Chernobyl’s Most Dangerous Radioactive Material Is Still Slowly Burning A Hole Through The Earth
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.
The Elephant’s Foot Was A Side-Effect Of The Chernobyl DisasterPhoto: Artur Korneev / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
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 It First Formed, It Could End A Person's Life Within A Few Minutes Of Exposure
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.
It’s Still Incredibly Dangerous (And Hot) Today
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.
The Foot Is The Result Of A Nuclear Core MeltdownPhoto: US Department of Energy / Rare Historical Photos / Public Domain
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.
It’s A Glowing, Hot Mass Of Radioactive Material And Melted Concrete Dubbed 'Corium'
The Elephant’s Foot represents the largest mass of corium ever formed. First identified at the 1979 incident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, corium is mostly made up of the materials that surround a nuclear core - concrete, shielding metals, and sand - melted together with the remnants of the core itself.
The resulting lava-like mixture is one of the most radioactive substances ever created on Earth, and even though it quickly cooled and hardened, the Elephant’s Foot remains incredibly hot and lethal.
The Elephant’s Foot Wasn’t Discovered Until Several Months After The DisasterPhoto: US Department of Energy / Rare Historical Photos / Public Domain
Though the Elephant’s Foot came about in the immediate aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster in April 1986, it was not discovered until months later. The reasons for the delay are obvious; first responders and liquidators couldn’t approach the area where the Elephant’s Foot came to rest due to extreme radioactivity, and they had more important things to worry about at the time.
After putting out the radiation-spewing fires and draining coolant pools to prevent further explosions, responders finally explored the damaged reactor and subsequently found the Elephant’s Foot.