April 1986: Remembering the Chernobyl Disaster

The Chernobyl Disaster, which occurred on April 26, 1986 in the Ukrainian city of Pripyat (then a part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or “Soviet Union”), was an unprecedented nuclear disaster that rocked the world.  This event happened in the last stretch of the Cold War, which lasted from the late 1940s through the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Chernobyl Factory, Source: Tiia Monto, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I was about 13 years old when this accident occurred and had spent my early childhood being taught to fear the Soviet regime.  Our elementary schools held drills where we hid under our desks to prepare for potential fallout from nuclear missiles that might be lobbed at the United States from the Soviet Union.

Of course, I was raised in rural Texas, so the likelihood of those missiles reaching us were very slim, but then again, it is never too early to scare children.

So when the Chernobyl accident happened, I gathered all of the wrong facts based on my previous experiences and assumed it was a nuclear weapons facility rather than the nuclear power plant that it actually was.  

In reality, the explosion was the result of a failed safety test in nuclear reactor number four which also had flaws in its design.  Additionally, it is believed that operators were not properly trained to handle the safety test or design issues.

According to Wikipedia, Chernobyl “is considered the worst nuclear disaster in history both in terms of cost and casualties.”  The same article noted that the accident consisted of two explosions which ruptured the reactor core and a subsequent reactor core fire that burned for nine days afterwards dropping radioactive material throughout the USSR and Western Europe.  

The death toll within the first few months after the accident was 31 of which about 28 died from radiation sickness.  Since then another 15 people have died of Thyroid cancer, which is believed to be directly related to the incident.

The United Nations issued a report on the accident in September of 2005 stating that, “a total of up to 4,000 people could eventually die of radiation exposure from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (NPP) accident.”

Dr. Burton Bennett, Chairman of the Chernobyl Forum and an authority on radiation effects said, “This was a very serious accident with major health consequences, especially for thousands of workers exposed in the early days who received very high radiation doses, and for the thousands more stricken with thyroid cancer.  By and large, however, we have not found profound negative health impacts to the rest of the population in surrounding areas, nor have we found widespread contamination that would continue to pose a substantial threat to human health, with a few exceptional, restricted areas.”

The city sign for Chernobyl, Source: Omar David Sandoval Sida, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The accident happened a little over a year after Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power in the Soviet Union and promised a thawing of the previous Cold War isolationist approach.  The Chernobyl accident, however, turned out to not only be a global catastrophe with far reaching implications, but also was a public relations nightmare for Gorbachev as the Soviet Union was slow to release information regarding the accident.

A Washington Post article written on May 1,1986 by Michael Dobbs explains, “Western officials and foreign policy analysts agree that the Kremlin’s failure to provide detailed information about what has happened at Chernobyl could turn out to be almost as damaging for Moscow as the accident itself. The initial news blackout provoked protests from practically every government in Western Europe and raised concern among ordinary citizens on both sides of the ‘Iron Curtain.’”

Further in the article, British Foreign Office minister, Tim Eggar, was quoted as saying “the ‘lesson’ of the Chernobyl incident was that ‘the openness which Gorbachev has said is necessary in Soviet society must become a reality.’”

As we all know, Gorbachev would go on to weather this storm and Eastern Europe including the Ukraine would break away by 1989 and by 1991, the Soviet Union would dissolve, but the tragedy and human impact of the Chernobyl accident will live on.

To learn more about Chernobyl, please visit these resources: