Chernobyl: People Who Played a Crucial Role in the World's Worst Nuclear Disaster

Chernobyl: People Who Played a Crucial Role in the World's Worst Nuclear Disaster

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When the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station exploded in the early hours of April 26, 1986—precipitating the worst nuclear disaster in history—it resulted almost entirely from human factors.

As the real history of that fateful event continues to be revealed, those factors loom large. Would the Chernobyl explosion, which occurred close to the border between then-Soviet republics of Ukraine and Belarus, have happened if the deputy chief engineer on duty that night wasn’t sleep-deprived? Or if the plant’s administrative head hadn’t succumbed to pressure to cut corners or cover up an earlier accident? How many fewer people would have fallen ill if government officials hadn’t dithered over the question of evacuation? And how much of the broader region might have avoided radioactive fallout if Soviet decision-makers weren’t so steeped in a culture of secrecy and fear? In his new book Midnight In Chernobyl, author Adam Higginbotham reconstructs the catastrophic events through the experiences of the people who lived through it. Here are seven key protagonists at the heart of the tragedy:

Viktor Brukhanov

Director of the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station

Viktor Brukhanov had devoted most of his adult life to the communist dream of bringing electricity to the USSR. Appointed to head the Chernobyl nuclear project when he was just 34 years old—and the site of the future plant was nothing more than a deserted field knee-deep in snow—Brukhanov was soft-spoken and well-liked by his staff, but overworked and brow-beaten by his Communist Party bosses. By the spring of 1986, he was nonetheless on the brink of personal triumph: The Chernobyl plant was among the best-performing nuclear stations in the Soviet Union; and Pripyat, the city he had had built to house the plant workers and their families, stood as a beacon of progress—a magnet for specialists from all over the USSR.

With the approach of the May Day holiday, Brukhanov, now 50, was expecting news of a promotion to Moscow, along with state awards for the plant—despite being forced to cut corners and cook the books to meet quotas, and having helped cover up a serious plant accident in 1982. A year later, Brukhanov had also signed off on the launch of the station’s newest and most advanced reactor, Reactor Unit No. 4, even though a key required safety test hadn’t been carried out. When the test was rescheduled to take place during a regular maintenance shutdown of the reactor on April 25, 1986, Brukhanov’s deputy—a Party loyalist who had learned what little he knew of nuclear physics from a correspondence course—didn’t even bother to tell his boss it was happening.

As the administrative head of the entire Chernobyl enterprise, Brukhanov would be held personally responsible for anything that went wrong at the plant. When he first glimpsed the scale of the destruction of Unit Four, his first thought was: “I’m going to prison.”

READ MORE: 8 Things You May Not Know About Chernobyl

Anatoly Dyatlov

Deputy chief engineer for operations at the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station

One of the most experienced nuclear engineers at the Chernobyl station, Anatoly Dyatlov had arrived in Ukraine from the top-secret Laboratory 23 in the Soviet Far East, where he had overseen a team installing reactors in the USSR’s growing fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. But the manner Dyatlov had developed while working at the military laboratory didn’t endear him to the young civilian staff of the nuclear power plant. They found the gray-haired Siberian harsh and dictatorial. And although Chernobyl workers respected him for the depth of his knowledge, many feared or even detested him, his insistence that they unquestioningly follow his orders to the letter and the power he wielded to punish those who disobeyed him.

On the night of the accident, Dyatlov was responsible for overseeing the long-overdue safety test on Reactor No. 4. By the time it finally began, in the small hours of April 26, he was sleep-deprived and as ill-tempered as ever. When the young reactor engineer, Leonid Toptunov, made a mistake soon after taking over at the controls on the midnight shift, Dyatlov insisted on continuing with the test—even though Toptunov, and safety protocols, suggested otherwise.

Leonid Toptunov

Senior Reactor Control Engineer, Fifth Shift, Reactor No. 4

A graduate of the Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute—the esteemed Soviet counterpart to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—Toptunov was just 25 years old when he took the controls of Reactor No. 4 on the night of the accident. Well-trained, independent-minded and something of a ladies’ man, the mustachioed Toptunov—Lenya to his friends—had written his graduate thesis on fine points of reactor physics and knew that under certain circumstances the equipment under his control could be capricious and difficult to master. But he had also been a senior reactor operator for just two months and had never before piloted the reactor through the difficult shutdown process before. He was unaware of the numerous design faults that made accidents not merely possible, but likely, during the normal course of operation.

A series of crucial missteps ensued, any one of which would not in themselves have caused a disaster. But in this case, they fell together in a deadly confluence.

Before the ill-fated test began, Toptunov somehow skipped a step in the process of assuming control of the reactor, accidentally allowing its power output to fall almost to nothing. His training suggested he shut the reactor down, ending the important test before it had even begun. But Anatoly Dyatlov, the senior manager in the room, threatened Toptunov, forcing him to increase the reactor’s power toward the level required for the test. That decision made it susceptible to “reactor runaway,” a terrifying process that, in a split second, could lead to a core meltdown or explosion. At the end of the test, which lasted just 36 seconds, Toptunov pressed the shut-down button of the emergency safety system—the system vulnerable to the most serious of the reactor’s design faults—inadvertently precipitating its destruction. The resulting power surge inside the core led to a pair of explosions that blew the massive concrete lid off the reactor and destroyed the roof and upper reaches of the building around it.

READ MORE: Chernobyl Timeline: How a Nuclear Accident Escalated to a Historic Disaster

Valery Legasov

First deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, Moscow

A happily married father of two grown children, Valery Legasov was 49 years old at the time of the accident and approaching the pinnacle of his career at the top of the Soviet scientific establishment. He had won all but one of the state’s most prestigious prizes for his work and expected to be appointed head of the Institute of Atomic Energy as soon as his boss and mentor, the octogenarian nuclear chief Anatoly Aleksandrov, retired. The son of a leading Party ideologue, Legasov was a true believer in communism and politically beyond reproach. Living in a grand villa a short walk from his office at the Institute, he was also a keen athlete who skied, played tennis and wrote poetry in his spare time.

He learned that an accident had occurred at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine during a regular Party meeting on the morning of Saturday April 26. A radiochemistry specialist, he knew little about nuclear reactors, but was ordered to join a government commission, flown to the scene to take control of the emergency and immediately put in charge of containing the consequences of the explosion.

What Legasov witnessed in Chernobyl would change the course of his life: The chaos and incompetence he saw shook his confidence in socialism. The radiation dose he received shattered his health. And his subsequent attempts to reform the Soviet scientific system destroyed his career.

Boris Scherbina

Deputy chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers; chairman of the government commission in Chernobyl

A grizzled apparatchik at the head of the USSR’s fuel and energy industries, Scherbina was preparing to give a speech to workers in an oil field near the border with Kazakhstan when he received an urgent summons from Moscow: to fly to Ukraine to take charge of managing the developing disaster in Chernobyl. At 66—balding, bulldog-faced and sure of himself—the minister was an old hand in the ways of the system, its patterns of absurd quotas and preposterous deadlines. As chairman of the government’s Chernobyl commission, Scherbina was responsible not only for bringing the catastrophe under control but investigating its consequences. Without his approval, nothing could happen inside the Exclusion Zone that soon surrounded the remains of Reactor Number Four.

Arriving on the scene on the evening following the explosion, he projected the brash confidence expected of senior Soviet managers. Not only did he disregard the need for personal radiation protection, but he dismissed calls for immediate evacuation of the city of Pripyat as the wayward opinions of panic-mongering weaklings. It was not until almost 36 hours after a pillar of toxic radionuclides began pouring from the wreckage of the reactor that the city’s residents were finally allowed to leave.

READ MORE: The Chernobyl Coverup: How Officials Botched Evacuating an Irradiated City

Ludmilla Ignatenko

Wife of Sergeant Vasily Ignatenko, member of the third watch, Pripyat city fire station

Arriving in Pripyat in 1979, fresh from school at the age of 16, Ludmilla took a bed in a student dormitory and a job as a pastry chef in the canteen of the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Soon after, she met Vasily Ignatenko, a young fireman at the city’s Paramilitary Fire Station No. 6. Stocky and thick-set, Ignatenko was charming and talkative—and the champion athlete of the brigade, a regular in the competitive firefighting championships held throughout the USSR. The couple married in 1983 and moved into a small one-bedroom flat in the annex above the fire station reserved for members of the brigade and their families. They gathered blueberries and wild mushrooms in the countryside around the city and barbecued in the garden with their friends from the station. Ludmilla became pregnant with twins, but miscarried; by the spring of 1986, she was expecting once again.

On the night of April 25, the couple was planning a visit to Vasily’s parents, who lived in a village across the border in Belarus, to help them plant a crop of potatoes. He had already received a signed permission slip granting him leave beginning at four in the morning of the 26—in time for the first train out of town. But at around 1:30 a.m., Ludmilla heard three trucks preparing to leave from the station, so she called down to her husband from their balcony to ask where they were going. “The nuclear power plant is on fire,” he said. “Go to sleep. I’ll wake you when I get home.” He never returned.

Maria Protsenko

Chief architect of the city of Pripyat

Born to Sino-Russian parents in China, raised in the Soviet Union, but excluded from the Communist Party by her foreign birth, Protsenko brought an outsider’s zeal to her work in Pripyat before the accident. Working with scant supplies of precious materials, she imparted beauty and individuality to the standardized buildings of the city. Short but formidable, she patrolled the streets with a ruler, berating construction teams for shoddy workmanship and lashing them with invective as she oversaw plans to expand Pripyat from a town of 50,000 to one of 200,000.

As radiation from the explosion of Reactor No. 4 began to engulf the town, Protsenko was responsible for organizing the evacuation. She planned the escape of every family from each apartment block in Pripyat; and, as more than a thousand buses arrived to take them to safety, she stood at the entrance to the city with a map and gave the drivers instructions on where to go. As the last one departed, Protsenko remained behind, convinced by Party assurances that the citizens would soon return to the homes she had helped build.

Months later, she would still be at her desk in the heart of the newly-created 30-kilometer Exclusion Zone when a KGB officer arrived. His request? To help map a fence intended to permanently seal off the city she helped create from the outside world.

Adam Higginbotham writes for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Wired, GQ and Smithsonian. He is the author of the book Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster.

History Reads features the work prominent authors and historians.


From the 25-year-old with his finger on the wrong button to the grizzled Communist Party apparatchik who thought evacuation was for sissies

When the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station exploded in the early hours of April 26, 1986—precipitating the worst nuclear disaster in history—it resulted almost entirely from human factors.

A view of the Chernobyl Nuclear power plant three days after the explosion. Considered history’s worst nuclear accident, the Chernobyl disaster on April 26, 1986 killed 31 people directly, many due to radiation poisoning during the cleanup. The area around the plant remains so contaminated that it’s officially closed off to human habitation.

As the real history of that fateful event continues to be revealed, those factors loom large. Would the Chernobyl explosion, which occurred close to the border between then-Soviet republics of Ukraine and Belarus, have happened if the deputy chief engineer on duty that night wasn’t sleep-deprived? Or if the plant’s administrative head hadn’t succumbed to pressure to cut corners or cover up an earlier accident? How many fewer people would have fallen ill if government officials hadn’t dithered over the question of evacuation? And how much of the broader region might have avoided radioactive fallout if Soviet decision-makers weren’t so steeped in a culture of secrecy and fear? In his new book Midnight In Chernobyl, author Adam Higginbotham reconstructs the catastrophic events through the experiences of the people who lived through it. Here are seven key protagonists at the heart of the tragedy:

Chernobyl disaster – The world’s worst nuclear explosion

With the development of knowledge and technology, the quality of our civilization is constantly being developed under the magical influence of science. People on Earth are very power-conscious today. People in the present modern world can’t imagine a moment without electricity. But when it comes to generating this electricity, we also have to find resources other than coal or gas, since these energy sources are not renewable. Finding alternatives to these energies was always one of the toughest challenges for the researchers. And from there, the process of generating electricity from nuclear sources was invented.

Chernobyl Disaster, Ukraine

But radioactive substances, commonly used in these nuclear power centers, can cause destructive effects on humans and the environment at the same time. So the proper observation is the most important issue in this matter. Without that, an explosion could result in irreparable damage to this world anytime. An example of such an event is the Chernobyl Disaster or the Chernobyl Explosion that occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, in 1986. Many of us already know less and more about the Chernobyl Disaster that once shocked the world community to the core.

The Chernobyl Disaster:

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Ukraine

The tragedy happened between April 25 and 26, 1986. The place of the incident is the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Center of the Soviet Union which was also known as the Lenin Nuclear Power Center. It was the world’s largest nuclear power plant at the time, and the Chernobyl Explosion is considered as the most damaging nuclear disaster on Earth that ever happened in a nuclear power plant. There were four nuclear reactors at the power center. Each reactor was capable of generating about a thousand megawatts of electricity a day.

The accident occurred mainly in conducting an unplanned nuclear test. It happened due to the negligence by the authority and the lack of experience of the workers and co-workers at the power plant. The test was conducted at reactor No 4. When it was out of control, the operators shut down its power regulatory system, as well as the emergency security system entirely. They had also intercepted the control rods connected to the cores of the reactor tank. But it was still working with almost 7 percent of its power. Due to so many unplanned activities, the reactor’s chain reaction goes to such an intense level that it could no longer be controlled. Therefore, the reactor exploded at around 2:30 o’clock in the night.

Chernobyl Power Plant Reactor Units

Two workers died immediately at the time of the explosion, and the remaining 28 died within a few weeks (more than 50 in the controversy). The most damaging thing, however, is that the radioactive substances inside the reactor including cesium-137 that were exposed to the environment, and were slowly spreading around the world. By April 27, nearly 30,000 (more than 1,00,000 in controversy) residents were evacuated elsewhere.

Now the challenge was to clear 100 tons of highly radioactive debris from the roof of the Chernobyl reactor. Over an eight-month period following the April 1986 disaster, thousands of volunteers (soldiers) finally buried Chernobyl with hand tools and muscle power.

At first, the Soviets used about 60 remote-controlled robots, most of them manufactured domestically within the U.S.S.R to clean up the radioactive debris. Although several designs were eventually able to contribute to the cleanup, most of the robots quickly succumbed to the effects of high levels of radiation on delicate electronics. Even those machines that could operate in high-radiation environments often failed after being doused with water in an effort to decontaminate them.

Soviet experts used a machine known as an STR-1. The six-wheeled robot was based on a lunar rover that was used in the Soviet lunar explorations of the 1960s. Perhaps the most successful robot – the Mobot – was a small, wheeled machine equipped with a bulldozer-like blade and a “manipulator arm.” But the only Mobot prototype was destroyed when it was accidentally dropped 200 meters by a helicopter carrying it to the roof.

Ten percent of the cleanup of Chernobyl’s heavily contaminated roof was done by robots, saving 500 people from exposure. The rest of the work was done by 5,000 other workers, who absorbed a total of 125,000 rem of radiation. The maximum permitted dose for any one worker was 25 rem, five times normal yearly standards. In total, 31 workers died at Chernobyl, 237 had confirmed cases of acute radiation sickness, and many more are likely to eventually suffer adverse effects from their exposure.

In memory of the soldiers killed in the Chernobyl Disaster. The Chernobyl liquidators were the civil and military personnel who were called upon to deal with consequences of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union on the site of the event. The liquidators are widely credited with limiting both the immediate and long-term damage from the disaster.

Authorities told the soldiers to drink vodka. According to them, the radiation was supposed to accumulate in the thyroid glands at first. And the vodka was supposed to clean them. That was prescribed to the soldiers straight up: half a glass of vodka for every two hours in Chernobyl. They thought it would really protect them from the radiation. Unfortunately, it didn’t!

The Chernobyl explosion caused 50 to 185 million curie radionuclides to be exposed to the environment. Its radioactivity was so terrible that it was almost 2 times more powerful than the atomic bomb detonated in Hiroshima or Nagasaki. At the same time, its spread was 100 times the volume of Hiroshima-Nagasaki’s radioactive material. Within a few days, its radiation began to spread to neighbouring countries, such as Belarus, Ukraine, France, Italy and etc.

Radiation Affected Chernobyl Region

This radioactivity has a significant impact on the environment and its lives. The cattle started to be born with discoloration. There is also an increase in the number of radioactive related diseases and cancers, especially thyroid cancer, in humans. By 2000, the remaining three reactors at the energy center were also shut down. And then, for many years, the place is totally abandoned. No one goes there. Here in this article, we will know how is the current situation in the region after the disaster that occurred nearly 3 decades ago.

What Amount Of Radiation Is Still Available In The Chernobyl Region?

Entire atmosphere is highly radiation affected.

After the Chernobyl explosion, its radioactivity began to spread to the environment, soon, the Soviet Union declared to abandon the place. In the meantime, the nuclear reactor is centred around a circular exclusions zone with a radius of about 30 km. Its size was about 2,634 square kilometres. But due to the spread of radioactivity, the size was extended to approximately 4,143 square kilometres. To this day, no people are allowed to live or do anything within these specific areas. However, it is allowed for scientists or researchers to enter the site with special permission and for a short time.

More than 200 tons of radioactive materials have been stored in the power station even after the explosion. According to current researchers’ calculations, this radioactive substance will take about 100 to 1,000 years to be fully inactive. In addition, radioactive materials were dumped in 800 locations immediately after the explosion. It also has a huge potential for contamination of groundwater.

After the Chernobyl disaster, nearly three decades have passed but the pertinence of living there even in the adjacent area is still controversial. While the area is depopulated, it is also home to natural resources and livestock. Now the abundance presence and diversity of wildlife are the new hopes for this cursed region. But on the one hand, the radioactive pollution of the environment is still dangerous to them.

Influence On Wildlife And Animal Diversity:

Residents in the Chernobyl area were evacuated shortly after the deadliest nuclear explosion that occurred nearly 34 years ago. However, it was not possible to evacuate the wild lives entirely from the radioactive zone. As a result, this Chernobyl exclusions zone has become an important place for biologists and researchers. Now many researchers are here to study radioactive living communities and to determine their similarities with common living communities.

Przewalski’s horses with the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Interestingly, in 1998, a particular species of extinct horse species was liberated in the region. This particular horse species is called the Przewalski’s horse. Since humans don’t live here, it was decided to open these horses to the region for the needs of the breed of wild horses. The result was also quite satisfactory.

Since the people settle down, the area becomes a perfect habitat for animals. Many also describe it as the bright side of the Chernobyl accident. Because on the one hand, the place is uninhabitable to humans, but on the other, it plays a key role as a safe habitat for animals. Besides this, the diversity in its flora and fauna can also be noticed here.

A report by National Geographic in 2016 revealed a study on wildlife in the Chernobyl region. Biologists conducted a five-week monitoring operation in there. Interestingly, wildlife was caught on their camera. It has a wide range of species including 1 bison, 21 wild pigs, 9 badgers, 26 grey wolves, 10 sheals, horses and so on. But among all these, the question remains about how much radiation has affected these animals.

A “mutated piglet” at the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum

As the studies show, the effect of radioactivity on wildlife in Chernobyl is certainly not a pleasant course. There are several types of butterflies, wasps, grasshoppers and spiders present in the area. But the effects of mutations on these species are higher than normal due to radioactivity. However, research also shows that the radioactivity of the Chernobyl explosion is not as strong as the potential for wildlife to become extinct. In addition, these radioactive substances exposed to the environment have also had a severe impact on the plants.

The Prevention Of Radioactive Pollution From The Chernobyl Disaster Site:

It’s reported that the upper steel lid of Oven-4 had blown up when the horrific accident took place. Due to this fact, radioactive substances were still releasing through the mouth of the reactor, which was polluting the environment dangerously.

