes Final Appeal Against US Extradition

"If Julian Assange is not free, neither are we," said a protester at a Friday demonstration against the WikiLeaks founder's impending transfer. "None of us is free."

Brett Wilkins ·

'Payoff for 40 Years of Dark Money': Supreme Court Delivers for Corporate America

"It was the conservative court's larger agenda to gut the regulatory state and decimate executive powers to protect Americans' health and safety," warned one expert.

Jake Johnson ·

NARAL Pro-Choice Endorses Fetterman—Who Vows to End Senate Filibuster to Protect Abortion Rights

"We know we can count on him to boldly fight for abortion rights and access," said the head of one of the nation's largest reproductive rights advocacy groups.

Jon Queally ·

Common Dreams Logo