Fears Chernobyl could blow again as nuclear surge detected inside sealed chamber

Some 35 years after the Chernobyl disaster, scientists are concerned about nuclear reactions heating up again in an inaccessible chamber of the abandoned facility.

The world watched in horror as reactor 4 at the Ukrainian power plant exploded on April 26 1986, sending out an annihilating wave of radiation that rendered the surrounding 30km area unliveable.

Now there are fears another nuclear disaster could perhaps be in the works.

In 2016 engineers working at the desolate site completed work on the New Safe Confinement (NSC), a structure meant to stabilise the building which is still pulsating with highly radioactive material.

But the NSC has a serious downside. Worrying surges in fission reactions have been detected deep inside subreactor room 305/2, thought to contain large amounts of lava-like nuclear waste.

The power plant was hastily covered over with a makeshift concrete sarcophagus shortly after the explosion, and work began on its replacement (the NSC) in 2010.

While the old cover was full of holes, the NSC is watertight — but this means there may not be enough moisture inside the chamber to slow neutrons down enough to prevent a nuclear reaction.

Getting inside the sealed chamber would be near-impossible, so experts are now trying to work out whether the fission will die down again on its own — or if a dangerous and very difficult intervention will be required to prevent a second Chernobyl disaster.

University of Sheffield professor Neil Hyatt likened the chamber's radioactive material to "embers in a barbecue pit".

"It's a reminder to us that it's not a problem solved, it's a problem stabilised," he told New Scientist.

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"We have seen excursions like this before with other fuel debris. The neutron base rate has increased, stabilised and decreased again.

"That's obviously what we hope might happen."

Last week, Anatoly Doroshenko of Kiev's Institute for Safety Problems of Nuclear Power Plants (ISPNPP) reported the site has witnessed a 40% rise in neutron emissions since 2016.

If the fission spikes don't calm down, engineers may have to drill into the subreactor room which hasn't been seen by humans since the disaster.

Another ISPNPP member has suggested sending in camera-wielding robots first before humans have to risk their lives by going in.

While only 50 people were killed in the original Chernobyl meltdown, the United Nations estimates as many as 4,000 people have died from exposure to its fallout in the years since.

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