However, the then Soviet Union immediately built a concrete sarcophagus, or special cramped houses surrounding the reactors, to prevent the remaining radioactive materials’ eruption to the atmosphere. But this sarcophagus was originally built for only 30 years, and many workers as well as soldiers had lost their lives to build this structure in the hurry. As a result, it was slowly decaying, therefore, scientists had to repair it as soon as possible. In the process, scientists started a new project called the “Chernobyl New Safe Confinement (NSC or New Shelter).”

Chernobyl New Safe Confinement (NSC):

New Safe Confinement Project

Chernobyl New Safe Confinement is a structure built to confine the remains of the number 4 reactor unit at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, which replaced the old sarcophagus. The mega-project was completed by July 2019.

Design Goals:

The New Safe Confinement was designed with the following criteria:

  • Convert the destroyed Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant reactor 4 into an environmentally safe system.
  • Reduce corrosion and weathering of the existing shelter and the reactor 4 building.
  • Mitigate the consequences of a potential collapse of either the existing shelter or the reactor 4 building, particularly in terms of confining the radioactive dust that would be produced by such a collapse.
  • Enable safe demolition of existing but unstable structures by providing remotely operated equipment for their demolition.
  • Qualify as a nuclear entombment device.
Priority Of The Safety:

In the whole process, worker safety and radioactive exposure are the first two priorities that authorities gave it, and it’s still on the follow up for its maintenance. To do that, the radioactive dust in the shelter is monitored all the time by hundreds of sensors. Workers in the ‘local zone’ carry two dosimeters, one showing real-time exposure and the second recording information for the worker’s dose log.

Workers have a daily and annual radiation exposure limit. Their dosimeter beeps if the limit is reached and the worker’s site access is cancelled. The annual limit (20 millisieverts) may be reached by spending 12 minutes above the roof of the 1986 sarcophagus, or a few hours around its chimney.


The Chernobyl Disaster is undoubtedly a terrible nuclear explosion in world history. It was so terrible that the impact is still in this cramped area and the radioactivity is very slowly but still spreading there. The radioactive substances stored inside the Chernobyl Power Plant have always forced this world to think about the harmful aspects of radioactivity. Now the town of Chernobyl is known as the ghost town. That’s normal. Only concrete houses and stained walls stand in this unmanned zone, hiding a fearful dark-past under the ground.

Chernobyl: A nuclear accident that changed the course of history. Then came Fukushima.

Editor&rsquos note: This article is part of a collection of expert commentary on nuclear safety published on the tenth anniversary of the Fukushima disaster, produced in a collaboration between the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard Kennedy School and the Bulletin.

On April 26, 1986, during a planned safety system test at Chernobyl Power Plant&rsquos Unit 4 that involved an electricity shutdown, a series of operator errors led to the meltdown of the graphite-moderated RBMK-type reactor core. Since the reactor was not protected by a containment chamber, the resulting steam explosion tore through the roof of the Unit 4 and rained chunks of fuel rods and radioactive graphite on the surroundings. The fires, spewing clouds of radioactive smoke into the atmosphere, raged for over a week.

Chernobyl still stands for the world&rsquos worst nuclear accident. The full impact of a nuclear disaster on this scale is difficult to compute, not least because the effects that count most are often those that are most difficult to count. Beyond the number of lives lost and people displaced, beyond the money spent on accident mitigation and remediation, there are long-term health, environmental, social, economic, and political consequences that defy quantification. Thirty-five years on, we are still grappling with the full extent of Chernobyl&rsquos impact on the world. Yet in a very real sense, we live in a world shaped by Chernobyl.

As Chernobyl&rsquos radioactive plumes blew over the Soviet border across much of Europe, they brought with them one simple and daunting truth: A nuclear accident anywhere is a nuclear accident everywhere. Chernobyl was a global-scale nuclear event before the world was global, as International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael Grossi noted during the Nuclear Safety and Security conference at Harvard Kennedy School&rsquos Belfer Center. It jolted the nuclear community into action and much of today&rsquos international regulatory framework on nuclear security emerged in its wake, including the Convention on Nuclear Safety, Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident, and Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency.

Today, the nuclear community attributes the Chernobyl accident to a faulty reactor design and an abysmal safety culture. At the time, however, for many Soviet citizens from the leadership to the masses, Chernobyl became symptomatic of the entire Soviet system&rsquos dysfunction, where initiative was punishable, responsibility evaded, and truth inconvenient. And if the Soviet system brought about Chernobyl, Chernobyl brought down the Soviet system.

Then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who hoped to reform the Soviet Union, considered Chernobyl one of the major causes that led to its demise. The accident undermined Gorbachev&rsquos faith in much-touted Soviet technological prowess and its ability to compete with the West, strengthening his commitment to pursue ambitious arms control with the United States. This, in turn, pitched him against the powerful military-industrial sector, whose leaders would conspire against him in August 1991. The August coup and its failure would send the Soviet Union spiraling toward disintegration.

For the Soviet public, the eventual disclosures of the causes of the accident and the grave mishandling of its aftermath compounded the growing dissatisfaction with the authorities in Moscow. That the citizens of Western Europe learned about the accident before the affected populations in Soviet Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia exposed the blatant disregard of the communist apparatchiks for human dignity and wellbeing and stoked public rage. In many corners of the Soviet empire, from Ukraine, to Belarus, to Lithuania, this anti-Moscow sentiment was mobilized by nascent pro-independence movements. If Lithuania and other Baltic republic led the way, it was Ukraine&rsquos steadfast push for independence that obliterated any prospect of keeping the Union intact. When Ukraine did become independent, the Chernobyl trauma contributed to its intention to become a nuclear-free state and relinquish the world&rsquos third-largest nuclear arsenal, inherited from the Soviet Union.

Twenty-five years after Chernobyl, on March 11, 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan was struck by an earthquake and a tsunami, resulting in a loss of electricity that disabled cooling systems, compromised reactor containments, melted the reactor cores, and heightened the vulnerability of a spent fuel pool. Subsequent investigation revealed serious problems with the plant&rsquos emergency preparedness, stemming from complacency and collusion between the national nuclear safety regulator and the operator of the plant. Safety culture was once again at the heart of the accident, this time in not in a &ldquobackward&rdquo Soviet Union but in an industrialized, technologically-savvy, wealthy nation with what had been regarded until that point as strong institutional infrastructures.

Today, the Chernobyl power plant features a new dome over Unit 4, constructed with international assistance. The Ukrainian government has also built a spent nuclear fuel dry-cask storage facility on its grounds. The 30 kilometer radius Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, with its ghost town of Prypiat, the Soviet Duga radar station, and flourishing wildlife has become an unlikely tourist mecca. At Fukushima, after the Japanese government poured billions into clean up and recovery, life is slowly returning. J Village, a national football center, just 20 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, reopened in 2018. But only about fifteen percent of some 160 thousand evacuated have returned. Like at Chernobyl, wildlife is taking over spaces vacated by humans.

Amid the renascent verdure, Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi power plants stand dormant, sullen testaments to nature&rsquos relentless forces and to human folly and resilience. The world, meanwhile, continues to look to carbon-free nuclear power as a way to meet its energy needs while mitigating climate change. With 440 nuclear reactors in operation globally, over 50 under construction, and close to 200 planned, the nuclear community agrees that the question is not whether another nuclear accident will happen, but rather when it does, how prepared are we to minimize the damage and respond quickly and effectively. The main lesson of Chernobyl and Fukushima is that they will continue to offer lessons to those willing to learn.

Chernobyl: How did the world’s worst nuclear accident happen?

F or most residents of Pripyat, Saturday 26 April 1986 seemed a relatively unremarkable day.

Some would have been aware of an incident at the nearby Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant, around which the town had sprouted up in the decade prior, but, in the words of one off-duty engineer: “There was no panic. The city lived a normal life. People were sunbathing on the beach.”

But the warning signs were there.

Soviet Union officials were driving the streets, hiding their monitors as they gauged the levels of radiation washing over the pedestrians they passed. Traders had been warned not to sell fresh greens and cabbages at the local market, and street sweepers were washing the streets with foam.

But this had happened during a previous accident at the plant, of which there had been dozens in the past decade, and everything appeared to have been fine.

Illegal tour of Chernobyl visits forgotten sites

1 /25 Illegal tour of Chernobyl visits forgotten sites

Illegal tour of Chernobyl visits forgotten sites

Illegal tour of Chernobyl visits forgotten sites

Illegal tour of Chernobyl visits forgotten sites

Illegal tour of Chernobyl visits forgotten sites

Illegal tour of Chernobyl visits forgotten sites

Illegal tour of Chernobyl visits forgotten sites

Illegal tour of Chernobyl visits forgotten sites

Illegal tour of Chernobyl visits forgotten sites

Illegal tour of Chernobyl visits forgotten sites

Illegal tour of Chernobyl visits forgotten sites

Illegal tour of Chernobyl visits forgotten sites

Illegal tour of Chernobyl visits forgotten sites

Illegal tour of Chernobyl visits forgotten sites

Illegal tour of Chernobyl visits forgotten sites

Illegal tour of Chernobyl visits forgotten sites

Illegal tour of Chernobyl visits forgotten sites

Illegal tour of Chernobyl visits forgotten sites

Illegal tour of Chernobyl visits forgotten sites

Illegal tour of Chernobyl visits forgotten sites

Illegal tour of Chernobyl visits forgotten sites

Illegal tour of Chernobyl visits forgotten sites

Illegal tour of Chernobyl visits forgotten sites

Illegal tour of Chernobyl visits forgotten sites

Illegal tour of Chernobyl visits forgotten sites

Illegal tour of Chernobyl visits forgotten sites

For Yuri Andreyev, who recounted this to BBC Ukraine 30 years later, it was only as he strolled to the far edge of the town with his daughter — a decision he said he would forever regret — and spotted Chernobyl’s fourth reactor “laying in ruins”, that he would realise something was seriously wrong.

Decades after the world’s worst nuclear accident, crucial elements still remain a mystery.

The likely death toll from the catastrophe is continually being revised to this day, the impacts of the fallout upon populations caught up in the nuclear slipstream — from Andreyev and his family to those living hundreds of miles away — still an active area of academic research.

Furthermore, the profound extent to which the accident, and the Soviet Union’s infamous handling of it, impacted the course of global history will never truly be known.

For the leader of the USSR at the time, Mikhail Gorbachev, the disaster wrought history anew. Rather than the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Chernobyl was “perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union”, he would later lament.

But, as with the disaster itself, the true starting point of such catastrophe is hard to pinpoint.

In the simplest sense, it began with a disastrous experiment during routine tests of reactor four. Technicians wished to see whether an emergency water-cooling system would work during a power outage and, shutting down the reactor’s emergency safety system, withdrew most of the control rods from its core while keeping the reactor running.

Moments after their re-insertion, at 1.23am, the resulting reaction caused a partial meltdown in the core, summoning a large fireball that blew the 1,200-tonne concrete and steel lid from the reactor, which would spew roughly 400 times more radioactive material into the atmosphere than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Two workers were immediately killed in the blast, which bent the plant’s thick concrete walls “like rubber”. Another plant worker, Sasha Yuvchenko, would later recall standing to watch as a pillar of blue ionising radiation ascended into the sky, “flooding up into infinity from the reactor”, reflecting: “I remember thinking how beautiful it was”.

Several hundred staff members and firefighters then tackled an inferno that blazed for 10 days. According to Andreyev, who was working that night, their dosimeters were taken away and they were told told to wash their shoes in manganese solution before entering, suggesting the radiation on the streets of Pripyat was feared to be worse than inside the incinerated plant.

The number of fatalities from this initial effort is still unknown, with the larger estimates suggesting 50 Soviet citizens lost their lives and scores more were hospitalised with gruesome and permanent injuries as a result of their efforts to protect their community. Until late 1986, the official death toll would recognise only the two who died in the immediate blast.

In those months, hundreds of thousands of emergency workers, troops, cleaners and miners were sent into the area during attempts to control the core meltdown and halt the spread of radioactive material, which would reach the US, China and northern Africa.

Dubbed “liquidators”, some 600,000 workers seeking to contain the spread were given special status that provided compensation in the form of fiscal benefits and additional health care.

While these liquidators were offered some compensation for their sacrifice, it appeared that Soviet authorities had known all along that there could be “accidents” at the nuclear plant.

Documents published decades later by the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), initially sent to the KGB in Moscow, suggested Chernobyl was subject to significant flaws throughout its construction, as early as its design stage, indicating materials used were sub-standard and that technicians often ignored safety regulations.

In January 1979, a KGB report on the plant said: “According to operational data, there were deviations from design and violations of technology procedures during building and assembling works. It may lead to accidents”.

The documents, released by the SBU in 2003, revealed that between 1977 and 1981 there were 29 accidents at the nuclear plant.

In 1982, another incident releasing what the documents described as “significant quantities of radiation” would lead officials to engage in a significant cover-up effort, but this relatively minor event merely foreshadowed the scale of the deception that would come four years later.

While engineers and firefighters toiled to extinguish the blaze in the days following 26 April, officials sought to bury the true scale of the disaster from the outside world, and to uncover suspected foul play — interrogating first responders such as Yuvchenko as they lay in hospital watching their bodies decay.

The more immediate response was guided by a litany of deadly miscalculations from officials, whose dosimeters were unable to process the vast amounts of radiation, allowing them to believe the reactor remained intact.

Some workers would defy orders, with Andreyev recalling how he and other colleagues, none of them wearing protective gear, shut off the other nuclear reactors in what he described as a lifesaving measure.

Approximately 36 hours later, as officials began to acknowledge the huge scale of the problem, the order was given for Pripyat to be evacuated for three days. Most residents would never return.

Efforts to downplay the scale of the disaster began within government itself — infamously exemplified by the Soviet foreign affairs minister’s attempt to allay a more senior official’s concern for residents’ health with the assertion that they were celebrating weddings, gardening, and “fishing in the Pripyat River”.

Three days later, the alarm was raised by Sweden, where the radiation was picked up at a nuclear plant.

The Soviet Union denied that an incident had occurred, but with Denmark, Finland and Norway also voicing concerns shortly afterwards, it eventually became impossible to hide the accident from the international community.

However, Moscow continued to downplay the true scale of the catastrophe, failing to tell even its own citizens to stay indoors and allowing the capital’s May Day parade to go ahead a week later. The ensuing secrecy surrounding the handling of the disaster in the years that followed, and the reluctance to warn citizens of the scale of the danger they continued to face, means the true toll is continually being revised.

The resulting suspicions that Moscow could not be trusted to tell the truth had directly devastating effects.

It is believed that up to 200,000 women across western Europe chose to end wanted pregnancies on the mistaken advice of doctors who were mistrusting of the Soviet Union’s official line on radiation levels and who feared a possible rise in birth defects. There was no such increase in babies born with congenital defects, the World Health Organisation would conclude in 2005.

One estimate by Kiev’s National Research Centre for Radiation Medicine suggests that in the former Soviet Union alone, five million people have suffered as a result of Chernobyl.

More than 5,000 people who were children at the time living in the affected areas in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, have since developed thyroid cancers, which the UN attributes to radiation exposure.

While 330,000 people were moved out of the area, which now suffers far higher levels of poverty than other parts of the former Soviet Union, the upheaval proved “deeply traumatic” for many, according to the Chernobyl Forum.

A 2005 report by the UN group found: “Even when resettlers were compensated and offered free houses, many retained a deep sense of injustice. Many are still unemployed, without a place in society and have little control over their lives. Some older resettlers may never adjust.”

Amid decades of concern of a predicted rise in cancers, clear scientific evidence of which is hard to ascertain, the psychological toll upon those still living in the affected zones is clear, with residents tending to be more likely to suffer with their mental health or alcohol abuse.

Meanwhile, first responders are often forced to contend not only with the trauma of the event, but also a lingering stigma that has sometimes seen them shunned by peers fearful of a false radiation risk.

“I try not to talk about it. I don’t want people to know about it,” Yuvchenko told the New Scientist in 2004, at which point he still had to receive “constant” skin grafts.

“I have been given two medals, an order of honour for my actions that night and a medal 10 years afterwards, but everybody got one of those. I try to get on with my everyday life. My neighbours don’t know who I am. There is a stigma attached to it.”

In 2007, a study of nearly 5,000 men involved in the cleanup effort between 1986 and 1991 found they suffered an increased risk of suicide, describing their findings as “concrete evidence that psychological consequences represent the largest public health problem caused by the accident to date”.

It may have also proved fatal for the Soviet Union itself, which collapsed fewer than six years later — with the intermediate period defined by public calls for greater transparency amid suspicions and anger over a perceived lack of public safety.

Gorbachev, the last leader of the USSR, would define Chernobyl as a “turning point”, which “opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we knew it could no longer continue”. It would strengthen his conviction in pursuing his perestroika (”reformation”) and glasnost policies, which celebrated the openness of ideas after years of a USSR famed for its “culture of secrecy”.

As these policies invited increasing criticism of the USSR, the apparent secrecy with which the Chernobyl disaster was handled gradually eviscerated people’s trust of their government, which eventually lost control to a public fraught with concern over radiation levels.

While Chernobyl remains a cautionary tale to governments the world over — many of whom financed a £1.5bn sarcophagus to confine the reactor for another century, completed in 2019 — the area itself is effectively a ghost town.

Save for a few residents who refused to leave their homes, the 18-mile exclusion zone has gradually been repopulated by wildlife, including boars, wolves, beavers and bison.

Despite the dangers posed by the area — which is expected to be contaminated for another 24,000 years — researchers have suggested the animals are flourishing because the radiation poses less risk than the presence of humans.


Reactor cooling after shutdown

In power-generating operation, most of the heat generated in a nuclear reactor by its fuel rods is derived from nuclear fission, but a significant fraction (over 6%) is derived from the radioactive decay of the accumulated fission products a process known as decay heat. This decay heat continues for some time after the fission chain reaction has been stopped, such as following a reactor shutdown, either emergency or planned, and continued pumped circulation of coolant is essential to prevent core overheating, or in the worst case, core meltdown. [21] The RBMK reactors like those at Chernobyl use water as a coolant, circulated by electrically driven pumps. [22] [23] The coolant flow rate is considerable. Reactor No. 4 had 1661 individual fuel channels, each requiring a coolant flow of 28,000 litres (7,400 US gal) per hour at full reactor power. [24]

To guard against an electrical power failure to the pumps, each of Chernobyl's reactors had three backup diesel generators, but they took 60–75 seconds to attain full speed [24] : 15 and generate the 5.5‑megawatt output required to run one main pump. [24] : 30 This delay was considered a significant safety risk. It had been theorized that the rotational momentum of a steam turbine could be used to generate the required electrical power to cover this gap. The turbine's speed would run down as energy was taken from it, but analysis indicated that there might be sufficient energy to provide electrical power to run the coolant pumps for 45 seconds. [24] : 16 This would not quite bridge the gap between an external power failure and the full availability of the emergency generators, but would alleviate the situation. [25]

Safety test

The turbine run-down energy capability still needed to be confirmed experimentally, and previous tests had ended unsuccessfully. An initial test carried out in 1982 indicated that the excitation voltage of the turbine-generator was insufficient it did not maintain the desired magnetic field after the turbine trip. The electrical system was modified, and the test was repeated in 1984 but again proved unsuccessful. In 1985, the test was conducted a third time but also yielded negative results. The test procedure was to be run again in 1986, and was scheduled to take place during a controlled power-down of reactor No. 4, which was preparatory to a planned maintenance outage. [25] [7] : 51

A test procedure had been written, but the authors were not aware of the unusual RBMK-1000 reactor behaviour under the planned operating conditions. [7] : 52 It was regarded as purely an electrical test of the generator, not a complex unit test, even though it involved critical unit systems. According to the regulations in place at the time, such a test did not require approval by either the chief design authority for the reactor (NIKIET), or the Soviet nuclear safety regulator. [7] : 51–52 The test required disabling of some safety systems (in particular, the emergency core cooling system, a passive/active system of core cooling intended to provide water to the core in a loss-of-coolant accident), and approval from the Chernobyl site chief engineer had been obtained according to regulations. [7] : 18

The experimental procedure was intended to run as follows:

  1. The test would take place during a scheduled reactor shutdown
  2. The reactor power was to be reduced to between 700 MW and 800 MW. (It was not necessary to perform the test from full-power operation, as only the electrical generator was being tested.)
  3. The steam-turbine generator was to be run at normal operating speed
  1. When the correct conditions were achieved, the steam supply to the turbine generator would be closed off
  2. The turbine generator performance would then be monitored to determine whether it could provide the bridging power for coolant pumps until the emergency diesel generators automatically started and provided power.
  3. When the emergency generators supplied electrical power, the turbine generator would be allowed to continue free-wheeling down.
  4. The normal planned shut down procedure of the reactor was then to be completed

Test delay and shift change

The test was to be conducted during the day-shift of 25 April 1986 as part of a scheduled reactor shut down. The day shift crew had been instructed in advance on the reactor operating conditions to run the test and in addition, a special team of electrical engineers was present to conduct the one-minute test of the new voltage regulating system once the correct conditions had been reached. [26] As planned, a gradual reduction in the output of the power unit began at 01:06 on 25 April, and the power level had reached 50% of its nominal 3,200 MW thermal level by the beginning of the day shift. [7] : 53

The day shift performed many unrelated maintenance tasks, and was scheduled to perform the test at 14:15 [27] : 3 and preparations for the test were carried out, including the disabling of the emergency core cooling system. [7] : 53 Meanwhile, another regional power station unexpectedly went offline and at 14:00 [7] : 53 the Kiev electrical grid controller requested that the further reduction of Chernobyl's output be postponed, as power was needed to satisfy the peak evening demand. The Chernobyl plant director [ citation needed ] agreed, and postponed the test.

