“The world has already been overwhelmed by one Chernobyl and one exclusion zone. It cannot afford any more. It must learn its lessons from what happened in and around Chernobyl on April 26, 1986.”
– Serhii Plokhy, Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe
The 26th April 1986 is a date that the world will never forget, the date that the nuclear reactor in the Chernobyl power plant in the former USSR exploded causing huge amounts of poisonous radiation to leak into the atmosphere.
In a horrible twist of events, the explosion occurred ironically during the execution of a safety test at reactor no. 4.
The test was a simulation of an electrical power outage, to develop a safety procedure for keeping reactor cooling water circulating until the emergency generators could provide power. Three identical tests had previously been conducted but had failed to solve the problem. On this fourth occasion, the test had been delayed by ten hours and the reactor operating shift that had prepared for the test procedure was replaced by the next shift who were unprepared. The test supervisor then failed to follow the test procedure, creating unstable operating conditions which, combined with inherent reactor design flaws and the disabling of several emergency safety systems, resulted in an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction. A huge amount of energy was suddenly released, which vapourised superheated cooling water, rupturing the reactor pressure vessel in a highly destructive steam explosion, which was instantly followed by an open-air reactor core fire.
The immediate damage caused by the immediate explosion was nothing compared to the long term ramifications, both in terms of human cost and politics. Cancer rates sored in the surrounding areas in the years after the disaster. The Soviet President at the time, Mikhail Gorbachev, has subsequently said that it was the Chernobyl disaster more than anything else that brought about the downfall of the Soviet Union.
The Nuclear Power Plant at Chernobyl was a great source of pride for the Soviet Union. Completed in September 1977, it consisted of four RBMK-1000 reactors, and at the time of the explosion supplied 10% of Ukraine’s electricity. The city of Pripyat (now completely abandoned) was built to serve the nearby power plant. Its population had grown to almost 50,000 at the time of the disaster.
10 facts you may not know about the Chernobyl disaster
1. According to official Soviet figures, the death toll of the Chernobyl disaster is still recorded as 31, which is the number of people who lost their lives on the night of the explosion. The more realistic death toll has been estimated at anywhere from 4,000 – 90,000 people.
2. Amazingly, the evacuation of Pripyat and the surrounding area was only ordered approximately 36 hours after the disaster. An estimated 50,000 people were evacuated from Pripyat, including 17,000 children. As well trains, over 1,000 buses were sent to transport them to a safe zone. They were told that the evacuation would only last 3 days, but most of them were never to return to their homes again.
3. Chernobyl, Pripyat, and a lot of the surrounding area are now known as the Zone of Alienation or the Exclusion Zone. It is still illegal to live there.
4. The area around Chernobyl became known as the Red Forest because of all the dead trees. Immediately after the explosion, they all turned bright red, colour. They were eventually bulldozed and buried.
5. Although it’s still illegal to live in the exclusion zone, people have moved back there. It is estimated that 130-150 people live there – many of them still farming their family’s land. Life there is pretty grim – there are no schools or health care, and it is still very radioactive and a dangerous place to live.
6. There are thousands of stray dogs and cats still living in the woods of Chernobyl and the Exclusion Zone. When the area was evacuated, many of the pets that were left behind were shot by workers – known as “liquidators” – in an attempt to prevent the spread of radiation contamination. However, some survived and their descendants now live there as strays. Sadly, these animals will have a much-shortened life expectancy due to the radiation.
7. Those drawn by the macabre can now visit the Exclusion Zone. Tourism there has recently increased by 40% due to the HBO series Chernobyl. Sites that you will see today include a school canteen filled with discarded gas masks and an abandoned amusement park in Pripyat.
8. Soon after the accident Reactor no. 4 was covered by a huge concrete sarcophagus. The sarcophagus was supposed to be a temporary solution but was only replaced 25 years later with more solid steel construction. Despite this, there is still some debate as to how effective the container is and how it will be in the future.
9. The cost of dealing with the fall out of the disaster almost completely bankrupted the USSR. The immediate containment and decontamination of the site and surround areas cost around £32.5 billion in today’s money (to date, almost £237.8 billion has been spent). Another significant economic impact at the time was the removal of 784,320 ha (1,938,100 acres) of agricultural land and 694,200 ha (1,715,000 acres) of forest from production. While much of this has been returned to use, agricultural production costs have risen due to the need for special cultivation techniques, fertilizers and additives. Politically it caused the USSR to make Glasnost a great priority and forged closer ties with the USA through the need for bio-scientific cooperation as a result of the disaster. Gorbechov has since said that Chernobyl was the biggest cause of the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
10. Finally, the area around Chernobyl won’t be safe for humans to inhabit for at least 20,000 years.