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Interview With Chernobyl Engineer 584

Posted by michael
from the close-encounters dept.
An anonymous reader writes "New Scientist has posted an interview with a former Chernobyl engineer, Alexander Yuvchenko, who was not only there the night of the explosion, but is still alive today to tell about it. A fascinating recollection of some pretty heroic acts."
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Interview With Chernobyl Engineer

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  • RTFA (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @01:17PM (#10058227)
    For once in your Slashdot browsing days, read the article! It's really interesting and worth your time.
  • Quite a few (Score:5, Interesting)

    by LordHatrus (763508) <.moc.trofkcolc. .ta. .todhsals.> on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @01:20PM (#10058256) Homepage
    I know quite a few in the Cherynobe area who survived just fine. I even have some messed up film, somewhere :) Still sounds scary though.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @01:21PM (#10058272)
      Stood there and watched the blue ionized air as it poured out of the reactor?
    • Re:Quite a few (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Maestro4k (707634) on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @02:27PM (#10059091) Journal
      • I know quite a few in the Cherynobe area who survived just fine. I even have some messed up film, somewhere :) Still sounds scary though.
      Umm, yeah that's true but this guy was working at the plant the night it exploded and even saw the interior of what was left of the pile at one point. (Which is amazing to read about.) Most of those there that night died, in fact at one point he tells he went with 3 other guys who were ordered to manually lower the rods. He propped the door open for them to go in and see for themselves almost nothing was left. The three guys who went through the door all died very soon afterwards but he's still here. (He credits the door and wall for saving his life.)

      You really should read this interview, it's both fascinating and scary as hell at the same time. I don't think I'll forget his description of the light from the ionized air above the reactor for a long time.

      • Re:Quite a few (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Enigma_Man (756516) on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @02:57PM (#10059464) Homepage
        I feel the same way. The description of the ionized air is extremely eerie, and I can't help but imagine the devastation, and horrible beauty of that scene. It gives me the creepy crawlies. Just something about a force so powerful that you can't actually feel until your body starts what amounts to dissolving.

        -Jesse
  • Treatment was prompt (Score:5, Interesting)

    by freedom_india (780002) on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @01:21PM (#10058267) Homepage Journal
    How did they treat you? It was a very intensive and demanding treatment and you had to be very strong to withstand it. I had continuous blood and plasma transfusions. For a few months I lived on other people's blood. Then the ulcers from the radiation burns started to appear. I had a lot of burns. Only after a couple of months did it become clear that there was a chance I might live. For those of you who make fun of the Soviet system wen you probably wheren't even born then, this is a lesson: Soviets took care of their people well and their medicine was top.
    • by funkdid (780888) on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @01:24PM (#10058298)
      For Engineers the treatment was prompt, for the inhabbitants they pulled an "EPA in NYC after 9/11." They didn't evacuate the area, and assured people that all was well. After a week THEN they evacutaed everyone. I don't think the locals received the same top notch treatment.
    • by HardCase (14757) on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @01:35PM (#10058423)
      For those of you who make fun of the Soviet system wen you probably wheren't even born then, this is a lesson: Soviets took care of their people well and their medicine was top.

      You're kidding, of course. Although the USSR's health care system was universal, the quality was utterly abyssmal for the average citizen.

      I was unfortunate enough to see first-hand the state of Soviet-era medical facilities and the quality of care in the mid 1980's. Many third-world countries had much better medical care than that of the "typical" Soviet hospital that we toured. And, given that this was a state-sponsored tour (as was everything that we saw), I suspect that it was something better than typical.

