Featured image: The abandoned city of Pripyat, with the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant visible in the distance.
Sunday, 29 April 2018, Moscow, Russia – 32 years ago, on 26 April 1986, the worst nuclear disaster in human history occurred, at Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl power plant in the Ukrainian SSR. The disaster resulted in the immediate deaths of 50 scientists, the evacuation of around 120,000 people, and the radioactive contamination of the surrounding area for at least the next 100,000 years.
The disaster began during a routine late-night systems test. During this test, the reactor was affected by an unexpected power surge. When the scientists attempted an emergency shutdown of the reactor, an even larger power surge was caused instead. This even larger power surge caused the reactor vessel to rupture, causing a series of steam explosions. At this point, the reactor’s graphite moderator was exposed to the air, causing it to ignite. For the next 10 days, this fire would send a massive plume of radioactive fallout into the atmosphere. The plume drifted over large parts of the western Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and would eventually circle the entire world.
Evacuations followed shortly thereafter. A translated excerpt of the evacuation announcements:
“For the attention of the residents of Pripyat! The City Council informs you that due to the accident at Chernobyl Power Station in the city of Pripyat the radioactive conditions in the vicinity are deteriorating. The Communist Party, its officials and the armed forces are taking necessary steps to combat this. Nevertheless, with the view to keep people as safe and healthy as possible, the children being top priority, we need to temporarily evacuate the citizens in the nearest towns of Kiev region. For these reasons, starting from April 27, 1986 2 pm each apartment block will be able to have a bus at its disposal, supervised by the police and the city officials. It is highly advisable to take your documents, some vital personal belongings and a certain amount of food, just in case, with you. The senior executives of public and industrial facilities of the city has decided on the list of employees needed to stay in Pripyat to maintain these facilities in a good working order. All the houses will be guarded by the police during the evacuation period. Comrades, leaving your residences temporarily please make sure you have turned off the lights, electrical equipment and water and shut the windows. Please keep calm and orderly in the process of this short-term evacuation.”
As you can tell from the announcement, the Soviet government is trying to downplay the severity of the accident, stressing the fact that the evacuation is “temporary” and “short-term”.
Initially, the Soviet government did not publicly acknowledge the accident. They had been evacuating people from the surrounding area, but they initially attempted to keep it secret for the first few days. As we all know, trying to keep the worst nuclear disaster in human history a secret is, quite frankly, impossible. Five days later, on 28 April, radiation levels set off alarms at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden, over 1,000 km away from Chernobyl. It was determined that the radiation had originated from Chernobyl, and the Swedish government contacted the Soviet government for information. The Soviet government, of course, denied being the source of the radiation. In response, the Swedish government filed a report with the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA). Finally, an announcement was made on the Soviet news programme Vremya:
“There has been an accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. One of the nuclear reactors was damaged. The effects of the accident are being remedied. Assistance has been provided for any affected people. An investigative commission has been set up”.
Yes, that was the entirety of the announcement.
So to sum up the information above, the Soviet government denied the accident at first, and when they finally admitted it, they downplayed the severity of the accident.
5 years later, in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. 15 independent states emerged. The Chernobyl Power Plant is now located in Ukraine, and this new country has inherited the Chernobyl problem from the Soviets.
32 years later, we are still seeing the catastrophic effects of this accident. We strongly recommend checking out this photo montage by the Atlantic, featuring some very powerful pictures of the disaster. If you’d like to learn more about the disaster itself, check out the Chernobyl disaster Wikipedia page.
We also recommend you watch these YouTube videos about the disaster. This video is about the Elephant’s foot, a deadly congealed mass of radioactive waste, and this video by Veritasium features him touring the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
Pripyat and the exclusion zone will not be safe for human habitation for the next 100,000 years, but what we can do now is honour the victims, think about ourselves, and learn not to screw up again in the future.