The Chernobyl nuclear power plant, situated in Ukraine approximately 80 miles (130 km) north of its capital Kyiv and about 6 miles (10 km) south of the Belarus border, witnessed the most catastrophic accident in the history of the nuclear industry.
Starting in 1977, Soviet scientists placed four RBMK nuclear reactors at the power plant near Chernobyl in the former USSR. The RBMK is a Soviet-engineered nuclear reactor that employs graphite as a moderator and water as a coolant. This combination is unique to this reactor, with no other reactors in the world utilizing both.
As the Chernobyl disaster demonstrated, the original RBMK had some significant design flaws. One of these flaws is the absence of what is commonly known as a containment structure, which typically consists of a concrete and steel dome covering the reactor to contain radiation within the plant in the event of an accident.
On April 25, 1986, scheduled maintenance was underway at the fourth reactor. Workers aimed to use this downtime for testing the reactor’s cooling capability in case of a power loss. During the test, safety protocols were breached, leading to a sudden power surge within the plant.
These initial errors were compounded by further mistakes, culminating at 1:23 AM on April 26 in an uncontrolled chain reaction within the core, which led to a surge in pressure within the reactor, resulting in the release of steam that blew off the reactor’s roof. This unleashed plumes of radiation and fiery, radioactive debris.
The remains of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant after the explosion
Merely two to three seconds later, a second explosion ejected additional fuel, sparking a fire on the roof of the third reactor and endangering its integrity. Automatic safety systems that would typically have engaged remained inactive because they had been deactivated prior to the test.
Within minutes, firefighters reached the scene and engaged in battling the blaze, lacking the necessary protective gear to shield themselves from radiation. Eyewitness accounts from these firefighters depicted the radiation as having a metallic taste and causing a sensation akin to pins and needles on their faces. Tragically, many of these firefighters would meet their demise only a few days later.
In due course, helicopters were deployed to drop sand and other materials to suppress the fires and confine the spread of contamination. Despite the loss of two lives in the explosions, the hospitalization of workers and firefighters, and the looming threat from fallout and fire, authorities did not evacuate anyone from the surrounding areas. This included the nearby city of Pripyat, which had been constructed in the 1970s to accommodate plant workers. Evacuation measures were not initiated until approximately 36 hours after the onset of the disaster. The residents of Pripyat were assured they would only be away for a brief time, prompting them to pack lightly. Little did they know that most would never set foot in their homes again.
Abandoned school at Pripyat, 2011
In the wake of this unfolding catastrophe, a chilling silence enveloped the Soviet leadership. It wasn’t until the operators of a nuclear power plant in Stockholm, Sweden, detected alarmingly elevated radiation levels in their vicinity that the veil of secrecy was pierced. Swedish leaders, alarmed and seeking answers, demanded an explanation from the Soviet government.
Finally, on April 28, the Kremlin broke its silence, acknowledging the occurrence of a grave accident at Chernobyl. Yet, even as this revelation reached the international stage, most people, including those residing within the borders of Ukraine, remained oblivious to the unfolding tragedy, the mounting casualties, and the frantic evacuation of Pripyat.
Over a span of 10 days, the damaged plant released a substantial amount of radioactive substances, such as iodine-131, cesium-137, plutonium, and strontium-90, into the atmosphere. The radioactive cloud settled nearby as dust and debris, while also being carried by the wind across Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Scandinavia, and various parts of Europe.
By May 4, both the heat and the radioactivity emanating from the reactor core were under control, albeit with significant risk to workers. Approximately 800 temporary sites were used to bury radioactive waste, and later in the year, the reactor core was encased in a sarcophagus made of concrete and steel (which was later found to be structurally unsound and covered with another sarcophagus in 2016).
The New Safe Confinement (NSC), a large steel structure built to encase and contain the damaged Chernobyl reactor in 2016
In Ukraine, within the initial five years following the disaster, instances of cancer among children escalated by over 90%. The World Health Organization’s estimation posits that around 5,000 cancer-related fatalities were attributed to the Chernobyl incident.
Beyond the ongoing human toll of the disaster, Chernobyl also left behind an extensive area contaminated with radiation. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, with a radius of about 18.6 miles (30 km) around the site, remains unsuitable for human habitation and cannot be utilized for logging or agricultural activities.
Aerial view of Pripyat, 2019
Strangely, amidst the desolation, wildlife unexpectedly thrived in Chernobyl. Boars, wolves, beavers, and bison, among others, flourished. A 2016 study pointed out the risks of radiation but noted that the lack of humans had benefited these creatures. In this grim theater of ecological irony, the Chernobyl site bore witness to a curious dance of life and death in the shadow of a nuclear catastrophe.
Words of wisdom
“In politics we presume that everyone who knows how to get votes knows how to administer a city or a state. When we are ill... we do not ask for the handsomest physician, or the most eloquent one.” ―Plato
“People think of education as something they can finish.” ―Isaac Asimov
“Each day is a little life: every waking and rising a little birth, every fresh morning a little youth, every going to rest and sleep a little death.” —Arthur Schopenhauer
“Life begins on the other side of despair.” ―Jean-Paul Sartre