By: Samuel Williams
On the evening of April 28th, 1986, the Soviet Union’s premier evening news program, Vremya, made a brief announcement: “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.” The announcement was no longer than 20 seconds, and many Soviet citizens were unaware of the true extent of what was going on at the power plant.
The horrific fact was that a cloud of nuclear radiation had been slowly spreading over Eastern Europe for the past 2 days. In the early morning of April 26th, the fourth reactor of the power plant had a massive power increase that caused explosions in its core, releasing deadly radioactive particles and debris into the atmosphere. At the time, the plant staff were attempting to conduct a test on the functionality of an emergency core cooling system. The plant began to spew radiation at extremely high levels, to the point that workers attempting to repair the damage were at serious danger of death. Around 30 men would be killed trying to contain the leak, most of them from Acute Radiation Syndrome.
The Soviet politburo’s attempts at downplaying the disaster unraveled when staff at a Swedish power plant detected massive amounts of radiation originating from somewhere in the direction of the Soviet Union. The Kremlin was forced to admit that something had gone horribly wrong at the Chernobyl Power plant, nestled just on the border of the Ukrainian and Russian republics of the Soviet Union. Even so, it would still be 16 days until Mikhail Gorbachev addressed the Union regarding the events at Chernobyl, an egregious delay for the new party leader.
One important consequence of the Chernobyl disaster was political. Coming at the time of Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempted reforms of the Soviet Union, the strain Chernobyl put on the Soviet financial reserves was too great for the decaying Union to handle. On top of the financial burden, Chernobyl also forced Gorbachev to move full steam ahead on his policy of Glasnost’, or “Openness”. Only 5 years after the disaster, the Soviet Union would collapse, with the legacy of the Chernobyl disaster and the Kremlin’s lethargic response being a significant factor.
In some ways, Chernobyl itself was a symbol of the failures of the Soviet government. Because of the massive demands created by the Soviet Union’s large military, the plant was simultaneously designed both for the production of power as well as plutonium for military purposes. In addition, the failure to properly or accurately notify anyone of the disaster, whether it was foreign governments or their own people, placed countless millions in unnecessary danger all for the purpose of trying to protect the Soviet government’s credibility and reputation. Chernobyl also demonstrated the Soviet Union’s weakness to countries in the Warsaw Pact, which increasingly sought independence from Soviet control.
To this day, officials have not quite settled on an official cause for the disaster, although the most likely theory is a combination of human error on the part of the plant engineers, as well as faulty design. The lack of strong safety regulations, along with a design that prevented existing safety measures in the plant from being completely effective, made the power plant a ticking time bomb.
The repercussions of the Chernobyl Disaster severely damaged the image of nuclear power across the world, and movements arose in several countries in the west and elsewhere protesting the continued use and construction of nuclear power plants. Because of the fact that the Soviets attempted to cover up the disaster from the public, cooperative guidelines were established by the international community to create a process to safely inform the world of a nuclear disaster, as outlined by the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident.
The effects of the Chernobyl disaster still haunt the people of Eastern Europe, and have remained on the consciousness of many across the world as well. The subsequent disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan in 2011 helped renew fears of “Another Chernobyl”, which have stymied the spread and popularity of nuclear power across the globe.
In terms of how many people died as a direct result of the radiation spewed by the plant, there may never be a concrete answer. Estimates of the death toll caused by Chernobyl range from 4,000 to nearly 100,000 excess deaths from cancer or diseases linked to the effects of the disaster. This does not include the mutations or genetic defects that animals, livestock, and humans have been born with since the disaster occurred. From 1986 well into the 21st century, Chernobyl power plant as well as an extensive area around it known as the Exclusion Zone were closed off to the public as they were too irradiated for human habitation. Aside from a maintenance crew that built and maintained the concrete sarcophagus around the power plant, the entire area remained uninhabited. The sarcophagus will soon be replaced by a permanent arched shelter enclosing the ruins of the plant from the rest of the world.
Although the Ukrainian government opened the exclusion zone around Chernobyl to tourism in 2011, much of the area remains irradiated and extremely dangerous, particularly the Chernobyl plant itself. Images of the abandoned town of Pripyat, now a time capsule of life in the Soviet Union circa 1986, show how the town has rapidly been overtaken by plants and tree life. The exclusion zone has been used as a setting for numerous pieces of media, running the gamut from horror movies to video games. The nuclear power plant itself will not be cleaned and safe for humans until 2065, so for now, the Chernobyl exclusion zone remains as a silent reminder of one of the worst nuclear disasters in human history.
Samuel Williams is an undergraduate student at New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study. He is currently concentrating in security studies and interns with the EastWest Institute.