During the early morning hours of April 26, 1986, Chernobyl nuclear reactor No. 4 exploded, causing a nuclear meltdown and the release of radiations that killed dozens of people and contaminated millions of hectares with radiation. It was the worst nuclear power-plant accident of all time.[Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic August 1994, May 1987]

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: “A power surge triggered an explosion at Reactor No. 4 in Chernobyl, in what is now Ukraine. Soviet propagandists used to say their reactors were so safe that ‘we could build one on Red Square,’ but the design turned out to be surpassingly bad: Reactor No. 4 had no containment system to stop the spread of radiation, and when it caught fire the graphite core burned like charcoal for ten days, lofting radioactive material into the atmosphere, where it was carried as far as Ireland.

The Soviets said nothing about the accident; it was discovered only when the plume tripped radiation alarms at a nuclear plant north of Stockholm. The nearly fifty thousand residents of the town of Pripyat, less than two miles away form Chernobyl, were told nothing until more than twenty-four hours after the explosion, when they were ordered to evacuate temporarily and leave their possessions behind. Most never returned. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 17, 2011]

Chernobyl (Chornobyl in Ukrainian) is located 65 miles northwest of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. It is the home of nuclear plant with four 1,000-megawatt reactors (a fifth and six were under construction at the time of the disaster but never completed). Planners had hoped it would be the largest nuclear power station in the world

The Chernobyl reactor was a RBMK-type graphite reactor. A total of 17 of these reactors were built — four in Ukraine 11 in Russia and 2 in Lithuania. Graphite reactors are illegal in the West, and regarded as very unstable and unsafe.

Book: Chernobyl: A Documentary Story by Iurii Schcherbak, based on eyewitness accounts.

Causes of the Chernobyl Accident

The accident was caused by an ill-conceived experiment in which engineers tested the emergency systems on the turbines of Chernobyl reactor No. 4 by reducing the power to below 25 percent. The reactor grew unstable as power declined. Some of the engineers had never been informed that the Chernobyl-style-graphite style reactors become dangerously unstable at low power. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic August 1994, May 1987]

Before the test began: 1) the emergency core cooling system was shut down because it was thought it might affect the results of the test; 2) power fell to 30 megawatts (rather than as safe level of 700 megawatts) because an operator failed to reprogram a computer; 3) control rods were removed to increase power, but xenon had built up in the fuel rods, destabilizing the reaction; and 4) operators shut off emergency signals to make it easier to prepare for the test.

Due to pressure to complete the test, operators began the test at 1:23 am even though the computer indicated dangerously high reactivity. Operators continued with experiment, ignoring warnings from various sensors, and shut off the last remaining trip signal just as it was about to shut down the reactor.

The reactor quickly became unstable and water levels in the core became abnormally low as too few control rods were in the reactor. Neutrons went out of control; steam built up in the pipes leading to a surge in power, which creating more steam, creating a chain reaction unique to Chernobyl-type RBMK graphite reactors.

In a panic the operators began inserting all the control rods. The graphite at the end of the rods and the water they displaced speed up the reaction. Within four seconds the power surges to 100 times the reactor's capacity. The uranium fuel disintegrated, burnt through its covers, and came into contact with the cooling water. At around the same time operators pressed emergency buttons.

Chernobyl Explosions and Radiation Releases

Three minutes after the test began the power rose to uncontrollable levels (a hundred times the operating maximum). About 20 minutes later there was one, maybe two explosions, followed by a core meltdown. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic August 1994, May 1987]

The first, steam, explosion with a force of 1000 tons of TNT was caused when the uranium fuel came in contact with the cooling water. Fuel rods shattered, 1,600 water pipers were sheared and hot fuel created huge clouds of steam that blew the reactor apart. Some people say a second explosion two or three second later occurred. This may have been caused hydrogen released when steam oxidized the zirconium encasing the fuel rods.

The explosion caused the 2000-ton steel-and concrete lid of the reactor to "dance up and down" and the fall to one side. The roof and side were torn open, exposing six or seven tons of radioactive material to the air. Graphite slabs of the reactor core flew through the roof, setting a fire and spewing radioactive material.

