Chernobyl at 30: The nuclear disaster that shook the world

Max Gwynne

Stefan Krasowski/Flickr

April 26th marked the 30th anniversary of one of the greatest technological disasters the world has ever seen. At 1:23am, on the morning of April 26th 1986, a huge explosion ripped reactor four of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power plant apart. Released from the plant, situated in northern Ukraine, was roughly fifty million curies of radioactivity; a large portion of which landed on Belarus and heavy winds blew vast amounts of radioactive dust westward covering roughly thirty-seven percent of Europe.

Whilst theories concerning why the plant exploded varied, the real reason was little more than a simple freak accident. Just seconds after the operators at the plant begun the twenty second shut down system, they were hit by a power surge. The result was a chemical explosion that literally tore the one thousand tonne roof clean off of the reactor. The workers and the government had not planned for such an incident, that much is certain. As a result the event unleashed a complex web of events, and both short-term and long-term difficulties, such as massive relocation, loss of economic stability and of course long term threats to health in past, current and inevitably future generations. Thirty years on and one in five citizens of Belarus lives within the still contaminated zone (that is roughly 2.1 million people prone to radioactivity).

Radioactive poisoning remains one of both Ukraine’s and Belarus’ leading causes of death, and in many provinces it is killing people faster than the people can procreate. Before the event the rate of cancer in the area was 82 in 100’00, the current rate is 6’000 in 100’000 (an almost 74% increase!). The actual death toll is disputed. The UN supported ‘Chernobyl Forum’ believes it to be less than 50 (most of those of which where workers at the plant) that died in the initial explosion. But death relating to the exposure of prolonged radiation is well over 9000, but to be accurate is a challenge.

Pripyat, the city Chernobyl resides within and which was built to house the workers of the plant in 1970, is a ghost town; a land of barbed wire, discoloured flora and fungi, empty deteriorated buildings and graveyards. The city is heavily overgrown and large parts of it have been reclaimed by nature, everything has been destroyed, the streets now a forest. Wild and animals roam the streets. The likes of wolves, feral dogs and abandoned livestock patrol the empty streets and buildings. The whole city is stuck in a haunting 1980s Soviet style; a living museum. The Soviet Palace of Culture, the home of the iconic Ferris wheel you see in pictures of the city, lies in gaunt silence. Old Soviet murals remain, but heavily chipped and faded.

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Stefan Krasowski/Flickr

The reactor itself has been covered and workers remain at the base of operations within the city that deals with the continued clean up of the plant (an operation that, as of early April 2016, drains roughly one-fifth of Ukraine’s budget expenses on defence and security). Because of the still heavily contaminated zone, workers are very limited on how long they are able to work for.

A new underground radioactive storage facility is in the process of being built, yet Ukraine still need ten million Euros for its completion. A new protective cover is also in the process of being built, the 25 tonne sarcophagus, when complete, will cover the reactor entombing it to prevent future leaks as experts fear a collapse of the reactor would further spew atomic waste into the atmosphere causing yet another disaster.

Somewhat surprisingly, some people still live on the very outskirts of the city, with a select few choosing to live even within the 19 mile exclusion zone radius the government set up. Anyone encountered within the area without authorised access is instantly arrested. The zone is outright illegal to be in (unless you are authorised), in order to stop the spread of radioactive material. Many children are still being born with defects caused by the radioactivity, a point authorities refused to believe as linkable to the radiation from the plant. The understanding of what radiation could do was little know, the authorities were in denial about the effects of radiation poisoning and in the days after the explosion all books on radiation and its effects mysteriously vanished from public libraries. The lack of information the public had led many to continue living their lives, despite being within the contaminated zone, through the days, weeks and months afterwards as though they were just like any other. In their hindsight, the lack of a government response shook the people too. In fact, the Soviet authorities were attempting to cover up the event and considerably downplaying the dangers to the local population. Failure and disaster were not options in the Soviet Union. Anyone caught warning the people were thought to be western scaremongers and subsequently ridiculed, threatened with imprisonment and in some cases were in fact incarcerated.

