The town of Pripyat with Chernobyl in the background

The town of Pripyat with Chernobyl in the background

Today marks 30 years since the disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant shocked the world. Below, a member of the RSGS Collections Team, Kenneth Maclean, has written about the disaster and shown with a map the effect it had on the rest of Europe.

Chernobyl -Thirty Years On

Kenneth Maclean

Thirty years ago, at 1:23 am on the 26th April, 1986, the world’s worst nuclear accident – yet, occurred at Chernobyl nuclear power station. Situated in what is now Ukraine, close to Belarus and the Dneiper river, Chernobyl’s name is forever associated with radioactive deposition, nuclear contamination, long-term health consequences and environmental degradation.

Human error, negligence, poor personnel training and flawed design ”“ for example, there was no reinforced containment shell around the reactor- have all been blamed. The immediate cause was an unauthorised experiment during which Chernobyl’s Reactor No. 4 was not closed down and built”“in safety devices were deliberately over-ridden. Such was the consequent overheating and build-up of enormous quantities of steam and chemical reactions, a huge explosion blew off the 1,000 tonne protective cover plate. Over the next ten days, a vast plume of radioactive dust and gas diffused uncontrollably from the resulting reactor fire across most of Europe’s boundaries. It spread northwards towards Scandinavia, then further west and south (see map), affecting many areas in trace amounts but especially at ”˜hotspots’ where radioactive particulates were washed by rain into the soil, vegetation and water. Figures vary widely regarding the environmental, economic and human impact of Chernobyl: it is estimated that the amount of radioactive materials, rich in iodine-131 and caesium-137, totalled between 20 and 400 times the fallout at Hiroshima, while other reckonings of deaths from radiation up to the year 2030 range between 1000 and 500,000.

In terms of immediate impact, it took two weeks to douse the reactor’s burning graphite core; water could not be used, so tonnes of helicopter-borne clay, boron and sand were dropped. Thirty-one staff and emergency personnel died attempting to contain the fire: three immediately, the others within a few weeks from severe doses of radiation. A thirty km outer exclusion zone was established. Some 135,000 people were evacuated from surrounding villages and towns, including Pripyat, a new model Soviet town specially constructed in 1970 to house Chernobyl workers, and whose 45,000 inhabitants – three days after the event and with no time to pack – were evacuated in a fleet of 1000 buses.

Further afield, reactions to Chernobyl varied. Many states banned the import of fruit, vegetables, milk, meat, animals for slaughter and fish from countries within 1,000 km radius of Chernobyl. Sheep in the uplands of North Wales, Cumbria and Galloway were destroyed, and in the longer term, restrictions on their sale were lifted only in 2010 in Scotland and 2012 elsewhere in the UK. Similar responses occurred in the Sami territories of Northern Scandinavia where levels of radiation in reindeer meat were 33 times higher than the permitted level following grazing on caesium-enriched lichens.

Thirty years on, whatever the validity of the arguments currently posited by apologists for new nuclear power plants ”“ their increased safety, new reactor technologies, heightened emergency preparedness, their role in reducing carbon emissions and sustaining base-level electricity generation – the environmental legacy of Chernobyl continues to haunt memories with its psychological fallout of uncertainty, and functions globally as a perennial bench mark for those millions unwilling to accept nuclear fission whatever its perceived merits. And, politically, the Chernobyl disaster, and the unprecedented deluge of information and discussion that eventually followed, were perhaps key catalysts that fostered glasnost; and, in turn, inevitable anti-Moscow sentiments which further accelerated nationalism in the Ukraine and Belarus and the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Chernoybl Blog map