Test triggers nuclear disaster at Chernobyl

On April 26, 1986, the worst nuclear power plant accident in the world occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union. Thirty-two people died and dozens more suffered radiation burns in the early days of the crisis, but it was only after Swedish authorities reported the fallout that the Soviet authorities admitted to reluctantly that an accident had occurred.

The Chernobyl station was located in the Pripyat settlement, approximately 65 miles north of Kiev in Ukraine. Built in the late 1970s on the banks of the Pripyat River, Chernobyl had four reactors, each capable of producing 1,000 megawatts of electricity. On the evening of April 25, 1986, a group of engineers began an electrical engineering experiment on reactor number 4. The engineers, who had little knowledge of reactor physics, wanted to see if the reactor turbine could operate water pumps inertial power backup.

As part of their ill-conceived experiment, the engineers disconnected the emergency safety systems from the reactor and its power regulation system. Then, they aggravated this recklessness with a series of errors: they operated the reactor at a power level so low that the reaction became unstable, then removed too many control rods from the reactor in an attempt to relight it. The power of the reactor reached more than 200 megawatts but proved increasingly difficult to control. However, at 1:23 a.m. on April 26, the engineers continued their experiment and stopped the turbomachine to see if its inertial rotation would power the reactor water pumps. In fact, it did not supply the water pumps properly and without cooling water, the power level in the reactor increased.

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