April 26, 1986: Chernobyl, The World’s Worst Nuclear Disaster

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A Brief History

On April 26, 1986, the Soviet nuclear power plant in Pripyat, The Ukraine, suffered an explosion and fire resulting in the worst nuclear disaster in history.

Digging Deeper

A Soviet nuclear plant complex constructed for the purpose of providing electric power was the setting of the disaster.

The disaster was not the first accident at the Chernobyl plant, nor would it be the last.  There had been a partial core meltdown of Reactor #1 in 1982, something kept secret in typical Soviet fashion for 3 years.  Later, in 1991 a major fire broke out in the still active reactor #2, which caused the Ukrainian government to shut down all electrical production at the complex, but not until the year 2000!

The 1986 disaster began in reactor #4 when during a test there was a power spike that caused a reactor vessel to explode and subsequent steam explosions.  The graphite used to dampen the nuclear process was then exposed to air and caught fire, sending an enormous amount of radioactive fallout into the air that spread over thousands of square miles.

Although only 31 people died in the immediate accident, more than double that amount have died within several years since then of radiation exposure and many more, perhaps a few thousand more, may well yet die because of radiation exposure.  Hundreds of thousands of people in the region, mostly Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, were exposed to harmful radiation, and thousands of cases of cancer are probably attributable to the disaster (especially thyroid cancer).

It is hard to compare the Chernobyl disaster with radioactive fallout from nuclear bomb testing as the types of radiation and their longevity are different.  The only nuclear accidental event that even approaches the scale of the Chernobyl disaster was the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan.

As governments sometimes do, the Soviet government blamed operator error as the cause of the disaster, saying operators ignored safety protocols and had turned off safety devices.  In 1991, the government admitted that inadequate training and procedures had more to do with causing the disaster than any negligence on the part of the workers.

Over 350,000 people had to be evacuated, and the birth defects and cases of cancer are still occurring. An “exclusion zone” of almost 20 miles from the complex keeps people from repopulating the area (Who would want to move there?) and the radioactivity is expected to stay at prohibitively high levels for 20,000 years.  In 2011 the government of the Ukraine started allowing tours through the sealed area.

The Chernobyl disaster stimulated furious new debate over the safety and desirability of nuclear generated electricity, as well as renewed distrust of government truthfulness in the former Soviet states as well as around the world.  Should we have nuclear power plants? What do you think?

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Historical Evidence

The incident has inspired quite a bit of diverse depictions in popular culture from videos games…

…to movies!

Theatrical release poster

For more information, please read the following:

Alexievich, Svetlana and Keith Gessen.  Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster.  Picador, 2006.

Medvedev, Zhores.  The Legacy of Chernobyl.  W. W. Norton & Company, 1992.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.