Among the question that still remained answered today: How many explosions were there? Did pressing the emergency button cause the explosion? Why didn't the operator know the reactor was unstable at low power? How many control rods were in the core at the time of the explosion? How much fuel remains in the sarcophagus.

The Chernobyl accident released 500 times the radiation of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb and several million times more than Three Mile island accident. The radioactive material released into the atmosphere included several tons of uranium dioxide fuel and fission products such as cesium 137, iodine 131, strontium 90 and tons of burning, radiation-contaminated graphite.

The explosion and heat created a radioactive cloud that rose three miles in the air. Twenty percent of the plant's radioactive iodine 131 escaped, along with 10 to 20 percent of its radioactive cesium 137 and a mix of other radioisotopes including plutonium. Cesium 137 and strontium 90 fallout contaminated the soil and in some cases leached into the groundwater contaminating drinking water, streams and plants. The cesium decayed slower than anticipated.

Firemen at Chernobyl

Heroic local firemen were responsible for putting out the fire on the roof of reactor 4 and keeping it spreading to an adjoining reactor. They had no training for a nuclear disaster and were sent in virtually unprotected. The put out the fires using methods usually used on conventional fires. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic August 1994, May 1987]

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: Local firefighters and first responders were dispatched with no special instructions. They went off just as they were, in their shirtsleeves,” a fireman’s widow later told the journalist Svetlana Alexievich. They walked among shards of radioactive fuel and graphite. (A hundred and thirty-four developed acute radiation sickness. Twenty-eight men died within months and were buried in foil-lined coffins, beneath lead covers.)[Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 17, 2011]

The fireman arrived in the middle of the night not long after the explosion. When the arrived they found 30 fires burning, most ignited by graphite. They climbed to the roof and put out all the fires except the one in the reactor by 5:00am. One fireman late told BBC, "Absolutely everywhere, we were plying water to where it was needed. It was almost morning when we realized that something was wrong, that it was very serious. A guy with a geiger counter came to where we were positioned, near the ruble, and took some measurements. He immediately shot back to where he came from. It was then that we realized that the radiation levels were extremely high, and in the morning were started to feel nauseous. Our ankles were aching, as if in spasms, and we had other symptoms like that.”

Another fireman later told BBC, "It was dark because it was night. On the other hand, you could see and even recognize a person from 10 to 15 meters. It was if the sun was rising, but with a strange light. Ignatenko [a coworker] approached the reactor and peered into it. Later, when I saw him in Moscow, the skin on his jaw was sagging — almost to his chest. It was all dead skin on the part of his body that he exposed to radiation when he looked onto the reactor from the top.”

Bombarding the Chernobyl Reactor and Containing the Radiation

After the accident helicopters dropped tons of lead (to seal and shield the vault), boron carbide (to absorb neutrons), clay and sand (to cut off oxygen and filter radionuclides) and dolomite (to produce carbon dioxide to smother the burning graphite) onto the twisted metal and machinery and pipe visible through the hole in the reactor. Unfortunately most of it missed its mark and fell next to the burning core. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic August 1994, May 1987]

A professor on board one of the helicopters told the BBC, "I think that was my trip to hell. There was this dark haze around the reactor, and we were in a a height of 300 meters, trying to find some way through for the trucks with liquid nitrogen. We were not there for long, but obviously there was no protection in the helicopter." The professor survived, The pilot and navigator later died from radiation-related illnesses.

On the ground, thousands of people in white garments with masks and caps scurried around. Most of them were soldiers, miners and bulldozer operators trying to reduce emissions from the reactor and ejected debris. It was the beginning of what turned out to be one of the greatest peacetime mobilizations in history and took more than a year to complete.

Kiev subway diggers and miners were brought into tunnel under the destroyed reactor and pumped liquid nitrogen into the core area to avert what some scientist feared would be an even deadlier explosions. They also worked to prevent contamination of the Pripyat River, which lead to the Dnieper, which provided dining water for millions,

Among those who put their lives in danger was Pyotr Zborovsky, an army captain who used a sledge hammer to break into the reactor building and lead a team of 65 men that pumped radioactive water into a containment pond.

