Chernobyl Disaster

Chernobyl Disaster
   The Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident occurred on 26 April 1986 in Pripiat, Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. As a result of the explosion of reactor four of the nuclear power plant, a plume of highly radioactive fallout was sent into the atmosphere, covering an extensive geographical territory of the western Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), as well as other northern European countries. Large areas of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia were contaminated, resulting in the evacuation and resettlement of over 300,000 people. The total cost of counteracting the results of the disaster exceeded $200 billion.
   It is believed the nuclear accident occurred as a result of a badly planned and poorly managed scientific experiment that was aimed at testing the work of the reactor’s cooling pump system in the possible event of a failure of the auxiliary electricity supply. The overheating reactor caused multiple explosions that blew off the reactor’s roof. Because the reactor was not housed in a reinforced concrete shell, the building itself sustained severe damage and large amounts of radioactive pollutants escaped into the atmosphere. The administrators of the nuclear reactor ordered firefighters to climb onto the roof of the reactor and to fight the blaze; many of the personnel died on site or later because of exposure to radiation. The official statistics claimed that 30 people were killed in the explosion; a further 209 involved in the cleanup operation were treated for radiation poisoning. All exposed to radiation were transported to Moscow where they received treatment in specialized medical institutions. Within four months of the accident, 28 people died from radiation or thermal burns, and another 19 died later on. The evacuation of the civic population of Pripiat was ordered almost immediately; however, the real explanation for abandoning the city was not given until the information leaked to the press. If the government had not been secretive about the accident, there would have been fewer victims of the disaster in Pripiat and fewer people would have ultimately suffered from radiation poisoning.
   Initially, manpower was used to contain the results of the explosion; however, it soon became necessary to use helicopters to drop sand and lead in an effort to prevent further radioactive contamination. Despite these efforts, the Chernobyl disaster released at least 100 times more radiation than the atom bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The number of people who could eventually die as a result of the Chernobyl accident is highly controversial and is believed to be between 9,000 and 90,000. It is assumed that even more people will die of cancer-related problems, with thyroid cancer being the most common cause of death. Because of the direction of the wind, traces of radioactive deposits were found in many countries in the northern hemisphere; however, Belarus, Russia, and the Scandinavian countries were most affected. Various types of decontamination, preservation, and decommissioning work, including the construction of a replacement shelter covering the reactor’s remains, have been carried out. This work has been funded from national budgets—Ukrainian and Russian—as well as by foreign governments and international organizations.
   The disaster initiated a major review of the Soviet nuclear program (reactors similar to the Chernobyl one are operating in various parts of the former Soviet Union such as the Voronezh Oblast). As part of this initiative, over 1,000 nuclear engineers from the former Soviet Union have visited Western nuclear power plants and there have been many reciprocal visits. The explosion marked a sad coda to the Soviet Union’s decades-long campaign to achieve technological and scientific supremacy on the world stage. Arguably, the disaster occurred as the result of a flawed reactor design and because the reactor was operated by inadequately trained personnel and without proper regard for safety.
   Mikhail Gorbachev’s government initially concealed the news about the explosion from the public; however, the information eventually leaked into the press and caused a nationwide uproar. The government’s failure to convey the truth to the citizens caused the government to adopt the principles of political transparency, later known as glasnost. The Chernobyl explosion became the first in a series of natural disasters and technological accidents that hit the USSR at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s.
   The Chernobyl disaster was largely forgotten in the 1990s as other political, social, and economic issues dominated the media and popular imagination, especially with Ukraine becoming an independent state following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, the Russian press occasionally reports on the processes of decontamination and preservation being conducted in the 25-kilometer exclusion zone around Chernobyl. Officially, no one is allowed to live in this zone, but some people, especially the elderly who had lived in this area prior to the disaster, continue to do so. In recent years, the exclusion zone has become a source of various legends and conspiracy theories. The Chernobyl tragedy has been memorialized in a number of feature and documentary films. A number of Internet sites dedicated to the disaster feature materials related to the construction of the nuclear power station, the accident, and the legacy of the disaster; they serve as a virtual museum of the disaster.
   See also Nuclear energy.

Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. . 2010.

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