When we say that a nuclear reactor “melts down,” it’s not simply illustrative language. The radioactive materials used as fuel get hotter and hotter, due to their unstinting emission of high-energy particles, until they literally melt, turning into something like lava. At Chernobyl, the loss of coolant caused a meltdown of the fuel, some of which was scattered into the atmosphere. Much of it however, flowed into the bottom of the reactor vessel and eventually melted through it. Oozing through pipes and eating through concrete, the radioactive lava flow from reactor Number 4 eventually cooled enough to solidfy. The result was a collection of stalactites and stalagmites, steam valves clogged with hardened lava, and the large black mass that would later be dubbed the Elephant’s Foot.
Enjoyed this article, even as a supporter (though not in an unqualified fashion) of nuclear power.