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Radioactive ‘Nuclear Nuggets’ Smoldering Underneath Chernobyl Rubble

Thirty-five years and one month have passed since the historic meltdown of a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat, Ukraine. But, over the weekend, LiveScience reported that there are signs that radioactive material has begun to burn again. Scientists are racing to find out why.

Photo: Ukrainian Presidency / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

“Researchers monitoring the plant — which infamously exploded in a deadly 1986 meltdown — have detected a steady spike in the number of neutrons in an underground room called 305/2. The room is full of heavy rubble, concealing a radioactive mush of uraniumzirconium, graphite and sand that oozed into the plant’s basement like lava, before hardening into formations called fuel-containing materials (FCMs),” wrote the science-focused website. “Rising neutron levels indicate that these FCMs are undergoing new fission reactions, as neutrons strike and split the nuclei of uranium atoms, creating energy.”

And while the chunks of debris pose no current threat, “it’s possible that those embers could fully ignite if left undisturbed for too long, resulting in another explosion,” LiveScience noted.

Scientists also said that if future explosions are unavoidable they will be far less devastating than the initial blast, however, it is unknown at what point the “nuclear nuggets” could blow – which would endanger the aging cocoon around the facility – or, more optimistically, decay.

“Neutron levels have been steadily rising in room 305/2 for four years, Saveliev said, and could continue rising for several more years without incident. It’s possible these nuclear nuggets will fizzle out on their own in that time. But if neutron levels keep rising, scientists will have to intervene,” LiveScience explained, adding, “that is more easily said than done, of course; plant managers have yet to figure out how to access the tons of radioactive material buried below the room’s thick layers of concrete debris. Radiation levels are too high for humans to endure, but radiation-resistant robots might be able to drill through the rubble and install neutron-absorbing control rods into the room, according to the ISPNPP.”

Read LiveScience’s report here.



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