Soon, the day shift was replaced by the evening shift. [27] : 3 Despite the delay, the emergency core cooling system was left disabled—it was disconnected by a manual isolating slide valve [7] : 51 which in practice meant that two or three people spent the whole shift manually turning sailboat-helm sized valve wheels. [27] : 4 The system would have no influence on the events that unfolded next. Allowing the reactor to run for 11 hours outside of the test without emergency protection was indicative of a general lack of safety culture. [7] : 10,18

At 23:04, the Kiev grid controller allowed the reactor shutdown to resume. This delay had some serious consequences: the day shift had long since departed, the evening shift was also preparing to leave, and the night shift would not take over until midnight, well into the job. According to plan, the test should have been finished during the day shift, and the night shift would only have had to maintain decay heat cooling systems in an otherwise shut-down plant. [24] : 36–38

The night shift had very limited time to prepare for and carry out the experiment. Anatoly Dyatlov, deputy chief-engineer of the entire Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, was present to supervise and direct the experiment as he out-ranked all other supervisory personnel present, his orders and instructions overrode any objections of other senior personnel present during the test and its preparation. Serving under Dyatlov, Aleksandr Akimov was chief of the night shift, and Leonid Toptunov was the operator responsible for the reactor's operational regimen, including the movement of the control rods. Toptunov was a young engineer who had worked independently as a senior engineer for approximately three months. [24] : 36–38

Unexpected drop of the reactor power

The test plan called for a gradual decrease in reactor power to a thermal level of 700–1000 MW [28] and an output of 720 MW was reached at 00:05 on 26 April. [7] : 53 However, due to the reactor's production of a fission byproduct, xenon-135, which is a reaction-inhibiting neutron absorber, power continued to decrease in the absence of further operator action a process known as reactor poisoning. In steady-state operation, this is avoided because xenon-135 is "burned off" as quickly as it is created from decaying iodine-135 by the absorption of neutrons from the ongoing chain reaction, becoming highly stable xenon-136. With the reactor power reduced, previously produced high quantities of iodine-135 were decaying into the neutron-absorbing xenon-135 faster than the reduced neutron flux could burn it off. [29]

When the reactor power had decreased to approximately 500 MW, the reactor power control was switched to a different mode in order to manually maintain the required power level. [7] : 11 [30] Around that moment, the power suddenly fell into an unintended near-shutdown state, with a power output of 30 MW thermal or less. The exact circumstances that caused the power fall are unknown because Akimov died in hospital on 10 May and Toptunov on 14 May early reports attributed it to Toptunov's mistake, but it has also been suggested it was due to an equipment failure. [7] : 11

The reactor was now producing only 5% of the minimum initial power level prescribed for the test. [7] : 73 This low reactivity inhibited the burn-off of xenon-135 [7] : 6 within the reactor core and hindered the rise of reactor power. Control-room personnel had to raise power by disconnecting most of the reactor control rods from the automatic control rod regulation system and manually extracted the majority of rods to their upper limits in order to promote reactivity and counteract the effect of the poisoning. [31] Several minutes elapsed between their extraction and the point at which the power output began to increase and subsequently stabilized at 160–200 MW (thermal).

The operation of the reactor at the low power level (and high poisoning level) was accompanied by unstable core temperatures and coolant flow, and possibly by instability of neutron flux, which triggered alarms. The control room received repeated emergency signals regarding the levels in the steam/water separator drums, and large excursions or variations in the flow rate of feed water, as well as from relief valves opened to relieve excess steam into a turbine condenser, and from the neutron power controller. Between 00:35 and 00:45, emergency alarm signals concerning thermal-hydraulic parameters were ignored, apparently to preserve the reactor power level. [32] [ dubious – discuss ]

Reactor conditions priming the accident

When a power level of 200 MW was reattained, preparation for the experiment continued, although the power level was much lower than the prescribed 700 MW. As part of the test plan, extra water pumps were activated at 01:05, increasing the water flow. The increased coolant flow rate through the reactor produced an increase in the inlet coolant temperature of the reactor core (the coolant no longer having sufficient time to release its heat in the turbine and cooling towers), which now more closely approached the nucleate boiling temperature of water, reducing the safety margin.

The flow exceeded the allowed limit at 01:19, triggering an alarm of low steam pressure in the steam separators. At the same time, the extra water flow lowered the overall core temperature and reduced the existing steam voids in the core and the steam separators. [a] Since water absorbs neutrons better than steam, the neutron flux decreased and reduced the reactor power. The crew responded by turning off two of the circulation pumps to reduce feedwater flow in an effort to increase steam pressure, and by removing more manual control rods to maintain power. [33] [34]

The combined effect of these various actions was an extremely unstable reactor configuration. Nearly all of the 211 control rods had been extracted manually, including all but 18 of the "fail-safe" manually operated rods of the minimum 28 that were supposed to remain fully inserted to control the reactor even in the event of a loss of coolant. [35] [36] While the emergency scram system that would insert all control rods to shut down the reactor could still be activated manually (through the "AZ-5" switch), the automated system that would ordinarily do the same had been mostly disabled to maintain the power level, and many other automated and even passive safety features of the reactor had been bypassed.

Unlike other light-water reactor designs, the RBMK design at that time had a positive void coefficient of reactivity at low power levels. This meant that the formation of steam bubbles (voids) from boiling cooling water intensified the nuclear chain reaction owing to voids having lower neutron absorption than water. The consequent power increase then produced more voids which further intensified the chain reaction, and so on in a positive feedback. Given this characteristic, reactor No. 4 was now at risk of a runaway increase in its core power with nothing to restrain it.

The reduction of reactor coolant pumping and the reduction of neutron absorbing control rods now left little safety margin. The reactor was now very sensitive to the regenerative effect of steam voids on reactor power. [7] : 3,14

Test execution

At 01:23:04, the test began. [37] Four of the eight main circulating pumps (MCP) were active, versus six under regular operation. The steam to the turbines was shut off, beginning a run-down of the turbine generator. The diesel generators started and sequentially picked up loads the generators were to have completely picked up the MCPs' power needs by 01:23:43. In the interim, the power for the MCPs was to be supplied by the turbine generator as it coasted down. As the momentum of the turbine generator decreased, so did the power it produced for the pumps. The water flow rate decreased, leading to increased formation of steam voids in the coolant flowing up through the fuel pressure tubes. [7] : 8

Reactor shutdown and power excursion

At 01:23:40, as recorded by the SKALA centralized control system, a scram (emergency shutdown) of the reactor was initiated [38] as the experiment was wrapping up. [30] The scram was started when the AZ-5 button (also known as the EPS-5 button) of the reactor emergency protection system was pressed: this engaged the drive mechanism on all control rods to fully insert them, including the manual control rods that had been withdrawn earlier.

The mechanism would be used even to routinely shut down the reactor after the experiment for the planned maintenance [39] and the scram likely preceded the sharp increase in power. [7] : 13 However, the precise reason why the button was pressed when it was is not certain, as only the deceased Akimov and Toptunov partook in that decision, though the atmosphere in the control room was calm at that moment. [40] [41] : 85 Meanwhile, the RBMK designers claim that the button had to have been pressed only after the reactor already began to self-destruct. [42] : 578

When the AZ-5 button was pressed, the insertion of control rods into the reactor core began. The control rod insertion mechanism moved the rods at 0.4 metres per second (1.3 ft/s), so that the rods took 18 to 20 seconds to travel the full height of the core, about 7 metres (23 ft). A bigger problem was the design of the RBMK control rods, each of which had a graphite neutron moderator section attached to its end to boost reactor output by displacing water when the control rod section had been fully withdrawn from the reactor, i.e. when a control rod was at maximum extraction, a neutron-moderating graphite extension was centered in the core with 1.25 metres (4.1 ft) columns of water above and below it.

Consequently, injecting a control rod downward into the reactor in a scram initially displaced (neutron-absorbing) water in the lower portion of the reactor with (neutron-moderating) graphite. Thus, an emergency scram initially increased the reaction rate in the lower part of the core. [7] : 4 This behaviour had been discovered when the initial insertion of control rods in another RBMK reactor at Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant in 1983 induced a power spike. Procedural countermeasures were not implemented in response to Ignalina. The UKAEA investigative report INSAG-7 later stated, "Apparently, there was a widespread view that the conditions under which the positive scram effect would be important would never occur. However, they did appear in almost every detail in the course of the actions leading to the (Chernobyl) accident." [7] : 13

A few seconds into the scram, a power spike did occur and the core overheated, causing some of the fuel rods to fracture, blocking the control rod columns and jamming the control rods at one-third insertion, with the graphite water-displacers still in the lower part of the core. Within three seconds the reactor output rose above 530 MW. [24] : 31

The subsequent course of events was not registered by instruments it has been reconstructed through mathematical simulation. Per the simulation, the power spike would have caused an increase in fuel temperature and steam buildup, leading to a rapid increase in steam pressure. This caused the fuel cladding to fail, releasing the fuel elements into the coolant, and rupturing the channels in which these elements were located. [44]

Steam explosions

As the scram continued, the reactor output jumped to around 30,000 MW thermal, 10 times its normal operational output, the indicated last reading on the power meter on the control panel. Some estimate the power spike may have gone 10 times higher than that. It was not possible to reconstruct the precise sequence of the processes that led to the destruction of the reactor and the power unit building, but a steam explosion, like the explosion of a steam boiler from excess vapour pressure, appears to have been the next event. There is a general understanding that it was explosive steam pressure from the damaged fuel channels escaping into the reactor's exterior cooling structure that caused the explosion that destroyed the reactor casing, tearing off and blasting the upper plate called the upper biological shield, [45] to which the entire reactor assembly is fastened, through the roof of the reactor building. This is believed to be the first explosion that many heard. [47] : 366

This explosion ruptured further fuel channels, as well as severing most of the coolant lines feeding the reactor chamber, and as a result, the remaining coolant flashed to steam and escaped the reactor core. The total water loss in combination with a high positive void coefficient further increased the reactor's thermal power.

A second, more powerful explosion occurred about two or three seconds after the first this explosion dispersed the damaged core and effectively terminated the nuclear chain reaction. This explosion also compromised more of the reactor containment vessel and ejected hot lumps of graphite moderator. The ejected graphite and the demolished channels still in the remains of the reactor vessel caught fire on exposure to air, greatly contributing to the spread of radioactive fallout and the contamination of outlying areas. [33] [b]

According to observers outside Unit 4, burning lumps of material and sparks shot into the air above the reactor. Some of them fell onto the roof of the machine hall and started a fire. About 25% of the red-hot graphite blocks and overheated material from the fuel channels was ejected. Parts of the graphite blocks and fuel channels were out of the reactor building. As a result of the damage to the building an airflow through the core was established by the high temperature of the core. The air ignited the hot graphite and started a graphite fire. [24] : 32

After the larger explosion, a number of employees at the power station went outside to get a clearer view of the extent of the damage. One such survivor, Alexander Yuvchenko, recounts that once he stepped outside and looked up towards the reactor hall, he saw a "very beautiful" laser-like beam of blue light caused by the ionized-air glow that appeared to "flood up into infinity". [50] [51] [52]

There were initially several hypotheses about the nature of the second explosion. One view was that the second explosion was caused by the combustion of hydrogen, which had been produced either by the overheated steam-zirconium reaction or by the reaction of red-hot graphite with steam that produced hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Another hypothesis, by Konstantin Checherov, published in 1998, was that the second explosion was a thermal explosion of the reactor as a result of the uncontrollable escape of fast neutrons caused by the complete water loss in the reactor core. [53] A third hypothesis was that the second explosion was another steam explosion. According to this version, the first explosion was a more minor steam explosion in the circulating loop, causing a loss of coolant flow and pressure that in turn caused the water still in the core to flash to steam this second explosion then caused the majority of the damage to the reactor and containment building.

Fire containment

Contrary to safety regulations, bitumen, a combustible material, had been used in the construction of the roof of the reactor building and the turbine hall. Ejected material ignited at least five fires on the roof of the adjacent reactor No. 3, which was still operating. It was imperative to put those fires out and protect the cooling systems of reactor No. 3. [24] : 42 Inside reactor No. 3, the chief of the night shift, Yuri Bagdasarov, wanted to shut down the reactor immediately, but chief engineer Nikolai Fomin would not allow this. The operators were given respirators and potassium iodide tablets and told to continue working. At 05:00, Bagdasarov made his own decision to shut down the reactor. [24] : 44

Shortly after the accident, at 01:45, firefighters arrived to try to extinguish the fires. [37] First on the scene was a Chernobyl Power Station firefighter brigade under the command of Lieutenant Volodymyr Pravyk, who died on 11 May 1986 of acute radiation sickness. They were not told how dangerously radioactive the smoke and the debris were, and may not even have known that the accident was anything more than a regular electrical fire: "We didn't know it was the reactor. No one had told us." [54] Grigorii Khmel, the driver of one of the fire engines, later described what happened:

We arrived there at 10 or 15 minutes to two in the morning . We saw graphite scattered about. Misha asked: "Is that graphite?" I kicked it away. But one of the fighters on the other truck picked it up. "It's hot," he said. The pieces of graphite were of different sizes, some big, some small, enough to pick them up [. ] We didn't know much about radiation. Even those who worked there had no idea. There was no water left in the trucks. Misha filled a cistern and we aimed the water at the top. Then those boys who died went up to the roof—Vashchik, Kolya and others, and Volodya Pravik . They went up the ladder . and I never saw them again. [55]

Anatoli Zakharov, a fireman stationed in Chernobyl since 1980, offered a different description in 2008: "I remember joking to the others, 'There must be an incredible amount of radiation here. We'll be lucky if we're all still alive in the morning.'" [56] He also stated: "Of course we knew! If we'd followed regulations, we would never have gone near the reactor. But it was a moral obligation—our duty. We were like kamikaze." [56]

The immediate priority was to extinguish fires on the roof of the station and the area around the building containing Reactor No. 4 to protect No. 3 and keep its core cooling systems intact. The fires were extinguished by 5:00, but many firefighters received high doses of radiation. The fire inside reactor No. 4 continued to burn until 10 May 1986 it is possible that well over half of the graphite burned out. [24] : 73

It was thought by some that the core fire was extinguished by a combined effort of helicopters dropping more than 5,000 tonnes (5,500 short tons) of sand, lead, clay, and neutron-absorbing boron onto the burning reactor. It is now known that virtually none of the neutron absorbers reached the core. [57] Historians estimate that about 600 Soviet pilots risked dangerous levels of radiation to fly the thousands of flights needed to cover reactor No. 4 in this attempt to seal off radiation. [58]

From eyewitness accounts of the firefighters involved before they died (as reported on the CBC television series Witness), one described his experience of the radiation as "tasting like metal", and feeling a sensation similar to that of pins and needles all over his face. (This is consistent to the description given by Louis Slotin, a Manhattan Project physicist who died days after a fatal radiation overdose from a criticality accident.) [59]

The explosion and fire threw hot particles of the nuclear fuel and also far more dangerous fission products, radioactive isotopes such as caesium-137, iodine-131, strontium-90, and other radionuclides, into the air. The residents of the surrounding area observed the radioactive cloud on the night of the explosion.

Radiation levels

The ionizing radiation levels in the worst-hit areas of the reactor building have been estimated to be 5.6 roentgens per second (R/s), equivalent to more than 20,000 roentgens per hour. A lethal dose is around 500 roentgens (

5 Gray (Gy) in modern radiation units) over five hours, so in some areas, unprotected workers received fatal doses in less than a minute. However, a dosimeter capable of measuring up to 1,000 R/s was buried in the rubble of a collapsed part of the building, and another one failed when turned on. All remaining dosimeters had limits of 0.001 R/s and therefore read "off scale". Thus, the reactor crew could ascertain only that the radiation levels were somewhere above 0.001 R/s (3.6 R/h), while the true levels were much higher in some areas. [24] : 42–50

Because of the inaccurate low readings, the reactor crew chief Aleksandr Akimov assumed that the reactor was intact. The evidence of pieces of graphite and reactor fuel lying around the building was ignored, and the readings of another dosimeter brought in by 04:30 were dismissed under the assumption that the new dosimeter must have been defective. [24] : 42–50 Akimov stayed with his crew in the reactor building until morning, sending members of his crew to try to pump water into the reactor. None of them wore any protective gear. Most, including Akimov, died from radiation exposure within three weeks. [35] [36] : 247–248


The nearby city of Pripyat was not immediately evacuated. The townspeople, in the early hours of the morning, at 01:23 local time, went about their usual business, completely oblivious to what had just happened. However, within a few hours of the explosion, dozens of people fell ill. Later, they reported severe headaches and metallic tastes in their mouths, along with uncontrollable fits of coughing and vomiting. [60] [ better source needed ] As the plant was run by authorities in Moscow, the government of Ukraine did not receive prompt information on the accident. [61]

Valentyna Shevchenko, then Chairwoman of the Presidium of Verkhovna Rada of the Ukrainian SSR, recalls that Ukraine's acting Minister of Internal Affairs Vasyl Durdynets phoned her at work at 09:00 to report current affairs only at the end of the conversation did he add that there had been a fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, but it was extinguished and everything was fine. When Shevchenko asked "How are the people?", he replied that there was nothing to be concerned about: "Some are celebrating a wedding, others are gardening, and others are fishing in the Pripyat River". [61]

Shevchenko then spoke over the phone to Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, general secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine and de facto head of state, who said he anticipated a delegation of the state commission headed by Boris Shcherbina, the deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR. [61]

A commission was established later in the day to investigate the accident. It was headed by Valery Legasov, First Deputy Director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, and included leading nuclear specialist Evgeny Velikhov, hydro-meteorologist Yuri Izrael, radiologist Leonid Ilyin, and others. They flew to Boryspil International Airport and arrived at the power plant in the evening of 26 April. [61] By that time two people had already died and 52 were hospitalized. The delegation soon had ample evidence that the reactor was destroyed and extremely high levels of radiation had caused a number of cases of radiation exposure. In the early daylight hours of 27 April, approximately 36 hours after the initial blast, they ordered the evacuation of Pripyat. Initially it was decided to evacuate the population for three days later this was made permanent. [61]

By 11:00 on 27 April, buses had arrived in Pripyat to start the evacuation. [61] The evacuation began at 14:00. A translated excerpt of the evacuation announcement follows:

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 27 April 1986, 14:00 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. [62]

To expedite the evacuation, residents were told to bring only what was necessary, and that they would remain evacuated for approximately three days. As a result, most personal belongings were left behind, and remain there today. By 15:00, 53,000 people were evacuated to various villages of the Kiev region. [61] The next day, talks began for evacuating people from the 10-kilometre (6.2 mi) zone. [61] Ten days after the accident, the evacuation area was expanded to 30 kilometres (19 mi). [63] : 115, 120–121 The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Exclusion Zone has remained ever since, although its shape has changed and its size has been expanded.

