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In a scenario where the Soviets didn't manage to stop corium from reaching the water reservoirs underneath the plant, causing a detonation equivalent to a nuclear explosion, what would life in the continent look like?

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    $\begingroup$ The book Roadside Picnic by A. and B. Strugatsky as well as the movie Stalker by Tarkovsky, which is based on it, as well as the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games that are loosely inspired all shown what it could look like. Although, they feature quite more fantastical elements than just an explosion and aftermath. $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Jan 8 at 13:05
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    $\begingroup$ Life in Europe would look exactly as it looks today, with the exception that a part of southern Byelorussia would be considered unsafe for human habitation and kept as a nature preserve... A puny nuclear explosion in northern Ukraine wouldn't do anything noticeable to life outside southern Byelorussia. Radioactive material is indeed dangerous, but it's not some sort of magical poison. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 8 at 13:06
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    $\begingroup$ "a detonation equivalent to a nuclear explosion" No. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Jan 8 at 13:11
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    $\begingroup$ Can we get more detail? I can understand your question, but more background information is necessary to answer. Also, your wording is a little imprecise; overheated fuel rods are not "radioactive magma." $\endgroup$ – Marvin the Paranoid Android Jan 8 at 13:20
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    $\begingroup$ @thescribe-ReinstateMonica lava might be a better term, but corium has also been used. It is what the Elephant's Foot was made of. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Jan 8 at 13:41
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There would not have been a nuclear detonation as the core materials mixed with debris would not have been fissile. And even had they been it would have been more of a damp squib than a true nuclear detonation.

That said even a conventional detonation caused by steam and chemical reactions would have been disastrous as a much larger part of the radioactive contents of the reactor would have been spread around the environment, probably at least an order of magnitude greater, but it’s very hard to be certain as it would depend on the exact circumstances.

The net effect would have been a much larger exclusion zone, greater loss of life due to radioactive contamination and even more money required for the clean-up.

But bad as it would have been life would have gone on across Europe.

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    $\begingroup$ At least 5% of the core went away as smoke and floating micro-particles. A larger fraction than that wound up on the ground nearby. The first responders were tripping over fuel rods and graphite rods. Much more than 10% of the core was already flung around. There was not enough material left to produce an order of magnitude increase. $\endgroup$ – puppetsock Jan 8 at 17:04
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    $\begingroup$ If core materials would be flushed to groundwater, that would mean that the entire Dnieper river would be contaminated downstream, and all cities there evacuated, starting with Kiev. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jan 8 at 19:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander why evacuate? If the river is contaminated, don’t drink the water. It doesn’t make the air unbreathanle or land unlivable. I don’t see a need to evacuate. Am I missing something? $\endgroup$ – SRM Jan 9 at 0:25
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    $\begingroup$ @SRM contamination of the river would spread the radioactive isotopes into immediate vicinity. Also, people are not the only ones who drink from the river. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jan 9 at 1:15
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causing a detonation equivalent to a nuclear explosion

Such a detonation could not happen.

At most, when the lava1 reached a reservoir of water, it would turn it into steam very quickly. Depending on how stiff the structure was, and how long that very high-pressure steam could have been contained, you could have a Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion (BLEVE). The most likely case will be that the steam will push a large chunk of the molten concrete and fuel-rod mixture into the air, which would be little different from what had already been happening.

The concussion from the BLEVE might kill people more quickly, but if anyone was close enough to be killed, they're probably among the many who had already received lethal doses of radiation, and this would be a merciful death compared to what awaited them.

Molten fission fuel can not have a "nuclear explosion" in the sense of an explosion from a nuclear bomb. In order to go critical -- to have an ongoing chain reaction -- the fuel needs to have a certain density. As the fuel becomes more dense, it heats up, which pushes the fuel apart and halts the chain reaction. This can go on for quite some time, and it did indeed go on for several days after the initial explosion, but it is a slow burn rather than the milliseconds-long reaction that creates kiloton and megaton explosions from fission nuclear weapons.

The real danger was, if the lava did break through to under the foundation of the power plant, the groundwater would be contaminated far more than it already was, much more than the runoff from surface contamination and fallout. The groundwater flows into the Dnieper River that supplies fresh water to Kiev, and the USSR had plans for at least a partial evacuation of that major city in case the foundation was breached.


