The Elephant’s Foot

The content below is from Episode 105 of the Who’d a Thunk It? Podcast


  • This week I strongly suggest you watch HBO’s mini-series Chernobyl. It is one of the greatest non-fiction miniseries I’ve ever seen.
    • I think I have recommended it before. But it directly ties in with this week’s episode. As I was looking in to this week’s episode I found myself picturing scenes from that show.
    • Aria Bendix from Business Insider wrote in regards to the show’s level of accuracy to the real-life events:
      • “For the most part, it’s hauntingly accurate — with the exception of a few artistic liberties.”
    • If you watcht he series I think it will give you a very good base of knowledge to go by whenever the topic of Chernobyl is brought up in your life…. like when you listen to a small podcast episode!


  • And this week’s is about the Elaphant’s Foot
    • The Elephant’s Foot is the most dangerous radioactive waste in the world. It is a solid flow of corium that came from the nuclear meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986.
    • Now let me briefly summarize some topics surrounding the giant deadly blob of radioactive ooze before I explain further:
  • Nuclear Power
    • Nuclear Power Plants heat water to produce steam. The steam is used to spin large turbines that generate electricity. Nuclear power plants use the heat produced during nuclear fission to heat water.
    • In nuclear fission, atoms are split apart to form smaller atoms, releasing energy. Fission takes place inside the reactor of a nuclear power plant. At the center of the reactor is the core, which contains uranium fuel.
    • The uranium fuel is formed into ceramic pellets. Each ceramic pellet produces about the same amount of energy as 150 gallons of oil. These energy-rich pellets are stacked end-to-end in 12-foot metal fuel rods. A bundle of fuel rods, some with hundreds of rods, is called a fuel assembly. A reactor core contains many fuel assemblies.
    • The heat produced during nuclear fission in the reactor core is used to boil water into steam, which turns the blades of a steam turbine. As the turbine blades turn, they drive generators that make electricity. Nuclear plants cool the steam back into the water in a separate structure at the power plant called a cooling tower, or they use water from ponds, rivers, or the ocean. The cooled water is then reused to produce steam.
      • It is a pretty nifty power source for us humans, although the risks CAN BE pretty high… Those risks are the major topic of today’s episode.
  • Chernobyl
    • Chernobyl was the site of a nuclear power plant in Soviet Union Ukraine, but then there was an accident.
      • A tiny little whoopsy moment that had the potential to turn a huge part of the globe in to an uninhabitable waste land for thousands of years.
    • Early in the morning of April 26th of 1986 a reactor in unit 4 of the Chernobyl exploded during a routine test of the plant’s turbine generator system. This sent clouds of radioactive smoke in to the air above the Chernobyl plant.
    • Winds that day carried the toxic cloud for hundreds of miles.
      • Some 150,000 square kilometres in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine are contaminated and stretch northward of the plant site as far as 500 kilometres. An area spanning 30 kilometres around the plant is considered the “exclusion zone” and is essentially uninhabited.
    • This was a major public health catastrophe like the world had never seen before. Entire communities were being exposed to varying degrees of radiation.
    • The Chernobyl accident in 1986 happened because of a flawed reactor design and because the operators employed to run things were undertrained.
    • The resulting steam explosion and fires released at least 5% of the radioactive reactor core into the environment, with the deposition of radioactive materials in many parts of Europe.
    • Two Chernobyl plant workers died due to the explosion on the night of the accident, and a further 28 people died within a few weeks as a result of acute radiation syndrome.
    • The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation has concluded that, apart from some 5000 thyroid cancers (resulting in 15 fatalities), “there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure 20 years after the accident.”
    • Some 350,000 people were evacuated as a result of the accident, but resettlement of areas from which people were relocated is ongoing.
      • Things were pretty bad at Chernobyl, but it could have been WAY worse.
  • The Elephant’s Foot, like I mentioned earlier, is a byproduct of the Chernobyl accident of 1986.
    • While the radioactive cloud was spreading to the surrounding areas, the fuel rods within the reactor had melted through their protective container.