The surveying and detection of isolated fallout hotspots outside this zone over the following year eventually resulted in 135,000 long-term evacuees in total agreeing to be moved. [11] The years between 1986 and 2000 saw the near tripling in the total number of permanently resettled persons from the most severely contaminated areas to approximately 350,000. [64] [65]

Official announcement

Evacuation began one and a half days before the accident was publicly acknowledged by the Soviet Union. In the morning of 28 April, radiation levels set off alarms at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden, [66] [67] over 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) from the Chernobyl Plant. Workers at Forsmark reported the case to the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority, which determined that the radiation had originated elsewhere. That day, the Swedish government contacted the Soviet government to inquire about whether there had been a nuclear accident in the Soviet Union. The Soviets initially denied it, and it was only after the Swedish government suggested they were about to file an official alert with the International Atomic Energy Agency, that the Soviet government admitted that an accident had taken place at Chernobyl. [67] [68]

At first, the Soviets only conceded that a minor accident had occurred, but once they began evacuating more than 100,000 people, the full scale of the situation was realized by the global community. [69] At 21:02 the evening of 28 April, a 20-second announcement was read in the TV 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." [70] [71]

This was the entire announcement, and the first time the Soviet Union officially announced a nuclear accident. The Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union (TASS) then discussed the Three Mile Island accident and other American nuclear accidents, which Serge Schmemann of The New York Times wrote was an example of the common Soviet tactic of whataboutism. The mention of a commission, however, indicated to observers the seriousness of the incident, [68] and subsequent state radio broadcasts were replaced with classical music, which was a common method of preparing the public for an announcement of a tragedy. [70]

Around the same time, ABC News released its report about the disaster. [72] Shevchenko was the first of the Ukrainian state top officials to arrive at the disaster site early on 28 April. There she spoke with members of medical staff and people, who were calm and hopeful that they could soon return to their homes. Shevchenko returned home near midnight, stopping at a radiological checkpoint in Vilcha, one of the first that were set up soon after the accident. [61]

There was a notification from Moscow that there was no reason to postpone the 1 May International Workers' Day celebrations in Kiev (including the annual parade), but on 30 April a meeting of the Political bureau of the Central Committee of the CPSU took place to discuss the plan for the upcoming celebration. Scientists were reporting that the radiological background level in Kiev was normal. At the meeting, which was finished at 18:00, it was decided to shorten celebrations from the regular three and a half to four hours to under two hours. [61] Several buildings in Pripyat were officially kept open after the disaster to be used by workers still involved with the plant. These included the Jupiter factory which closed in 1996 and the Azure Swimming Pool, used by the Chernobyl liquidators for recreation during the clean-up, which closed in 1998.

Core meltdown explosion risk

Bubbler pools

Two floors of bubbler pools beneath the reactor served as a large water reservoir for the emergency cooling pumps and as a pressure suppression system capable of condensing steam in case of a small broken steam pipe the third floor above them, below the reactor, served as a steam tunnel. The steam released by a broken pipe was supposed to enter the steam tunnel and be led into the pools to bubble through a layer of water. After the disaster, the pools and the basement were flooded because of ruptured cooling water pipes and accumulated firefighting water, thus constituting a serious steam explosion risk.

The smoldering graphite, fuel and other material above, at more than 1,200 °C (2,190 °F), [74] started to burn through the reactor floor and mixed with molten concrete from the reactor lining, creating corium, a radioactive semi-liquid material comparable to lava. [73] [75] If this mixture had melted through the floor into the pool of water, it was feared it could have created a serious steam explosion that would have ejected more radioactive material from the reactor. It became necessary to drain the pool. [76]

The bubbler pool could be drained by opening its sluice gates. The valves controlling it, however, were located in a flooded corridor. Volunteers in diving suits and respirators (for protection against radioactive aerosols), and equipped with dosimeters, entered the knee-deep radioactive water and managed to open the valves. [77] [78] These were the engineers Alexei Ananenko and Valeri Bezpalov (who knew where the valves were), accompanied by the shift supervisor Boris Baranov. [79] [80] [81] Upon succeeding, all risk of a further steam explosion was eliminated. All three men were awarded the Order For Courage by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in May 2018. [82]

Research by Andrew Leatherbarrow, author of Chernobyl 01:23:40, [77] determined that the frequently recounted story that suggests that all three men died just days after the incident is false. Alexei Ananenko continues to work in the nuclear energy industry, and rebuffs the growth of the Chernobyl media sensationalism surrounding him. [83] While Valeri Bezpalov was found to still be alive by Leatherbarrow, Baranov had died of heart failure in 2005 at age 65. [84]

Once the bubbler pool gates were opened by the Ananenko team, fire brigade pumps were then used to drain the basement. The operation was not completed until 8 May, after 20,000 tonnes (20,000 long tons 22,000 short tons) of water were pumped out. [ citation needed ]

Natural water table

With the bubbler pool gone, a meltdown was less likely to produce a powerful steam explosion. To do so, the molten core would now have to reach the water table below the reactor. To reduce the likelihood of this, it was decided to freeze the earth beneath the reactor, which would also stabilize the foundations. Using oil well drilling equipment, the injection of liquid nitrogen began on 4 May. It was estimated that 25 tonnes of liquid nitrogen per day would be required to keep the soil frozen at −100 °C (−148 °F). [24] : 59 This idea was soon scrapped. [85]

As an alternative, coal miners were deployed to excavate a tunnel below the reactor to make room for a cooling system. The final makeshift design for the cooling system was to incorporate a coiled formation of pipes cooled with water and covered on top with a thin thermally conductive graphite layer. The graphite layer as a natural refractory material would rapidly cool the suspected molten uranium oxide without it burning through. This graphite cooling plate layer was to be encapsulated between two concrete layers, each one meter thick for stabilisation. This system was designed by Leonid Bolshov, the director of the Institute for Nuclear Safety and Development formed in 1988. Bolshov's graphite-concrete "sandwich" would be similar in concept to later core catchers that are now part of many nuclear reactor designs. [86]

Bolshov's graphite cooling plate, alongside the prior nitrogen injection proposal, were not used following the drop in aerial temperatures and indicative reports that the fuel melt had stopped. It was later determined that the fuel had passed through three storeys before coming to rest in one of a number of basement rooms. The precautionary underground channel with its active cooling was therefore deemed redundant, as the fuel was self-cooling. The excavation was then simply filled with concrete to strengthen the foundation below the reactor. [87]

Debris removal

In the months after the explosion attention turned to removing the radioactive debris from the roof. [88] While the worst of the radioactive debris had remained inside what was left of the reactor, it was estimated that there was approximately 100 tons of debris on that roof which had to be removed to enable the safe construction of the 'sarcophagus'—a concrete structure that would entomb the reactor and reduce radioactive dust being released into the atmosphere. [88] The initial plan was to use robots to clear the debris off the roof. The Soviets used approximately 60 remote-controlled robots, most of them built in the Soviet Union itself. Many failed due to the effect of high levels of radiation on their electronic controls [88] in 1987, Valery Legasov, first deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy in Moscow, said: "We learned that robots are not the great remedy for everything. Where there was very high radiation, the robot ceased to be a robot—the electronics quit working." [89] Consequently, the most highly radioactive materials were shoveled by Chernobyl liquidators from the military wearing heavy protective gear (dubbed "bio-robots" by the military) these soldiers could only spend a maximum of 40–90 seconds working on the rooftops of the surrounding buildings because of the extremely high doses of radiation given off by the blocks of graphite and other debris. Though the soldiers were only supposed to perform the role of the "bio-robot" a maximum of once, some soldiers reported having done this task five or six times. [ citation needed ] Only 10% of the debris cleared from the roof was performed by robots the other 90% removed by approximately 5,000 men who absorbed, on average, an estimated dose of 25 rem (250 mSv) of radiation each. [88]

Construction of the sarcophagus

With the extinguishing of the open air reactor fire, the next step was to prevent the spread of contamination. This could be due to wind action which could carry away loose contamination, and by birds which could land within the wreckage and then carry contamination elsewhere. In addition, rainwater could wash contamination away from the reactor area and into the sub-surface water table, where it could migrate outside the site area. Rainwater falling on the wreckage could also weaken the remaining reactor structure by accelerating corrosion of steelwork. A further challenge was to reduce the large amount of emitted gamma radiation, which was a hazard to the workforce operating the adjacent reactor No. 3. [ citation needed ]

The solution chosen was to enclose the wrecked reactor by the construction of a huge composite steel and concrete shelter, which became known as the "Sarcophagus". It had to be erected quickly and within the constraints of high levels of ambient gamma radiation. The design started on 20 May 1986, 24 days after the disaster, and construction was from June to late November. [90] This major construction project was carried out under the very difficult circumstances of high levels of radiation both from the core remnants and the deposited radioactive contamination around it. The construction workers had to be protected from radiation, and techniques such as crane drivers working from lead-lined control cabins were employed. The construction work included erecting walls around the perimeter, clearing and surface concreting the surrounding ground to remove sources of radiation and to allow access for large construction machinery, constructing a thick radiation shielding wall to protect the workers in reactor No. 3, fabricating a high-rise buttress to strengthen weak parts of the old structure, constructing an overall roof, and provisioning a ventilation extract system to capture any airborne contamination arising within the shelter. [ citation needed ]

Investigations of the reactor condition

During the construction of the sarcophagus, a scientific team, as part of an investigation dubbed "Complex Expedition", re-entered the reactor to locate and contain nuclear fuel to prevent another explosion. These scientists manually collected cold fuel rods, but great heat was still emanating from the core. Rates of radiation in different parts of the building were monitored by drilling holes into the reactor and inserting long metal detector tubes. The scientists were exposed to high levels of radiation and radioactive dust. [57] In December 1986, after six months of investigation, the team discovered with the help of a remote camera that an intensely radioactive mass more than two metres wide had formed in the basement of Unit Four. The mass was called "the elephant's foot" for its wrinkled appearance. [91] It was composed of melted sand, concrete, and a large amount of nuclear fuel that had escaped from the reactor. The concrete beneath the reactor was steaming hot, and was breached by now-solidified lava and spectacular unknown crystalline forms termed chernobylite. It was concluded that there was no further risk of explosion. [57]

Area cleanup

The official contaminated zones saw a massive clean-up effort lasting seven months. [63] : 177–183 The official reason for such early (and dangerous) decontamination efforts, rather than allowing time for natural decay, was that the land must be repopulated and brought back into cultivation. Indeed, within fifteen months 75% of the land was under cultivation, even though only a third of the evacuated villages were resettled. Defence forces must have done much of the work. Yet this land was of marginal agricultural value. According to historian David Marples, the administration had a psychological purpose for the clean-up: they wished to forestall panic regarding nuclear energy, and even to restart the Chernobyl power station. [63] : 78–79, 87, 192–193 Although a number of radioactive emergency vehicles were buried in trenches, many of the vehicles used by the liquidators, including the helicopters, still remained, as of 2018, parked in a field in the Chernobyl area. Scavengers have since removed many functioning, but highly radioactive, parts. [92] Liquidators worked under deplorable conditions, poorly informed and with poor protection. Many, if not most of them, exceeded radiation safety limits. [63] : 177–183 [93]

The urban decontamination liquidators first washed buildings and roads with "Bourda", a sticky polymerizing fluid, designed to entrain radioactive dust and, when dry, could then be peeled off and compacted into configurations, akin to carpet rolls, in preparation for burial. [ dubious – discuss ] [ better source needed ] [94]

A unique "clean up" medal was given to the clean-up workers, known as "liquidators". [95]

To investigate the causes of the accident the IAEA used the International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group (INSAG), which had been created by the IAEA in 1985. [96] It produced two significant reports on Chernobyl INSAG-1 in 1986, and a revised report, INSAG-7 in 1992. In summary, according to INSAG-1, the main cause of the accident was the operators' actions, but according to INSAG-7, the main cause was the reactor's design. [7] : 24 [97] Both IAEA reports identified an inadequate "safety culture" (INSAG-1 coined the term) at all managerial and operational levels as a major underlying factor of different aspects of the accident. This was stated to be inherent not only in operations but also during design, engineering, construction, manufacture and regulation. [7] : 21,24

Views of the main causes were heavily lobbied by different groups, including the reactor's designers, power plant personnel, and the Soviet and Ukrainian governments. This was due to the uncertainty about the actual sequence of events and plant parameters. After INSAG-1 more information became available, and more powerful computing has allowed better forensic simulations. [7] : 10

The INSAG-7 conclusion of major factors contributory to the accident was:

"The Accident is now seen to have been the result of concurrance of the following major factors: specific physical characteristics of the reactor specific design features of the reactor control elements and the fact that the reactor was brought to a state not specified by procedures or investigated by an independent safety body. Most importantly, the physical characteristics of the reactor made possible its unstable behaviour." [7] : 23

INSAG-1 report, 1986

The first Soviet official explanation of the accident was by means of presentations from leading Soviet scientists and engineers to a large number of representatives from IAEA member states and other international organisations at the first Post-Accident Review Meeting, held at the IAEA in Vienna between 25 and 29 August 1986. This explanation effectively placed the blame on the power plant operators. The IAEA INSAG-1 report followed shortly afterwards in September 1986, and on the whole also supported this view, based also on the information provided in discussions with the Soviet experts at the Vienna review meeting. [98] In this view, the catastrophic accident was caused by gross violations of operating rules and regulations. For instance "During preparation and testing of the turbine generator under run-down conditions using the auxiliary load, personnel disconnected a series of technical protection systems and breached the most important operational safety provisions for conducting a technical exercise." [32] : 311

It was stated that at the time of the accident the reactor was being operated with many key safety systems turned off, most notably the Emergency Core Cooling System (ECCS), LAR (Local Automatic control system), and AZ (emergency power reduction system). Personnel had an insufficient understanding of technical procedures involved with the nuclear reactor, and knowingly ignored regulations to expedite the electrical test completion. [32] Several procedural irregularities also helped to make the accident possible, one of which was insufficient communication between the safety officers and the operators in charge of the test. The main process computer, SKALA, was running in such a way that the main control computer could not shut down the reactor or even reduce power. Normally the computer would have started to insert all of the control rods. The computer would have also started the "Emergency Core Protection System" that introduces 24 control rods into the active zone within 2.5 seconds, which is still slow by 1986 standards. All control was transferred from the process computer to the human operators.

It was held that the designers of the reactor considered this combination of events to be impossible and therefore did not allow for the creation of emergency protection systems capable of preventing the combination of events that led to the crisis, namely the intentional disabling of emergency protection equipment plus the violation of operating procedures. Thus the primary cause of the accident was the extremely improbable combination of rule infringement plus the operational routine allowed by the power station staff. [32] : 312

On the disconnection of safety systems, Valery Legasov said in 1987, "It was like airplane pilots experimenting with the engines in flight." [99] In this analysis the operators were blamed, but deficiencies in the reactor design and in the operating regulations that made the accident possible were set aside and mentioned only casually. This view was reflected in numerous publications and artistic works on the theme of the Chernobyl accident that appeared immediately after the accident, [24] and for a long time remained dominant in the public consciousness and in popular publications.

Soviet criminal trial 1987

The trial took place from 7 to 30 July 1987 in a temporary courtroom set up in the House of Culture in the city of Chernobyl, Ukraine. Five plant employees (Anatoly S. Dyatlov, the former deputy chief engineer Viktor P. Bryukhanov, the former plant director Nikolai M. Fomin, the former chief engineer Boris V. Rogozhin, the shift director of Reactor 4 and Aleksandr P. Kovalenko, the chief of Reactor 4) and Yuri A. Laushkin (Gosatomenergonadzor [USSR State Committee on Supervision of Safe Conduct of Work in Atomic Energy] inspector) were sentenced to ten, ten, ten, five, three, and two years respectively in labor camps. [100] The families of Aleksandr Akimov, Leonid Toptunov and Valery Perevozchenko had received official letters, but prosecution against the employees had been terminated at their deaths.

Anatoly Dyatlov was found guilty "of criminal mismanagement of potentially explosive enterprises" and sentenced to ten years imprisonment—of which he would serve three [101] —for the role that his oversight of the experiment played in the ensuing accident.

INSAG-7 report 1992

In 1991 a Commission of the USSR State Committee for the Supervision of Safety in Industry and Nuclear Power reassessed the causes and circumstances of the Chernobyl accident and came to new insights and conclusions. Based on that, INSAG published an additional report, INSAG-7, [7] which reviewed "that part of the INSAG-1 report in which primary attention is given to the reasons for the accident," and this included the text of the 1991 USSR State Commission report translated into English by the IAEA as Annex I. [7]

By the time of this report, Ukraine had declassified a number of KGB documents from the period between 1971 and 1988 related to the Chernobyl plant. It mentioned, for example, previous reports of structural damage caused by negligence during construction of the plant (such as splitting of concrete layers) that were never acted upon. They documented more than 29 emergency situations in the plant during this period, eight of which were caused by negligence or poor competence on the part of personnel. [103]

In the INSAG-7 report, most of the earlier accusations against staff for breach of regulations were acknowledged to be either erroneous, being based on incorrect information obtained in August 1986, or were judged less relevant. The INSAG-7 report also reflected the view of the 1991 USSR State Commission account which held that the operators' actions in turning off the Emergency Core Cooling System, interfering with the settings on the protection equipment, and blocking the level and pressure in the separator drum did not contribute to the original cause of the accident and its magnitude, although they may have been a breach of regulations. In fact, turning off the emergency system designed to prevent the two turbine generators from stopping was not a violation of regulations. [7] Soviet authorities had identified a multitude of operator actions as regulation violations in the original 1986 report while no such regulations were in fact in place. [7] : 18

The primary design cause of the accident, as determined by INSAG-7, was a major deficiency in safety features, [7] : 22 in particular the "positive scram" effect due to the control rods' graphite tips that actually initially increased reactivity when control rods entered the core to reduce reactivity. [7] : 16 There was also an overly positive void coefficient of the reactor, whereby steam-generated voids in the fuel cooling channels would increase reactivity because neutron absorption was reduced, resulting in more steam generation, and thereby more voids a regenerative process. [7] : 13 To avoid such conditions, it was necessary for the operators to track the value of the reactor operational reactivity margin (ORM) but this value was not readily available to the operators [7] : 17 and they were not aware of the safety significance of ORM on void and power coefficients. [7] : 14 However, regulations did forbid operating the reactor with a small margin of reactivity. Yet "post-accident studies have shown that the way in which the real role of the ORM is reflected in the Operating Procedures and design documentation for the RBMK-1000 is extremely contradictory", and furthermore, "ORM was not treated as an operational safety limit, violation of which could lead to an accident". [7] : 34–25

Even in this revised analysis, the human factor remained identified as a major factor in causing the accident particularly the operating crew's deviation from the test programme. "Most reprehensibly, unapproved changes in the test procedure were deliberately made on the spot, although the plant was known to be in a very different condition from that intended for the test." [7] : 24 This included operating the reactor at a lower power level than the prescribed 700 MW before starting the electrical test. The 1986 assertions of Soviet experts notwithstanding, regulations did not prohibit operating the reactor at this low power level. [7] : 18

INSAG-7 also said, "The poor quality of operating procedures and instructions, and their conflicting character, put a heavy burden on the operating crew, including the chief engineer. The accident can be said to have flowed from a deficient safety culture, not only at the Chernobyl plant, but throughout the Soviet design, operating and regulatory organizations for nuclear power that existed at that time." [7] : 24

In summary, the major factors were: [7] : 18–24

Positive void coefficient

The reactor had a dangerously large positive void coefficient of reactivity. The void coefficient is a measurement of how a reactor responds to increased steam formation in the water coolant. Most other reactor designs have a negative coefficient, i.e. the nuclear reaction rate slows when steam bubbles form in the coolant, since as the steam voids increase, fewer neutrons are slowed down. Faster neutrons are less likely to split uranium atoms, so the reactor produces less power (negative feedback effect).