Death and Sickness and Chernobyl Radiation

Thirty-two people died from wounds, burns, heart attack and radiation poisoning, A total of 237 people suffered severe radiation injuries in the blast and fire. Many of these had severe radiation burns on the skin. Three people were killed immediately. Two were operators. One of them, Valery Khodemchuck, was the night manager on duty at 1:23am when the core started overheating. He rushed to the observation deck just as the core reached critical mass and vaporized immediately. The other dead were mostly firemen as well as some construction workers working on reactor No. 5 and a physician and paramedic who received high doses of radiation while helping the firemen. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic August 1994, May 1987]

About 500 people were hospitalized immediately after the disaster. They included bus drivers who evacuated residents. At total of 203 people, including many firemen, were hospitalized with acute radiation syndrome. Many of these had severe radiation burns on their skin. Dr. Robert Gale, a bone marrow specialist at UCLA, flew to Moscow to give born marrow transplants to firemen exposed to high doses of radiation. Most of those who underwent the surgery survived into old age.

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: “Soviet authorities failed to warn people to protect themselves. Cows ate tainted grass, and children drank the milk, contaminating their thyroid glands with radioactive iodine. Local doctors were barred from mentioning the meltdown in their diagnoses, to prevent “radiophobia” — unhealthy fear of radiation. The greatest long-term impact has been an epidemic of thyroid cancer, mostly among children who drank the milk. Five thousand cases have been discovered, but most are treatable; so far, approximately ten people have died. According to the World Health Organization, Chernobyl will eventually have shortened the lives of four thousand people. A fifth of the farmland in Belarus was rendered unusable, and still accounts for seven hundred million dollars in losses each year. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 17, 2011]

Radiation in Belarus and Spread of Radiation Across Europe

The radiation spread first into Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. The radioactive cloud was carried by the wind to the northwest and then south and east in Europe. The fallout fell unevenly, heavy in some places and light in others. By the second day the dispersal area stretched from Scandinavia to Greece, mainly in eastern and central Europe. By the six day the fallout spread over much of southern Western Europe and dispersed southward to the Middle East and eastward Central Asia. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic August 1994, May 1987]

High radiation levels were reported in Denmark and southern Finland and Sweden. Significant levels of contaminants were reported in Germany and France, By the end of the sixth day radiation had been dispersed over the entire globe. Even California and Japan recorded increases in radiation levels.

About 60 percent of the fallout from the Chernobyl disaster fell on Belarus. The fallout dropped on about 23 percent of Belarus's territory, mainly in the Ginel and Mogilvel oblats in southern and western Belarus, and seriously affected about one fifth of the population. The Chernobyl nuclear facility is located in the Ukraine only about eight miles from the Belarus border. Wind carried the fall out into Belarus and then into Poland, the Baltics, Western Europe and Scandinavia. An estimated two million people, 20 percent of the forests and 250,000 acres of agricultural land in Belarus were contaminated. More than 45,000 people were evacuated.

The Belarussian village of Budische, about 150 miles northeast of the accident site, was hit hard with radioactive fallout. The village was designated a hot spot and its residents were urged to move. The number of villagers fell from 600 to 170. Most of those that stayed were over 60. The villages was the subject of two films by Japanese director Seichi Motohashi: Nadya's Village (1997) and Alexei and Spring (2000).

People fleeing wars in Tajikstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Chechnya have moved to abandoned villages in Belarus in pursuit of a peaceful place to live. One woman who moved from Tajikistan into Rudakov, a nearly abandoned Belarussian village 25 miles down wind from Chernobyl said, "Back home, tanks would roll on the streets all night. here, there are some nights when I don't get any sleep, but that's usually because someone has climbed into my garden to steal my potatoes.” The Belarus government has done little to stop people from moving into areas contaminated by Chernobyl radiation, in fact it has encouraged them to move there to till the soil in fallow fields.

Warnings and Reactions to Chernobyl Radiation

The first indication that something had gone wrong were high levels of radiation picked up in Sweden by a radiation detector at a nuclear power plant there. This warning combined with information picked by spy satellites let the world know a nuclear disaster had taken place at Chernobyl. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic August 1994, May 1987]

After the explosion at Chernobyl citizens were told not to eat mushrooms or vegetables, and instructed not to leave their cows outside. May Day parades went on as scheduled in Kiev as radioactive fallout fell. Many first realized something was amiss when Radio Free Europe and Polish radio issued reports of radioactivity in Sweden and Poland.

