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The greatest nuclear disaster the Earth has ever known, was worse than Three Mile Island, worse than Japan’s Fukushima. It began innocently enough in the early hours of Saturday 26 April 1986 in northern Ukraine’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
Prior to a routine shutdown of Reactor #4, the crew disabled automatic shutdown mechanisms, leaving the reactor in an extremely unstable condition. Because of a serious design flaw, when the graphite control rods began to be inserted into the nuclear fuel, a dramatic energy surge occurred. The contact of the hot fuel with its surrounding cooling waters lead to a dramatic increase in steam in the reactor chamber. The intense pressure quickly built up and at 1:23am in the morning a massive explosion occurred, blowing the roof off the reactor containment building, and releasing radioactive particles and gases into the local atmosphere.
Just 3 seconds later, a second even larger explosion occurred, blowing out graphite fragments from the reactor core itself.
Two workers died instantly in the explosions. They were the lucky ones. Thirty one deaths are attributed to the two explosions and the subsequent attempts to put out the resulting fire. The casualties included the brave local firefighters who came and fought the fires, standing on the roof of the turbine building, and would succumb to terrible radiation poisoning in the weeks to come. At first, plant managers were in denial that the core itself had exploded and reported to Moscow that radiation levels were negligible.
Most of the radioactivity was deposited within a few kilometers of Chernobyl as dust and debris. But the radioactive plume went on to drift over large parts of the Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and Eastern Europe. Ukraine was still a part of Communist Soviet Union at the time. Only after drifting radiation set off alarms in Sweden 2 days later, over 1000 km away, did the Communist government of the Soviet Union finally publicly admit that an accident had occurred. Only after evacuating the nearby city of Pripyat, was a warning message read on Soviet state TV two days later.
Pripyat was built in 1970, just 4 short km away, to house the employees of Chernobyl and their families. It had grown over the years to a population of 50,000, complete with a football (soccer) stadium and amusement park. The city however was not immediately evacuated after the explosion. The majority of its citizens were unaware of the disaster and went about their usual business. Children played outside, gardeners worked on their gardens, men fished in the river. The black smoke rising from the Power Plant was explained away as a routine steam discharge. Curious residents gathered on rooftops to watch the burning reactor and unknowingly exposed themselves to fatal doses of radiation.
Within hours of the explosion, scores of people began to fall ill, reporting headaches, nausea, coughing and vomiting. By Sunday morning, 1200 buses began arriving in Pripyat in preparation for a full evacuation. The order was finally announced at Noon, over a day and a half later. Residents were asked to carry with them only what would be needed for 2-3 days away from home, some food and a change of clothing. Employees’ dosimeters were all confiscated. By nightfall, the city was empty. No one would live in Pripyat ever again. It now lies within a broad Exclusion Zone and remains eerily abandoned to this day.
The Chernobyl disaster caused the largest uncontrolled radioactive release ever recorded.
Large quantities of radioactive materials were released into the air for the next 10 days. The core’s fire was finally gotten under control by dropping tons of sand mixed with boron from army helicopters. Chunks of radioactive graphite had to be removed from the turbine roof by hand using shovels. Each man was allowed only 90 seconds before their exposure would be fatal. The unsuspecting pilots and all the brave firefighters from Pripyat would suffer from radiation poisoning, many of them dying.
A massive concrete and metal shell, known as the Chernobyl Sarcophagus, was hastily constructed to encase the remains of Unit 4, both as a means to halt the release of radiation and to allow continuing operation of the other 3 functioning reactors. About 200 tons of highly radioactive material still remain buried within.
The “Chernobyl Nuclear Zone of Alienation” is the officially designated exclusion area around the site. Established by the Russian military, it covers the areas worst affected by contamination, an area of 30 km radius evacuated and placed under military control. By May, 116,000 people had been evacuated from the zone. In 1987, the Deputy Chief Engineer on duty that night was found guilty “of criminal mismanagement of potentially explosive enterprises” and sentenced to only 10 years in prison. All of the staff on duty that night died prematurely of radiation poisoning, or later of cancer. The Alienation Zone remains in place to this day.
The effort to contain the contamination and repair the site eventually involved over 500,000 conscripted workers, known as ‘the Liquidators‘ and cost 18 billion Rubles. Unit 2 was shut down in 1991, when Ukraine achieved its independence from Russia, and Unit 1 in 1997. Energy shortages in the Ukraine necessitated the continued operation of Unit 3 until 2000. Almost 6000 people continued to work at the contaminated plant every day till then. The original concrete sarcophagus has since deteriorated and leaked, requiring the construction of an even LARGER megastructure around it. The ‘New Safe Confinement‘ structure resembles a zeppelin hanger and was completed in 2016 at a cost on 2.5 billion euros.
A Russian publication concluded that 985,000 premature cancer deaths occurred across Europe and Asia between 1986 and 2004 as a result of radioactive contamination from Chernobyl. To this day, nearly 5 million people, including more than 1 million children, still live near dangerous levels of radioactive contamination in Belarus and Ukraine. The Exclusion Zone remains one of the most radioactively contaminated areas on planet Earth. Illegal poaching, logging and metal scavenging remain a problem. Other Chernobyl-style RBMK nuclear reactors throughout Russia were grudgingly repaired by the Soviets.
The Pripyat ghost town oddly draws an increased tourist crowd, due to the popularity of a recent and well-made HBO mini-series, entitled Chernobyl. It lies only 63 miles north of the Ukraine capital of Kyiv and there were several licensed tour guides. Until the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, daring visitors were allowed limited tours of the deserted town. Now of course, the future of Chernobyl is once again up in the air.