Chernobyl's RBMK reactor, however, used solid graphite as a neutron moderator to slow down the neutrons, and the cooling water acted as a neutron absorber. Thus neutrons are moderated by the graphite even if steam bubbles form in the water. Furthermore, because steam absorbs neutrons much less readily than water, increasing the voids means that more moderated neutrons are able to split uranium atoms, increasing the reactor's power output. This was a positive feedback regenerative process which makes the RBMK design very unstable at low power levels, and prone to sudden energy surges to a dangerous level. Not only was this behaviour counter-intuitive, this property of the reactor under certain extreme conditions was unknown to the crew.

Control rod design

There was a significant flaw in the design of the control rods that were inserted into the reactor to slow down the reaction rate by neutron absorption. In the RBMK design, the bottom tip of each control rod was made of graphite and was 1.3 metres (4.3 ft) shorter than necessary. Only the upper part of the rod was made of boron carbide, which absorbs neutrons and thereby slows the reaction. With this design, when a rod was inserted from the fully retracted position, the graphite tip displaced neutron-absorbing water, initially causing fewer neutrons to be absorbed and increasing reactivity. For the first few seconds of rod deployment, reactor core power was therefore increased, rather than reduced. This feature of control rod operation was counter-intuitive and not known to the reactor operators.

Management and operational deficiencies

Other deficiencies were noted in the RBMK-1000 reactor design, as were its non-compliance with accepted standards and with the requirements of nuclear reactor safety. While INSAG-1 and INSAG-7 reports both identified operator error as an issue of concern, the INSAG-7 identified that there were numerous other issues that were contributing factors that led to the incident. These contributing factors include:

  1. The plant was not designed to safety standards in effect and incorporated unsafe features
  2. "Inadequate safety analysis" was performed [7]
  3. There was "insufficient attention to independent safety review" [7]
  4. "Operating procedures not founded satisfactorily in safety analysis" [7]
  5. Safety information not adequately and effectively communicated between operators, and between operators and designers
  6. The operators did not adequately understand safety aspects of the plant
  7. Operators did not sufficiently respect formal requirements of operational and test procedures
  8. The regulatory regime was insufficient to effectively counter pressures for production
  9. There was a "general lack of safety culture in nuclear matters at the national level as well as locally" [7]

The force of the second explosion and the ratio of xenon radioisotopes released after the accident led Yuri V. Dubasov in 2009 to theorise that the second explosion could have been an extremely fast nuclear power transient resulting from core material melting in the absence of its water coolant and moderator. Dubasov argued that there was no delayed supercritical increase in power but a runaway prompt criticality which would have developed much faster. He felt the physics of this would be more similar to the explosion of a fizzled nuclear weapon, and it produced the second explosion. [104] His evidence came from Cherepovets, Vologda Oblast, Russia, 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) northeast of Chernobyl, where physicists from the V.G. Khlopin Radium Institute measured anomalous high levels of xenon-135—a short half-life isotope—four days after the explosion. This meant that a nuclear event in the reactor may have ejected xenon to higher altitudes in the atmosphere than the later fire did, allowing widespread movement of xenon to remote locations. [105] This was an alternative to the more accepted explanation of a positive-feedback power excursion where the reactor disassembled itself by steam explosion. [7] [104]

The more energetic second explosion, which produced the majority of the damage, was estimated by Dubasov in 2009 as equivalent to 40 billion joules of energy, the equivalent of about 10 tons of TNT. Both his 2009 and 2017 analyses argue that the nuclear fizzle event, whether producing the second or first explosion, consisted of a prompt chain reaction that was limited to a small portion of the reactor core, since self-disassembly occurs rapidly in fizzle events. [104] [106] [107]

Dubasov's nuclear fizzle hypothesis was examined in 2017 by physicist Lars-Erik De Geer who put the hypothesized fizzle event as the more probable cause of the first explosion. [106] [108] [109]

"We believe that thermal neutron mediated nuclear explosions at the bottom of a number of fuel channels in the reactor caused a jet of debris to shoot upwards through the refuelling tubes. This jet then rammed the tubes' 350kg plugs, continued through the roof and travelled into the atmosphere to altitudes of 2.5–3km where the weather conditions provided a route to Cherepovets. The steam explosion which ruptured the reactor vessel occurred some 2.7 seconds later." [105]

Although it is difficult to compare releases between the Chernobyl accident and a deliberate air burst nuclear detonation, it has still been estimated that about four hundred times more radioactive material was released from Chernobyl than by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki together. However, the Chernobyl accident only released about one hundredth to one thousandth of the total amount of radioactivity released during nuclear weapons testing at the height of the Cold War the wide estimate being due to the different abundances of isotopes released. [110] At Chernobyl approximately 100,000 square kilometres (39,000 sq mi) of land was significantly contaminated with fallout, with the worst hit regions being in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. [111] Lower levels of contamination were detected over all of Europe except for the Iberian Peninsula. [112] [113] [114]

The initial evidence that a major release of radioactive material was affecting other countries came not from Soviet sources, but from Sweden. On the morning of 28 April, [115] workers at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant (approximately 1,100 km (680 mi) from the Chernobyl site) were found to have radioactive particles on their clothes. [116]

It was Sweden's search for the source of radioactivity, after they had determined there was no leak at the Swedish plant, that at noon on 28 April, led to the first hint of a serious nuclear problem in the western Soviet Union. Hence the evacuation of Pripyat on 27 April 36 hours after the initial explosions was silently completed before the disaster became known outside the Soviet Union. The rise in radiation levels had at that time already been measured in Finland, but a civil service strike delayed the response and publication. [117]

Areas of Europe contaminated with 137 Cs [118]
Country 37–185 kBq/m 2 185–555 kBq/m 2 555–1,480 kBq/m 2 > 1,480 kBq/m 2
km 2 % of country km 2 % of country km 2 % of country km 2 % of country
Belarus 29,900 14.4 10,200 4.9 4,200 2.0 2,200 1.1
Ukraine 37,200 6.2 3,200 0.53 900 0.15 600 0.1
Russia 49,800 0.3 5,700 0.03 2,100 0.01 300 0.002
Sweden 12,000 2.7
Finland 11,500 3.4
Austria 8,600 10.3
Norway 5,200 1.3
Bulgaria 4,800 4.3
Switzerland 1,300 3.1
Greece 1,200 0.9
Slovenia 300 1.5
Italy 300 0.1
Moldova 60 0.2
Totals 162,160 km 2 19,100 km 2 7,200 km 2 3,100 km 2

Contamination from the Chernobyl accident was scattered irregularly depending on weather conditions, much of it deposited on mountainous regions such as the Alps, the Welsh mountains and the Scottish Highlands, where adiabatic cooling caused radioactive rainfall. The resulting patches of contamination were often highly localized, and localised water-flows contributed to large variations in radioactivity over small areas. Sweden and Norway also received heavy fallout when the contaminated air collided with a cold front, bringing rain. [119] : 43–44, 78 There was also groundwater contamination.

Rain was deliberately seeded over 10,000 square kilometres (3,900 sq mi) of the Belorussian SSR by the Soviet air force to remove radioactive particles from clouds heading toward highly populated areas. Heavy, black-coloured rain fell on the city of Gomel. [120] Reports from Soviet and Western scientists indicate that Belarus received about 60% of the contamination that fell on the former Soviet Union. However, the 2006 TORCH report stated that half of the volatile particles had landed outside Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. A large area in Russia south of Bryansk was also contaminated, as were parts of northwestern Ukraine. Studies in surrounding countries indicate that more than one million people could have been affected by radiation. [121]

Recently published data from a long-term monitoring program (The Korma Report II) [122] shows a decrease in internal radiation exposure of the inhabitants of a region in Belarus close to Gomel. Resettlement may even be possible in prohibited areas provided that people comply with appropriate dietary rules.

In Western Europe, precautionary measures taken in response to the radiation included banning the importation of certain foods. In France officials stated that the Chernobyl accident had no adverse effects. [123] [ incomplete short citation ]

Relative isotopic abundances

The Chernobyl release was characterised by the physical and chemical properties of the radio-isotopes in the core. Particularly dangerous were the highly radioactive fission products, those with high nuclear decay rates that accumulate in the food chain, such as some of the isotopes of iodine, caesium and strontium. Iodine-131 was and caesium-137 remains the two most responsible for the radiation exposure received by the general population. [4]

Detailed reports on the release of radioisotopes from the site were published in 1989 [124] and 1995, [125] with the latter report updated in 2002. [4]

At different times after the accident, different isotopes were responsible for the majority of the external dose. The remaining quantity of any radioisotope, and therefore the activity of that isotope, after 7 decay half-lives have passed, is less than 1% of its initial magnitude, [126] and it continues to reduce beyond 0.78% after 7 half-lives to 0.10% remaining after 10 half-lives have passed and so on. [127] [128] Some radionuclides have decay products that are likewise radioactive, which is not accounted for here. The release of radioisotopes from the nuclear fuel was largely controlled by their boiling points, and the majority of the radioactivity present in the core was retained in the reactor.

  • All of the noble gases, including krypton and xenon, contained within the reactor were released immediately into the atmosphere by the first steam explosion. [4] The atmospheric release of xenon-133, with a half-life of 5 days, is estimated at 5200 PBq. [4]
  • 50 to 60% of all core radioiodine in the reactor, about 1760 PBq ( 1760 × 10 15 becquerels ), or about 0.4 kilograms (0.88 lb), was released, as a mixture of sublimedvapour, solid particles, and organic iodinecompounds. Iodine-131 has a half-life of 8 days. [4]
  • 20 to 40% of all core caesium-137 was released, 85 PBq in all. [4][129] Caesium was released in aerosol form caesium-137, along with isotopes of strontium, are the two primary elements preventing the Chernobyl exclusion zone being re-inhabited. [130] 8.5 × 10 16 Bq equals 24 kilograms of caesium-137. [130] Cs-137 has a half-life of 30 years. [4] , half-life 78 hours, an estimated 1150 PBq was released. [4]
  • An early estimate for total nuclear fuel material released to the environment was 3 ± 1.5 % this was later revised to 3.5 ± 0.5 %. This corresponds to the atmospheric emission of 6 tonnes (5.9 long tons 6.6 short tons) of fragmented fuel. [125]

Two sizes of particles were released: small particles of 0.3 to 1.5 micrometres, each an individually unrecognizable small dust or smog sized particulate matter and larger settling dust sized particles that therefore were quicker to fall-out of the air, of 10 micrometres in diameter. These larger particles contained about 80% to 90% of the released high boiling point or non-volatile radioisotopes zirconium-95, niobium-95, lanthanum-140, cerium-144 and the transuranic elements, including neptunium, plutonium and the minor actinides, embedded in a uranium oxide matrix.

The dose that was calculated is the relative external gamma dose rate for a person standing in the open. The exact dose to a person in the real world who would spend most of their time sleeping indoors in a shelter and then venturing out to consume an internal dose from the inhalation or ingestion of a radioisotope, requires a personnel specific radiation dose reconstruction analysis and whole body count exams, of which 16,000 were conducted in Ukraine by Soviet medical personnel in 1987. [131]

Water bodies

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant is located next to the Pripyat River, which feeds into the Dnieper reservoir system, one of the largest surface water systems in Europe, which at the time supplied water to Kiev's 2.4 million residents, and was still in spring flood when the accident occurred. [63] : 60 The radioactive contamination of aquatic systems therefore became a major problem in the immediate aftermath of the accident. [132]

In the most affected areas of Ukraine, levels of radioactivity (particularly from radionuclides 131 I, 137 Cs and 90 Sr) in drinking water caused concern during the weeks and months after the accident. [132] Guidelines for levels of radioiodine in drinking water were temporarily raised to 3,700 Bq/L, allowing most water to be reported as safe. [132] Officially it was stated that all contaminants had settled to the bottom "in an insoluble phase" and would not dissolve for 800–1000 years. [63] : 64 [ better source needed ] A year after the accident it was announced that even the water of the Chernobyl plant's cooling pond was within acceptable norms. Despite this, two months after the disaster the Kiev water supply was switched from the Dnieper to the Desna River. [63] : 64–65 [ better source needed ] Meanwhile, massive silt traps were constructed, along with an enormous 30-metre (98 ft) deep underground barrier to prevent groundwater from the destroyed reactor entering the Pripyat River. [63] : 65–67 [ better source needed ]

Groundwater was not badly affected by the Chernobyl accident since radionuclides with short half-lives decayed away long before they could affect groundwater supplies, and longer-lived radionuclides such as radiocaesium and radiostrontium were adsorbed to surface soils before they could transfer to groundwater. [133] However, significant transfers of radionuclides to groundwater have occurred from waste disposal sites in the 30 km (19 mi) exclusion zone around Chernobyl. Although there is a potential for transfer of radionuclides from these disposal sites off-site (i.e. out of the 30 km (19 mi) exclusion zone), the IAEA Chernobyl Report [133] argues that this is not significant in comparison to current levels of washout of surface-deposited radioactivity.

Bio-accumulation of radioactivity in fish [134] resulted in concentrations (both in western Europe and in the former Soviet Union) that in many cases were significantly [ vague ] above guideline maximum levels for consumption. [132] Guideline maximum levels for radiocaesium in fish vary from country to country but are approximately 1000 Bq/kg in the European Union. [135] In the Kiev Reservoir in Ukraine, concentrations in fish were in the range of 3000 Bq/kg during the first few years after the accident. [134]

In small "closed" lakes in Belarus and the Bryansk region of Russia, concentrations in a number of fish species varied from 100 to 60,000 Bq/kg during the period 1990–92. [136] The contamination of fish caused short-term concern in parts of the UK and Germany and in the long term (years rather than months) in the affected areas of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia as well as in parts of Scandinavia. [132]

Chernobyl's radiocaesium deposits were used to calibrate sedimentation samples from Lake Qattinah, Arabic: بحيرة قطينة in Syria. The 137
55 Cs
provides a sharp, maximal, data point in radioactivity of the core sample at the 1986 depth, and acts as a date check on the depth of the 210
82 Pb
in the core sample. [137]

Flora and fauna

After the disaster, four square kilometres (1.5 sq mi) of pine forest directly downwind of the reactor turned reddish-brown and died, earning the name of the "Red Forest". [138] Some animals in the worst-hit areas also died or stopped reproducing. Most domestic animals were removed from the exclusion zone, but horses left on an island in the Pripyat River 6 km (4 mi) from the power plant died when their thyroid glands were destroyed by radiation doses of 150–200 Sv. [139] Some cattle on the same island died and those that survived were stunted because of thyroid damage. The next generation appeared to be normal. [139]

On farms in Narodychi Raion of Ukraine it is claimed that from 1986 to 1990 nearly 350 animals were born with gross deformities such as missing or extra limbs, missing eyes, heads or ribs, or deformed skulls in comparison, only three abnormal births had been registered in the five years prior. [140] [ better source needed ]

Subsequent research on microorganisms, while limited, suggests that in the aftermath of the disaster, bacterial and viral specimens exposed to the radiation (including Mycobacterium tuberculosis, herpesvirus, cytomegalovirus, hepatitis-causing viruses, and tobacco mosaic virus) underwent rapid changes. [141] Activations of soil micromycetes have been reported. [141] It is currently unclear how these changes in species with rapid reproductive turnover (which were not destroyed by the radiation but instead survived) will manifest in terms of virulence, drug resistance, immune evasion, and so on a paper in 1998 reported the discovery of an Escherichia coli mutant that was hyper-resistant to a variety of DNA-damaging elements, including x-ray radiation, UV-C, and 4-nitroquinoline 1-oxide (4NQO). [142] Cladosporium sphaerospermum, a species of fungus that has thrived in the Chernobyl contaminated area, has been investigated for the purpose of using the fungus' particular melanin to protect against high-radiation environments, such as space travel. [143]

Human food chain

With radiocaesium binding less with humic acid, peaty soils than the known binding "fixation" that occurs on kaolinite rich clay soils, many marshy areas of Ukraine had the highest soil to dairy-milk transfer coefficients, of soil activity in

200 kBq/m 2 to dairy milk activity in Bq/L, that had ever been reported, with the transfer, from initial land activity into milk activity, ranging from 0.3 −2 to 20 −2 times that which was on the soil, a variance depending on the natural acidicity-conditioning of the pasture. [131]

In 1987, Soviet medical teams conducted some 16,000 whole-body count examinations on inhabitants in otherwise comparatively lightly contaminated regions with good prospects for recovery. This was to determine the effect of banning local food and using only food imports on the internal body burden of radionuclides in inhabitants. Concurrent agricultural countermeasures were used when cultivation did occur, to further reduce the soil to human transfer as much as possible. The expected highest body activity was in the first few years, where the unabated ingestion of local food, primarily milk consumption, resulted in the transfer of activity from soil to body after the dissolution of the USSR, the now-reduced scale initiative to monitor the human body activity in these regions of Ukraine, recorded a small and gradual half-decadal-long rise, in internal committed dose, before returning to the previous trend of observing ever lower body counts each year.

This momentary rise is hypothesized to be due to the cessation of the Soviet food imports together with many villagers returning to older dairy food cultivation practices and large increases in wild berry and mushroom foraging, the latter of which have similar peaty soil to fruiting body, radiocaesium transfer coefficients. [131]

In a 2007 paper, a robot sent into the reactor itself returned with samples of black, melanin-rich radiotrophic fungi that grow on the reactor's walls. [146]

Of the 440,350 wild boar killed in the 2010 hunting season in Germany, approximately one thousand were contaminated with levels of radiation above the permitted limit of 600 becquerels of caesium per kilogram, of dry weight, due to residual radioactivity from Chernobyl. [147] While all animal meat contains a natural level of potassium-40 at a similar level of activity, with both wild and farm animals in Italy containing "415 ± 56 becquerels kg−1 dw" of that naturally occurring gamma emitter. [148]

The caesium contamination issue has historically reached some uniquely isolated and high levels approaching 20,000 Becquerels of caesium per kilogram in some specific tests however, it has not been observed in the wild boar population of Fukushima after the 2011 accident. [149] Evidence exists to suggest that the wild German and Ukrainian boar population are in a unique location were they have subsisted on a diet high in plant or fungi sources that biomagnifies or concentrates radiocaesium, with the most well known food source the consumption of the outer shell or wall of the "deer-truffle" elaphomyces which, along with magnifying radiocaesium, also magnifies or concentrates natural soil concentrations of arsenic. [150]

In 2015, long-term empirical data showed no evidence of a negative influence of radiation on mammal abundance. [151]

Precipitation on distant high ground

On high ground, such as mountain ranges, there is increased precipitation due to adiabatic cooling. This resulted in localized concentrations of contaminants on distant areas higher in Bq/m 2 values to many lowland areas much closer to the source of the plume. This effect occurred on high ground in Norway and the UK.


