Chernobyl: 27 Years Later

Every year, like most disasters, Chernobyl is remembered worldwide. Articles are published featuring emotive photography of ghost towns and sick children, and nuclear-power sceptics host an annual ‘Chernobyl Day’ three-day protest. In Belarus, a rally named ‘Chernobyl Way’ is held by the opposition every year alongside local memorials. On landmark anniversaries the surviving liquidators are awarded with more medals and badges. The way the world commemorates the disaster makes it all too easy to become too deeply involved in politics and emotion and forget what we are supposed to be remembering.


The Chernobyl disaster occurred on 26th April 1986, at the nuclear power plant in what is now Ukraine but was the Kremlin-controlled Ukrainian SSR at the time. The exact details of the catastrophe are complicated, but a general idea of what happened can be understood as follows.

In the early hours of the date of the disaster, a test was taking place at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. This test was being undertaken to determine if reactor 4 could continue working if power was temporarily lost, and what conditions would be the limit. Ironically (and even more so when the alleged details are taken into account), it was effectively a safety test to ensure that nothing would go wrong in the hypothetical situation where power would be lost for about one minute between the loss of main power and the introduction of an emergency backup generator. This additional power would be needed to ensure the power plant would be shut down safely by assisting in cooling it.

Accounts of the accident vary and several key witnesses died shortly afterwards due to acute radiation poisoning. In short, after attempting to conduct the test the emergency shutdown button was pressed, either simply to end the experiment or because the workers had become aware of the dangerous condition through the sudden power increase. The automatic shutdown was thought to be disabled on the grounds it would interfere with the experiment. The emergency shutdown began but seconds later the overheating caused the first explosion, which damaged inner parts of the reactor, triggering the second explosion, which destroyed the building containing the reactor and ejected radioactive material. A fire began to burn which would only be extinguished nine days later and at the cost of the lives of several fire-fighters; by that time it would have already have a severe effect in spreading radiation. A potentially far larger steam explosion was prevented when three men volunteered to dive into the pool (a large supply of water used as a coolant) in order to drain it. The three men – Alexei Ananenko, Valeri Bezpalov and Boris Baranov – all died of acute radiation poisoning days later.

Worried about creating panic, the Soviet authorities avoided evacuating the surrounding area, including the 50,000 residents of the nearby city Pripyat, until 36 hours later. The evacuation of what became the Exclusion Zone would take two years to complete. Even then the seriousness of the accident was not made known to the public, and civilians were told the evacuation would only be for two or three days. The Soviet authorities also hid the disaster from the rest of the world, and suspicions were only roused when a Swedish nuclear power plant began to investigate the mysterious rise in radiation levels.


The consequences of the Chernobyl disaster still affect parts of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, with Belarus considered the worst affected as the country received 70% of the fallout. Although some 350,000 people have been evacuated since 1986, it is estimated that about five million still live in areas classed as contaminated.

One of the prominent concerns of people living in Chernobyl-affected areas is related to health. Factual information related to the potential health risks proves to be limited and contradictory. The Chernobyl Forum, which is composed of various relevant UN agencies, reported in 2005 that they hadn’t “found profound negative health impacts” and have criticized the affected countries for their assessment of contaminated zones. In turn, Greenpeace responded by claiming that “political manipulations” affected the Chernobyl Forum’s judgement as their information was obtained through the governments who would want their handling of the catastrophe to be seen as successful. Estimates of the impact on mortality range from less than 50 (Chernobyl Forum, who believe that only the deaths of the highly exposed liquidators can be “directly attributed” to the disaster), to 200,000 “additional deaths” between 1990 and 2004 according to Greenpeace. The true number of deaths and cases of illness, or at least the most accurate, may be impossible to calculate due to difficulties in assessing the cause of the health problems and the existence of other influencing factors such as inadequate nutrition.

Another major concern is the resulting economic situation. The UN recognizes that citizens experience poverty due to factors such as lack of investment (thus less job opportunities) and outsider’s fears, whether founded or not, of buying produce from these areas. Much of the area surrounding the Exclusion Zone is farmland, but restrictions on farming alongside lack of willing consumers means that agriculture, whilst potentially the highest-earning career, is often not viable. All three affected countries are considered to have developing economies according to the International Monetary Fund, with the average salaries measuring between one-third (Russia) to just over one-fifth (Ukraine) of that of the USA, taking into account the costs of living.

Many charities have been established to aid people affected by Chernobyl, with most seeming to have the aim of improving the lives of children in Belarus. Alongside alleviating poverty, the money raised is also used to take children on recuperative holidays to countries such as the UK which is meant to boost their immune systems. As well as taking them out of the contaminated environment, the children receive free health care during their visit as health care in Belarus lacks both professionals and modern equipment and also can be too expensive. This service in the UK will potentially become less possible as the Government intended to end the gratis visa scheme by March. Although it is unclear whether the UK Government carried out the measure, an extra cost of around 130$ USD per child would limit the operations of these charities if gratis visas became unavailable.


The sarcophagus (a protective covering) built to contain the ruined reactor and prevent further release of radiation is only a temporary measure. A replacement structure named the ‘New Safe Confinement’ is currently under construction, which is expected to be in place by 2015. This project has been postponed several times, but concerns over the potential collapse of the sarcophagus or reactor 4, particularly following a roof collapse on the site in February 2013, have increased the urgency of the matter. Aside from implementing and maintaining the ‘New Safe Confinement’, there are no plans and no possibilities to improve the site in any way, which has allowed it to become a nature reserve, know as the Polessky Radioactive Ecological Reserve. The area is now an almost human-free sanctuary for animals such as deer, boar, lynx and wolves.

The UN have an ‘Action Plan’ on Chernobyl which aims to continue to solve the problems faced by people living in affected areas and to have made significant progress by the year 2016, which will be the thirtieth anniversary of the disaster. The other organisations partaking in this plan include the International Atomic Energy Agency, World Bank, World Health Organisation and the IFRC.


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