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Increased neutron radiation levels inside Chernobyl sarcophagus

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(October 4, 1996) On September 16, measuring-device readings showed an increase of neutron radiation levels inside the sacrophagus which covers the exploded reactor 4 of Chernobyl.

(459.4556) WISE-Amsterdam - Public attention was raised when Viktor Baryakhtar, vice-president of Ukraine's Academy of Sciences and top nuclear adviser of the Ukrainian President Kuchma, agreed with Ukrainian Environment Minister Yuri Kostenko in interpreting the readings as a consequence of a chain reaction, which might have lasted several hours. He spoke of an increase in radiation by 5 to 110 times the usual levels. A possible reason could be the strong rainfall during the days before. Water penetrating the sacrophagus slows down neutrons, which are emitted by the radioactive material. These moderated neutrons can split other nuclei.

Although it is widely believed that such a reaction becoming critical and leading to a second catastrophic explosion is out of the question, there is no complete data about what is going on inside the sacrophagus. Actually the reliability of the measuring equipment is totally questioned by a senior official of Russia's Nuclear Energy Ministry, in an interview with Interfax news agency. The director of the power plant, Parshin, announced the installation of "some dozen" new measuring devices for better monitoring. It is not the first time that a rise of neutron radiation was monitored.

According to a report of Russian scientists disseminated by Greenpeace, the neutron levels already rose by 60 times in the summer of 1990. At that time, a wall inside the sacrophagus broke. Baryakhtar claimed that such a "dangerous phenomenon" "has been observed three times this year".
Valentin Kupny, in charge of the sacrophagus, said that if there would be a chain reaction, "it would not be an explosion or some huge noisy process". "But it could involve a big release of radiation into the atmosphere," he added.

But measurements in the surrounding areas had shown no increase in radiation levels, the Ukrainian government said. While Ukrainian officials declared that rebuilding the sacrophagus would be the top priority in closing down the Chernobyl power plant, the Austrian scientist and risk- researcher Wolfgang Kromp thinks this strong inclination is solely for economic reasons. He says the dangers of the reactors still in operation are much bigger, and the alert would be a coup of the nuclear- and-construction-lobby, which wants to force the G-7 to give money sooner and to shift the focus to rebuilding the sacrophagus. The G-7 promised U.S.$3 billion in aid and grants but too little was granted for rebuilding the sacrophagus and the whole payment is delayed.

After some important Russian newspapers subscribed to this point of view with headlines like "Nuclear blackmail for their own ends? - Kiev is again using Chernobyl to intimidate the world, but specialists see no real danger" (Izvestia), Ukrainian officials backed down. "I believe Mr. Kostenko is mistaken [concerning the chain reaction]. He is no specialist in nuclear energy," Horbulyn, secretary of Ukraine's Security Council, told a news conference.

Sources: Die Tageszeitung (FRG), 19 & 20 September 1996 / Reuter, 17, 19 & 25 September 1996
Contact: WISE Kiev