The Norwegian Agricultural Authority reported that in 2009 a total of 18,000 livestock in Norway required uncontaminated feed for a period before slaughter, to ensure that their meat had an activity below the government permitted value of caesium per kilogram deemed suitable for human consumption. This contamination was due to residual radioactivity from Chernobyl in the mountain plants they graze on in the wild during the summer. 1,914 sheep required uncontaminated feed for a time before slaughter during 2012, with these sheep located in only 18 of Norway's municipalities, a decrease from the 35 municipalities in 2011 and the 117 municipalities affected during 1986. [152] The after-effects of Chernobyl on the mountain lamb industry in Norway were expected to be seen for a further 100 years, although the severity of the effects would decline over that period. [153] Scientists report this is due to radioactive caesium-137 isotopes being taken up by fungi such as Cortinarius caperatus which is in turn eaten by sheep while grazing. [152]

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom restricted the movement of sheep from upland areas when radioactive caesium-137 fell across parts of Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and northern England. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster in 1986, the movement of a total of 4,225,000 sheep was restricted across a total of 9,700 farms, to prevent contaminated meat entering the human food chain. [154] The number of sheep and the number of farms affected has decreased since 1986. Northern Ireland was released from all restrictions in 2000, and by 2009, 369 farms containing around 190,000 sheep remained under the restrictions in Wales, Cumbria, and northern Scotland. [154] The restrictions applying in Scotland were lifted in 2010, while those applying to Wales and Cumbria were lifted during 2012, meaning no farms in the UK remain restricted because of Chernobyl fallout. [155] [156]

The legislation used to control sheep movement and compensate farmers (farmers were latterly compensated per animal to cover additional costs in holding animals prior to radiation monitoring) was revoked during October and November 2012, by the relevant authorities in the UK. [157] Had restrictions in the UK not occurred, a heavy consumer of lamb meat would likely have received a dose of 4.1 mSv over a lifetime. [17]

Acute radiation effects during emergency response and immediate aftermath

In the accident's aftermath, 237 people suffered from acute radiation sickness, of whom 31 died within the first three months. [158] [159] In 2005, the Chernobyl Forum, composed of the International Atomic Energy Agency, other UN organizations, and the governments of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, published a report on the radiological environmental and health consequences of the Chernobyl accident. In September 1987, the I.A.E.A. held an Advisory Group Meeting at the Curie Institute in Paris on the medical handling of the skin lesions relating to the acute deaths. [160] The only known, causal deaths from the accident involved workers in the plant and firefighters. In reporter Grigori Medvedev's book on the accident, there were a number of fishermen on the reservoir a half-kilometer from the reactor to the east. Of these, two shore fishermen, Protosov and Pustavoit, are said to have sustained doses estimated at 400 roentgens, vomited, but survived. [35] [36] The vast majority of Pripyat residents slept through the distant sound of the explosion, including station engineer Breus, who only became aware at 6am, the beginning of his next work shift. He would later be taken to hospital and, while there, made the acquaintance of one teen who had ventured out alone by bicycle to watch the roof fires during the night, stopping for a time and viewing the scene at the "Bridge of Death" 51°23′42″N 30°04′10″E  /  51.3949°N 30.0695°E  / 51.3949 30.0695  ( Bridge of Death ) , however contrary to this sensationalist label, the youthful night biker was treated and released from hospital, remaining in touch with Breus as of 2019. [161] [162] [163]

With the exception of plant employee Shashenock, injured by the blast and never fully regaining consciousness, all serious cases of ARS were treated by the world specialist Dr. Robert Peter Gale, who documented a first of its kind treatment. [164] [165] In 2019, Gale would write a letter to correct the popularised, though egregious, portrayal of his patients as dangerous to visitors. [166] All those who died were station operators and firefighters, over half of which from the continued wearing of dusty soaked uniforms, causing beta burns to cover large areas of skin. In the first few minutes to days, (largely due to Np-239, a 2.4-day half-life) the beta-to-gamma energy ratio is some 30:1, though while adding to the dose, no proximate deaths would be from the gamma fraction of exposure. [167] [168] [169] Instead, owing to the large area of burned skin, bacterial infection was and remains the overarching concern to those afflicted with ARS, as a leading cause of death, quarantine from the outside environment is a part of the normal treatment protocol. Many of the surviving firefighters, continue to have skin that is atrophied, spider veined with underlying fibrosis due to experiencing extensive beta burns. [169]

The eventual medical report states that 28 people died from acute radiation syndrome over the following days to months. In the years afterward, 15 people have died from thyroid cancer it is roughly estimated that cancer deaths caused by Chernobyl may reach a total of about 4,000 among the five million persons residing in the contaminated areas. The report projected cancer mortality "increases of less than one percent" (

0.3%) on a time span of 80 years, cautioning that this estimate was "speculative" since at this time only a few cancer deaths are linked to the Chernobyl disaster. [170] The report says it is impossible to reliably predict the number of fatal cancers arising from the incident as small differences in assumptions can result in large differences in the estimated health costs. The report says it represents the consensus view of the eight UN organizations.

Of all 66,000 Belarusian emergency workers, by the mid-1990s their government reported that only 150 (roughly 0.2%) died. In contrast, in the much larger work force from Ukraine, numbered in the hundreds of thousands, some 5,722 casualties from a host of non-accident causes, were reported among Ukrainian clean-up workers up to the year 1995, by the National Committee for Radiation Protection of the Ukrainian Population. [111] [171]

Effects of main harmful radionuclides

The four most harmful radionuclides spread from Chernobyl were iodine-131, caesium-134, caesium-137 and strontium-90, with half-lives of 8.02 days, 2.07 years, 30.2 years and 28.8 years respectively. [172] : 8 The iodine was initially viewed with less alarm than the other isotopes, because of its short half-life, but it is highly volatile and now appears to have travelled furthest and caused the most severe health problems. [111] : 24 Strontium, on the other hand, is the least volatile of the four and is of main concern in the areas near Chernobyl itself. [172] : 8 Iodine tends to become concentrated in thyroid and milk glands, leading, among other things, to increased incidence of thyroid cancers. The total ingested dose was largely from iodine and, unlike the other fission products, rapidly found its way from dairy farms to human ingestion. [173] Similarly in dose reconstruction, for those evacuated at different times and from various towns, the inhalation dose was dominated by iodine (40%), along with airborne tellurium (20%) and oxides of rubidium (20%) both as equally secondary, appreciable contributors. [174]

Long term hazards such as caesium tends to accumulate in vital organs such as the heart, [175] while strontium accumulates in bones and may thus be a risk to bone-marrow and lymphocytes. [172] : 8 Radiation is most damaging to cells that are actively dividing. In adult mammals cell division is slow, except in hair follicles, skin, bone marrow and the gastrointestinal tract, which is why vomiting and hair loss are common symptoms of acute radiation sickness. [176] : 42

Assessment complications

By the year 2000, the number of Ukrainians claiming to be radiation 'sufferers' (poterpili) and receiving state benefits had jumped to 3.5 million, or 5% of the population. Many of these are populations resettled from contaminated zones or former or current Chernobyl plant workers. [93] : 4–5 There was and remains a motivated 'push' to achieve 'sufferer' status as it gives access to state benefits and medical services that would otherwise not be made available. [177] According to IAEA-affiliated scientific bodies, the apparent increases of ill health in this large group result partly from economic strains on these countries and poor health-care and nutrition also, they suggest that increased medical vigilance following the accident, particularly a heightened overdiagnosis due to the Screening effect, has meant that many benign cases that would previously have gone unnoticed and untreated (especially of cancer) are now being registered. [111]

The World Health Organization states, "children conceived before or after their father's exposure showed no statistically significant differences in mutation frequencies". [178] This statistically insignificant increase was also seen by independent researchers analyzing the children of the Chernobyl liquidators. [179]

Disputed investigation

The two primary individuals involved with the attempt to suggest that the mutation rate among animals was, and continues to be, higher in the Chernobyl zone, are the Anders Moller and Timothy Mousseau group. [180] [181] [182] [183] Apart from continuing to publish experimentally unrepeatable and discredited papers, Mousseau routinely gives talks at the Helen Caldicott organized symposiums for "Physicians for Social Responsibility", an anti-nuclear advocacy group devoted to bring about a "nuclear free planet". [184] Moreover, in years past, Moller was previously caught and reprimanded for publishing papers that crossed the scientific "misconduct"/"fraud" line. [185] The duo have more recently attempted to publish meta-analyses, in which the primary references they weigh-up, analyze and draw their conclusions from is their own prior papers along with the discredited book Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment. [186]

Withdrawn investigation

In 1996, geneticist colleagues Ronald Chesser and Robert Baker published a paper on the thriving vole population within the exclusion zone, in which the central conclusion of their work was essentially that "The mutation rate in these animals is hundreds and probably thousands of times greater than normal". This claim occurred after they had done a comparison of the mitochondrial DNA of the "Chernobyl voles" with that of a control group of voles from outside the region. [187] These alarming conclusions led the paper to appear on the front cover of the prestigious journal Nature. However, not long after publication, Chesser & Baker discovered a fundamental error in the interpretation of their data, and despite only the authors recognizing the error in which they had incorrectly classified the species of vole and therefore were comparing the genetics of two entirely different vole species to start with, the team made the decision to issue a retraction. [180] [188]


Following the accident, journalists mistrusted many medical professionals (such as the spokesman from the UK National Radiological Protection Board), and in turn encouraged the public to mistrust them. [189] Throughout the European continent, due to this media-driven framing of the contamination, many requests for induced abortions of otherwise normal pregnancies were obtained out of fears of radiation from Chernobyl, including an increased number of abortions in Denmark in the months following the accident. [190]

In Greece, following the accident, many obstetricians were unable to resist requests from worried pregnant mothers over fears of radiation. Although it was determined that the effective dose to Greeks would not exceed one mSv (100 mrem), a dose much lower than that which it was determined would induce embryonic abnormalities or other non-stochastic effects, there was an observed 2,500 increase of otherwise wanted pregnancies being terminated, probably out of fear in the mother of radiation risk. [191] A slightly above the expected number of requested induced abortions occurred in Italy. [192] [193]

Worldwide, an estimated excess of about 150,000 elective abortions may have been performed on otherwise healthy pregnancies out of fears of radiation from Chernobyl, according to Robert Baker and ultimately a 1987 article published by Linda E. Ketchum in the Journal of Nuclear Medicine which mentions but does not reference an IAEA source on the matter. [189] [190] [191] [194] [195] [196]

The available statistical data excludes the Soviet–Ukraine–Belarus abortion rates, as they are presently unavailable. From the available data, an increase in the number of abortions in what were healthy developing human offspring in Denmark occurred in the months following the accident, at a rate of about 400 cases. [190] In Greece, there was an observed 2,500 excess of otherwise wanted pregnancies being terminated. [191] In Italy, a "slightly" above the expected number of induced abortions occurred, approximately 100. [192] [193]

No evidence of changes in the prevalence of human deformities/birth congenital anomalies that might be associated with the accident are apparent in Belarus or Ukraine, the two republics that had the highest exposure to fallout. [197] In Sweden [198] and in Finland where no increase in abortion rates occurred, it was likewise determined that "no association between the temporal and spatial variations in radioactivity and variable incidence of congenital malformations [was found]." [199] A similar null increase in the abortion rate and a healthy baseline situation of no increase in birth defects was determined by assessing the Hungarian Congenital Abnormality Registry. [200] Findings were also mirrored in Austria. [201] Larger "mainly western European" data sets, approaching a million births in the EUROCAT database, divided into "exposed" and control groups were assessed in 1999. As no Chernobyl impacts were detected, the researchers conclude "in retrospect, the widespread fear in the population about the possible effects of exposure on the unborn fetus was not justified". [202] Despite studies from Germany and Turkey, the only robust evidence of negative pregnancy outcomes that transpired after the accident were these elective abortion indirect effects, in Greece, Denmark, Italy etc., due to the anxieties that were created. [197]

In very high doses, it was known at the time that radiation could cause a physiological increase in the rate of pregnancy anomalies, but unlike the dominant linear no-threshold model of radiation and cancer rate increases, it was known, by researchers familiar with both the prior human exposure data and animal testing, that the "Malformation of organs appears to be a deterministic effect with a threshold dose" below which, no rate increase is observed. [203] This teratology (birth defects) issue was discussed by Frank Castronovo of the Harvard Medical School in 1999, publishing a detailed review of dose reconstructions and the available pregnancy data following the Chernobyl accident, inclusive of data from Kiev's two largest obstetrics hospitals. [203] Castronovo concludes that "the lay press with newspaper reporters playing up anecdotal stories of children with birth defects" is, together with dubious studies that show selection bias, the two primary factors causing the persistent belief that Chernobyl increased the background rate of birth defects. When the vast amount of pregnancy data does not support this perception as no women took part in the most radioactive liquidator operations, no in-utero individuals would have been expected to have received a threshold dose. [203]

Studies of low statistical significance on some of the most contaminated and proximal regions of Ukraine and Belarus, tentatively argue with some 50 children who were irradiated by the accident in utero during weeks 8 to 25 of gestation had an increased rate of mental retardation, lower verbal IQ, and possibly other negative effects. These findings may be due to confounding factors or annual variations in random chance. [204] [205]

The Chernobyl liquidators, essentially an all-male civil defense emergency workforce, would go on to father normal children, without an increase in developmental anomalies or a statistically significant increase in the frequencies of germline mutations in their progeny. [179] This normality is similarly seen in the children of the survivors of the Goiânia accident. [206]

A 2021 study based on whole-genome sequencing of children of parents employed as liquidators indicated no trans-generational genetic effects of exposure of parents to ionizing radiation. [207]

Cancer assessments

A report by the International Atomic Energy Agency examines the environmental consequences of the accident. [133] The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation has estimated a global collective dose of radiation exposure from the accident "equivalent on average to 21 additional days of world exposure to natural background radiation" individual doses were far higher than the global mean among those most exposed, including 530,000 primarily male recovery workers (the Chernobyl liquidators) who averaged an effective dose equivalent to an extra 50 years of typical natural background radiation exposure each. [208] [209] [210]

Estimates of the number of deaths that will eventually result from the accident vary enormously disparities reflect both the lack of solid scientific data and the different methodologies used to quantify mortality—whether the discussion is confined to specific geographical areas or extends worldwide, and whether the deaths are immediate, short term, or long term. In 1994, thirty-one deaths were directly attributed to the accident, all among the reactor staff and emergency workers. [158]

The Chernobyl Forum predicts that the eventual death toll could reach 4,000 among those exposed to the highest levels of radiation (200,000 emergency workers, 116,000 evacuees and 270,000 residents of the most contaminated areas) this figure is a total causal death toll prediction, combining the deaths of approximately 50 emergency workers who died soon after the accident from acute radiation syndrome, 15 children who have died of thyroid cancer and a future predicted total of 3,935 deaths from radiation-induced cancer and leukaemia. [15]

In a peer-reviewed paper in the International Journal of Cancer in 2006, the authors expanded the discussion on those exposed to all of Europe (but following a different conclusion methodology to the Chernobyl Forum study, which arrived at the total predicted death toll of 4,000 after cancer survival rates were factored in) they stated, without entering into a discussion on deaths, that in terms of total excess cancers attributed to the accident: [211]

The risk projections suggest that by now [2006] Chernobyl may have caused about 1000 cases of thyroid cancer and 4000 cases of other cancers in Europe, representing about 0.01% of all incident cancers since the accident. Models predict that by 2065 about 16,000 cases of thyroid cancer and 25,000 cases of other cancers may be expected due to radiation from the accident, whereas several hundred million cancer cases are expected from other causes.

Two anti-nuclear advocacy groups have publicized non-peer-reviewed estimates that include mortality estimates for those who were exposed to even smaller amounts of radiation. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) calculated that, among the hundreds of millions of people exposed worldwide, there will be an eventual 50,000 excess cancer cases, resulting in 25,000 excess cancer deaths, excluding thyroid cancer. [212] However, these calculations are based on a simple linear no-threshold model multiplication and the misapplication of the collective dose, which the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) states "should not be done" as using the collective dose is "inappropriate to use in risk projections". [213]

Along similar lines to the UCS approach, the 2006 TORCH report, commissioned by the European Greens political party, likewise simplistically calculates an eventual 30,000 to 60,000 excess cancer deaths in total, around the globe. [112]

Yet the death rate from thyroid cancer has remained the same as prior to the technology. [215] For these and other reasons, it is suggested that no reliable increase has been detected in the environs of Chernobyl, that cannot otherwise be explained as an artifact of the globally well documented Screening effect. [214] In 2004, the UN collaborative, Chernobyl Forum, revealed thyroid cancer among children to be one of the main health impacts from the Chernobyl accident. This is due to the ingestion of contaminated dairy products, along with the inhalation of the short-lived, highly radioactive isotope, Iodine-131. In that publication, more than 4,000 cases of childhood thyroid cancer were reported. It is important to note that there was no evidence of an increase in solid cancers or leukemia. It said that there was an increase in psychological problems among the affected population. [170] The WHO's Radiation Program reported that the 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer resulted in nine deaths. [15]

According to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, up to the year 2005, an excess of more than 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer had been reported. That is, over the estimated pre-accident baseline thyroid cancer rate, more than 6,000 casual cases of thyroid cancer have been reported in children and adolescents exposed at the time of the accident, a number that is expected to increase. They concluded that there is no other evidence of major health impacts from the radiation exposure. [216]

Well-differentiated thyroid cancers are generally treatable, [217] and when treated the five-year survival rate of thyroid cancer is 96%, and 92% after 30 years. [218] the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation had reported 15 deaths from thyroid cancer in 2011. [14] The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) also states that there has been no increase in the rate of birth defects or abnormalities, or solid cancers—such as lung cancer—corroborating the assessments by the UN committee. [170] UNSCEAR raised the possibility of long term genetic defects, pointing to a doubling of radiation-induced minisatellite mutations among children born in 1994. [219] However, the risk of thyroid cancer associated with the Chernobyl accident is still high according to published studies. [220] [221]

The German affiliate of the anti-nuclear energy organization, [222] the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War suggest that 10,000 people are affected by thyroid cancer as of 2006, and that 50,000 cases are expected in the future. [223]

Other disorders

Fred Mettler, a radiation expert at the University of New Mexico, puts the number of worldwide cancer deaths outside the highly contaminated zone at perhaps 5,000, for a total of 9,000 Chernobyl-associated fatal cancers, saying "the number is small (representing a few percent) relative to the normal spontaneous risk of cancer, but the numbers are large in absolute terms". [224] The same report outlined studies based on data found in the Russian Registry from 1991 to 1998 that suggested that "of 61,000 Russian workers exposed to an average dose of 107 mSv about [five percent] of all fatalities that occurred may have been due to radiation exposure". [170]

The report went into depth about the risks to mental health of exaggerated fears about the effects of radiation. [170] According to the IAEA the "designation of the affected population as "victims" rather than "survivors" has led them to perceive themselves as helpless, weak and lacking control over their future". The IAEA says that this may have led to behaviour that has caused further health effects. [225]

Fred Mettler commented that 20 years later: "The population remains largely unsure of what the effects of radiation actually are and retain a sense of foreboding. A number of adolescents and young adults who have been exposed to modest or small amounts of radiation feel that they are somehow fatally flawed and there is no downside to using illicit drugs or having unprotected sex. To reverse such attitudes and behaviours will likely take years, although some youth groups have begun programs that have promise." [224] In addition, disadvantaged children around Chernobyl suffer from health problems that are attributable not only to the Chernobyl accident, but also to the poor state of post-Soviet health systems. [170]

