"“So on April 26, 1986, the Pripyat team began the countdown, piped most of the dimethyl red mercury straight out of the reactor core where they’d been irradiating it in special dummy fuel rods and into the rocket. Then they lit the blue touch paper.”
“Wait—” Pripyat. Now I got it. I decided to string them along: “This reactor couldn’t possibly have been at a place called Chernobyl, could it? What happened?”
“We’re not sure. It wasn’t the reactor operators conducting an unauthorized experiment: That was a cover story. We think what happened, well, they launched from about two kilometers north of the reactor complex. And, you know, it should have gone fine, apart from permanently poisoning a patch of forest nobody cared much about, within the perimeter of a nuclear exclusion zone. But we think that on the way up they had some sort of guidance problem—not surprising giving the radiation flux coming from the rocket’s exhaust. The exhaust stream directly pointed at the roof of the B reactor where the second batch of red mercury was being irradiated at the time. And, you know? What’s basically a metal halide plasma torch with added gamma radiation really doesn’t play well with the roof of a reactor building. Sure, the containment over a western reactor would have blocked it, but the RBMK reactors the Soviets built at Pripyat didn’t have containment domes. The ‘uncontrolled power surge’ that hit the B reactor was probably its load of red mercury lighting off, after the rocket exhaust cooked through the roof.”
“Right. So you’re telling me that the Chernobyl accident was the result of the red mercury in the reactor spontaneously dumping all its stored energy when it was tickled by the exhaust radiation from the NAIL SPIKE launch?” I shook my head. “That’s the craziest thing I’ve heard all weekend! Great story, though.”
“It’s not a tall tale!” Jim looked perturbed by my skepticism. “This really happened, I swear. It’s the real reason for the Chernobyl exclusion zone—it’s covered in radioactive dimethylmercury fallout. And—” he had the decency to look abashed “—it’s why we’re still messing around with prototype nuclear-thermal rockets instead of exploring Mars on foot. Dammit.”"