30 Years Since Chernobyl

 

Catherine Milroy

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The remains of the Chernobyl reactor, RBMK-1000. (Photo Courtesy of Claus Blok Thomsen)

On April 26th, 1986, a meltdown occurred at the Soviet nuclear power plant in Ukraine. In an uncontrolled reaction, clouds of radiation billowed out from the plant, stretching throughout the northern parts of Europe, as well as areas of what had been the USSR. Two people died immediately after the explosion, and 28 more individuals died due to radiation poisoning in the weeks afterward. It is considered the worst nuclear disaster in history. The meltdown is also a unique instance, as the malfunction was in part related to the Chernobyl 4 plant’s specific design. However, the reasons for the explosion, as well as its effects, were a cause for massive reform in both environmental and industry procedures.

 

In the events leading up to the meltdown, the plant was in the midst of running procedures for routinely shutdowns, after a loss of power. Due to a specific design of the reactor’s control rods, a massive surge of power ensued, causing an overproduction of steam that went to the reactor’s turbines that reacted with the hot fuel. This created an unsafe amount of pressure that led to two explosions: one of the steam that had spread throughout the core and another from the fuel channels.

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Abandoned building in the town of Pripyat. (Photo Courtesy Claus Blok Thomsen)

The following day, 45,000 civilians living within the nearby town of Pripyat were evacuated. By the end of May, 116,000 more people were evacuated within a 30 kilometer radius of the site. The contamination area expanded over the years, eventually taking up 4300 square kilometers, and another 220,000 people were relocated due to a projected lifetime intake of 350 mSv (millisieverts) of radiation. Today Pripyat is a ghost town, with restrictions preventing anyone from living there and visitation restricted to only a few hours.

 

Initially, reporting on the aftereffects of the Chernobyl incident was difficult, as there wasn’t much in the way of reliable public health information at that time. After the government of the USSR requested an assessment of the consequences of the meltdown, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), 50 missions were conducted by 200 scientists between 1990 and 1991. Over a million individuals in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus were considered at risk of possible radiation-related issues. Four thousand cases of thyroid cancer were diagnosed by the year 2000 in exposed children, but when identified and treated early, the disease is not fatal. Within the same year, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) stated that “apart from this [thyroid cancer] increase, there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure 14 years after the accident. There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality or in non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure.” So far this has remained true in terms of the health of exposed people; in fact, the relocation of those within contaminated areas actually affected them more,  as the experience was highly traumatizing. However, some adopted a dependency on tying radiation to health problems, while in reality smoking and poor nutrition were the causes of high fatality rates in exposure victims. Another unfortunate result was that pregnant women within exposed areas were convinced of birth defects or other problems, and there was an advisory that any pregnancies at the time be terminated when in reality, there was almost no chance of this, and there were far more fetal deaths due to abortions than there would have been defects due to radiation.  

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A piglet in the Kiev Chernobyl museum, born with dipygus, or double lower extremities.(Photo Courtesy of Vincent de Groot)

Environmental status of the area around the Chernobyl explosion is far better today than one might think. Thanks to air and soil agitation, though both human activity and processes like erosion, urban sectors have radiation levels at about the same rates as they did before the accident, except in areas with heavy amounts of plant life that remain untouched by humans. However, the meltdown did create secondary contamination in neighboring sewage systems. While only local surface water had high levels of radiation, some isolated ponds with no creek flow are still considered contaminated. One of the largest areas of negative impacts was the agricultural areas in this area of Ukraine, in which plants and livestock were contaminated—especially in cattle and, in turn, milk. Even today products from contaminated regions must be inspected thoroughly. What is likely considered the most grotesque result is the amount of animals born with a shocking amount of deformities (a problem that humans managed to avoid in the period after the disaster), such as missing or extra limbs or eyes, and bone deformities.

The Chernobyl disaster did create positive reform movements. Politically, the accident was a large reason for the later fall of the Soviet Union, as implementation of glasnost (open discussion of the Union’s problems) and scientific cooperation between nations democratized it by a great deal. Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine have paid the equivalent of billions of dollars as a result of Chernobyl, and still pay compensation to millions of people, according to the IAEA. Agricultural products’ costs are higher, as hundreds of thousands of acres in the area have been banned from use. Actually, the power plant was still operational for a time after this disaster, due to an energy production shortage in Ukraine. The second reactor was decommissioned in 1991, following another fire at the operational part of the plant, and was considered too damaged to continue running; Reactor 1 was shut down in a deal with the IAEA, and the entire plant was closed by Russian President Leonid Kuchma personally in an official ceremony in 2000. Today the site is open to visit along with a museum in Kiev, to stand as a warning to haphazard construction, the dangers of nuclear energy production, and the consequences of human carelessness.