The Worst Nuclear Accident in History: Long-lasting Effects of the Chernobyl Disaster
Thirty-three years after the world’s deadliest nuclear accident, Chernobyl remains a ghost town. It’s illegal to live within the confines of the exclusion zone, though you can take guided tours through the abandoned villages. Scientists estimate that humans won’t be able to live in parts of Chernobyl for at least 20 millennia.
1. The explosion
The worst nuclear power plant accident in history ironically occurred during a safety experiment. A massive power surge caused the meltdown of reactor No. 4 when an inexperienced staff neglected to follow the proper procedure. Extreme heat caused the reactor coolant to vaporize, which burst the vessel.
This resulted in a fire that released the equivalent of 400 times the amount of radiation than was released by the atomic bomb that dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. The fire raged for nine days before it was extinguished, spreading radioactive isotopes all throughout Europe, as the reactor was not encased in an adequate structure to contain an accident.
2. The true death toll is unknown, but estimates put it in the thousands
The official death toll is only 31 people, and at least two people died during the blast. The rest died from acute radiation poisoning, an illness with agonizing symptoms that include dehydration, edema, and bone marrow hemorrhaging. Future cleanup efforts would lead to several developing other life-threatening afflictions.
But the surrounding area is still reeling from the accident, as thyroid cancer and leukemia rates are abnormally high. The World Health Organization put the figure of deaths caused by the disaster at 4,000. The UN now estimates that the number of deaths attributed to the disaster will climb to 9,000 before it’s through claiming lives. Other organizations contest that the final tally will be much higher.
3. Officials botched the evacuation
At 5 a.m. on April 26, 1986, Mikail Gorbachev, the most powerful man in the Soviet Union, was awakened by a phone call. The General Secretary was told there had been an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. There was no need for great concern, however, because the reactor had not been damaged by the blast, nor the resulting fire that was still burning.
Scared to take responsibility for the incident, it would be at least three more hours before officials would declare the reactor dead and face the realization that radiation was spreading rapidly. A special commission began brainstorming and debating the best way to put out the fire: Water would likely intensify a nuclear fire? Sand was the better option, but how could they approach the reactor?
4. It was 36 hours before the evacuation began
As helicopters carrying fire retardant chemicals approached Chernobyl, three more explosions lit up the night sky. It was now at 9 p.m.; almost 18 hours after the first explosion. The winds picked up, spreading dangerous levels of radioactivity throughout the worker’s city of Pripyat and beyond.
Soviet officials expressly forbade any workers from contacting friends and family to warn them of the danger.
Soon, however, rumors reached Pripyat (a town of approximately 50,000 people). Eyewitness accounts recall a “metallic smell” in the air, with an increased presence of police and military personnel with gas masks, and workers wearing protective gear spraying the streets with a foamy chemical substance.
5. Most workers and soldiers were kept in the dark until they arrived
When “liquidators” (those tasked with decontaminating the area), policemen, and soldiers were ordered to the train station, they had no idea why they had been called there. Firemen were sent to extinguish fires and clean up radioactive material, while policemen and soldiers had to shoot any animals in the area to try and stop the spread of radiation.
In Voices from Chernobyl, one responder describes a worker protesting. The worker, in turn, was told that he’d face a military tribunal and be jailed or shot if he refused to participate. However, he recalls most of the responders being excited and eager to enter the exclusion zone.
6. Families left their homes, never to return
In the days following the explosion, thousands of people in the worker’s city of Pripyat and the surrounding area were forcibly evacuated. They were told they would be able to return to their homes in a matter of days. This proved to be a lie, however. Most of these individuals would never step foot in their homes again.
Most of these people were evacuated into nearby provinces like Kyiv Oblast, and many wound up in a nearby spa resort. Imagine being packed on crowded buses with your family and thousands of others, fleeing the horrifying effects of nuclear fallout and ending up in a spa resort of all places.
7. Radiation spread thousands of kilometers
The blast and fire carried radiation in the smoke, and radioactive particles from Chernobyl were found as far away as Norway. The forest of Chernobyl (what would become part of the exclusion zone) was dubbed the “Red Forest” because of the ginger-colored stains from radiation that were left on tree trunks. The spread of radiation was so great, in fact, that it set off radiation sensor alarms at a power plant in Sweden, approximately 1,000 kilometers from Chernobyl.
In present-day Chernobyl, the radiation levels in the air of the exclusion zone are little cause for concern, but the soil still shows high levels of radioactive isotopes in contaminated areas. The radiation is absorbed by plants and fungi and passed up the food chain to animals.
8. The disaster exposed the government’s corruption
The disaster at Chernobyl dealt a weakening blow to people’s confidence in the USSR. When Mikhail Gorbachev was unanimously elected by the Politburo in 1985, he was seen as a welcome change from his predecessor, Konstantin Chernenko. Where Chernenko and his predecessors would forbid debate on certain subjects, Gorbachev was much more permitting.
