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Chernobyl: What do we know and is it the future source of disaster for Europe?

Updated: Nov 22, 2021

The Chernobyl Events of 1986

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant is located 130 km away from Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. Chernobyl town housed around 18,000 residents in 1986. A further 50,000 people lived in Pripyat, a town 3km away from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

On 26 April 1986 at 1:23 a.m. a series of two explosions occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. A booming fire with radioactive debris went up in the air from the reactor 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The radioactive debris started spreading across the neighbouring areas.

Emergency services were called to the scene to try and contain the fire and radiation leaks. 5,000 tonnes of sand, clay and lead were dropped over the burning reactor by helicopter crews. This in some way prevented a further more serious explosion that could have rendered many more Earth areas uninhabitable.

Two people died at the scene of the explosion. Those preventing further radiation leaks and putting out the fire sacrificed their lives and passed away in the following months and years due to acute radiation sickness and lethal radiation levels received that had its consequences in many years to come.

The initial fire at Chernobyl nuclear power plant was extinguished by 6 a.m. on 26 April 1986; however, the resulting graphite-fuelled fire took further 10 days  to extinguish. Toxic fumes were poisoning the people of Chernobyl and Pripyat towns as well as neighbouring villages. Toxic fumes with radioactive debris were further picked up and carried over by the blowing wind towards Belarus and Europe.

Evacuation of citizens

The evacuation of citizens started only on 27th April 1986, about 36 hours after the tragedy.

Within those 36 hours people of Chernobyl, Pripyat and neighbouring villages were unaware of the radioactive particles in the air and its dangers. Children were out in the playgrounds,dogs were taken out for a walk as usual.

Local authorities were slow to react and when they measured the level of radiation near the Chernobyl nuclear, they realised that they had to evacuate people living in the area. However, by the time evacuation started many had already experienced the symptoms of acute radiation sickness such as vomiting and headaches.

People were told to pack lightly and get on the evacuation buses. They were reassured that it was only a temporary measure and they would come back to their homes in 3 days. Pets were not allowed to be taken with them. Some people did not want to leave the area and hid to escape patrols.

Later the area of 30km around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was closed off.

Spread of radioactivity towards Belarus and Europe

Due to the blowing wind's direction at the time of radioactive explosions at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the fumes made their move toward Belarus and Europe.

Soviet authorities were slow to disclose information about the severity of the situation to the outside world and it was only when the Swedish experts raised the alarm as to the increased radiation levels they detected that Societ authorities had to reveal the full extent of the crisis they were facing.

Consequences of Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion

A large amount of toxic gas and fumes went up into the atmosphere on 26 April 1986.

Immediately the pine trees surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant turned reddish in colour due to high radiation levels and died. They were later labelled as the "Red Forest". They were buried when more than half a million of  Soviet citizens were called to "clean up" the contaminated soil and remove radioactive debris risking their lives.

According to a 2018 UNSCEAR report around 20,000 thyroid cases were diagnosed between 1991 and 2015 in patients who were under the age of 18 in 1986. It is stated that "Today the available evidence does not strongly connect the accident  to radiation-induced increases of leukemia or solid cancer, other than thyroid cancer".

Iodine-131 which is a fission product from a failed nuclear reactor and has a half-life of 8 days, localizes in the thyroid gland after being ingested in the air and this is thought to be responsible for the thyroid cancer cases that developed later in those who lived through the Chernobyl tragedy.

In addition to the rise in the number of thyroid cancer cases, many doctors throughout the Soviet Union and other countries were advising pregnant women to terminate their pregnancy to avoid having children with birth defects and other disorders. Around 400 such abortions took place in Denmark and 2500 in Greece. The same tendency was recorded in Italy and other European countries. It is believed that around 100,000-200,000 abortions were carried out due to the fear of Chernobyl radiation effect. However, the World Nuclear Association stated that the likelihood that those women would have children with unwanted effects  due to radiation is low.

Another dangerous product from the failed Chernobyl nuclear reactor is cesium isotopes that have a half-life of 30 years and are therefore a great concern for the environment. Chernobyl radioactive particles reached other countries such as Sweden and Finland and were also scattered across the Alps, the Welsh mountains and the Scottish Highlands. Groundwater contamination was also detected.

Some cattle and animals died. Some animals stopped reproducing. There are reports that the cattle that survived was stunted due to thyroid damage caused by radiation. In the next 5 years many animals that were born had deformities such as having extra or missing limbs, deformed body parts.

The contamination of fish was a long-term concern for Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and certain parts of Scandinavia but a short-term one for Germany and the UK.

The movement of approximately 4.2 million of UK sheep from 9, 700 farms was restricted immediately after the Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion came to light so as to prevent the contaminated meat from entering the human food chain. By 2009 369 farms with around 190,000 sheep were still under restrictions in Wales, northern Scotland and Cumbria. Restrictions applying to Wales and Cumbria were lifted in 2012, whereas restrictions applying to Scotland were lifted in 2010. The UK legislation used to compensate farmers and control the sheep movement was revoked in 2012.

Chernobyl these days

The area has recovered to some extent but far from returning to normal.

"Exclusion zone" or "zone of alienation" largely uninhabited and previously open only to scientists and government officials is the zone extending 19 miles in all directions from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

Radiation levels there are so high that workers rebuilding the sarcophagus were allowed to work only 5 hours a day for a month before taking 15 days of rest.

It is estimated that around 200 people are still living in this area despite government order to leave the place.

The zone was made open to tourists in 2010 by the Ukrainian government. However, tourists have to be screened before they visit the zone and after they leave it. Many go to the area via unofficial routes and get different items from the exclusion zone that they then resell putting other people's lives at risk.

Protection of the ruined reactor 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant

In 1986 there were attempts to restore the plant to its initial state but even the robots imported from Japan to do so  failed to fulfil these tasks, let alone humans. The damaged reactor no 4 was eventually sealed in a concrete sarcophagus to contain the remaining radiation.

Reactor 1 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant continued its operation till 1996 and reactor number 2 till 1991. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant itself continued its operation until 2000, 14 years more after the tragedy.

On 12 February 2013 the sarcophagus initially erected over the failed Chernobyl reactor got damaged and a new release of radioactivity followed.

The New Safe confinement structure was erected in 2016 to completely enclose reactor 4 and the initial sarcophagus for the next 100 years.

Events of April 2020

As the fires had continued to spread across the areas near Chernobyl and its nuclear power plant since 4th April 2020, the pollution levels in Ukraine skyrocketed. Kiev residents have been advised to stay indoors and keep their windows closed as the thick yellowish smoke from the fires in the Chernobyl exclusion zone reached them. Most Ukrainians are in self-isolation at present due to the coronavirus crisis that is spreading across the globe.

Government agencies insist that there is no health hazard at present and no radiation levels have increased as a result of these fires. They claim there is no risk to the nearby nuclear waste storage facilities.

Greenpeace Russia reported three new fires around Chernobyl on 17th April 2020 based on their satellite data.The satellite images reveal that the fire was at its closest point, only 1.5 kilometres from the sarcophagus erected over the ruined reactor.

It is feared that the blazes could reach abandoned vehicles at the former Chernobyl nuclear plant and cause explosions that could spread toxic fumes across Ukraine and its neighbours such as Belarus, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Moldova.

Many fear that the present Ukranian government is hiding the facts as it happened in 1986 with the Soviet authorities when the largest nuclear disaster in history happened and yet the Soviet authorities failed to disclose its extent until radioactive particles reached Europe and Swedish experts raised the alarm. 

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