      -h-

      • by Izago909 (637084) * <<moc.liamg> <ta> <dogsiuat>> on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @02:22PM (#10059022)
        Their healthcare system may not have been top notch for all people, but their doctors were just as dedicated and, dare I say, more imaginative. They knew how to do something, but didn't have the tools, sot they would devise ingenious substitutes.
        Have you ever seen anything about the ice surgeons performing heart surgery with no life support? They administer drugs to block adrenaline, and pour crushed ice around the body until the heart stops. From there they have about 60 minutes to get in and out. When they are done they wrap the person in heated blankets and heating pads and inject them with a large dose of adrenaline, maybe an electric shock if necessary. The lesson is that the tools are only half of the story; the doctors are the other half.
    • by noewun (591275) on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @02:03PM (#10058751) Journal
      Actually, beginning in the late 60s, the Soviet Union suffered from a healthcare crisis: declining care, increasing infant mortality, rampant alcoholism, poor standards of sanitation and public hygeine, etc. The life expectancy of a Soviet male in the mid 1980s was six year less than in the 1960s, and the infant mortality rate was three times that of the U.S.
    • by the gnat (153162) on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @02:22PM (#10059015)
      For those of you who make fun of the Soviet system wen you probably wheren't even born then, this is a lesson: Soviets took care of their people well and their medicine was top.

      Quick question: how many people here would honestly trade their political, civil, and economic freedom just for free health care? It's okay if you do, just be consistent about it. I suspect there aren't many who'd agree with this, though. Otherwise, you can't just point to Communist nations and say "well, if you ignore the mass murder and gulags, it really wasn't that bad. . . "
      • by Steffan (126616) on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @03:42PM (#10060023)
        • Quick question: how many people here would honestly trade their political, civil, and economic freedom just for free health care?
        Quick question: How many people here [in the U.S.] would honestly trade their political, civil, and economic freedom just for the illusion of safety? I think we already know the answer to this...
    • by infinite9 (319274) on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @02:23PM (#10059035)
      For those of you who make fun of the Soviet system wen you probably wheren't even born then, this is a lesson: Soviets took care of their people well and their medicine was top.

      Eight months ago, I pulled my adopted son out of a Russian hospital in Novosibirsk against the will of the doctor. He had severe asthma and bronchitis which he had contracted while there for minor outpatient surgery. He hadn't been bathed or had his clothes changed in weeks. He was lying in a wet cloth diaper. His crib was made from knit kite string. This is the same hospital where I saw, with my own eyes, supplies being delivered by horse-drawn cart. He is covered in scars. He had more scars at 1 year old than I had at 33. One of them is a scar on his scrotum where they split it front to back for exploratory surgery. In the US, they would have ordered a cat scan. This was last winter. Would you say things have improved since soviet times?
    • by mi (197448) <slashdot-2012@virtual-estates.net> on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @02:39PM (#10059218) Homepage
      Soviets took care of their people well and their medicine was top.

      As someone, who was not only born then, but also lived there -- in Kyiv -- at the time, I authoritatively state: you are wrong.

      This is a sign, that nuclear engineers were a really prized folk. Dozens of firefighters and lower-rank workers died right there -- radiation is like that, you don't feel it, until it is too late and noone bothered to warn them. Soviets most certainly did not care of their people, unless -- as in the case of these engineers -- educating them took a while.

      They flew these guys to Moscow, which also means, that Kyiv -- Ukraine's capital, a city of 2.5 million people merely 100 miles away -- did not have the proper facilities. The medicine was not top -- individual scientists and labs did have notable successes, but the public health was awful.

  • by Bob(TM) (104510) on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @01:21PM (#10058277)
    but is still alive today to tell about it.

    ... and considers no longer requiring a lamp to read by at night a bonus.
  • by ackthpt (218170) * on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @01:24PM (#10058300) Homepage Journal
    Alexander Yuvchenko will appear in Disaster at Chernobyl on Discovery Channel in Europe at 10pm (UK time) on 29 August

    Anyone up for recording this and making it available?

    Back in 1990 I caught a photo exhibit by Igor Kostin [time.com] in Baltimore, MD. He was the first photographer in the area after the accident [infoukes.com] and toured it afterwords, taking many pictures [time.com] which are still very disturbing to remember.