When the incident at Chernobyl occurred and details about the extent of the disaster began to surface, many became increasingly disillusioned with the government. Empowered by the loosened restrictions around public dissent, grassroots movements began to spring up around the country. Led by educated people like scientists, doctors, and writers, these movements proved to be a thorn in the side of Soviet politicians.
9. People became disillusioned by the deception
More and more lies were exposed. A particularly appalling example was the Soviet government’s insistence that radiation levels in the area were no longer a concern, demanding that a children’s May Day parade take place in Kiev as planned. To the horror of many, it was later revealed that some of the party’s elite had their children safely flown out of the area. The rest of the children marched under radioactive rain.
The USSR’s failure and deception regarding Chernobyl cast doubts on the effectiveness of Gorbachev’s reformist ideals. The incident, coupled with food shortages and economic strain on Ukraine due to the ongoing occupation of Afghanistan inspired a growing movement for Ukrainian independence.
10. Containment following the incident
Radiation containment involved sealing off Reactor 4 in a concrete sarcophagus. The large concrete structure was built separately and brought to its location to minimize worker’s exposure to the toxic environment. The aging sarcophagus was recently upgraded in 2018. This set off a chain reaction in the field of nuclear safety that echoed throughout the world.
Lev Klotz was one of Chernobyl’s “liquidators,” or those who were sent in after the disaster to contain the damage. He lost his hair and teeth by the time he turned 22. Klotz was given several medals for his bravery after saving two comrades who would have perished without his help. Unfortunately, the men later died from illnesses likely brought on by exposure to radiation.
“I think that maybe if I hadn’t saved them then, they would have died immediately, without suffering so much,” Klotz told The Times of Israel.
11. Construction of the sarcophagus
In the photo below, Liquidator Georgi Reichtmann measures radiation levels about 40 meters beneath reactor four. Reichtmann coordinated the construction of the concrete sarcophagus that contained the melted reactor. In what has been called one of the most difficult construction projects ever undertaken, a tunnel had to be built underneath the reactor to install a large concrete slab.
Remote-operated cranes had to lift in large slabs of concrete to seal off the reactor. Extremely high levels of radiation made it impossible to thoroughly inspect the integrity of the site. Following the explosion, workers rushed through construction, completing the project in seven months. The sarcophagus underwent a much-needed re-fortification from 2015 to 2018.
12. Liquidation was extremely dangerous
Workers tried to use remote-controlled bulldozers and other machines during the cleanup efforts, but they proved to be too inaccurate for precise jobs. This meant that liquidators had to be sent in to do the bulk of the work, braving irradiation and the potential collapse of weakened structures.
On the roof of the reactor, liquidators were only supposed to linger for 60 seconds at a time. They would rush in pairs, shoveling a chunk of debris and carrying it out before sirens blared to announce the time limit had been reached. One trip to the roof would be the maximum amount of radiation a human should endure in a lifetime.
13. Heroism in Chernobyl
The story around the Chernobyl disaster is one of the arrogance of leaders and the sycophancy of those unwilling to challenge them. But it is also a story of bravery and compassion. Many workers and responders faced certain death, at times a slow and agonizing one, to seal off the contaminated area to stop the spread of the deadly poison.
In one such story, a team of divers was sent into flooded corridors under the burning reactor to drain a water tank, which they were worried would react with the hot radiated material burning through the floor above. The team was protected only by diving gear and breathing apparatuses. Miraculously, they survived without significant injury or radiation poisoning. The tense story is dramatized on an episode of the popular HBO series Chernobyl.
14. Liquidators faced many risks
After cleanup operations ended on the third reactor, three men were ordered to place a red flag atop a nearby chimney to signal the completion of the task. The men risked exposure to concentrated radiation levels, so they had to move quickly: The longer they took, the greater the exposure.
The three men hurried up the 78-meter spiral staircase: Alexander Sotnikov carrying the radio, Alexander Yourtchenko holding the flagpole, and Valeri Starodoumov carrying the flag.
The mission took 9 minutes. Sonikov, Yourtchenko, and Starodoumov were each rewarded with a day off and a bottle of Pepsi. Alexander Yourtchenko later developed cancer.
15. More tragedies occurred during cleanup efforts
An MI-8 helicopter on a similar mission to place a flag atop one of the reactors crashed, killing the crew. Footage that was released after the fall of the Soviet Union shows the helicopter blade strike one of the cranes above the reactor. The military bird then stalls before plummeting to the ground.