      • This was bad. Very bad. It was basically lava, but SUPER radioactive.
    • The fuel rods melted at 4,091 degrees Fahrenheit (2,255 degrees Celsius) and remained above 3,022 degrees Fahrenheit (1,660 degrees Celsius) for over 4 days.
      • It was basically super hot lava. Most super-heated red and yellow lava that we see on the surface of the planet like in Hawaii is around 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,093 degrees Celsius).
    • The melted fuel rods melted at such a high tempurature that they became a material known as corium.
  • Corium
    • Corium, also called fuel-containing material (FCM) or lava-like fuel-containing material (LFCM), is a material that is created in the core of a nuclear reactor during a meltdown accident. It resembles natural lava in its consistency.
    • It consists of a mixture of nuclear fuelfission productscontrol rods, structural materials from the affected parts of the reactor, products of their chemical reaction with air, water, and steam, and, in the event that the reactor vessel is breached, molten concrete from the floor of the reactor room.
    • Corium has been created outside of a lab (or unintentionally) 5 times. Once at 3-mile-island in 1979, once at Chernobyl, and 3 times in the Fukishima Diiashi meltdown of 2011. The reason why the Elephant’s Foot is so special is because it is so large, and because it is the only instance where the corium ate through the reactor core and “escaped” to the environment.
  • So by this point in the Chernobyl accidentthere was the largest deposit of corium known to man oozing across the concrete floor of the reactor. It was eating everything in its path, including the concrete floor itself.
    • During the Chernobyl disaster rescue and containment crews were busy with trying to clean up the mess above ground to worry about any corium deposits so the Elephant’s foot was free to grow and spread for months before nuclear reactor inspectors.
    • By the time it was discovered the Elephant’s Foot had grown so large in unit 4 that it had eaten through the concrete floor and fallen to a lower level. When the inspectors first laid eyes on the blob it had grown to a staggering 11 tons of deadly mass. It was nearly 10 feet (3 meters) in width.
      • Wikipedia says: It is one small part of a much larger mass that lies beneath Reactor No. 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The Elephant’s Foot is located in Room 217/2, several dozen feet to the southeast of the ruined reactor and six meters above ground level. The material making up the Elephant’s Foot had burned through at least 2 m (6.6 ft) of reinforced concrete, then flowed through pipes and fissures and down a hallway to reach its current location.
      • The mass was quite dense and unyielding to a drill mounted on a remote-controlled trolley, but able to be damaged by a Kalashnikov rifle (AK-47) using armor piercing rounds. By June 1998, the outer layers had started turning to dust and the mass had started to crack. As of 2021, the mass has been described as having a consistency similar to sand
      • LOL I love how Russian that is… they couldn’t peirce it with a drill so they shot armor peircing rounds out of an AK47!
  • They named it the Elephant’s Foot because of the size and its outward appearance was gray and like tree bark, much like the skin of an elephant.
    • At the time of its discovery, about eight months after formation, radioactivity near the Elephant’s Foot was approximately 8,000 roentgens, or 80 grays per hour, delivering a 50/50 lethal dose of radiation (4.5 grays) within five minutes. Since that time the radiation intensity has declined enough that, in 1996, the Elephant’s Foot was visited by the Deputy Director of the New Confinement Project, Artur Korneyev, who took photographs using an automatic camera and a flashlight to illuminate the otherwise dark room.
    • Regardless of how much Wikipedia says the radiation has disipated since 1986, there is still a big Mr. Yuck sticker stapped on the side. That’s because the Elephant’s Foot is still very deadly.
  • Now this massive 11 ton blob of extra deadly lava is already mysterious because it is inherently off limits.
    • We want what we can’t have and this thing is so much in the “can’t have” category that people crave more information about it, even though it is just a big blob of rock in a basement.
    • If someone aske me if I wanted to go see a big blob rock in a basement I would probably say no. Exception being if I was a teenager because back then I didn’t care what I was doing as long as I was doing it with some friends.
      • But if you told me the blob was deadly I would become more interested.