The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), part of the Chernobyl Forum, have produced their own assessments of the radiation effects. [226] UNSCEAR was set up as a collaboration between various United Nation bodies, including the World Health Organization, after the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to assess the long-term effects of radiation on human health. [227]

Long-term radiation deaths

The number of potential deaths arising from the Chernobyl disaster is heavily debated. The World Health Organization's prediction of 4,000 future cancer deaths in surrounding countries [228] is based on the Linear no-threshold model (LNT), which assumes that the damage inflicted by radiation at low doses is directly proportional to the dose. [229] Radiation epidemiologist Roy Shore contends that estimating health effects in a population from the LNT model "is not wise because of the uncertainties". [230]

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists the number of excess cancer deaths worldwide (including all contaminated areas) is approximately 27,000 based on the same LNT. [231]

Another study critical of the Chernobyl Forum report was commissioned by Greenpeace, which asserted that the most recently published figures indicate that in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine the accident could have resulted in 10,000–200,000 additional deaths in the period between 1990 and 2004. [232] The Scientific Secretary of the Chernobyl Forum criticized the report's reliance on non-peer-reviewed locally produced studies. Although most of the study's sources were from peer-reviewed journals, including many Western medical journals, the higher mortality estimates were from non-peer-reviewed sources, [232] while Gregory Härtl (spokesman for the WHO) suggested that the conclusions were motivated by ideology. [233]

Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment is a 2007 Russian publication that concludes that there were 985,000 premature deaths as a consequence of the radioactivity released. [234] The results were criticized by M. I. Balonov from the Institute of Radiation Hygiene in St. Petersburg, who described them as biased, drawing from sources that were difficult to independently verify and lacking a proper scientific base. Balanov expressed his opinion that "the authors unfortunately did not appropriately analyze the content of the Russian-language publications, for example, to separate them into those that contain scientific evidence and those based on hasty impressions and ignorant conclusions". [234]

According to U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission member and Professor of Health Physics Kenneth Mossman, [235] the "LNT philosophy is overly conservative, and low-level radiation may be less dangerous than commonly believed." [236] Yoshihisa Matsumoto, a radiation biologist at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, cites laboratory experiments on animals to suggest there must be a threshold dose below which DNA repair mechanisms can completely repair any radiation damage. [230] Mossman suggests that the proponents of the current model believe that being conservative is justified due to the uncertainties surrounding low level doses and it is better to have a "prudent public health policy". [235]

Another significant issue is establishing consistent data on which to base the analysis of the impact of the Chernobyl accident. Since 1991, large social and political changes have occurred within the affected regions and these changes have had significant impact on the administration of health care, on socio-economic stability, and the manner in which statistical data is collected. [237] Ronald Chesser, a radiation biologist at Texas Tech University, says that "the subsequent Soviet collapse, scarce funding, imprecise dosimetry, and difficulties tracking people over the years have limited the number of studies and their reliability". [230]

Socio-economic Impact

It is difficult to establish the total economic cost of the disaster. According to Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union spent 18 billion rubles (the equivalent of US$2.5 billion at that time, or $5.05 billion in today's dollars [238] ) on containment and decontamination, virtually bankrupting itself. [5] In 2005, the total cost over 30 years for Belarus which includes the monthly payments to liquidators, was estimated at US$235 billion [170] about $302 billion in today's dollars given inflation rates. [238] Gorbachev in April 2006 wrote "The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl 20 years ago this month, even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union." [239]

Ongoing costs are well known in their 2003–2005 report, The Chernobyl Forum stated that between five and seven percent of government spending in Ukraine is still related to Chernobyl, while in Belarus more than $13 billion is thought to have been spent between 1991 and 2003, with 22% of national budget having been Chernobyl-related in 1991, falling to six percent by 2002. [170] In 2018, Ukraine spent five to seven percent of its national budget on recovery activities related to the Chernobyl disaster. [240] Overall economic loss is estimated at $235 billion in Belarus. [240] Much of the current cost relates to the payment of Chernobyl-related social benefits to some seven million people across the three countries. [170]

A 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. [170] Politically, the accident gave great significance to the new Soviet policy of glasnost, [241] [242] and helped forge closer Soviet–US relations at the end of the Cold War, through bioscientific cooperation. [93] : 44–48 The disaster also became a key factor in the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and a major influence in shaping the new Eastern Europe. [93] : 20–21 [ additional citation(s) needed ]

Both Ukraine and Belarus, in their first months of independence, lowered legal radiation thresholds from the Soviet Union's previous, elevated thresholds (from 35 rems per lifetime under the USSR to 7 rems per lifetime in Ukraine and 0.1 rems per year in Belarus). [243] : 46–47, 119–124

Many Ukrainians viewed the Chernobyl disaster as another attempt by Russians to destroy them, comparable to the Holodomor. [244]

Following the accident, questions arose about the future of the plant and its eventual fate. All work on the unfinished reactors No. 5 and No. 6 was halted three years later. However, the trouble at the Chernobyl plant did not end with the disaster in reactor No. 4. The damaged reactor was sealed off and 200 cubic meters (260 cu yd) of concrete was placed between the disaster site and the operational buildings. [ citation needed ] The work was managed by Grigoriy Mihaylovich Naginskiy, the deputy chief engineer of Installation and Construction Directorate – 90. The Ukrainian government allowed the three remaining reactors to continue operating because of an energy shortage in the country. [ citation needed ]

Decommissioning of other reactors

In October 1991, a fire broke out in the turbine building of reactor No. 2 [245] the authorities subsequently declared the reactor damaged beyond repair, and it was taken offline. Reactor No. 1 was decommissioned in November 1996 as part of a deal between the Ukrainian government and international organizations such as the IAEA to end operations at the plant. On 15 December 2000, then-President Leonid Kuchma personally turned off reactor No. 3 in an official ceremony, shutting down the entire site. [246]

No. 4 reactor confinement

Soon after the accident, the reactor building was quickly encased by a mammoth concrete sarcophagus in a notable feat of construction under severe conditions. Crane operators worked blindly from inside lead-lined cabins taking instructions from distant radio observers, while gargantuan-sized pieces of concrete were moved to the site on custom-made vehicles. The purpose of the sarcophagus was to stop any further release of radioactive particles into the atmosphere, mitigate damage should the core go critical and explode, and provide safety for the continued operations of adjacent reactors one through three. [247]

The concrete sarcophagus was never intended to last very long, with a lifespan of only 30 years. On 12 February 2013, a 600 m 2 (6,500 sq ft) section of the roof of the turbine-building collapsed, adjacent to the sarcophagus, causing a new release of radioactivity and temporary evacuation of the area. At first it was assumed that the roof collapsed because of the weight of snow, however the amount of snow was not exceptional, and the report of a Ukrainian fact-finding panel concluded that the collapse was the result of sloppy repair work and aging of the structure. Experts warned the sarcophagus itself was on the verge of collapse. [248] [249]

In 1997, the international Chernobyl Shelter Fund was founded to design and build a more permanent cover for the unstable and short-lived sarcophagus. It received more than €810 million and was managed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). The new shelter was named the New Safe Confinement and construction began in 2010. It is a metal arch 105 metres (344 ft) high and spanning 257 metres (843 ft) built on rails adjacent to the reactor No. 4 building so that it could be slid over the top of the existing sarcophagus. The New Safe Confinement was completed in 2016 and slid into place over top the sarcophagus on 29 November. [250] The huge steel arch was moved into place over several weeks. [251] Unlike the original sarcophagus, the New Safe Confinement is designed to allow the reactor to be safely dismantled using remotely operated equipment.

Waste management

Used fuel from units 1–3 was stored in the units' cooling ponds, and in an interim spent fuel storage facility pond, ISF-1, which now holds most of the spent fuel from units 1–3, allowing those reactors to be decommissioned under less restrictive conditions. Approximately 50 of the fuel assemblies from units 1 and 2 were damaged and required special handling. Moving fuel to ISF-1 was thus carried out in three stages: fuel from unit 3 was moved first, then all undamaged fuel from units 1 and 2, and finally the damaged fuel from units 1 and 2. Fuel transfers to ISF-1 were completed in June 2016. [252]

A need for larger, longer-term radioactive waste management at the Chernobyl site is to be fulfilled by a new facility designated ISF-2. This facility is to serve as dry storage for used fuel assemblies from units 1–3 and other operational wastes, as well as material from decommissioning units 1–3 (which will be the first RBMK units decommissioned anywhere).

A contract was signed in 1999 with Areva NP (now Framatome) for construction of ISF-2. In 2003, after a significant part of the storage structures had been built, technical deficiencies in the design concept became apparent. In 2007, Areva withdrew and Holtec International was contracted for a new design and construction of ISF-2. The new design was approved in 2010, work started in 2011, and construction was completed in August 2017. [253]

ISF-2 is the world's largest nuclear fuel storage facility, expected to hold more than 21,000 fuel assemblies for at least 100 years. The project includes a processing facility able to cut the RBMK fuel assemblies and to place the material in canisters, to be filled with inert gas and welded shut. The canisters are then to be transported to dry storage vaults, where the fuel containers will be enclosed for up to 100 years. Expected processing capacity is 2,500 fuel assemblies per year. [121]

Fuel-containing materials

According to official estimates, about 95% of the fuel in reactor No. 4 at the time of the accident (about 180 tonnes (180 long tons 200 short tons)) remains inside the shelter, with a total radioactivity of nearly 18 million curies (670 PBq). The radioactive material consists of core fragments, dust, and lava-like "fuel containing materials" (FCM)—also called "corium"—that flowed through the wrecked reactor building before hardening into a ceramic form.

Three different lavas are present in the basement of the reactor building: black, brown, and a porous ceramic. The lava materials are silicate glasses with inclusions of other materials within them. The porous lava is brown lava that dropped into water and thus cooled rapidly. It is unclear how long the ceramic form will retard the release of radioactivity. From 1997 to 2002, a series of published papers suggested that the self-irradiation of the lava would convert all 1,200 tonnes (1,200 long tons 1,300 short tons) into a submicrometre and mobile powder within a few weeks. [254]

It has been reported that the degradation of the lava is likely to be a slow, gradual process, rather than sudden and rapid. [255] The same paper states that the loss of uranium from the wrecked reactor is only 10 kg (22 lb) per year this low rate of uranium leaching suggests that the lava is resisting its environment. [255] The paper also states that when the shelter is improved, the leaching rate of the lava will decrease. [255] As of 2021, some fuel had already degraded significantly. The famous elephant's foot, which originally was hard enough that it required the use of an armor piercing AK-47 to remove a chunk, had softened to a texture similar to sand. [256] [257]

Prior to the completion of the New Safe Confinement building, rainwater acted as a neutron moderator triggering increased fission in the remaining materials risking criticality. Gadolinium nitrate solution was used to quench neutrons to slow the fission. Even after the completion of the building, fission reactions may be increasing and scientists are working to understand the cause and risks. As of May 2021, while neutron radiation had slowed across most of the destroyed fuel, a sealed off room in the basement had actually recorded a doubling in neutron radiation. This indicated increasing levels of fission as water levels dropped, which was the opposite of what was expected, and was atypical compared to other fuel containing areas. Levels are increasing slowly, so scientists are expected to have several years to solve the problem. However, if the trend continues it could create a self sustaining reaction, which would likely spread more radioactive dust and debris through the New Safe Confinement, making future cleanup even more difficult. Potential solutions include using a robot to drill into the fuel and insert boron carbide control rods. [256]

An area originally extending 30 kilometres (19 mi) in all directions from the plant is officially called the "zone of alienation." The area has largely reverted to forest, and has been overrun by wildlife because of a lack of competition with humans for space and resources. [258]

Some sources have given estimates for when the site would be considered habitable again:

  • 320 years or less (Ukraine state authorities, c. 2011) [259]
  • 20,000 years or more (Chernobyl director Ihor Gramotkin, c. 2016) [260]
  • Tens of thousands of years (Greenpeace, March 2016) [260][261]
  • 3,000 years (Christian Science Monitor, 2016) [260]

As of 2016 [update] , 187 locals had returned and were living permanently in the zone. [258]

In 2011, Ukraine opened up the sealed zone around the Chernobyl reactor to tourists who wish to learn more about the tragedy that occurred in 1986. [262] [263] [264] Sergii Mirnyi, a radiation reconnaissance officer at the time of the accident, and now an academic at National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, has written about the psychological and physical effects on survivors and visitors, and worked as an advisor to Chernobyl tourism groups. [264] [265]

Forest fire concerns

During the dry seasons, a perennial concern is forests that have been contaminated by radioactive material catching on fire. The dry conditions and build-up of debris make the forests a ripe breeding ground for wildfires. [266] Depending on the prevailing atmospheric conditions, the fires could potentially spread the radioactive material further outwards from the exclusion zone in the smoke. [267] [268] In Belarus, the Bellesrad organization is tasked with overseeing the food cultivation and forestry management in the area.

In April 2020, forest fires spread through the exclusion zone reaching over 20,000 ha and caused an increase of radiation resulting from release of caesium-137 and strontium-90 from the ground and biomass at levels that were detectable by the monitoring network but did not pose any threat to human health. The average dose of radiation for residents of Kyiv as a result of the fires was estimated at 1 nSv. [269] [270]

The Chernobyl Trust Fund was created in 1991 by the United Nations to help victims of the Chernobyl accident. [271] It is administered by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which also manages strategy formulation, resources mobilization, and advocacy efforts. [272] Beginning 2002, under the United Nations Development Programme, the fund shifted its focus from emergency assistance to long-term development. [240] [272]

The Chernobyl Shelter Fund was established in 1997 at the Denver 23rd G8 summit to finance the Shelter Implementation Plan (SIP). The plan calls for transforming the site into an ecologically safe condition by means of stabilization of the sarcophagus followed by construction of a New Safe Confinement (NSC). While the original cost estimate for the SIP was US$768 million, the 2006 estimate was $1.2 billion. The SIP is being managed by a consortium of Bechtel, Battelle, and Électricité de France , and conceptual design for the NSC consists of a movable arch, constructed away from the shelter to avoid high radiation, to be slid over the sarcophagus. The NSC was moved into position in November 2016 and is expected to be completed in late-2017. [273]

In 2003, the United Nations Development Programme launched the Chernobyl Recovery and Development Programme (CRDP) for the recovery of the affected areas. [274] The programme was initiated in February 2002 based on the recommendations in the report on Human Consequences of the Chernobyl Nuclear Accident. The main goal of the CRDP's activities is supporting the Government of Ukraine in mitigating long-term social, economic, and ecological consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe. CRDP works in the four most Chernobyl-affected areas in Ukraine: Kyivska, Zhytomyrska, Chernihivska and Rivnenska.

More than 18,000 Ukrainian children affected by the disaster have been treated at Cuba's Tarará resort town since 1990. [275]

The International Project on the Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident was created and received US$20 million, mainly from Japan, in hopes of discovering the main cause of health problems due to iodine-131 radiation. These funds were divided among Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, the three main affected countries, for further investigation of health effects. As there was significant corruption in former Soviet countries, most of the foreign aid was given to Russia, and no positive outcome from this money has been demonstrated. [ citation needed ]

In 2019, it became known that the then-current Ukrainian government aimed to make Chernobyl a tourist attraction. [276] [277]

The Chernobyl accident attracted a great deal of interest. Because of the distrust that many people [ who? ] had in the Soviet authorities, a great deal of debate about the situation at the site occurred in the First World during the early days of the event. Because of defective intelligence based on satellite imagery, it was thought that unit number three had also suffered a dire accident. [ citation needed ] Journalists mistrusted many professionals, and they in turn encouraged the public to mistrust them. [189] The accident raised the already heightened concerns about fission reactors worldwide, and while most concern was focused on those of the same unusual design, hundreds of disparate nuclear reactor proposals, including those under construction at Chernobyl, reactors numbers 5 and 6, were eventually cancelled. With ballooning costs as a result of new nuclear reactor safety system standards and the legal and political costs in dealing with the increasingly hostile/anxious public opinion, there was a precipitous drop in the rate of new startups after 1986. [278]

The accident also raised concerns about the cavalier safety culture in the Soviet nuclear power industry, slowing industry growth and forcing the Soviet government to become less secretive about its procedures. [279] [c] The government coverup of the Chernobyl disaster was a catalyst for glasnost, which "paved the way for reforms leading to the Soviet collapse." [280] Numerous structural and construction quality issues as well as deviations from the original design of the plant were known to KGB at least since 1973 and passed to the Central Committee which did not take any actions and classified it. [281]

In Italy, the Chernobyl accident was reflected in the outcome of the 1987 referendum. As a result of that referendum, Italy began phasing out its nuclear power plants in 1988, a decision that was effectively reversed in 2008. A 2011 referendum reiterated Italians' strong objections to nuclear power, thus abrogating the government's decision of 2008.

In Germany, the Chernobyl accident led to the creation of a federal environment ministry, after several states had already created such a post. The minister was given the authority over reactor safety as well, which the current minister still holds as of 2019 [update] . The events are also credited with strengthening the anti-nuclear movement in Germany, which culminated in the decision to end the use of nuclear power that was made by the 1998–2005 Schröder government. [282]

In direct response to the Chernobyl disaster, a conference to create a Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident was called in 1986 by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The resulting treaty has bound signatory member states to provide notification of any nuclear and radiation accidents that occur within its jurisdiction that could affect other states, along with the Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency.

The Chernobyl, along with the space shuttle Challenger disaster, the Three Mile Island accident, and the Bhopal disaster have been used together as case studies, both by the US government and by third parties, in research concerning the root causes of such disasters, such as sleep deprivation [283] and mismanagement. [284]

Chernobyl Nuclear Accident (1986) - The New York Time

Akimov was the first to declare an emergency in the plant as soon as the reactor was shut down, though by then the damage had already been done. He realized too late the extent of the damage already the reactor had exploded and began to leak extremely high levels of radiation.The control panel of reactor unit 4 inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone and nuclear power plant in 2006. Reactor unit 4 was the one that blew up on April 26, 1986. (Credit: Patrick Landmann/Getty Images) When it comes to nuclear accidents there are really two fatal impacts to consider: the first being the Chernobyl occurred 25 years prior to Fukushima it was the first instance of a nuclear accident at.. Режиссер: Йохан Ренк. В ролях: Джаред Харрис, Стеллан Скарсгард, Эмили Уотсон и др. В апреле 1986 года взрыв на Чернобыльской АЭС в СССР становится одной из самых страшных техногенных катастроф в мире

1,600 Radioactive U-235 Fuel Rods

Chernobyl nuclear accident. The Chernobyl disaster happened on the 25th of April 1986. Here we present real footage of Chernobyl catastrophic nuclear accident Chernobyl Nuclear Accident Government Documents - CIA, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Congressional, GAO, and Foreign Press Monitoring Files. Hilliont Chernobyl - photo gallery.. History’s Worst Nuclear DisastersChernobyl (April 26, 1986) Built in the late 1970s about 65 miles north of Kiev in the Ukraine, the Chernobyl plant was one of the largest and oldest nuclear power plants in the world. The explosion and subsequent meltdown that occurred there in April 1986 would claim thousands . read more Reactor number four of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant suffered an explosion during a Decontamination work began immediately after the accident. An exclusion zone was created around.. It wasn’t until the next day, April 27, when the government began evacuations of Pripyat’s 50,000 residents. Residents were told they would be away for just a few days, so they took very little with them. Most would never return to their homes.