The Soviet government didn't acknowledge the disaster until more than two days after it happened. Finally in a terse radio bulletin Moscow announced: "An accident has taken place at the Chernobyl power station and one of the reactors was damaged. Measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of the accident." Soviet news reported that a nuclear power plant was being moved in Kiev.

People in Ukraine, after heating the iodine solutions was being given to Polish children to prevent thyroid damage, drank iodine from medicine bottles and wound up in hospitals. In Kiev schools were closed and children were sent to Young Pioneer camps. People took lots of baths and frequently wiped their shoes to clean off radioactive dust.

People joked the soccer team Dynamo Kiev’s improvements were due to radiation and that to cook a chicken all you had to was hold it out the window. Some consumed large amounts of vodka, red wine or garlic to “cleanse” their body of radiation.

There was some panic in Europe: reports were broadcast in the media of thousand of deaths, civil defense units were called up, fresh produce and milk was banned as contaminated. Relations between Europe and the developing world were strained when it was discovered that food and crops contaminated with radiation were shipped to Third World countries rather than destroyed. Among these were Italian wheat, Polish potatoes and Dutch butter.

Even today reindeer in Scandinavia are radioactive from eating lichens contaminated by Chernobyl; wild boars in Croatia have high levels of radioactive material in their bodies; and some people in the Vosques region of France who eat large amounts of mushrooms have high levels of Cesium 137.

Radiation-Contaminated Areas and the Exclusion Zone of Chernobyl

Today, an area of the countryside within a thirty-kilometre radius of the Chernobyl plant is off limits and is known officially as the Exclusion Zone and fenced off. About 116,000 people were evacuated from the "Exclusion Zone," About 19,000 people were removed from areas outside the Exclusion Zone with high radioactive fallout levels. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic August 1994, May 1987]

More than 140,000 square kilometers (30,000 square-miles) of land was contaminated by Chernobly radiation . About 24,000 of the 116,000 people who were evacuated received fairly high doses of radiation. Those that received the highest amounts lived in places downwind from Chernobyl and were not immediately evacuated. People that lived in wooden houses received higher levels than those in concrete houses and apartments. Things could have been much worse. The disaster occurred late at night when most people were indoors. It was not raining so the radiation wasn’t concentrated at high levels in some areas.

More than 90 towns and villages were evacuated. The entire town of Pripyat, once home to 50,000 people, was evacuated. People there told of the accident and given 36 hours to move. They were not allowed to take their pets. Hunters were sent in to shoot animals. Livestock was trucked out and slaughtered and the meat was sold at markets.

People were relocated in hastily built highrises. Many lived in crowded dormitories while the apartments were built. Typically men stayed behind to work in the clean up crew while their wives and children moved out. Evacuated children were given lots of fruit in the school meals to increase their mineral intake and were given periodic medical check-ups.

People transferred to collective farms received new homes, new furniture and $20,000 in compensation for lost property. Their homes were built in 45 days. Later busloads of Chernobyl evacuees were transported back in buses back to their former villages so they could perform annual village rituals.

Responsibility for Chernobyl and RBMK Nuclear Reactors

The test that caused the Chernobyl disaster had been casually planned and had not received the required approval. There was no reactor specialist on hand when it began. The official Soviet version of culpability was to blame the disaster on the operators. Valery Khodemchuck, the night manager, who conducted the experiment, and other operators died during or soon after the explosion. Their decisions and versions of events were never made public. Boris Rogozhkin, the chief engineer in charge of the reactors no. 3 and no. 4, was jailed for five years for his involvement in the accident. He was one of six people convicted in widely publicized trials in 1987.