    It's remarkable how optimistic he is on nuclear power, even with his concerns of safety above finanancial or even political concerns.

  • by AKAImBatman (238306) <akaimbatman @ g m a i l . c om> on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @01:26PM (#10058325) Homepage Journal
    One of the most interesting bits of the interview is this:

    What do you think about nuclear power?

    I'm fine about it, as long as safety is put head and shoulders above any other concern, financial or whatever. If you keep safety as your number one priority at all stages of planning and running a plant, it should be OK.


    There you have it. From a man who nearly died and is still sick today from Nuclear power.

    It's imperative for people to realize that Nuclear Power is not devil incarnate. By stopping Nuclear development, you are slowly killing yourselves with Coal and Oil plants. The number of people killed by nuclear power rate in the dozens (most at Chernobyl). The number of people killed by coal plants rate in the hundreds of thousands. Think about it.
    • by abigor (540274) on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @01:52PM (#10058615)
      Too bad you're already at +5, or I'd mod you up more. Modern nuclear power plants are the way to go for cleanish energy (there is still a mining requirement, of course). People don't realise even today how much certain areas (France and parts of Canada spring to mind) get their power from nuclear sources.

      That said, one big problem with nuclear is the low safety standards in certain nations that could lead to a disaster.
    • by NorthDude (560769) on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @02:02PM (#10058738)
      I just read this [time.com] and here is the paragraph for those interested :

      "The accident released about as much radiation as one atmospheric nuclear test," Jackson notes. "Think of Chernobyl, which exuded hundreds of thousands of square meters of radioactive gas into the atmosphere. Think of all the hundreds of atmospheric tests, and think about the next breath you inhale. How many bits of Hiroshima, and Chernobyl, and Nagasaki you are inhaling each time you breathe in."

      I think it speaks for itself...

      P.S.: Is it ok to copy a paragraph from a copyrighted article if I reference it?
  • Ironic medals (Score:3, Informative)

    by pjt33 (739471) on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @01:27PM (#10058340)
    He mentions a medal which everyone got 10 years after the event. Ironically, the design of the medal gets basic particle physics wrong - it shows [soviet-medals-orders.com] alpha-particles being deflected more than beta-particles, although they have a greater mass. (If that link dies, just use the Google image search for Chernobyl medal).
  • by vg30e (779871) on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @01:28PM (#10058353)
    I don't dispute the heroic efforts by everyone who put their lives on the line, but the tragic fact is that the chernobyl reactor fire could have been avoided if there had been more attention paid to safer reactor design and materials.

    Although the fire itself was caused by human error, the RBMK style reactors are much worse than the machines run by the US or western Europe and the powers that came up with that style of reactor are at least partly to blame for that tragedy.

    The end isn't in sight yet, the "coffin" that is encasing the bad reactor is cracking, it may collapse causing another giant radioactive cloud of dust to blow all over the Ukraine, Russia, and Europe.
    • by Performer Guy (69820) on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @01:48PM (#10058576)
      The nimrods running the plant deliberately disabled critical safety systems to conduct a test of another safety system. There's a key issue here, if you need to ask the question then you should not put it to the test without considering the very severe consequences and erroded safety margin left should the answer to the question be other than you expect.

      It reminds me of a story of the F-16 pilot sitting on the ground who thought the aircraft would stop him raising the gear when on the ground. So he tried it and discovered that yes he could indeed raise the gear contrary to his expectation, now I ask you why would to do something so dumb?

