Nuclear reactions are increasing in an inaccessible chamber at Chernobyl

The chamber was blocked during the 1986 explosion and now contains highly radioactive material.

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The neutron emissions are likened to "embers" -- stable, but capable of sparking in the right conditions.

Getty Images - Anadolu Agency / Contributor

Radioactive emissions in an inaccessible chamber within the Chernobyl nuclear power plant have spiked in the last four years, leading scientists to question how serious the threat of a runaway nuclear fission reaction really is.

The 1986 Chernobyl explosion -- which resulted in catastrophic destruction and significant loss of life -- sealed off a number of areas and chambers in the Ukrainian power plant, including subreactor room 305/2, which is now the site of the surge. The room is thought to contain a large amount of highly radioactive material.

Researchers say there has been a 40% increase in neutron emissions from the blocked room, slowly increasing since 2016. This could result in two possibilities: either the reaction will peter out, as similar spikes in recent years have done, or human intervention will be required and experts will need to find a way to breach the room safely.

Neil Hyatt, a nuclear waste disposal expert from the University of Sheffield, told New Scientist that the situation is reminiscent of "embers in a barbecue pit" -- capable of sparking again, but stable for the time being. 

If it's deemed necessary to intervene, the likely scenario is that a team would drill into the room and spray it with a substance capable of essentially "soaking up" the neutrons. This would absorb the bulk of the excess neutrons and dampen the likelihood of a runaway reaction. 

In the meantime, Maxim Saveliev -- a representative from the Institute for Safety Problems of Nuclear Power Plants National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine -- suggests that robots may be capable of getting close enough to the chamber to install sensors and take samples in order to get a more comprehensive understanding of the situation, according to New Scientist.

In an interview with Science magazine, Saveliev suggested any explosive reaction would be contained but could "bring down unstable parts" of the original shelter placed over the power plant in 1986.