    • But its connection to one of the biggest events of the 20th century and deadliness aren’t the only things contributing to the Elephant’s Foot popularity.
  • Back in 2013 a journalist was working on a piece about the Elephant’s Foot for a magazine. In an old archive of photographs from the Chernobyl accident he found the image that I used for this episode’s cover. It is very creepy.
    • The photo shows a man in a full-body cleaning suit and hard hat hunching over the Elephant’s Foot. But the man in the photo doesn’t look normal. His body is translucent like some sort of ghost and there seems to be a copy of himself standing directly behind him. There are also bright orange streaks of what appears to be lightning in the photo. It isn’t just creepy, it is haunting. Especially when you realize how deadly it is to be in this room.
    • It is peculiar that this photo emerged in 2013, so long after the Chernobyl accident. It is particularly mysterious when you consider the layers of secrecy that Russian and its allies placed upon the Chernobyl accident.
    • At first people thought the photo was taken soon after the Chernobyl accident and that surely the man in the photo and the photographer had died of radiation poisoning.
    • But then it was discovered by another journalist that the photo had a caption “Artur Korneev, Deputy Director of Shelter Object, viewing the ‘elephants foot’ lava flow, Chornobyl NPP. Photographer: Unknown. Fall 1996.”
    • Who is Artur Korneyev?
An article in the New York Times covered Artur’s story
Chernobyl: Capping a Catastrophe
  • An article in the New York Times covered Artur’s story
    • The title: Chernobyl: Capping a Catastrophe
    • Artur was about 40 years old in the photograph. He was a radiation specialist from Kazakhstan. He is an expert on the Chernobyl accident, especially the waste that was left like the Elephant’s Foot.
    • A lot of people were tasked with cleaning up the Chernobyl accident. It was Artur’s job to go in first, find the fuel that was left over, and document the level of radiation it was still giving off.
      • His safety was NOT garaunteed, so that those who followed after him might have a more safe working environment.
    • Artur went where the corium went. Through air ducts, drainage pipes, melted concrete floors, and so on. He said the corium looked as if it was water gushing from a flood, but stopped in time. Whenever he and his team encountered the much more radioactive solid fuel, it was there job to move it away, either with shovels or by kicking it with their boots.
      • Artur visited the Elephant’s foot many times. He is most likely the person to have seen the most in person.
      • It is believed that the famous photo that shows Artur Korneyev standing with the Elephant’s Foot was taken by a drone of some sort, and not a human photographer.
    • In 1995, Artur was one of the people to tell other countries in the west that the underground area under Unit 4 (or the sarcophagus as they called it) was not in safe. Because of his reports a group of 7 countries agreed to pay to have Unit 4 made as safe as possible. By 1995, Ukraine was an independent country and had decided to close the remaining reactors that were still operating. The last reactor was shut down in the year 2000.
    • The New York Times took a picture of Artur in his home back in 2014 at the age of 65. He has cataracts and other health issues that some beleive were brought on, not just by age, but his career of engaging with high levels of radiation.
      • I tried to see if he was still alive, but the best I found was an article from 2016 that wrote “he is probably still alive.” Just goes to show how little us westerners get to hear about Russia and the Eastern Block area lol.
    • Although Artur lived (or is still living) to an old age, experts say that being near the Elephant’s Foot for mere minutes could give someone radiation sickness, an hour would most likely be lethal.
    • While there have been many successful efforts above ground to contain the radiation at Chernobyl such as creating the sarcophagus and the giant concrete dome that was created just as recently as 2015, the Elephant’s Foot poses a threat in the opposite direction.
    • The fear is that the Elephant’s Foot could continue to eat through the concrete and sand beneath it and contaminate drinking water. This would be bad news for the population surrounding Chernobyl and all those within the same watershed.
    • However, this is an 11 ton blob of cooled radiation lava. It is sealed by the concrete sarcophagus and nestled within the labrynth of Unit 4’s concrete basement, each room, vent, and pipe also containing dangerous corium material. It ain’t going nowhere.
    • It will just sit there, potentially forever.


Tune in next week.