Chernobyl. For those familiar with the event, the word alone evokes a wince, a grimace, a slow shake of the head. The horror of the 1986 nuclear disaster in the Ukraine will (hopefully) forever be remembered as “by far the worst nuclear reactor accident ever.” Today, April 13th, we’re just a couple of weeks shy of its 26th anniversary, on April 26th, which seems an appropriate time to reflect on the event itself and the consequences it had for the world around it. While the effects of a nuclear disaster seem obvious: the displacement of residents in the surrounding area and the destruction of the natural environment in the immediate vicinity, those are only the horrible beginnings of the problems caused by the Chernobyl disaster. But, wait y’all! I’m telling a story! So I’ll start at the beginning.
The Chernobyl Power Plant was constructed in the Ukraine city of Chernobyl in the early 1970s, and first began producing power in 1977. The site operated as a nuclear power plant from that point until the year 2000 when it was finally decommissioned. The city of Chernobyl is 80 miles from the city of Kiev, which is the ancient capital of the Ukraine and was the third largest city in the Soviet Union. The nearby town of Pripyat was built in the early years of the Chernobyl Power Plant’s construction and operation, to house the power plant workers and their families. The plant operated steadily and without controversy for several years, despite a 1982 accident described as a “partial core meltdown.” This accident, the fault of a plant operator, led to increased radiation levels at the work site, however this accident and its extents were covered up by the Plant Director and the KGB at the time of the incident. While some documents have been discovered and made public, it is likely we will never have all of the information about the 1982 accident.
The 1986 disaster, however, proved far too catastrophic for a cover up. On April 25th, technicians at Chernobyl Power Plant turned off reactor four for routine maintenance and to perform testing. In the course of the testing, technicians turned off several of the plant’s safety mechanisms. Halfway through the tests, the demand for power in Kiev required that the reactor be turned back on, which it was, and it operated for nine hours before it was turned back off and testing was resumed. Two hours later, the reactor’s power dropped suddenly, a problem that could have been addressed without disaster had the safety mechanism. At 1:23am, the reactor exploded, killing 32 people.
The Soviets launched into action. Residents of nearby Pripyat were evacuated the day after the explosion. Attempts to clean the site were poorly thought out and ineffective: mandating that nearby residents stay indoors while they tried to put out fires with at first water, and then sand and nitrogen. Chernobyl residents remained in the area for six days. The explosion went undetected throughout the world for two days, until similar power plants in Europe began detecting higher radiation levels. The Soviet Union at first denied any responsibility for the radiation, but eventually, that evening, they admitted that there had been an incident with a “damaged” reactor.
The cleanup of Chernobyl continued for years, with 200,000 Soviet workers recruited to participate. For years after the initial cleanup, Ukranian experts struggled to find ways to dispose of contaminated soil and plant life, and ways to purify and revitalize the area. Just over a year ago, the Ukranian government declared Chernobyl and nearby Pripyat remediated and safe for tourists, but some have expressed doubt of the validity of that claim.
The health impacts were almost immediate. The Chernobyl disaster marked the largest uncontrolled radioactive release into the environment ever recorded for any civilian operation, The plant continued to release radioactive substances into the air for a week and a half after the explosion. These substances, of course, were not limited to Chernobyl and its surrounding areas: once in the air, the radiation permeated throughout the Ukraine, Russia, and was even detected in Europe and Scandinavia.
The Chernobyl disaster had grave consequences for the entire country; the dislocation of 220,000 people over a period of just a few years is disruptive to economies, with an influx of new prospective workers and the same amount of jobs, educational facilities not prepared to deal with a rapidly increasing student population, housing markets not prepared to accommodate so many people at once. In addition to this, families of the 200,000 workers recruited to Chernobyl for the cleanup were forced not only to try and keep their families intact while forcibly separated, but also had to manage to provide emotional support for each other with the knowledge that their family members, most likely fathers and brothers, were working and interacting with highly poisonous and radioactive substances on a daily basis.
It has been difficult to sufficiently document the health and environmental impacts of this disaster, due in large part to the lack of comprehensive and reliable data on health and environmental conditions in the region prior to the explosion. The Soviets were sort of cagey about that kind of thing, I guess. However, the existing data is certainly cause for alarm: by the year 2000, there had been 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer in children who had been exposed to the radiation released as a result of Chernobyl. And that is only one statistic. We are tragically familiar with the effects of nuclear radiation on human health, having quite the history, from the atom bomb to Love Canal and beyond.
Chernobyl should have taught the world myriad lessons, from the risks of nuclear power, to cavalier attitudes about safety protocol, but do you think that it did? Would you feel safe living near a nuclear power plant? Would you visit Chernobyl? (I kind of want to. Is that awful?)
Further Reading: Chernobyl:
The Real Story – Richard F. Mould
Chernobyl: The Long Shadow – Chris C. Park
Chernobyl: Insight From the Inside – V. M. Chernousenko
ALSO, go look through this and this! It’s where I got all the pictures from, and there are WAY more creepy old toys, an abandoned Ferris wheel I can’t stop staring at, and lots of amazing, incredible and heartbreaking photographs. This one too.