The Chernobyl disaster was a nuclear accident that occurred on Saturday 26 April 1986, at the No. 4 reactor in For faster navigation, this Iframe is preloading the Wikiwand page for Chernobyl disaster ]] The Chernobyl accident which occurred on 26 April 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in The accident raised concerns about the safety of the Soviet nuclear power industry, slowing its.. Most people, even within the Ukraine, were still unaware of the accident, the deaths, and the hasty evacuations of Pripyat.The Red Forest is a forest area of ​​about ten square kilometers near the plant. The pine forest that grew there became extinct. It turned yellow and red due to high levels of radiation. The trees were cut down and partly buried.

Friday, April 26, 1986, 11:45 p.m.

The disaster occurs overnight from April 25 to 26, 1986 in the plant's fourth reactor. It was a reactor that belongs to the type the Soviets call RMBK-1000, water-cooled and graphite-moderated.The great Chernobyl disaster occurred in 1986. In this new accident the fourth reactor exploded. Then, despite the severity of the accident and due to energy needs, reactors 1, 2 and 3 continued to operate.Humans, on the other hand, aren’t expected to repopulate the area any time soon. Ukrainian authorities have said it will not be safe for people to live in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone for more than 24,000 years. The Chernobyl Nuclear Accident. On Saturday, April 26, 1986, the operating crew planned to test whether the Reactor No. 4 turbines could produce enough energy to keep the coolant pumps running..

Chernobyl: Facts About the Nuclear Disaster Live Scienc

  1. It was the first nuclear accident of its kind. The world didn't know how to react. This uncertainty was made worse by the fact that the Soviet Union (now Ukraine), where the Chernobyl Power Plant was..
  2. That’s a lot of power, but still not close to the former output of the ruined nuclear power plant. At the time of the accident Chernobyl’s four reactors could generate 1,000 megawatts each.
  3. Three Mile IslandThree Mile Island is the site of a nuclear power plant in south central Pennsylvania. In March 1979, a series of mechanical and human errors at the plant caused the worst commercial nuclear accident in U.S. history, resulting in a partial meltdown that released dangerous . read more

'Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy'

A new history of the world&rsquos worst nuclear accident has emerged from the recent opening of Chernobyl archival materials. In &ldquoChernobyl: History of a Tragedy,&rdquo Serhii Plokhy traces how the explosion occurred in 1986, the Soviet government&rsquos crisis management, and the repercussions of the explosion that released radiation equivalent to 500 bombs dropped on Hiroshima.

A professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University, Plokhy portrays Chernobyl as both pivotal cause and perfect metaphor of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Not only was Chernobyl &ldquothe beginning of the end of the Soviet Union,&rdquo but also its parallel: a massive undertaking meant to bring progress through science, but plagued by a long history of systemic issues swept under the rug, culminating in a sudden but inevitable collapse with profound global impact.

The first chapter opens with the 1986 Communist Party Conference, where leading officials gathered to assess the state of the U.S.S.R. &ldquoThe record was dismal&rdquo: dangerously slow economic development, a long-term campaign in Afghanistan, and a costly nuclear arms race. Nevertheless, &ldquoit was believed that the system was basically sound and simply needed a boost by means of &lsquoscientific and technical progress'.&rdquo

In his six-hour long conference speech, Gorbachev set an agenda to spur economic growth through scientific and technical revolution. This meant a shift from fossil fuels to nuclear energy, which propelled the Chernobyl nuclear plant to prominence. The plant was to undergo expansion and play a crucial role in the growth of nuclear energy in the U.S.S.R. Applause reverberated throughout the auditorium in a scene of optimism and unity that grows increasingly ironic as the book progresses.

Readers find themselves wishing Chernobyl&rsquos construction team had inspected the facility&rsquos problems as closely as Plokhy does. Dwindling resources and unrealistic deadlines from Moscow led workers at Chernobyl to cut corners on safety and costs. Moreover, the reactor design turned out to be flawed, despite assurances from nuclear engineers at the top-secret Ministry of Medium Machine Building. Finally, the plant operators too often sacrificed safety for convenience, which would eventually result in the reactor&rsquos catastrophic explosion. In tracing the myriad problems of the Chernobyl plant, Plokhy argues that the Soviet bureaucratic tradition made the disaster inevitable.

The response to the crisis repeats the human errors that allowed it to happen. While radioactive plumes were inducing headaches and vomit, the crisis control team refused to admit that the reactor had exploded. Much like the myth of the U.S.S.R. itself, &ldquothe myth of the reactor&rsquos safety was shared by everyone in the [nuclear] industry, from top to bottom.&rdquo

After the first phase of internal denial, the government tried to avoid mass panic by suppressing the bad news. Intercity telephone lines were cut to prevent information &mdash but not radiation &mdash from spreading. Despite skyrocketing contamination, warning signs were not posted and health recommendations were not given until ten days after the explosion. Local officials wanted to cancel the May 1 parade due to the health hazard, but their Moscow bosses demanded the parade continue for the appearance of normalcy. We are told that Gorbachev himself said, &ldquoJust try not holding the parade! I&rsquoll leave you to rot!&rdquo

Plokhy implies officials feared responsibility for the radiation more than the radiation itself. Government workers who wanted to begin evacuation were stopped by their superiors: &ldquoWhy are you in a panic? A commission will come. and they&rsquoll decide.&rdquo Evacuation was postponed because &ldquothe top officials wanted to avoid. responsibility for ordering an evacuation. That would mean admitting that something terrible had happened.&rdquo During these delays, the evacuation buses were kept waiting and absorbed high levels of radiation before people boarded. The &ldquoexodus&rdquo divided families and spread radiation sickness, which first appeared as vomiting and &ldquoradiation tans.&rdquo

The devastation is softened only by the dark and delicious irony of Plokhy&rsquos prose: &ldquoThe orders to evacuate the village came as a complete surprise to the parish priest, Father Leonid, who believed not only in God but also in the power of Soviet science. &lsquoWe now have powerful science, so they&rsquoll fix all the problems,&rsquo he told his wife soon after the explosion. Father Leonid&rsquos belief in the power of science came crashing down on May 2, which happened to be Good Friday.&rdquo

Ultimately, the government made a 30-kilometer exclusion zone and evacuated over 40,000 people, but trust in the government was shattered. The steps taken to prevent panic ultimately &ldquocaused a rift between the people and the government that never closed.&rdquo

From this rift emerged eco-nationalist movements in Ukraine as well as other republics, including Lithuania and Belarus. In Ukraine, the movement was led by novelists, poets, playwrights, and journalists who depicted nuclear power plants as &ldquoembodiments of Moscow&rsquos eco-imperialism.&rdquo No longer interested in &ldquorhetoric about the good of humanity&rdquo through nuclear energy, prominent writers, such as Oles Honchar demanded a complete shutdown of the Chernobyl plant. Through mass rallies, the eco-nationalist movement secured new political freedoms and its writers went on to direct the movement for national independence. According to the Ukrainian poet Ivan Drach, &ldquoChernobyl was the stimulus of all the democratic processes in Ukraine.&rdquo

The technological dreams of the 1986 Communist Party Conference ended in the dissolution of the union into today&rsquos post-Soviet states. But the half-life of irony is long too, and the Soviet bureaucracy was not its only casualty. Eco-nationalism reverted to nuclear nationalism when newly independent states such as Ukraine returned to nuclear energy under severe economic distress. Ukraine eventually dismantled its nuclear program for Western aid, but the effects of Chernobyl endure in the form of increased cancer rates and areas uninhabitable for &ldquoat least 20,000 years.&rdquo Plokhy admits that the precise health impacts of the radiation exposure are still debated, but holds that &ldquothere can be little doubt that the society as a whole was left traumatized for decades to come.&rdquo

The book ends by provoking some sobering questions. Could Chernobyl happen again? What exactly is stopping it from recurring? The questions Plokhy poses actually challenge his argument that the main fault lay with Soviet bureaucracy. As he piles up the evidence, the reader is left wondering which error or action tipped the scale toward catastrophe, and whether or not that tipping point could have been reached anyway and anywhere. Without knowing that point or the details of today&rsquos nuclear programs, we cannot know how far the world is from another accident. Plokhy is not optimistic: &ldquoWe are still as far from taming nuclear reactions as we were in 1986.&rdquo

From the section entitled "Exclusion Zone"

Gorbachev never came&mdashhis first visit to Chernobyl would take place almost two years after the accident, in February 1988&mdashbut on the day Shumak and his fellow officers delivered their secret cargo [a special radiation-proof vehicle designed for use by the top Soviet leaders in case of nuclear attack], the site was visited by two of Gorbachev&rsquos closest assistants, Premier Nikolai Ryzhkov and Gorbachev&rsquos second-in-command at the Central Committee, Yegor Ligachev. They flew to Kyiv from Moscow on the morning of May 2. From there, in the company of the Ukrainian leaders Volodymyr Shcherbytsky and Oleksandr Liashko, they took a helicopter to the power plant. Some of those involved after the accident, including the chief scientific adviser of the state commission, Valerii Legasov, believed that the visit was a response to reports from Kyiv and other major Ukrainian centers about rising levels of radiation.

After having ordered that the Kyiv rally proceed as planned, the leaders from Moscow now came to the area to assess the situation for themselves. They brought along their personal dosimeters but had little understanding of the danger posed by the damaged reactor. As the helicopter approached the nuclear plant, Ryzhkov ordered the pilot to descend and fly over the reactor. &ldquoThe ever more frequent beeping of the instruments turned into a frenzied, continuous wail the numbers ran up the scale at a furious pace,&rdquo remembered Liashko, who was on the flight with Ryzhkov and Ligachev. He recalled that the helicopter had no protection whatsoever against radiation Ryzhkov believed that there was a lead plate on the bottom, but nothing else. Looking at the reactor, they were able to comprehend for the first time the scope of the damage the explosion had caused. But they were still far from fully understanding the consequences of the disaster.

In Chernobyl, the plenipotentiaries of the Kremlin presided over a meeting of the state commission, only slowly gaining a better appreciation of the enormous problems facing them. Anatolii Maiorets, the all-Union minister of energy, who was one of the main speakers at the meeting, exuded optimism about the future of the plant. Trying to anticipate the expectations of the senior officials, Maiorets concluded his presentation by stating: &ldquoWe will take all necessary measures and have Unit 4 in working order by October, and Unit 5 by December!&rdquo The director of the plant, Viktor Briukhanov, who was no longer in any position to make decisions but still present at the meeting, was shocked. Later, he recalled his thoughts on listening to Maiorets: &ldquoAnd nobody said to him, &lsquoWhy are you talking nonsense? The unit can&rsquot be restored!&rsquo The atomic experts remained silent. And I couldn&rsquot say a word so as not to be expelled from the meeting.&rdquo One participant who did not remain silent but also did not speak out was Liashko, the head of the Ukrainian government. &ldquoWhat is he talking about?&rdquo he quietly asked Ryzhkov. &ldquoHow can any units be brought onstream when a ten-kilometer zone is contaminated with radiation above the normal limit?&rdquo Ryzhkov did not respond. The meeting went on.

It was a hot day in May. The windows were open, and next to one of them sat Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, chain-smoking cigarettes. He wiped tears from his eyes with a handkerchief. He was probably suffering from a spring allergy, but the situation was grim enough to justify real tears. Not all the speakers were as optimistic as Maiorets. General Vladimir Pikalov, the commander of chemical units in the region, reported on radiation levels, and leading scientists left no doubt that radioactivity was high and increasing every day. The head of the all-Union meteorological agency, Yurii Izrael, produced a map of the contaminated areas around the power plant. They extended up to 30 kilometers, with the locations of radioactive &ldquotongues&rdquo and &ldquodirty&rdquo spots depending on the direction and strength of winds at the time of the explosion and in the following days. Many members of the state commission believed that the 10-kilometer exclusion zone on which they had agreed earlier would have to be extended.

Ryzhkov, who was slowly grasping the extent of the problem caused by the spreading radiation, asked how large the new exclusion zone should be. Those present suggested a radius of 30 kilo- meters, although there were some &ldquoclean&rdquo spots within that area. Ryzhkov later recalled, &ldquoWe had several sources of information: ecologists, geologists, meteorologists, the military, and civil defense. We compared all those maps, analyzing why some of the data was inconsistent. We placed all the maps one on top of another and got a &lsquoblot&rsquo encompassing the contaminated areas of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. . . . I sat thinking for a long time: a decision had to be made.&rdquo After some hesitation, Ryzhkov went along with the recommendation to create a 30-kilometer zone. The zone would cover more than 2,000 square kilometers of territory, include more than 80 settlements, and result in the additional evacuation of more than 40,000 people.

Liashko recalled the moment of decision somewhat differently. After the meeting in Chernobyl, the senior officials drove to nearby villages to check on the evacuees from Prypiat. Liashko was in the middle of a conversation with one of the women evacuated from the city when the commander of the civil defense units approached him with the map of contaminated areas produced by General Pikalov and his officers. Liashko looked at the map and realized that the village they were visiting, to which Prypiat citizens had been evacuated a few days earlier, was itself in the radioactive zone. It was located 20 kilometers from the nuclear plant. Liashko showed the map to Ryzhkov, who made the final decision on the evacuation of all settlements within the 30-kilometer zone.

Liashko then returned to his conversations with evacuees. The woman with whom he had just spoken complained that the physics teacher in the local school, in whose home she had been billeted with her family, had asked them to move to the summer shack on the premises because they were &ldquobearers of radiation.&rdquo &ldquoAnd I had a fleeting thought,&rdquo recalled Liashko later. &ldquoWhat would that teacher, who had treated the family of evacuees in unfriendly fashion, say if he were ordered to evacuate his dwelling the next day?&rdquo

The members of the state commission were pleased with the visit of senior Soviet officials to Chernobyl and the discussions they had there. &ldquoThat was an important meeting,&rdquo recalled Valerii Legasov. &ldquoFirst of all, they understood from our reports, and it fell to me to be one of the reporters, they understood the situation, grasping that this was not just a local accident but one of great significance that would have long-term consequences, and that huge efforts would be required to continue localizing [the consequences of] the damaged unit that preparations had to be made for large-scale deactivation measures that a cover for the damaged Unit 4 would have to be designed and built.&rdquo There was no more talk of restoring Unit 4 to working order or bringing it back onstream by the end of the year. The highest officials in Moscow were beginning to comprehend the consequences of the disaster.

Note: For ease of reading, the footnotes have been removed from this section.

Excerpted from &ldquoChernobyl: History of a Tragedy&rdquo

Copyright © 2018 by Serhii Plokhy. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Life in an abandoned town

Elena Buntova, along with other scientists, answered the call of Chernobyl for a completely different reason than the liquidators. As doctor of biology, she came after the accident to study the effects of radiation on wildlife. She never left.

“In the first years after the accident, the best scientists from all over the U.S.S.R. came to Chernobyl for work, so it was really interesting to cooperate with them,” Buntova said. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and also where she met her husband Sergei Lapiha. He grew up near Chernobyl, and they got to know each other in a café inside the exclusion zone.

Lapiha worked as a photographer in what is locally known as the Object Shelter—the containment unit that acts like a sarcophagus to entomb the remains of Reactor Number Four. Over the years, he made a photographic record of the premises, including a notorious object inside the reactor building called the Elephant’s Foot. It’s a black, glassy slab of once-molten radioactive lava that flowed into the corridor after the meltdown before solidifying in place like a human-sized stalagmite. It’s so radioactive that five minutes with it, unprotected, would be a death sentence.

Because of their age and their connection to the place, Buntova and Lapiha are part of a small group of resettlers who have permission from the Ukrainian government to live in the zone full time. They admit that living in Chernobyl is risky and troublesome, especially because children are forbidden. They each had children before they met, but because anyone under 18 is more susceptible to ionizing radiation, their kids could never come inside the zone. Today, the same is true for their grandkids. Still, they have lived here for over 30 years, and now that they are in their 60s and retired, they don’t plan on going anywhere. When asked why, Lapiha thinks for a minute, then replies, “I am just happy in Chernobyl.”

It’s cozy inside their little brick house. People like them have occupied abandoned homes over the years and fixed them up. There are plenty to choose from. The town of Chernobyl used to have a population of 14,000. In the living room, they have house plants by the window, some comfy chairs and a TV, and a glowing aquarium full of lively fish. Out in the yard, they keep honeybees and look after four dogs, all of which were rescues from inside the exclusion zone. Since Elena monitored wildlife as a scientist at the Chernobyl Ecology Center, she would know as well as anyone how contaminated they might be. Baloo is an enormous wolf cross and the youngest in the pack. As Lapiha grabs the dog’s face and plays with him, saying “clever wolf, clever dog,” he doesn’t seem too worried. (Discover how the wildlife in Chernobyl is faring decades after the disaster.)

Chernobyl disaster

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Chernobyl disaster, accident in 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the Soviet Union, the worst disaster in the history of nuclear power generation. The Chernobyl power station was situated at the settlement of Pryp’yat, 10 miles (16 km) northwest of the city of Chernobyl (Ukrainian: Chornobyl) and 65 miles (104 km) north of Kyiv, Ukraine. The station consisted of four reactors, each capable of producing 1,000 megawatts of electric power it had come online in 1977–83.

The disaster occurred on April 25–26, 1986, when technicians at reactor Unit 4 attempted a poorly designed experiment. Workers shut down the reactor’s power-regulating system and its emergency safety systems, and they withdrew most of the control rods from its core while allowing the reactor to continue running at 7 percent power. These mistakes were compounded by others, and at 1:23 am on April 26 the chain reaction in the core went out of control. Several explosions triggered a large fireball and blew off the heavy steel and concrete lid of the reactor. This and the ensuing fire in the graphite reactor core released large amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere, where it was carried great distances by air currents. A partial meltdown of the core also occurred.

On April 27 the 30,000 inhabitants of Pryp’yat began to be evacuated. A cover-up was attempted, but on April 28 Swedish monitoring stations reported abnormally high levels of wind-transported radioactivity and pressed for an explanation. The Soviet government admitted there had been an accident at Chernobyl, thus setting off an international outcry over the dangers posed by the radioactive emissions. By May 4 both the heat and the radioactivity leaking from the reactor core were being contained, albeit at great risk to workers. Radioactive debris was buried at some 800 temporary sites, and later in the year the highly radioactive reactor core was enclosed in a concrete-and-steel sarcophagus (which was later deemed structurally unsound).

Some sources state that two people were killed in the initial explosions, whereas others report that the figure was closer to 50. Dozens more contracted serious radiation sickness some of these people later died. Between 50 and 185 million curies of radionuclides (radioactive forms of chemical elements) escaped into the atmosphere—several times more radioactivity than that created by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. This radioactivity was spread by the wind over Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine and soon reached as far west as France and Italy. Millions of acres of forest and farmland were contaminated, and, although many thousands of people were evacuated, hundreds of thousands more remained in contaminated areas. In addition, in subsequent years many livestock were born deformed, and among humans several thousand radiation-induced illnesses and cancer deaths were expected in the long term. The Chernobyl disaster sparked criticism of unsafe procedures and design flaws in Soviet reactors, and it heightened resistance to the building of more such plants. Chernobyl Unit 2 was shut down after a 1991 fire, and Unit 1 remained on-line until 1996. Chernobyl Unit 3 continued to operate until 2000, when the nuclear power station was officially decommissioned.

Following the disaster, the Soviet Union created a circle-shaped exclusion zone with a radius of about 18.6 miles (30 km) centred on the nuclear power plant. The exclusion zone covered an area about 1,017 square miles (2,634 square km) around the plant. However, it was later expanded to 1,600 square miles (4,143 square km) to include heavily radiated areas outside the initial zone. Although no people actually live in the exclusion zone, scientists, scavengers, and others may file for permits that allow them to enter for limited amounts of time.