An official Ukrainian report blamed the accident on the reactor's design and hasty construction to fulfil demands by the Soviet leadership. The RBMK designs were determined to be defective and dangerous. Unlike most nuclear plants which use water to control the reaction caused by the nuclear fuel rods, RBMK types use massive graphite blocks in the core as well as water for cooling. The RBMK reactors were designed to prevent pipe breaks, regarded as the most dangerous threat, not low-power meltdowns. The shield on the reactor was relatively light and the reactor was dangerously unstable. After the disaster safer features were installed on the remaining RBMK reactors and plans for building additional RBMK reactors were canceled. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic August 1994, May 1987]

Inside parts of the “sarcophagus” that was built over the destroyed reactor radiation levels are 20 sieverts (2,000 rem) per hour, four times the lethal dose. When scientist looked in at the core two years after the accident they were surprised it was nearly empty. Later they discovered the remains of fuel three levels below the core. This meant that fuel had burned through all those layer, proof that a total meltdown had occurred, and something the Soviets denied. The uranium inside the sarcophagus is still hot enough to signal a red alert which means that engineers must occasionally turn on a sprinkler system that drops a shower of boron solution to reduces the neutron activity.

Cleaning Up Chernobyl and Building the Sarcophagus

Soldiers and workers in masks and dark rubber suits buried radioactive trees, drove bulldozers that scraped away contaminated soil and watered down the roads. Hundreds of thousands of tons of contaminated soil was sprayed with a plastic coating to keep radioactivity from being released and was bulldozed, stored in drums and hauled away to 800 sites. Pine forests were knocked down and interred. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic August 1994, May 1987]

Paving immobilized the radioactive dust. In some places the ground was frozen with liquid nitrogen to prevent radioactive water from leaking into the groundwater. Later barriers was built 50 feet underground to keep radioactivity out of the groundwater. Over 12,000 helicopters, trucks, cement trucks, tanks and bulldozers were used in the clean-up. After the work was finished they were placed in huge "evacuation zones" awaiting burial. Despite the fact they were impregnated with toxic radioactive compounds scavengers stripped them of parts they sold on the black market.

After the Chernobyl fires were put out, 600,000 thousand workers were brought in from all over the Soviet Union to encase the 216 tons of uranium and plutonium within the remains of the Reactor No. 4 block inside a huge concrete-and-steel "sarcophagus," roughly 24-stories high and the size of a basketball arena.

The sarcophagus was hastily and heroically built by workers who used tanks and armored personal carriers with jury rigged lead shields, giant military helicopters and remote-controlled cranes to drop sand and concrete on the reactor and to lift "hot" debris and raise the steel beams and concrete blocks. It took six months and round the clock work to complete the sarcophagus.

The meter-thick walls of the sarcophagus are not straight or level. There isn't a single weld or rivet holding it to together because the radiation levels were too high for workers and riveters to get close enough to install them. It is "structurally unsound" and filled with 1,000 square meters of gaps and cracks. Rainwater seeps in the cracks, producing radioactive humidity that corrodes supporting steel girders.

The radioactive material inside the sarcophagus needs to be covered for centuries. There are worries supports for the structure could collapse in an earthquake or extremely high wind. A $750 million super-sarcophagus is necessary to seal off the reactor for good. There is a large tank of boron within the sarcophagus that suppresses any new chain reaction. Charcoal filters reduce the emission of radioactivity from the air that escapes.

People Working in the Contaminated Area

At one point 9,000 people worked in the contaminated area around Chernobyl. They included guards, drivers, safety technicians, radiation monitors, motorpool mechanics, administrators, cafeteria workers and even newspapers staff. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic August 1994, May 1987]

The workers generally spent 15-day shifts in the contaminated area, followed by 15 days outside. They entered the contaminated area by train and got off at a specially-sealed platform made of corrugated steel and plastic with rows of radiation detectors. Many workers lived in the special "model town" of Slauvitch. Many of the workers were happy to have jobs and considered themselves lucky to work there. They made 10 times the national average wage, swam and sailed in the Dnieper River, joined judo and gymnastics clubs, played soccer and basketball, and enjoyed a special music festival featuring artists like LaToya Jackson.

“Some areas around the damaged reactor had such high levels of radiation that even workers in protective suits could only worth there a few minutes at a time. Hence crews were ferried in and out in armored personnel carriers to perform the same task. Inside the sarcophagus is 30 tons of radiative dust. The task of some workers was to keep the dust levels downs. They sprayed a pink glue on the walls, ceilings and floor to reduce dust levels and stepped in pools of water to keep from tracking radioactive dust around.

