“…the result of an experiment gone terribly wrong”

On April 26, 1986, the Unit 4 reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear power station exploded, the result of an experiment gone dreadfully wrong. That moment marked the worst nuclear disaster the world has ever encountered, releasing catastrophic amounts of radioactive material into the environment, which quickly spread over Ukraine, Belarus and as far away as Western Europe. The impact of the nuclear meltdown caused a global reaction, while people in the region suffered physically, mentally and financially.

The What

The explosion of the reactor at Chernobyl’s nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986 was so all-encompassing and unprecedented in scope, that the devastation and ramifications–the human and environmental toll–continue unabated today. The explosion released into the atmosphere 126 different radioisotopes with half-lives that will last for decades. Radiation intensity at Chernobyl was 100 times the radiation generated by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The explosion left devastation in its wake, instantly taking lives and sealing the fate of generations to come.

The Where

Radioactive fallout spread across much of the globe, but the area of greatest contamination lay in Chernobyl and its surrounding areas — the thousands of acres spanning northern Ukraine, southern Belarus, and western Russia. Today, Chernobyl’s thirty-kilometer circumference is a “dead zone.” It is one of several closed areas in Ukraine and Belarus that are deemed too dangerous to inhabit–though some people continue to live there. Today, thousands of people still live in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, the region affected by the radiation generated from Chernobyl and the area once known as the Jewish Pale of Settlement.

The “Pale” of Settlement was an enormous ghetto where five million Jews were forced to live, from 1795-1917. Jews were transported to this area by the Russian empire when the tsar forcibly removed them from their homes. It was an area of mob violence and government enforced brutality. In 1986, almost exactly the same area was hit once again, this time by the Chernobyl poisons.

The When

April 25, 1986

1:05 pm: Power Plant decreasing, signifying the start of the reactor shutdown.
2:00 pm: Emergency Core Cooling System is disconnected and power is reduced to 30 MW.
11:10 pm: Power reduction resumed.

April 26, 1986

Operating Reactivity Margin (ORM) decreases to below 30 rods. No station manager’s approval for operation with less than 30 rods.

1:00 am: Increased power to 200 MW by removing rods.
1:07 am: 2 additional recirculation pumps started—all 8 are running. All but six rods are removed.
1:19 am: Increased feedwater flow to steam drums. Required immediate shutdown—warning ignored and test initiated.
1:22:30 am: Feedwater flow to steam drums decreased to very low value – 30 seconds later reactor inlet temperature begins to rise.
1:23:04 am: Turbine valves closed.
1:23:40 am: Emergency Scram initiated by button AZ-5
1:23:43 am: Power increasing rapidly due to positive void coefficient.
1:23:48 am: Explosion occurs, followed by a second explosion seconds later.

The Who

The first warning came in Sweden. At 9 a.m. on Monday, April 28, technicians at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant, 60 miles north of Stockholm, noticed disturbing signals blipping across their computer screens. Those signals revealed abnormally high levels of radiation, a sure sign of serious trouble. At first suspecting difficulties in their own reactors, the engineers searched frantically for a leak. When they found nothing, they lined up some 600 workers at the plant and tested them with a Geiger counter. This time the signals were even more alarming: the workers’ clothing gave off radiation far above contamination levels. Outside, monitors took Geiger counter readings of the soil and greenery surrounding the plant. The result showed four to five times the normal amount of radioactive emissions. Clearly, something was wrong — terribly wrong.”John Greenwald, Time Magazine, May 12, 1986.

“At distances of perhaps three to four miles, victims stood a fifty-fifty chance of surviving, though not without bone-marrow andgastrointestinal-tract damage. People living five to seven miles from the accident could experience nausea and other symptoms but would be unlikely to die. Smaller amounts of radiation within a range of 60 miles from the site would result in significantly increased deaths from leukemia and other forms of cancer during the next 30 years. People living 200 miles or more from the accident would run much smaller risks. The Swedes and many of those affected in Eastern Europe probably received the exposure equivalent of one to two chest X rays.” John Greenwald, Time Magazine, May 12, 1986.

The Aftermath

Up to 60 sq. mi. of Soviet farmland is likely to remain severely contaminated for decades, unless steps are taken to remove the tainted topsoil. Reason: cesium 137 and strontium 90, two radioactive particles spewed by the blaze, decay very slowly. It could take decades for the ground to be free of them. Together with the shorter-lived iodine 131, the substances promise to pose short- and long-term problems for people, crops and animals. Says James Warf, a chemistry professor at the University of Southern California: ”I wouldn’t be surprised if the immediate area has to be evacuated for generations.” John Greenwald, Time Magazine, May 12, 1986.

Based on Belarus national cancer statistics, Greenpeace predicted that up to 270,000 cancers and 93,000 fatal cancer cases have been caused by Chernobyl. The report also estimated that 60,000 people have additionally died in Russia because of the Chernobyl accident, and estimates of the total death toll for the Ukraine and Belarus could reach another 140,000. The Greenpeace report said the incidence of cancer in Belarus had jumped 40 percent between 1990 and 2000, with children not yet born at the time of the disaster showing an 88.5-fold increase in thyroid cancers.—Greenpeace 2006