In order to really understand the human and emotional toll the event had on the people that lived there, and have been affected by the event, it is fully advised to everyone to read Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel Prize winning book ‘Chernobyl Prayer’. It serves as one of the best collections of oral testimonies of the people affected by the event that has been written. Whilst it is a haunting and emotional read, it is an incredibly enlightening one. It tells the tales of the wives of plant workers whose husbands both literally and figuratively fell apart, the farmers whose land, crops and livestock have all been completely ruined, the returnees who have come back to their wasteland city, the exiles fleeing war in search for somewhere, anywhere they can live, the soldiers forced into the contamination zone to clean the area with little or no protection. Alexievich’s book is a rare thing, as there seems to be an inherent lack of books surrounding the Chernobyl disaster. Thus, we must treasure such accounts. We simply must learn from this event if we are to prevent such things happening in the future.

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Stefan Krasowski/Flickr

So what can we learn from Chernobyl? Well, ultimately we must take away the great problem with harnessing nuclear power for civilian purposes and the incredible risks it runs. If things go wrong as is obvious with Chernobyl, and Fukishima in 2011, they can go very, very wrong. The risk being run is extremely high and should a reactor explosion occur we are looking at a sizeable area suffering the consequences. It is unquestionably vital that governments and international organisations study these case examples of when things go wrong. How can we prevent such things in the future? Sadly, few governments have heeded the call of organisations such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) that demand an end of such power plants which are continuing to pursue the nuclear option instead of looking towards other energy providing options.

The second lesson is that this should not be viewed as merely an Eastern European disaster, as it so often is, but rather a global one. The plan and actions to help clean up Pripyat and the affected areas has received nowhere near enough financial support or attention from the world. Why is it that the UN is not helping in its humanitarian aid? Why are we all not helping the countries of Belarus and Ukraine in this fight? The international community’s aid to date has been, quite frankly, insufficient.

In the final analysis, Chernobyl stands as the case study example of the risk we run when we use and support nuclear power. All of us, especially Ukraine who are currently pushing themselves behind the power-producing capabilities of its nuclear plants, must not forget tragedies such as these. It is time for us to leave nuclear power behind in search and pursuit of cleaner, more sustainable energy forms. Not only for our futures and our children’s futures, but to honour those we have lost in this world to the pursuit of this dangerous nuclear obsession. The Chernobyl disaster stands as a serious lesson for all mankind, one that must not be forgotten if we are to prevent such tragedies from happening again.

About Max Gwynne 4 Articles
Max is a graduate of History and International Relations and currently looking to do a Masters Degree in IR. His particular areas interest include British and American Political History and hopes to one day write a book (or several) on his political inspiration, US President John F. Kennedy. Follow Max on Twitter @MPG23
  • First of all JFK is the man. If you ever write a book about him then I want to read it. Great leader. Terrible husband.

    As for the article it was very well written and I very much enjoyed reading it. However I do not entirely agree with your conclusions. Despite it’s problems nuclear power actually has a pretty good safety history. The problem of course is when something goes wrong with nuclear power it tends to be catastrophic. That said proportionately more people are killed by coal mining (and the terrible smog burning coal makes) than are killed by nuclear power. One of my favourite environmentalists James Lovelock is heavily in favour of nuclear power, since it produces carbon free power for around 50 years with modern reactors. In fact some accidents have shown how well safety measures can work. Three Mile Island was a nuclear melt down, the ultimate Armageddon of nuclear accidents and yet amazingly now one died. As for Fukushima it has been proven that the company that run it was heavily corrupt and taking liberties with safety.

    As for Chernobyl a part of the accident’s origins come from the Cold War. In an effort to try and beat the US at science the Soviet Union had been running the reactors at full speed and experimenting with them. All with the safety measures off. There was no coolant or control rods in the reactor (like having a break and a handbreak off) meaning that an accident was inevitable. To add to that the nuclear workers were working stupidly long hours. To my mind this is an argument to spare no expense at making sure nuclear power is safe, not for banning nuclear power wholesale. I recommend you look at the group Environmentalists for Nuclear Power.