The Elephant’s Foot was produced as a result of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, when reactor 4 exploded and spewed a lava-like mass of radioactive material known as corium.
When a reactor at the Chernobyl power facility in Pripyat, Ukraine, erupted in April 1986, it caused the most significant nuclear tragedy the world had ever seen. The air swiftly carried more than 50 tons of radioactive particles as far as France.
Due to the explosion’s severity, the plant released dangerous levels of radioactive material for ten days.
Yet in December of the same year, when investigators finally ventured to the accident site, they found something unsettling: a mound of lava-like chemicals that had burnt all the way through to the facility’s basement and then hardened.
Despite being innocuous, the mass was named “Elephant’s Foot” because of its shape and color. The Elephant’s Foot still emits exceptionally high levels of radiation today.
In fact, the radiation levels found on the Elephant’s Foot were so high that they could instantly kill a person.
What Happened at Chernobyl?
The Chernobyl nuclear power station in what was then Soviet Ukraine experienced a significant explosion early on April 26, 1986, which resulted in a meltdown.
The nuclear power plant’s reactor 4’s uranium core overheated during a safety test, reaching a temperature of more than 2,912 degrees Fahrenheit. It exploded due to nuclear reactions, shattering its 1,000 metric tonne concrete and steel cover.
The subsequent explosion caused all 1,660 of the reactor’s pressure tubes to burst, which led to a second explosion and fire that eventually made reactor 4’s radioactive core accessible to the public. Even Sweden was able to detect the radioactivity that was discharged.
After weeks of radiation exposure, hundreds of workers and engineers at the nuclear plant perished. Numerous people put their lives in danger to extinguish the plant’s explosion following the fire, including 25-year-old Vasily Ignatenko, who died three weeks after entering the hazardous area.
Even decades after the occurrence, countless others developed fatal diseases like cancer. Millions of people who lived near the blast experienced similar, lifelong health problems. Now, Chernobyl is still dealing with the aftereffects of all that radiation.
The surprising recovery of species in the nearby “red forest” is one of the devastating Chernobyl disaster’s aftereffects that researchers are now investigating. The broader effects of the disaster, such as the mysterious Elephant’s Foot chemical anomaly that developed in the plant’s basement, are also being quantified by researchers.
What is the Elephant’s Foot, and How Did It Form?
The uranium fuel inside reactor 4’s core melted due to overheating. The reactor was then destroyed by steam. A 100-ton torrent of scorching-hot chemicals finally formed from the combination of heat, steam, and molten nuclear fuel, gushing out of the reactor and through the concrete floor to the facility’s basement, where it eventually solidified.
The Elephant’s Foot is a term that refers to the shape and texture of this deadly concoction that resembles lava.
Only a tiny portion of the nuclear fuel in the Elephant’s Foot is present; the remainder is a mixture of uranium, melted concrete, and sand. Corium is the name given to its unique composition to indicate where it originated, in the core. It is also known as lava-like fuel-containing material (LFCM), and researchers are still investigating it.
The strange construction was apparently still scalding hot when it was found months after the Chernobyl accident.
What Happens if You’re Near the Elephant’s Foot?
Extreme radiation levels were released by the several-foot-wide blob of chemicals, leading to unpleasant side effects and even death after a few seconds of exposure.
The Elephant’s Foot produced around 10,000 roentgen per hour when it was initially observed. It followed that an hour of exposure was equivalent to 4.5 million chest x-rays.
Dizziness and weariness would have resulted after thirty seconds of exposure, hemorrhaging of bodily cells would have occurred after two minutes, and death within 48 hours would have resulted from five or more exposure.
Investigators, or liquidators as they were known, could record and examine the Elephant’s Foot after Chornobyl despite the danger involved.
Although the mass could not be drilled and was reasonably dense, liquidators discovered it was not bulletproof when they shot it with an AKM rifle.
One group of liquidators created a rudimentary wheeled camera so they could snap pictures of the Elephant’s Foot while staying safe. Yet, the last pictures show employees taking up-close pictures.
One of them was radiation specialist Artur Korneyev, who captured the imagination of the man standing next to the Elephant’s Foot above. The tasks given to Korneyev and his crew were finding the remaining fuel inside the reactor and determining its radiation levels.
