Fast Paper Tape For The Nuclear Family

We’ve enjoyed several videos from [Chornobyl Family] about the computers that controlled the ill-fated nuclear reactor in Chornobyl (or Chernobyl, as it was spelled at the time of the accident). This time (see the video below) they are looking at a high-speed data storage device. You don’t normally think of high-speed and paper tape as going together, but this paper tape reader runs an astonishing 1,500 data units per second. Ok, so that’s not especially fast by today’s standards, but an ASR33, for example, did about 10 characters per second.

An IBM2400 tape drive, for reference, could transfer at least 10 times that amount of data in a second, and a 3400 could do even better. But this is paper tape. Magnetic tape had much higher density and used special tricks to get higher speeds mechanically using vacuum columns. It was still a pretty good trick to move 4 meters of paper tape a second through the machine.

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The Computer That Controlled Chernobyl

When you think of Chernobyl (or Chornobyl, now), you think of the nuclear accident, of course. But have you ever considered that where there is a nuclear reactor, there is a computer control system? What computers were in control of the infamous reactor? [Chornobyl Family] has the answer in a fascinating video documentary you can see below.

The video shows a bit of the history of Soviet-era control computers. The reactor’s V-30M computer descended from some of these earlier computers. With 20K of core memory, we won’t be impressed today, but that was respectable for the day. The SKALA system will look familiar if you are used to looking at 1970s-era computers.

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The Many Robots That Ventured Into The Chernobyl NPP #4 Reactor

Before the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (ChNPP, spelled ‘Chornobyl’ in Ukrainian) disaster in 1986, there had been little need for radiation-resistant robots to venture into high-risk zones.

The MF-2 Joker, also used for clearing debris at the Chernobyl NPP #4 disaster site.
The MF-2 Joker, also used for clearing debris at the Chernobyl NPP #4 disaster site.

Yet in the aftermath of the massive steam explosion at the #4 reactor that ripped the building apart — and spread radioactive material across the USSR and Europe — such robots were badly needed to explore and provide clean-up services. The robots which were developed and deployed in a rush are the subject of a recent video by [The Chornobyl Family].

While some robots were more successful than others, with the MF-2 remote mine handling robot suffering electronic breakdowns, gradually the robots became more refined. As over the years the tasks shifted from disaster management to clean-up and management of the now entombed #4 reactor, so too did the robots. TR-4 and TR-5 were two of the later robots that were developed to take samples of material within the stricken reactor, with many more generations to follow.

The video also reveals the fate of many of these robots. Some are buried in a radioactive disposal site, others are found on the Pripyat terrain, whether set up as a tourist piece, or buried in shrubbery. What’s beyond doubt is that it are these robots that provided invaluable help and saved countless lives, thanks to the engineers behind them.

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The CCTV Cameras That Recorded The Chernobyl Disaster And Aftermath

The Soviet KTP-63-based remote controlled camera system, including switch and control panel. (Credit: Chernobyl Family on YouTube)
The Soviet KTP-63-based remote-controlled camera system, including switch and control panel. (Credit: Chernobyl Family on YouTube)

When we picture the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster and its aftermath, we tend to recall just the commonly shared video recorded by television crews, but the unsung heroes were definitely the robotic cameras that served to keep an eye on not only the stricken reactor itself but also the sites holding contaminated equipment and debris. These camera systems are the subject of a recent video by the [Chernobyl Family] channel on YouTube, as they tear down, as well as plug in these pinnacles of 1980s vidicon-based Soviet engineering.

When the accident occurred at the #4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (ChNPP) in 1986, engineers not only scrambled to find ways to deal with the immediate aftermath but also to monitor and enter radioactive areas without exposing squishy human tissues. This is where the KTP-63 and KTP-64  cameras come into play. One is reminiscent of your typical security camera, while the other is a special model that uses a mirror instead of directly exposing the lens and tube to radiation. As a result, the latter type was quite hardy. Using a central control panel, multiple cameras could be controlled.

When mounted to remotely controlled robots, these cameras were connected to an umbilical cord that gave operators eyes on the site without risking any lives, making these cameras both literally life-savers and providing a solid template for remote-controlled vehicles in future disaster zones.