      I also ask, why would the plant engineers at Chernobyl disable safety systems to *test* another *backup* safety system? Utterly moronic, and there's not a lot a plant designer can do to avoid that kind of rank stupidity. A good old fashoned Soviet show trial followed by swift execution of the plant managers is the appropriate remedy.
      • by LWATCDR (28044) on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @02:09PM (#10058833) Homepage Journal
        "It reminds me of a story of the F-16 pilot sitting on the ground who thought the aircraft would stop him raising the gear when on the ground. So he tried it and discovered that yes he could indeed raise the gear contrary to his expectation, now I ask you why would to do something so dumb?"
        Most likly a myth. Every airplane with retactable gear I know of have what they call squat switches that prevent the gear from retracting when the plane is on the ground. Also the way the gear on the F16 retracts I doubt that it could retract with the plane sitting on it.
      • by tetromino (807969) on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @02:47PM (#10059313)
        Very true. Primary cause of disaster = plant engineers who didn't understand the reactor internals and who ignored safety procedures. Let's see what went wrong:
        • RMBK reactors are unpredictable at power levels below ~25%. Reactor engineers lowered power to 1%. Doing so, I believe, required modifying some programs in the reactor computer,
        • Emergency cooling systems prevent meltdowns. Reactor engineers disconnected the systems.
        • In addition, reactor engineers disconnected the emergency scram switches (which would have tripped several times during this moronic exercise).
        • Control rods regulate reaction rate; on RBMK's, they can't be reinserted quickly once you take them out. Reactor engineers pulled all control rods out all the way.
        • Half the recirculation pumps were switched off, causing coolant to stagnate in the core.
        • Reactor engineers did not remember that at very low power, the RBMK core tends to be poisoned by radioactive xenon and iodine, which slow down the reaction. But as soon as a large enough fraction of them decay, Boom!, the reaction suddenly shoots up. The fact that operators ignored this meant they didn't really know how the reactor worked.

        More than anything, the Chernobyl disaster reminds me of a Windows user who disables the firewall and antivirus just to install that nifty Explorer toolbar. The difference being that an average Windows user doesn't kill thousands of people through his stupidity...
  • by Zen Punk (785385) <cdavidbonner AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @01:30PM (#10058374) Journal
    "...there is a stigma attached to it."

    I had no idea that someone who was involved in Chernobyl would feel the need to hide the very fact that he was there.

    What if this man was your neighbor and Chernobyl was your hometown? Would you harbor a grudge against him because he worked there?

    After all, just because someone was there doesn't mean they were responsible for the accident. Like he said, "there was nothing we could do."

  • by Angostura (703910) on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @01:30PM (#10058375)
    He says in the interview that the control rods were dropped by his colleague, but from what I recall it was much, much too late. The core was so hot that the rods warped and jammed.

    The disaster was caused partly by one engineer previously over-riding automatic safety protection in order to increase reactor power to levels needed to run a safety test.

    Moreover manuals were outdated with areas simply crossed out. Human error at its worst.
    • by Muerte23 (178626) on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @01:50PM (#10058594) Journal
      >The disaster was caused partly by one engineer previously over-riding automatic safety protection in order to increase reactor power to levels needed to run a safety test.

      Uh, IIRC the reason the thing blew is that the power levels were decreased to too low a level to sustain stable reaction.

      I'm not a nuclear physicist, but I believe in that style of reactor, the presence of the particular water they were using decreased the reaction speed, instead of increasing it as it is done in modern, western reactors. So they had the control rods pulled all the way out, and the water flow super low.

      Then the water started to boil a little, and that boiling caused bubbles in the moderating water, which allowed the reaction speed to launch into some nasty exponential power spike that could not have been prevented in the time it took to see the spike.

      I'm pretty sure what I just wrote was mostly right. I'm just too lazy to find links. But I am sure that the power level was super super low, and the control rods were pulled all the way out. Bad idea.

      Muerte
      • Stability and Xenon (Score:5, Informative)

        by Dr. Zowie (109983) <slashdot@nospAm.deforest.org> on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @05:01PM (#10060926)
        The problem that caused the steam explosion was Xe-135 buildup. Xe-135 is a fission daughter product. It is a secondary product (produced by decay of fission products) and itself decays with a few-hour half-life. Xe-135 is a "neutron poison" and when present in the reactor it has the same effect as a control rod, only Xe-135 is much more effective per atom than (say) Cadmium or Boron, the two main materials used for control rods.


