A Look at Chernobyl Before and After the Worst Nuclear Disaster in History

More than 25 years after the nuclear disaster, the word Chernobyl still incites fear and concern.
Before 1986, Chernobyl was a city. Since 1986, it has become a difficult lesson learned.

By Jennie Wood

Abandoned Village Near Chernobyl

Abandoned Village Near Chernobyl, 2001

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Entrance to Contamination Zone

Entrance to Contamination Zone Around Chernobyl, 2006
Photo credits: Slawojar

More than 25 years after the worst nuclear disaster in history, Chernobyl, a former cultural center, has become an abandoned city in northern Ukraine. Pripyat, the city founded in 1970 to house the workers for the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, is also now described as a dead town. For the next 300 years, the area will be contaminated and largely desolate, but before April 1986, Chernobyl was inhabited by 14,000 residents.

For Hundreds of Years, Chernobyl Was a Cultural Center

Chernobyl is a Ukrainian word for mugwort, a common name for an herbaceous plant. There's an alternative etymology that Chernobyl was named after a combination of words chornyi and byllia, which literally mean "black grass" or "black stalks". In the 13th century, the city was a crown village of Lithuania's Grand Ducy. In 1569, the province housing Chernobyl became part of the Kingdom of Poland. When Russia, Prussia, and Austria dissolved Poland through a series of partitions, Chernobyl became a part of the Russian Empire in 1793. In the last half of the 18th century, Chernobyl became a major center of Hasidic Judaism; however, the Jewish population suffered greatly in the early 1900s when many Jews were killed by the Black Hundreds, an ultra-nationalist movement in Russia. In the Polish-Soviet War of 1919–1920, the city was taken first by the Polish Army, and then by the Red Army. Chernobyl was incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1921. The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was commissioned by the government in 1977.

The Disaster

On April 26, 1986, a power output surged during a systems test. An emergency shutdown was attempted, but the power output spiked even more, which led to an explosion at reactor No. 4 at 1:23am. Two workers died instantly. Further explosions and a fire released highly radioactive material into the atmosphere. The release of nuclear fallout at Chernobyl was 400 hundred times higher than that of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Both mechanical malfunction and human error were cited as the causes of the disaster.

At the time of the disaster, 49,400 people lived in Pripyat. More than 24 hours after the first explosion, residents were ordered to evacuate, but by this time, many had already suffered varying degrees of radiation poisoning. They were told that the evacuation wouldn't last long and to leave their personal belongings. Most of those residents, however, never returned
and their belongings are still there today, reminders of lives interrupted
and forever altered.

Zone of Alienation

Large quantities of radioactive materials were released into the air for 10 days. A large containment structure known as "the sarcophagus" was built to capture the materials. The structure trapped about 200 tons of nuclear fuel and debris that had melted through the floor and hardened. By May 14, about 116,000 people, who lived within a 19-mile radius of the nuclear plant had been relocated. By July 1986, there were 28 deaths due to radiation exposure. In following years, 220,000 more people moved into less contaminated areas and a 19-mile zone of alienation was established. Many settled in Slavutych, a city built shortly after the disaster for power plant workers and their families. To this day, any business or residential activities in the zone are strictly prohibited except for monitoring the power plant and installations to study nuclear safety. Some 3,000 workers are currently employed inside the zone of alienation, but they do not live there. Workers are regularly monitored for radiation and can only work a limited number of shifts per week. Workers are needed at the site because the remaining 3 reactors, although no longer operational, still contain nuclear fuel that needs to be monitored. The site is to be cleared by 2065.

Some residents, primarily elderly, refused to evacuate the zone or returned illegally. The roughly 500 who still live there today reside in homes with signs that read: "owner of this house lives here."

Guided Tours

Tours of the zone are available. For example, SoloEast Travel books both private and scheduled group tours. The tours, which cost $140-$160 (not including the fee for mandatory insurance), include a stop near the Red Forest, a viewing of reactor No. 4 (from a 100 meter distance), and a visit to Pripyat. At the end of the tour, everyone must be tested for radiation.

Affects Will Last 300 Years

The 200 tons of hardened nuclear fuel and debris remains so radioactive that even today scientists cannot approach it. Some radioactive elements in nuclear fuel decay quickly; however, cesium has a half-life of 30 years, and strontium has a half-life of 29 years. According to scientific estimates, it takes 10 to 13 half-lives before economic activity and life can return to a contaminated area. This means that the total area contaminated by the Chernobyl disaster — 15,000 square miles — will be affected for the next 300 years. In 2014, a more secure confinement structure will be completed to replace the hastily built sarcophagus. The new structure, an 18,000 ton metal arch, will cover both reactor No. 4 and the 1986 structure.

What We Have Learned

The Chernobyl Forum was founded in 2003 to assess the environmental consequences and health effects of the disaster. In 2005, the forum released a report entitled: "Chernobyl's legacy: Health, Environmental, and Socio-Economic Impacts." The report confirms that 28 emergency workers died from acute radiation syndrome, and 15 patients later died from thyroid cancer. The report also estimates that cancer deaths directly resulting from the incident may reach a total of 4,000 among the 600,000 workers who received the greatest exposure while cleaning up the disaster. In addition, there have been 4,000 reported cases of thyroid cancer, mainly from people who were children living in the area at the time of the accident. Scientists believe the children were affected by drinking milk from contaminated cows. Iodine 131, another radioactive element, can dilute very quickly in the air, but if it is deposited on grass eaten by cows, the cows then re-concentrate it in their milk. Absorbed into the body's thyroid gland, Iodine 131 can cause cancer. This was perhaps the greatest lesson learned from the disaster.

Because of the Chernobyl disaster, we now know to test the grass, soil, and milk for radiation near nuclear plants. Also, an evacuation of the Chernobyl area was not ordered until more than 24 hours after the incident. Japanese authorities evacuated 200,000 people from the area of Fukushima within hours of the initial alert following the meltdown in March 2011. The mistakes and magnitude of the disaster at Chernobyl has taught the world how to handle the short and long-term effects of nuclear fallout.

Information Please® Database, © 2007 Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.

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