People working inside the sarcophagus, where radiation levels were four times the lethal dose, wore protective suits comprised of pants and shirts with double layers of white cotton-weave, astronaut-style boots, gloves, a mask and a head covering. After finishing their tasks they took a decontamination shower. The radiation levels these workers were exposed to after twenty minutes inside the sarcophagus was equal to that experienced by a traveler on four trans-Atlantic fights.

People Living in the Contaminated Area

Some people have returned to their homes in the Exclusion Zone despite the radiation dangers and squatters from outside the area moved into abandoned homes in deserted villages. For a while and police with radiation detection devises pursued the squatters. In the early 1990s, the police began leaving the squatters alone. Later they received free electricity and occasional food shipments. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic August 1994, May 1987]

As of 2002, 450 to 600 people lived in the Exclusion Zone. Many of these were elderly people who wanted to spend the last years of their lives in their homes. They are largely self-sufficient. They grow their own food and even produce their own moonshine. Some keep their own animals and collect mushrooms and berries (which have particularly high radiation levels) in the forest.

People who have lived in the contaminated area complain of failing eyesight and swollen thyroid glands (referred to as "bad blood" by some). Some have died but no one is sure of the deaths were the result of radiation sickness or were just the result of old age.

Health of People at Chernobyl

Some 30,000 to 70,000 people exposed to Chernobyl radiation were “disabled,” most of them workers that participated in the post-accident clean-up. But a study of 1,250 Estonian men who helped in the clean up found just two cases of thyroid cancer and cancer rates only a shade higher than the general population.

Over three million children needed treatment for radiation exposure as of 2000. Many had weakened immune system and became sick more than would be expected. Even so the impact on the human population was less than what was expected. A doctor in change of study 696,000 people, a third of them children, said "Basically we find no effect so far." Of the 2,000 children born to mothers living in the zone when the accident occurred, all seemed healthy. Most children who live in contaminated areas show no signs of illness. Among those that have had radiation levels were those who drank milk from cows who ate contaminated grass.

Long-term radiation exposure reduces the body's ability to fight diseases. Exposure is gauged by examining a victim's teeth; radiations causes measurable changes in the enamel. Chernobyl victims are sometimes referred to as "fireflies" at the hospitals where they are treated. The chromosomes of many patients are "broken and mangled," which indicates risk of leukemia or other cancers.

People that were exposed to high levels of radiation have higher than normal rates of various circulatory and skin problems and complain of dizziness, ulcers, heart pains, loss of teeth, failing eyesight, swollen thyroids glands and headaches. The incidence of tuberculosis appears to have risen. Many complain the get colds easier and suffer from frequent headaches. Pyotr Zborovsky, the leader of 65 men who pumped radioactive water out of the reactor, said he passed out frequently and had brittle bones (once he suffered three fractures in 18 months when he was in his late 40s).

Thyroid Cancer and Long Term Deaths Connected to Chernobyl

No one knows for sure how many fatalities occurred as a consequence of the Chernobyl disaster. Among people who die and get sick, it is difficult to say from sure if radiation played a part in their deaths or sicknesses. On the high end are estimates of 15,000 to 30,000. On the low end are about 3000. The true figure is probably around 6,000 premature deaths among the 600,000 that participated in the clean up and worked at the facility after the disaster.

Seven of 65 men who pumped radioactive water out of the reactor died before the age of 40. One worker who spent 13 days tunneled into the core area after the disaster felt fine when he returned home but became sick six month later. He was in and out of the hospital until his premature death in 1994 after his third stroke.

The rates of normally rare typhoid cancer in Chernobyl-contaminated areas are ten higher than in the rest of the world. More than 21,100 people under the age 18 at the time the accident have undergone thyroid treatment. Many of the victims are children born in and around 1986. The rates of cancer directly linked to Chernobyl are difficult to determine because the disease can take as long as 30 years to appear.

People in landlocked Ukraine and Belarus suffer from a lack of iodine because they don't get much iodonized salt or seafood. After the Chernobyl disaster they could have potentially absorbed radioactive iodine and retained it in their thyroid gland, which produces growth hormones using iodine. If the iodine had a lot of radioactivity that radioactivity stays in the body. When irradiated tumor-suppressing hormones in the thyroid begin to malfunction an cancerous tumors can grow and spread.

Animals and Environmental Impact of Chernobyl

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: “The Exclusion Zone has become a nature sanctuary of sorts, home to wild boars and eagles and bears, and to pine trees that grow like bushes and other such mutations. Parts of the inner, most severely contaminated ring — the area within a radius of ten kilometres, known as the Ten — are expected to be uninhabitable for at least a hundred and fifty years. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker]

Trees near the nuclear power plant died. The needles of pine trees turned red and dropped off. Pine trees that survived show abnormalities in the structure and number of their branches and needles, which changes on the genetic levels. Cesium and strontium fallout contaminated the soil and in some cases leached into the groundwater.

The 1,000-square kilometer evacuated area is teaming with wildlife. Polesskiy National Park, within 20 miles of Chernobyl, has been described as the world's first radioactive nature reserve. Abandoned by humans, it is now the home of more elk (moose), deer, wild boar, lynx, reindeer, fox and wolves than lived there before the disaster...and these animals are doing well. An amazing 270 species of birds have been sighted in the area and 180 of them nest there. The lakes and rivers are full of fish and 40 rare plants have been identified. There area itself is lush and green, only geiger counter readings give a clue as to what happened.

Micheal H. Smith, a professor of genetics at the University of Georgia, told the New York Times, "The mammals near the plant are getting doses that we know have to be lethal. But the animals all appear heathy." Scientist have found evidence of genetic changes but virtually no tissue damage or deformities. The animals have moved in because people are gone. [Source: New York Times]

After the disaster nearly all the mice in the Polesskiy National Park died. The generations that followed were almost exclusively females. By the third and forth generations the males were returning in numbers. Now there are mice of both sex all over the place. Other studies with mice have failed to turn up significant mutations.

Wolves in the radiation zone have thrived, They are smaller than wolves that live elsewhere. Tests have shown that their internal organs are radioactive but they have multiplied and become a threat to nearby farms, killing horses and cattle.

Closing Down Chernobyl and Paying for the Clean Up

Billions of dollars was lost in closed factories, production losses and early pensions. Eight years after the accident, Chernobyl was still eating up 15 percent of Ukraine's budget. The United States and the major European nation gave Ukraine $4 billion to clean up and close down Chernobyl and improved the safety standards at other nuclear plants in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government said it didn't have the money to do the job itself and insisted that the foreign aid-donating countries would have to foot the bill. If the didn't the Ukrainian government threatened to keep operating the remaining Chernobyl reactors until they did. As of the mid 1990s the Ukrainian government had only given out around $100 million helping Chernobyl victims. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic August 1994, May 1987]

The nuclear fuel in the reactor has to guarded and removed and put into storage. This is an expensive job. Much of the work has to be done by robots with special shields to protect their electronics from radiation. It is not clear where the money will come from.

Reactor No. 3, the last reactor at Chernobyl, was shut down on December 15, 2000. Reactor No. 2 was shut down in 1991 after it caught fire. Reactor No. 1 was closed in 1996. No.3 had experienced its share of problems and had to be closed down only weeks before the formal shut down due to technical problems and then turned on again. In the 1990s the Ukrainian government threatened to keep Chernobyl operating unless the West provided it with $1.2 billion to complete two new reactors to replace the Chernobyl ones but in the end gave into demands from the West to close Chernobyl down.

About 2,000 of the 9,000 workers that worked at Chernobyl were laid off. Others were kept on as guards and to perform clean up duties.

Most Ukrainians didn't want the Chernobyl facility shut down. It supplied 5 percent of Ukraine's electricity, had operated without incident since the disaster and had recently undergone $300 million safety improvements. One scientist who worked at the plant told the New York Times, "I can understand why the West wants Chernobyl closed. But you have to see the situation from our point of view. We have an energy crisis and power blackouts and no money to buy natural gas from Russia. People are going freeze in the winter." Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma made the decision to close Chernobyl down based not so much on safety concerns but out of desire to receive Western foreign aid and investment.

Image Sources: U.S. Department of Energy; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, U.S. Department of Energy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2012

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