        Xe-135 is destroyed when it absorbs a neutron. So in an operating reactor is it "burned" rapidly as it is produced. But when you shut off the reaction, Xe-135 levels rise over the next eight hours to a peak level and then decay. This makes it very difficult to start a power reactor eight hours after you shut it down: the Xe-135 acts like an additional control rod, damping the reaction. You find that you have to pull the control rods much farther out to get the reaction started.


        There's a problem with that: as soon as you get the reaction going in the core, the Xe-135 will rapidly "burn" off, restoring the usual control laws. That is dynamically unstable, as more neutrons -> less Xe-135 -> more reactive core -> even more neutrons!


        The operators should have known what was happening when the found they had to pull the rods much farther than expected in order to bring the reactor stable "zero"-power operation ("zero-power" operation means that a chain reaction is being sustained but is not producing a significant amount of power. It is an important first step in operating the reactor: you start the reaction going, demonstrate positive control, calibrate your control settings, and then proceed to the power level you want. In the reactor where I worked, 5 watts of power, out of a rated maximum of 250 kilowatts, was considered "zero power".).


        That unstable positive coefficient (as the Xe-135 burned off) made the reactor spike rapidly in power to a high thermal level -- where the reactor's positive void coefficient [what the Muerte23 described in the parent article] took over. That is a poor element of reactor design -- the Chernobyl reactors were "over-moderated". Fission neutrons come out fast, but uranium absorbs neutrons best when they're moving slowly. So you put the reactive material in a medium (water or graphite or Zirconium hydride or whatever) that will absorb energy from the neutrons without absorbing the neutrons themselves -- they bounce around, losing energy, until they can be absorbed by the core. Too little moderation, and the core won't start up. Too much moderation, and the neutrons will get absorbed and the core won't start up. The Chernobyl reactors were over-moderated, so that small voids in the graphite/water matrix in the core would increase the reactivity of the core. That's just stupid -- properly designed reactors are under-moderated, so that if the water boils the reaction tends to shut itself down.


        Anyhow, all that would be moot except that the operators had disabled the main reactor shutdown mechanisms -- they couldn't SCRAM (or rapidly re-insert the rods into the core), but were forced to rely on the much slower drive mechanisms -- which couldn't contain the reaction. A rapid-drop SCRAM system existed (and would have saved the facility) but had been disabled for testing.


        The problem (as I see it) with nuclear power is that people are such fuckin' idiots. Reactors are completely safe around people with what is called "common sense" but unfortunately, common sense isn't. Eventually, pointy haired bosses and Joe Sixpack rule the day.


        (BTW, I hold a no-longer-current nuclear reactor operator's license).

  • by randall_burns (108052) <randall_burns AT hotmail DOT com> on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @01:33PM (#10058407)
    Regardless of how you feel about nuclear power politically, the heroism demonstrated by the crew at Chernobyl was incredible-and deserves commendation.
    If not for them, things could have gotten much worse. Many of these brave men knowingly gave their lives.
  • by jqcoffey (457742) on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @01:35PM (#10058430)
    Where is the "Chernobyl Disaster Veterans for Truth" post? :-D
  • Catch-22 (Score:3, Interesting)

    by bhima (46039) <Bhima...Pandava@@@gmail...com> on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @01:35PM (#10058432) Journal
    I thought about this sort of thing ever since I read that between 40~60% of the energy generated in America is used in the distribution of energy being that Austria is smaller I guess we use less energy that way... but still if smaller energy stations were more abundant we would less energy pushing it around and huge accidents like this would be even more less likely.

    Unfortunately more stations means more opportunity for smaller incidents... Tut mir leid.

  • by phoxix (161744) on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @01:49PM (#10058581)
    the sad part is, some of them are still running ...

