This image might be one of the most impressive/foolish photographs of all time. While it might just look like a Polaroid of some industrial sludge in a rundown warehouse, you’re looking at the epicenter of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, beaming out the radiation of over 10 billion bananas.
Known as “the Elephant’s Foot”, this cooled molten mess of radioactive material was once potent enough to kill any human that stood in its presence. While its power has subsided over the decades, it still emits heat and haunts the power plant's ruins with dangerous levels of radiation.
The Elephant’s Foot is a mass of corium – a once-molten concoction of uranium, graphite, concrete, and sand – that formed during the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. In the small hours of April 26, 1986, reactor 4 at the VI Lenin Nuclear Power Plant near the Ukranian city of Pripyat was zapped with a freak power surge during a routine systems safety test. This caused the uranium fuel rods to overheat in their cooling water, generating an immense amount of steam and pressure. A colossal explosion occurred, followed by a second explosion shortly after, causing radioactive material to spurt into the atmosphere and ceasing the flow of coolant into the reactor.
As the term “meltdown” suggests, this mess-up generated enough thermal energy to literally melt the reactor core and its nuclear fuel rods. This inferno produced a molten material that oozes and flows like lava while emitting deadly levels of ionizing radiation. As the catastrophe continued to go from bad to worse, this deathly lava melted a hole through the steel beams and concrete below the reactor, falling into the basement, where it eventually cooled and hardened.
Shortly after the disaster, the heap of cooling corium was emitting around 10,000 roentgens of ionizing radiation per hour. According to Nautilus magazine, that’s a lethal dose in just minutes or the equivalent of being blasted with millions of chest X-rays.
So, you might ask, why or how is there a man in the photograph standing right next to the Elephant’s Foot?
The guy photographed with the radioactive slop is Artur Korneyev (sometimes translated as Korneev), a Kazakhstani nuclear inspector with a dark sense of humor who first came to Chernobyl shortly after the accident. Among others, he was tasked with the intimidating job of finding the rogue fuel and measuring radiation levels in the bowels of Chernobyl.
“We were the trailblazers. We were always on the front edge,” a 65-year-old Korneyev said in 2014, speaking to The New York Times in a rare interview.
The most famous image of him and the Elephant’s Foot (above) was taken in 1996, over 10 years after the initial disaster occurred. By this time, the Elephant’s Foot was emitting around 10 percent of the radiation it once had. These levels could still land a human with severe radiation sickness if they had close-up exposure for 5 or so minutes, however, it appears that a quick meter reading and a snap of the camera is not long enough to cause any dramatic acute health effects.
As you can see, the photograph of the Elephant’s Foot is grainy, distorted, and dotted with strange marks of overexposure. This is not the result of poor camera quality, nor some Instagram filter, it’s due to radiation messing with how the film developed.
Remarkably, Korneyev is believed to still be alive. Although, perhaps surprisingly, he suffers from cataracts and other health problems due to his frequent run-ins with heavy radiation at Chernobyl.
“Soviet radiation is the best radiation in the world,” Korneyev grimly joked.