1Pedantic note: The term lava is a correct term for the mixture of molten rock, cement, metal, and fuel rods. Another term that can be used is corium, which is a lava created by the core of a nuclear reactor melting down. I use the more generic term because the radioactivity has no significant effect on the behavior of a BLEVE.

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    $\begingroup$ Just another pedantic note: Working Nuclear Reactors are "Critical." What happened at Chernobyl was a "Prompt Critical" event. Most people, (including all the writers for TV and movies ever) don't know this, and assume the former is a bad thing to shout in any emergency involving a reactor. The latter is the "everyone panic" phrase. $\endgroup$ – hszmv Jan 8 at 18:20
  • $\begingroup$ @hszmv: Good point. I don't know how to explain that nuance in the context of this question. For any worldbuilders who want to get nuclear energy and weapons right: Scott Manley has a very approachable series on YouTube called "Going Nuclear". $\endgroup$ – Ghedipunk Jan 8 at 18:31
  • $\begingroup$ I'd personally recomend looking at TVTrope's articles on the subject as they have a list of both correct use of terms AND an accurate depiction of what would happen if you nuke a random Mickey Mouse Organization in the L.A. area. $\endgroup$ – hszmv Jan 8 at 19:33
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It would not have been much different than what happened IRL. You see, while hot-in-both-senses uranium contacting cold water will create an explosion, it will be far from catastrophic. This is because those water reservoirs are (a) underneath the plant, and (b) the uranium would come down at a trickle. The net result of these two factors is that, instead of a "Oh hey, 20 tons of ultra-hot uranium just dumped into the cisterns and by the way we are all dead from the resulting explosion", you just have a "Oh hey, there was a minor explosion in the cisterns just now, but it is completely inconsequential compared to the NUCLEAR FALLOUT ARMAGEDDON WE ARE ALREADY EXPERIENCING!!!

The net effect of all this is that the exclusion zone (the area that you can't live in) would have been a bit larger. Honestly, considering all the FUBARing that was happening anyway, I doubt that anyone would have noticed the reservoir contamination until after the fact.

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    $\begingroup$ This is incorrect -- massive heroic efforts were made to stop the core from reaching the water level. $\endgroup$ – Carl Witthoft Jan 8 at 16:30
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    $\begingroup$ @CarlWitthoft I did not mean it literally; I was just saying that, compared to the other stuff that was happening, the core reaching water level is relatively minor. $\endgroup$ – Marvin the Paranoid Android Jan 8 at 16:35
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Bad, but not apocalyptic.

With ionizing radiation, any amount increases cancer risk, etc. There is no safe dosage. On the other hand, spread over Europe or the entire Earth, fallout will be widely dispersed.

According to this, Chernobyl released 5% of the nuclear material to the environment. According to this, Chernobyl equals 1% of the worldwide nuclear weapon tests. Of course not all isotopes are made equal, but a total release of the material in Chernobyl would be on the same order of magnitude as nuclear tests.

Those tests were a bad idea. In all likelihood, they caused plenty of deaths by cancer. More in some places than in others, like the well-known John Wayne example. They didn't make Earth uninhabitable.

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    $\begingroup$ The statement about ionizing radiation is at best unproven, and probably wrong, since there is quite a bit of evidence that people living in places with high natural background radiation are no less healthy, and sometimes healthier, than those living in low background areas. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jan 8 at 18:10
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf People in those areas are sometimes healthier but not because of the radiation. For example, Colorado may have higher levels of radiation and better general health than Louisiana, but there are massive lifestyle differences that make Coloradans healthier in spite of the one increased risk factor. Actual laboratory testing supports om's claim sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/07/050725185400.htm $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki - Reinstate Monica Jan 8 at 22:24
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    $\begingroup$ The linear no-threshold model for nuclear radiation is almost certainly wrong. It's used because it's the most conservative of the three competing models for low-dose radiation, and because it's the easiest to apply (effects of low-dose radiation are so small that they're masked by statistical noise, making it nearly impossible to find a threshold for the threshold model, or the inflection point for the hormesis model). $\endgroup$ – Mark Jan 8 at 22:41

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