August 18, 2017

Virtual tour of Chernobyl


It’s hard to say whether the idea is clever or tacky, but very soon you will be able to go on a virtual tour of Chernobyl, the site of a nuclear accident in 1986 near Kiev in the Ukraine. (While we’re on the subject of tacky, there was an old joke going around at the time. What has wings and feathers and glows in the dark? ANS: Chicken Kiev.)

But regardless of whether visiting the site of a disaster is tacky or educational, you will soon be able to do so on the PlayStation VR thanks to the forthcoming Chernobyl VR Project just announced in the PlayStation Blog on August 15. The idea is that even though the site is still radioactive, owing to the long half-lives of Uranium and Plutonium, you’ll still be able to go there… albeit virtually.

The disaster was triggered by a late-night safety test designed to simulate a power-failure in reactor 4 (a light water reactor at the Chernobyl power plant). As part of the test, safety systems were deliberately turned off. Ordinarily, this would not have been a problem.  However the operators configured the reacted core in a way that was not approved by the safety checklist. In addition to this, the reactor suffered from certain design flaws that had not at the time been identified.

This caused an uncontrolled reaction. When cooling water flashed into steam, it was boiled rapidly, leading to a steam explosion. This in turn led to a fire in which the graphite moderator that normally slows down the neutrons passing through the fuel rods, combusted. The fire burned for nine days, generating updrafts that carried radioactive fission products into the atmosphere. This was in addition to the radioactive material that was released in the initial explosion.

At least thirty people died in the disaster and the reactor had to be closed down and encased in lead. But problems continued because the lead “sarcophagus” trapped heat and led to further problems. The entire area ultimately had to be evacuated and has been vacated ever since – except for occasional visits by scientists to monitor the situation and take measurements. At the time of the mass evacuation, the people were told that they would be able to return a few days later. However, once the scale of the problem was understood, it became clear that such a return was not possible. Three decades on, it is still not safe for them to return.

It is possible to visit the area on the virtual level, thanks to an interactive journey created by the Chernobyl VR Project. The game is available on Samsung Gear VR, HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift. It is about to become available on the PlayStation VR, taking people through the power plant itself as well as other local sites of interest such as the school, the hospital and even an amusement park in the area.

The people who shot the footage to create the virtual tour had to take some risks to gather the video material. This included carrying a geiger counter with them at all times, in case they strayed into a high radiation area.

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