There is a monument at Chernobyl dedicated to the men who perished during the crash. It represents a helicopter blade, the only piece of debris that survived the crash. The other helicopters that were used during cleanup were so irradiated that they had to be retired from use. After being stored away for years, they were eventually destroyed.
16. The Soviet Union enlisted the help of an American physician
Robert Peter Gale, pictured in the left forefront on the photograph below, is an American medical scientist and physician who was asked by the Soviet Union to provide medical assistance to workers affected by radiation. Gayle and his colleague Armand Hammer performed 12 bone marrow transplants on injured patients in Chernobyl. Two of these transplants were successful.
The man on the right of the photograph was a mechanic at Chernobyl during the disaster. He suffered a near-fatal dose of radiation. Gale was able to save him with a bone marrow transplant. Here the two meet in Kiev, Ukraine seven years after the operation.
17. Increased rate of birth defects
Many of these stories have decidedly less-positive outcomes. Such is the case with Alexander Malish, who spent four and a half months helping with containment efforts in the contaminated zone. Sadly, both his children were born with heart defects; his youngest needed open heart surgery to correct the condition.
The areas surrounding Chernobyl witnessed a spike in the number of children born with various forms of birth defects. These include stunted growth as well as numerous neurological and cardiovascular conditions. A non-profit organization called Chernobyl Children International provides care to disabled children in Belarus, the city that neighbors Chernobyl and received a large amount of fallout from the disaster.
18. What are the long-term effects of radiation exposure?
The science regarding long-term radiation effects are still being debated. Some studies have shown people that have lived in low contamination areas for decades after the disaster were only subjected to levels of radiation similar to what you’d expect from a CAT scan. Greenpeace, on the other hand, drew conclusions that were in stark contrast to those findings.
The environmental advocacy group argues that children in the area have exhibited higher levels of problems with their respiratory, digestive, and immune systems. These conclusions were echoed by a study performed by the European Union, which found that 81 percent of children surveyed had weak cardiovascular muscles.
19. Parts of Chernobyl are still very dangerous
Despite the fact that you can visit the ghost city on a guided tour, there are many parts that are still off-limits to humans and likely will remain that way for some time. In fact, the “Elephant’s Foot,” a two meter-lump of molten corium that weighs hundreds of tons is so radioactive that simply standing near it for 300 seconds is enough to kill you.
The temperature of the molten lava made from the melted core of the reactor is still a few degrees hotter than the area around it. For years after the disaster, gases emanating from the blob would cause spikes in the radiation levels in the exclusion zone, and can likely be blamed for increased rates of livestock born with deformities.
20. Some people live there anyway
Despite the obvious dangers (and the fact that it’s illegal to inhabit the area), a small portion of mostly elderly people that lived there before the disaster has moved back to live out the third act of their lives in their hometown. Others have moved there fleeing the political turmoil in the nearby region.
“Radiation may kill us slowly, but it doesn’t shoot or bomb us,” Maryna Kovalenko, a recent transplant to the exclusion zone told BBC news. “It’s better to live with radiation than with war.”
People in the ghost city have access to gas and electricity but not running water; water from the wells has to be boiled before it can be consumed. The area is oddly beautiful, as it has remained relatively undisturbed by human intervention for years. Wildlife has returned and is thriving.
21. Secrecy remains an obstacle when studying the effects of the disaster
Many facts regarding Chernobyl’s lasting effects are kept secret in the neighboring country of Belarus. This was one of the areas most affected by the disaster and a country that is often referred to as Europe’s “one remaining dictatorship.” Decades ago, 70 percent of the radioactive material that was released into the air during the explosion and fire ended up in Belarus.
Cancer and diabetes are prevalent in the town of Sudvoko, Belarus, and many of the schoolchildren are unable to exert themselves during physical education classes. While levels radioactive isotopes have decreased considerably throughout Belarus, it’s suspected they remain highly concentrated economically depressed sectors like Sudvoko.
22. Animals in Chernobyl
Chernobyl has become of special interest to scientists and researchers, who have the unique opportunity to study both the effects of radiation on plants and animals and how wildlife behaves in a place that humans no longer inhabit. Some of the findings are shocking. Motion-sensing camera traps have captured images of brown bears and Eurasian lynxes. Both had not been observed in the area for nearly a century, long before the Chernobyl disaster.
Wolf populations are greater in the exclusion zone than in the surrounding areas. The population of the critically endangered Przewalski’s horse brought in to the area by researchers, has steadily increased.
Many individual species appear to have shorter lifespans due to the radiation, but this doesn’t seem to affect their populations as a whole.
23. Stray dogs rule the exclusion zone
Families were forced to abandon their beloved pets during the evacuation. Heartbreakingly, survivors recall dogs whining and barking after the buses as they were left behind. Shortly after the exodus, soldiers were sent in to kill any animals they could find in the area; pets were shown no mercy. Now, animal life has returned to Chernobyl, much to the surprise of biologists.
