Chernobyl Accident Essay

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On a pri l 26 , 1986, the worst accident in history at a nuclear power plant occurred at the Chernobyl power station near the town of Pripyat, about 70 miles north of Kiev in the Ukraine. Reactor 4 of the complex exploded, creating an inferno that spewed massive amounts of radioactive particulate matter into the atmosphere. The Soviet authorities responded by dumping boron and sand onto the inferno by helicopter. After the fire had been contained, the ruins of the reactor were encased in a thick shell of concrete. The destroyed reactor was a Soviet RBMK model, which was notorious for its design flaws. Worst of all, because the power plants with RBMK reactors were designed to permit reprocessing of fuel rods for military applications, it was not possible to provide them with the containment shells that are standard in Western plants. In addition, the staff at the Chernobyl complex was not sufficiently familiar with the intricacies of the RBMK reactors, or even with nuclear power plants. On the night of the accident, the staff attempted to power down Reactor 4 in order to conduct a safety test. However, prior to conducting the test, they disabled many safety features and proceeded despite clear indications of accelerating irregularities within the reactor, precipitating the meltdown in the core that was the source of the explosion.

Official Soviet accounts differ significantly from other sources in calculating the manifold effects of the disaster. Between 31 and 70 people died, either in the explosion or because of their exposure to massive amounts of radiation in the efforts to extinguish the fire. Some 800,000 workers, about half of them military personnel, were involved in the effort to seal the ruined reactor in concrete. Because half of these workers were from the Ukraine and the rest were from all corners of the former Soviet Union, it has been almost impossible to trace the health effects of their exposure to the Chernobyl complex. Investigators have estimated that about 15,000 of these 800,000 workers died in the decade following the disaster.

Cancer Disaster

The population in the immediate vicinity and downwind of the plant experienced unusually high incidences of cancer. For instance, within a decade of the accident, more than 4,000 children who had lived in the vicinity of the plant were diagnosed with thyroid cancer-though the official government report on the health effects of the disaster have indicated just nine fatal cases from thyroid cancer among the affected children. It is expected that in the future, unusually high rates of other cancers, in particular leukemia, will become evident among adults in the affected region. Soon after the accident, an area 18 miles away from the Chernobyl complex was declared an exclusionary zone, off limits to all but those who continued to work at the complex, where the other three reactors continued to operate for some time after the ruined reactor had been sealed off. Because the Chernobyl complex is located only 10 miles from the border with Belarus, the most severe downwind contamination occurred there, not the Ukraine. In all, about 135,000 people were permanently relocated out of the most badly contaminated areas, while another 270,000 people have continued to live in areas with identified radiation hazards. Despite predictions of nightmarish medical consequences from this widespread exposure to high doses of radiation, the health effects have thus far been more anecdotally frightful than statistically catastrophic.

Radioactive fallout from Chernobyl was tracked across eastern Europe and Scandinavia and eventually to the eastern United States. But the damage caused by the fallout beyond Belarus and parts of western Russia was, for the most part, relatively negligible. Exceptions have included populations such as the Laplanders of northern Scandinavia, whose nutritional reliance on their reindeer herds, in which certain isotopes have become concentrated, has placed them at an increased risk. One of the most contaminated areas near the Chernobyl complex was the so-called Red Forest, where the radiation damage caused pine trees to turn red as they died. This entire forest, covering several squares miles, was buried to reduce the surface radioactivity of this “hot zone” to less dire levels. Ironically, although there has been evidence of damage at the chromosome level in the tissues of sampled wildlife, the enforcement of the exclusionary zone around the plant has amounted to the creation of a wildlife sanctuary in which the numbers of many species have dramatically increased.


  1. C. C. Bailey, The Aftermath of Chernobyl: History’s Worst Nuclear Power Reactor Accident (Kendall/Hunt, 1989);
  2. E. B. Burlakova, ed., Consequences of the Chernobyl Catastrophe on Human Health (Nova Science, 1999);
  3. R. P. Gale and Thomas Hauser, Final Warning: The Legacy of Chernobyl (Warner, 1988);
  4. J. H. Gittus, et al., The Chernobyl Accident and Its Consequences (United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, 1987);
  5. Viktor Haynes and Marko Bojcun, The Chernobyl Disaster (Hogarth, 1988);
  6. Louis Mackay and Mark Thompson, , Something in the Wind: Politics after Chernobyl (Pluto, 1988);
  7. Grigorii Medvedev, The Truth about Chernobyl, translated by Evelyn Rossiter (Basic, 1991);
  8. R. F. Mould, Chernobyl-The Real Story (Pergamon, 1988);
  9. C. C. Park, Chernobyl: The Long Shadow (Routledge, 1989);
  10. P.P. Read, Ablaze: The Story of the Heroes and Victims of Chernobyl (Random House, 1993);
  11. Boris Segerstahl, , Chernobyl: A Policy Response Study (Springer-Verlag, 1991);
  12. Iurii Shcherbak, Chernobyl: A Documentary Story, trans. by Ian Press (Macmillan, with Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, 1989);
  13. L. R. Silver, Fallout from Chernobyl (Deneau, 1987).

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