The disaster that occurred at the Chernobyl power plant in April 1986 left behind a legacy of forced evacuations, serious illness, and loss of life, along with a gigantic radioactive mass known as “The Elephant’s Foot.”
Due to the Elephant’s Foot’s radiation levels, it’s a difficult object to study, but that doesn’t mean brave individuals living near Chernobyl haven’t tried. There are even a few Elephant’s Foot pics online for curious folks to peruse.
The mass may not look like much, but even in Chernobyl today, it packs enough radioactivity to end a person's life within minutes of exposure. As if that weren’t frightening enough, it’s also slowly burning through the floor of the power plant and into the ground, posing catastrophic consequences.
In the early morning hours of April 26, 1986, several explosions rocked the fourth reactor at the Chernobyl power plant. This resulted in the destruction of the reactor, exposing its rapidly heating nuclear core. Though first responders didn't realize it, something leaked out of the reactor and formed the “Elephant’s Foot,” named for its wrinkly appearance.
Several sources of radioactivity caused radiation to spread across nearby areas - and throughout the bodies of first responders - and the Elephant’s Foot was soon identified as one of the worst.
When the Elephant’s Foot was discovered in 1986, dosimeters made it clear the mass was far too radioactive to safely approach; it was putting out an unprecedented 10,000 roentgens per hour on average. At the time, the Foot was estimated to cause radiation poisoning after just 30 seconds of exposure, and it was believed 300 seconds of exposure would result in a terminal dose.
Anyone who exposed themselves to the Elephant’s Foot for just five minutes could be expected to pass within two days - making it one of the most dangerous objects to have ever existed on Earth.
The Elephant’s Foot is still incredibly hot, radioactive, and dangerous today, but the degree of risk has dropped by magnitudes. In 2018, it put out about one-tenth of the radiation it did when it formed, but that still represents a life-ending amount of radioactivity.
The Elephant’s Foot isn’t going anywhere, either - it’s expected to stick around for another century at minimum.
One often hears the word “meltdown” in relation to nuclear disasters, but most don’t realize just how literal the term is. Events like the one at Chernobyl are the result of cooling systems in a reactor failing, causing the nuclear core to heat until it actually melts.
The radioactive materials used in the core melted down, oozed through the pipes of the reactor, and liquefied parts of the reactor itself, resulting in the now infamous mass of corium.