26th April, 1986, Chernobyl, Ukraine – Soviet Union
The Nuclear Power Plant was still under construction, having only 4 working reactors, while 2 more were still in the making. Just the day before, workers started testing the fourth reactor for safety reasons. The monitoring procedure was faulty and in the process of testing, at around 1 a.m., there was an explosion and meltdown at the reactor that spewed over 200 times the amount of radiation released at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
This video by British filmmaker Danny Cooke shows real footage of this haunting place captured by a drone.
The residents of the nearby city of Pripyat were sleeping peacefully when they were suddenly woken by the massive explosion. The relatively new and modern town, founded in 1970, with around 45,000 residents was evacuated 36 hours after the explosion. People were forced to leave their homes immediately, never to return. Most were only able to take their necessities while leaving the rest behind. The whole town was completely emptied in just 3,5 hours. Even today, the city looks like a ghost town, schools are still littered with notebooks and toys while furniture and personal items can be found in the abandoned homes.
To date, over 350,000 people have been relocated.
After the explosion, nearly 830,000 firefighters, emergency workers and soldiers came from all over the former Soviet Union to put out the fire. These outstanding people worked for over two years to put out the fire, to bury radioactive equipment, homes, storage facilities, etc. They also built a “sarcophagus”, or tomb, around the plant to hem in the radioactive material that had collapsed into the reactor. They were mostly aged 18-22 years old and a lot of them are now dead, disabled, or have committed suicide. It is estimated that 9 out of 10 survivors live with disabilities.
In total, over 8 million people were affected. Clearly, the most heavily affected areas were in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. There are now over 148,274 invalids on the Chernobyl registry in these three countries. Also, other illnesses such as cancer are still on the rise.
The rest of Europe was also affected. Along with soil pollution, sheep in northern England and reindeer in Lapland had to be killed as they had been irradiated. Also, in Sweden and Finland, fish in deep freshwater lakes were banned for resale.
Over 63,000 square miles of land have been affected and the majority should no longer be used for agriculture.
Radiation Effects on People
As human beings, we are constantly exposed to ionizing radiation from many natural sources, such as cosmic rays, and naturally occurring radioactive materials in all the foods we eat, fluids we drink and air we breathe. This is called natural background radiation. However, people living in the vicinity of the nuclear plant and those working on it after the explosion received doses significantly above typical natural background levels.
Many people living in highly contaminated areas were later diagnosed with thyroid cancer, leukemia or other types of cancer. Post-traumatic stress is probably also a major contributor to the vast occurrence of these illnesses.
Unfortunately, children were mostly affected. There is a rise in thyroid cancer in those who were exposed to the radiation when they were very young. Alongside this, other thyroid diseases, immune system disorders, and learning problems were observed in children. There are extensive reports of high rates of heart and blood problems and lung and gastrointestinal disorders. Some speculate that children might be suffering from radiating effects on their parents.
Approximately 83,000 children in the Chernobyl region were born with congenital deformations. However the overall effect on future generations is not clear yet, since only 10% of overall problems can be observed in the first generation. It is estimated that, by 2050, new debilitating health problems will appear that are linked to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
In fact, most people that still live in the so-called contaminated area have in these 30 years post-accident received approximately 80-90% of their life-time dose of radiation, mainly by consuming locally-produced food.
Effects on Wildlife
Animals living in contaminated areas in and around Chernobyl have suffered from a variety of side effects caused by radiation. Oxidative stress and low levels of antioxidants have had severe consequences on the development of the nervous system, including reduced brain size and impaired cognitive abilities.
It has been found that birds living in areas with high levels of radiation have statistically significantly smaller brains, which has shown to be a deficit to viability in the wild. Barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) that live in or around Chernobyl have displayed an increased rate of physical abnormalities compared to swallows from uncontaminated areas. Abnormalities included partially albinistic plumage, deformed toes, tumors, deformed tail feathers, deformed beaks, and deformed air sacks. Birds with these abnormalities have a reduced viability in the wild and a decrease in fitness. These effects are likely due to radiation exposure and elevated teratogenic effects of radioactive isotopes in the environment.
Invertebrate populations (including bumblebees, butterflies, grasshoppers, dragonflies, and spiders) have significantly decreased. Currently, most radioactivity around Chernobyl is located in the top layer of soil, where many invertebrates live or lay their eggs. The reduced abundance of invertebrates can have negative implications for the entire ecosystem surrounding Chernobyl, since they play an important role in plant reproduction and decomposing.
On the other hand, some researchers have said that by halting the destruction of habitat, the Chernobyl disaster helped wildlife flourish. Biologist Robert J. Baker of Texas Tech University was one of the first to report that Chernobyl had become a wildlife haven and that many rodents he has studied at Chernobyl since the early 1990s have shown remarkable tolerance for elevated radiation levels.
Animals have now reclaimed the land including rare species such as lynx, Przewalski’s horses, wild boars, wolves, bears and eagle owls whose populations are all thriving. When the disaster first occurred, many animals and plants died immediately but now 30 years later, these animals and plants are reclaiming the abandoned cities to make it their home.
Across Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, 162,050 km2 was contaminated with various levels of radiation. Scientists marked the land with 3 levels of severity based on radiation measurements. The most affected area 1 received radiation levels that exceeded normal amounts by up to 4625 times.
It is also important to mention that contamination of soil also occurred in other European countries, mostly in Sweden, Finland, Austria, Norway, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Greece, Slovenia, Italy and Moldavia.
Today, contaminated soil contains high levels of radionuclides such as Plutonium, Cesium 137, Strontium 90, and Americium 241.
Even though much of the contaminated land around the power plant should not be used for agriculture, 4.5 million children and adults are still living on contaminated land, growing food on contaminated land, and as a consequence the food they are eating is also contaminated. Locally produced food and crops sometimes contain up to 16 times that of the permissible limits. Children at least eat uncontaminated meals at school, which means they ingest lower levels radioactive substances.
Another interesting fact is that fallen leaves and trees are still lying around after 30 years, appearing almost intact. The reason for this is a shortage of decomposers – bugs, microbes, fungi, and slime molds. Without these creatures, carbon, nitrogen, and other elements essential to life are locked in plants. This also means nutrients aren’t being efficiently returned to the soil, which could explain why trees are growing at a slower rate around Chernobyl.
While a lot of plants were greatly affected by the radiation and could never recuperate, some were able to adapt to the high levels of ionizing radiation, like Arabidopsis, a plant native to Chernobyl, and resist forming mutations. Now 30 years later, the site is again flourishing with plants and wildlife.
- Chernobyl disaster happened because of the poor design of the Soviet RBMK (High Power Channel-type Reactor), a lack of safety culture at the plant and errors made by operators. This means it could have been prevented with highly trained operators and by respecting building standards.
- After the explosion, the authorities failed to warn the public of the real danger and waited for several days until finally admitting what was going on, which shows a need for transparency.
- Residents of the town Pripyat, located a few kilometers from the Nuclear power plant, were evacuated only the next day, exposing them to high doses of radiation.
- The authorities had no specific regulations regarding the consumption of food produced on contaminated land. Therefore children drank contaminated milk and received high doses of radiation and many of them were later diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
We can only hope that a tragedy like this will never occur and that if it does, the authorities will act differently than in the case of Chernobyl. Fukushima has showed that even unpredicted events like a tsunami can cause a nuclear disaster so our future generations should be prepared for all possible scenarios in order to prevent such catastrophes.