Editor’s note: Historically, the site was called Чернобыль, which is romanized to Chernobyl, but as a part of Ukraine, it is now Чорнобиль or Chornobyl. Because the disaster and the power plant occurred in 1986, we’ve used the original name Chernobyl here, as does the YouTube channel.

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Increased Neutron Levels At Chernobyl-4: How Dangerous Is Corium?

When the Chernobyl nuclear plant suffered the power output surge that would destroy its #4 reactor, a substance called ‘corium‘ was formed. This originally lava-like substance formed out of the destroyed fuel rods along with surrounding materials, like concrete, that made up the reactor. The corium ultimately cooled down and left large amounts of solid corium in the rooms where it had pooled.

Over the past few days there have been numerous reports in the media regarding a ‘sudden surge’ in neutron flux levels from this corium, with some predicting a ‘second Chernobyl disaster’. Obviously, this has quite a few people alarmed, but how dire are these neutron output changes exactly, and what do they tell us about the condition of the corium inside the ruins of the #4 reactor building? Continue reading “Increased Neutron Levels At Chernobyl-4: How Dangerous Is Corium?”

The Russian Woodpecker: Official Bird Of The Cold War Nests In Giant Antenna

On July 4th, 1976, as Americans celebrated the country’s bicentennial with beer and bottle rockets, a strong signal began disrupting shortwave, maritime, aeronautical, and telecommunications signals all over the world. The signal was a rapid 10 Hz tapping that sounded like a woodpecker or a helicopter thup-thupping on the roof. It had a wide bandwidth of 40 kHz and sometimes exceeded 10 MW.

This was during the Cold War, and plenty of people rushed to the conclusion that it was some sort of Soviet mind control scheme or weather control experiment. But amateur radio operators traced the mysterious signal to an over-the-horizon radar antenna near Chernobyl, Ukraine (then part of the USSR) and they named it the Russian Woodpecker. Here’s a clip of the sound.

The frequency-hopping Woodpecker signal was so strong that it made communication impossible on certain channels and could even be heard across telephone lines when conditions were right. Several countries filed official complaints with the USSR through the UN, but there was no stopping the Russian Woodpecker. Russia wouldn’t even own up to the signal’s existence, which has since been traced to an immense antenna structure that is nearly half a mile long and at 490 feet, stands slightly taller than the Great Pyramid at Giza.

This imposing steel structure stands within the irradiated forest near Pripyat, an idyllic town founded in 1970 to house the Chernobyl nuclear plant workers. Pictured above is the transmitter, also known as Duga-1, Chernobyl-2, or Duga-3 depending on who you ask. Located 30 miles northeast of Chernobyl, on old Soviet maps the area is simply labeled Boy Scout Camp. Today, it’s all within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

It was such a secret that the government denied it’s existence, yet was being heard all over the world. What was this mammoth installation used for?

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The Soviet RBMK Reactor: 35 Years After The Chernobyl Disaster

Thirty-five years ago, radiation alarms went off at the Forsmark nuclear power plant in Sweden. After an investigation, it was determined that the radiation did not come from inside the plant, but from somewhere else. Based on the prevailing winds at that time, it was ultimately determined that the radiation came from inside Soviet territory. After some political wrangling, the Soviet government ultimately admitted that the Chernobyl nuclear plant was the source, due to an accident that had taken place there.

Following the disaster, the causes have been investigated in depth so that we now have a fairly good idea of what went wrong. Perhaps the most important lesson taught by the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster is that it wasn’t about one nuclear reactor design, one control room crew, or one totalitarian regime, but rather the chain of events which enabled the disaster of this scale.

To illustrate this, the remaining RBMK-style reactors — including three at the Chernobyl plant — have operated without noticeable issues since 1986, with nine of these reactors still active today. During the international investigation of the Chernobyl plant disaster, the INSAG reports repeatedly referred to the lack of a ‘safety culture’.

Looking at the circumstances which led to the development and subsequent unsafe usage of the Chernobyl #4 reactor can teach us a lot about disaster prevention. It’s a story of the essential role that a safety culture plays in industries where the cost of accidents is measured in human life.

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