He admitted to using a shovel occasionally to the New York Times. “We occasionally used our boots to kick radioactive debris aside.”
Even ten years after the incident, as seen in the image above, Korneyev was still dealing with cataracts, and other health issues brought on by his contact with the corium mass.
The University of Sheffield Creates the Elephant’s Foot
Engineers from the University of Sheffield have created materials that could aid in decommissioning the nuclear power plants in Chernobyl and Fukushima.
Developed in partnership with Ukrainian colleagues, the materials simulate dangerous chemicals called Lava-like Fuel Containing Materials (LFCMs), which are left over after a nuclear meltdown.
The first time a true LCFM has been closely approximated is because of a recent study.
The advancement lays the path for the secure analysis of the dangerous substances left behind at Chernobyl and Fukushima.
However, the NucleUS Immobilisation Science Laboratory (ISL) in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering has supported decontamination and decommissioning efforts for several years, mainly focusing on high-profile accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima in Japan.
The 2019 eponymous HBO/Sky miniseries piqued the public’s interest in Chernobyl.
Nuclear meltdowns, caused by overheating the core components and can result in partial or complete core collapse, were the end outcome of both accidents. Collapse makes removing hazardous nuclear fuel materials nearly impossible because they combine with cladding and other construction materials.
These radioactive elements could leak outside the reactor and into the environment if untreated. In the Chernobyl tragedy, molten fuel, steel, concrete, cladding, and sand combined to create roughly 100 tons of glass-like lava that flowed through the structure and solidified in enormous volumes.
If nothing is done to confine, stabilize, or treat the materials, this plainly poses a very severe risk to workers, local species, and the environment. It will continue to be a danger for decades, if not centuries.
Nevertheless, removing them is considerably more problematic because no one knows what they look like. In addition, only some samples of meltdown materials are available for study, and handling them poses a radiation threat that makes it impossible to analyze them.
Leading the team looking into these materials is Dr. Claire Corkhill, who stated: “Understanding the mechanical, thermal, and chemical properties of the materials created in a nuclear meltdown is critical to help retrieve them. For instance, if we don’t know how hard they are, how can we make the radiation-resistant robots needed to cut them out?”
Researchers have reported the invention of materials that may be used to model decommissioning procedures in nuclear reactors after accidents in recent work published by ISL in partnership with colleagues in Ukraine.
To simulate “Lava-like Fuel Containing Materials” (LFCMs), small batches of low radioactivity materials were created in the lab using solely depleted uranium. These materials were discovered to be a near approximation to the microstructure and mineralogy of true LFCM. Coming this close to a real LFCM has never been possible.
The thermal properties and corrosion kinetics of LFCM were then analyzed using these simulated materials, with results substantially similar to those of actual LFCM samples obtained during a sampling mission within the reactor by scientists in 1991.
Both at Chernobyl and the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, where LFCM-type materials are believed to have developed and are still immersed in water used to cool the molten core, ongoing decommissioning activities depend on the understanding of corrosion behavior.
Water loss from the LFCM surfaces results in the formation of dust that may be highly radioactive and might readily enter the ecosystem.
Dr. Corkhill continued, “Despite the Chernobyl tragedy having occurred more than 33 years ago, we still know very little about these genuinely unique nuclear elements because they are too dangerous to handle.
“As a result of this research, we now have a considerably lower radioactivity meltdown simulant material to study, which is safe for our Japanese and Ukrainian research partners to study without the requirement for radiation protection. Ultimately, this will aid in the decommissioning processes at Chernobyl and Fukushima.”
The study team hopes to move this work along relatively quickly now that they have a starting point for their inquiry into the corrosion behavior utilizing the powerful microscope at Diamond Light Source.
Then what? The ability to replicate less dangerous compounds in tiny batches allows for safe, cost-effective, and potential for faster progress in the knowledge of the meltdown substance of future investigation.
Additionally, it means that only the most significant and safety-critical tests can be carried out at large-scale nuclear accident demonstrator sites, such as the VULCANO facility in France. Beyond that, the long-term goal is to devise a method for securely removing and containing the toxic elements at the Chernobyl and Fukushima accident sites.
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