    The following is the Paper [world-nuclear.org] everyone will link to. And the following provides some nice diagrams to look at [nucleartourist.com]

    And just for kicks: Some really freaky pictures [a-newsreport.com]. (The second one really gets to people, he is working IN the bloody thing!!)

    Sunny Dubey
    • I can't wait for that reflected moderated reactor to come online up in Alaska. Toshiba's 4S system, consists of a prefabricated core, sealed at the factory, then delivered to the site and installed into prefabricated concrete casings, then plumbed and wired. The 4S system does not use the traditional rod and core design. It design is based on a reflector that moves up and down the face of the uranium core, reflecting neutrons back into the core, causing the fission rate in increase, creating power. If more power is needed, the refector moves faster, but it also shortens the core's life, which is 6 years on the nominal decay rate.
      The upshot to this design is that if something breaks, the reflector simply stops, and the core cools down back to it's normal static decay rate. For instance, you have a power surge that causes a turbine trip, which in turn causes a surge in high pressure steam feed. The operator or automation would take note of it, tripping emergency venting on the secondary coolant loop, finally ordering the reactor to SCRAM. The refector stops moving and things cool down and the community relies on the auxillary generator until a technician can come out to check things out before resetting the system back to normal power generation.
  • Interesting, IMO. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by gfxguy (98788) on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @01:53PM (#10058633)
    Because I'm someone who supports nuclear fission as a means of generating power (at this point in time, anyway)...

    What do you think about nuclear power?

    I'm fine about it, as long as safety is put head and shoulders above any other concern, financial or whatever. If you keep safety as your number one priority at all stages of planning and running a plant, it should be OK.

    This is why this is not going to happen in the U.S. ... redundant safety precaution after redundant safety precaution. Three Mile Island proved that those precautions work, even after a series of mistakes.
  • by zymurgy_cat (627260) on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @01:54PM (#10058648) Homepage
    For those not versed in things nuclear (and why positive temperature coefficient of reactivity reactors are a BAD IDEA), a good background on the accident and nuclear power in general [gsu.edu].
  • by lxt (724570) on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @01:58PM (#10058685) Journal
    ...as those in the UK might realise, the newspaper The Guardian also published today a much longer and more detailed article with Sasha Yuvchenko, another engineer working at Chernobyl at the time who survived the disaster. He too comments on the excellent medical care he recieved. Read it here [guardian.co.uk].
  • Poor guy (Score:3, Funny)

    by Eudial (590661) on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @02:23PM (#10059028)
    Imagine getting a job with "Engineer, Chernobyl" on your CV.
  • Grigori Medvedev (Score:4, Informative)

    by anubi (640541) on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @03:49PM (#10060119) Journal
    Grigori Medvedev, one of the Soviet Union's leading nuclear physicists involved with Chernobyl, wrote a very interesting book about the whole accident and coverup. After the Cold War ended, he was finally at peace to write his account. Believe me, its a very interesting read.

    I got my copy several years ago when I was researching the politics of obedience and whether engineer subordinates should be responsible to authority or the laws of physics for a course in Ethics.

    The book, "The Truth about Chernobyl", by Grigori Medvedev (ISBN 0-465-08775-2) ( English translation - by the way very well done ) Copyright 1991 by Basic Books, Inc.

    ( Incidentally, from my research in Ethics, I just about got the feeling that if you were gonna toe the line on Ethics, you had better work for yourself.).

  • Interesting fact... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by burns210 (572621) <maburns@gmail.com> on Tuesday August 24, 2004 @04:01PM (#10060252) Homepage Journal
    I had a class with a russian girl last year. Not russian actually, but a former satelite state whose name escapes me. Anyway, because she was born within a certain distance from Chernobyl(she was 17, or so as of this past year) the Red Cross will never except her blood for donation for her entire life.

    I thought that was fairly interesting, that they have a lifelong ban on all people's blood that lived/were born within a certain perimeter of the accident.

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