Their rationale was that they needed to stop the spread of radiation to the outside area. If you take a tour of Chernobyl, you’ll be greeted by scores of stray dogs and puppies. These are the descendants of the pets that survived.
24. Who was deemed responsible for the disaster?
Viktor Bryoukhanov was the director at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant when the disaster occurred. He was given a 10-year prison term for his role in the incident, though his sentence was commuted to hard labor in correctional colonies. He only served five years due to health issues. As was the case in the overall cover-up of the incident, blame was thrown in every direction.
Him, Anatoly Dyatlov, and Nikolai Fomin, all maintained their innocence throughout the trial and afterward, alleging that they were merely scapegoats for Soviet technology that failed and caused the disaster. Each was found guilty and sentenced to either prison or hard labor.
25. What happened to Dyatlov, Fomin, and Bryoukhanov?
Dyatlov suffered a dose of radiation that nearly killed him during the explosion. He died of heart failure shortly after his release in 1995. Fomin survived a suicide attempt during the trial, and no one knows for certain what happened to him after his release from a mental institution following a year served in prison.
Viktor Bryoukhanov has spoken out in recent years, alleging that many of the true causes and circumstances involving the disaster were kept secret by the USSR, and remain hidden by the current Russian government. He told Russia’s Profil magazine “It was a tissue of lies that distracted us from the search for the real causes of the accident.”
26. There was another fire in 1991
It may surprise you that the Chernobyl power plant did not close down until years after the 1986 disaster. Only reactor four, the one that melted down and caused the explosion, was shut down. They stopped the planned construction of reactors five and six but kept reactors one, two, and three remained in operation. In October of 1991, a fire broke out at reactor number two, caused by a faulty switch.
Fortunately, this time there was no radioactive leak. Because the control room was contained, there was no radioactive release, and the accident had little impact. The remaining two reactors were finally shut down due to mounting international outcry in 1996 and 2000.
27. Chernobyl is still in the decommissioning process
Closing down the plant is the easy part; decommissioning a plant takes time. While the reactors are no longer supplying power, in order to be decommissioned they must be completely disassembled and decontaminated. Removing the uranium rods from the center of the reactor is an especially daunting task. Not only do the parts have to be taken apart, but all the waste must also be disposed of properly. Facilities need to be built to store the waste.
Of course, the process is also very expensive. The cost of decommissioning the plant combined with energy shortage and economic instability in the Soviet Union are two of the main reasons why the plant stayed open for so long following the 1986 and 1991 incidents.
28. Wildfires in Chernobyl are fairly common and pose a serious threat
Ordinarily, controlled fires are implemented to burn off the fossil fuels that accumulate in old trees, brush, and debris that gather in forests. In the irradiated “Red Forest” this is problematic.
Radioactive material is absorbed by plants and fungi through the soil. When fire consumes them, it releases radiation through the smoke, which carries for miles.
Fires are often caused by vandals and vagrants in the exclusion zone. As the earth’s climate continues to warm, wildfires are an increasing threat to public safety. Scientists worry that Chernobyl could become the site of another radioactive disaster if a large enough section of the forest were to become engulfed in flame, but there’s no easy solution to the problem.
29. Chernobyl made other countries review the safety of their own power plants
The explosion in Chernobyl occurred while workers on the power plant were experimenting with a new coolant for their reactors. This required shutting down the power to simulate a power outage. The experiment would later be compared to “airplane pilots experimenting with the engines in flight,” by Soviet chemist Valery Legasov.
Following the disaster, as more details became apparent, the United States began assessing the reasons behind the incident, and what changes would need to be implemented to prevent a similar disaster. The reasons for the incident and its severity involved the poor design of the reactor; specifically the lack of a sufficient containment structure surrounding it, the failure of operating procedures that led to a delay in taking the necessary steps to reduce harm immediately following the explosion, incompetent staff management, and insufficient safety backup systems.
30. Chernobyl tourism has spiked recently
Today, you can tour parts of Chernobyl’s exclusion zone, take photographs of the eerie abandoned Ferris wheel, greet the stray dogs in the streets, and visit the abandoned schools in Pripyat. It’s safe enough to visit because the tours avoid the highly contaminated areas and most of the radioactivity that remains is stored in the soil. Still, visitors must pass through checkpoints that test for radioactivity when touring the exclusion zone.
The HBO series Chernobyl seems to have inspired a renewed interest in the area and its history, leading to a spike in tourism. If you decide to visit, you’re encouraged to remember that it’s the site of a horrific tragedy and show respect to the thousands who lost their lives. “Comport yourselves with respect for all who suffered and sacrificed,” said Craig Mazin, creator of the Chernobyl series.