Most people think of the Chernobyl disaster as an event of the past. They do not realize that the nuclear accident continues to have a devastating impact on the populations of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.
In fact, the long term effects on human health, the environment and the communities have just begun to surface. The governments of the affected countries continue to spend resources on the recovery of the contaminated areas. However, the level of support is not even close to what is required to remedy the situation.
On April 26th, 1986 at 1:24 a.m. an explosion destroys Chernobyl Reactor # 4. Radioactive particles are ejected into the atmosphere. Just a few minutes later, the first group of 14 firefighters arrives on the scene and continues to work until the arrival of reinforcement. Due to radiation exposure, two firefighters died the same night; 28 would die in the next few months.It is believed that these firefighters helped avoid a second explosion that would have been powerful enough to contaminate a much larger part of Europe. Early in the morning, the clouds near Chernobyl are already contaminated with dangerous levels of radiation and spreading quickly to nearby villages and cities. Shortly, a crew of soldiers is assembled to take the first radiation measurement near the power plant.
The first measurement is 2080 roentgens. It would take only 15 minutes of exposure to receive a lethal doze under such conditions. Disturbingly, as levels of radioactivity keep rising around the power plant, life in Pripyat continues as if nothing happened. No official information or evacuation order is released to the public.
Several hours after the explosion, reinforcements were brought in from the Pripyat and Kiev fire brigades with a total of 186 firefighters and 81 fire engines. The radiation near the plant was 2080 roentgens. It would take only 15 minutes to receive the lethal dose.
MASSIVE ACCIDENT MANAGEMENT OPERATION BEGINS
Moscow sends 80 helicopters to fight the fires inside the reactor. The plan was to dump 80 kg sand bags by hand from the flying helicopter. In total, 1800 flights are carried out to drop 2400 tonnes of led and 6000 tonnes of sand and boric acid on the burning reactor. During this operation, 600 people are contaminated. Unfortunately, all of them died shortly after. During each flight, each person received from 5 to 6 roentgens. Some individuals return to the site 6 to 7 times, thus greatly increasing their exposure. Following a latency period of 24 to 48 hours, they start to show acute radiation poisoning symptoms that included vomiting and diarrhoea. Radiation victims are sent to Hospital #6 in Moscow. Later, deterioration of bone marrow and horrible burns begin to appear on other victims. 27 brave people who rushed to the scene died almost immediately. Even though they were among thousands of other casualties, they were the only victims who were officially acknowledged for 15 years following the disaster.
Flames that are visible to the eye were now extinguished. 195 tonnes of burning nuclear fuel in the form of magma pool around the bottom of the reactor. The cement slab below the reactor core is heating up and cracking due to the high temperature of the magma. Scientists fear that magma would seep through the concrete into the water that was poured by the firefighters during the first hours. They know that, if the magma gets into the water, there would be another greater explosion that could leave Europe uninhabitable. Government authorities send more firefighters to drain the water from underneath the reactor. It is believed that these firefighters saved Europe from a second, more powerful, explosion. As the scientists had predicted, the magma cracked the cement slab and leaks into the emptied basin. Luckily, the water had already been drained. But, as the magma continues to leak into the ground, another problem becomes evident.
SECOND, MORE POWERFUL EXPLOSION AVOIDED
SAVING PRIPYAT, DNIEPER, AND THE BLACK SEA
Officials realize that the magma from the reactor could continue seeping through the soil and into the ground water, which would pollute major waterways in the area. In particular, the rivers Pripyat and Dnepr could carry the contamination into the Black Sea. Thus, the officials consider a new operation – placing something underneath the reactor to contain the spill. The Government contacts miners from Tula to secure an underground approach to the reactor.
- Dig a 150 metre tunnel in order to approach the reactor from underneath.
- Dig out a room (30 m long, 30 wide, and 2m high) underneath the reactor that would be fed with liquid nitrogen.
The 10,000 miners who participated in the operation worked around the clock to complete the project. In one month and four days, the objective was completed.
Officially, each miner received 30-40 roentgens. Though, survivors claim that the dose was up to 5 times more than the official figure. Approximately 2,500 miners died before the age of 40. Again, since these deaths are not recorded in any official statistics, the far-reaching extent of the damage is not publicized.
Government authorities finally give evacuation orders on the second day after the explosion. Approximately 2000 buses arrive to Pripyat. People are given two hours to pack clothing and other essentials before assembling near the buildings. Just in 3.5 hours, 33,000 people were evacuated from Pripyat. Scientists, the military, and government authorities remain the only ones left in town. Radioactivity levels keep rising. Meanwhile, radiation particles which are blown North of Chernobyl begin reaching other European countries.
Six days after the accident, everyone is evacuated from the 30km radius around the nuclear plant, which is known as the “Exclusion Zone”. In the mean time, radiation keeps spreading further away from Chernobyl and reaches other countries such as Germany and France.
SECOND EVACUATION GROUP
In case of a second greater explosion, government authorities gather trains with over 1000 carts in Minsk, Gomel and other cities in order to prepare for a second potential evacuation. Fortunately, the second explosion had already been prevented.
CHERNOBYL LIQUIDATORS: 830,000 PEOPLE INVOLVED
18 days after the disaster, Gorbachev addresses the people by stating: “This is the first time we have had to face such a danger. Nuclear energy escaping human control.” A massive clean-up operation starts in Chernobyl. The operation involved approximately 830,000 people known as liquidators. The work continued day after day with no breaks. Unfortunately, so did the radiation exposure. Even weeks after the disaster, no one could escape the radiation.
Eight weeks after the explosion, robots are used to clean up the debris near the remains of the reactor. Two days later, the robots stop working due to the effect of radiation on the electronic components. Workers, known as bio-robots, had to replace the robots. Depending on the location, each liquidator could only work from 40 seconds to 2 minutes in order to avoid lethal damage. The roof of the destroyed reactor had the highest levels of radiation: between 10,000 and 12,000 roentgens. Approximately 3,500 workers participated in the clean-up of the roof and were exposed to levels of radiation levels that are 40,000 times higher than normal exposure.
The destroyed reactor had to be covered with a massive structure in order to minimize the spread of radiation into the air. Lev Bolcharov designed a one of a kind project known as the “Sarcophagus”, which would protect the exploded reactor for the next 20 to 30 years. The sarcophagus is 170 m long and 66 meters high. Despite the extreme levels of radiation, the sarcophagus was completed by December of 1986.
Over 300,000 cubic meters of contaminated ground were bulldozed into ditches and covered with cement. Houses were demolished one after the other. Several villages were completely buried under ground. Finally, special hunting squads were formed to patrol the area; killing dogs and cats in fear that the animals would contaminate those who work in Chernobyl.
CHERNOBYL EFFECTS – HEALTH
Unfortunately, the most important details on the Chernobyl catastrophe and subsequent events are not publicly available and remain classified. By withholding information about the disaster’s long-term effects, the government is rejecting the responsibility for contributing substantial on-going aid to the victims and affected populations.
The initial Chernobyl cleanup operation took many lives and contributed to an enormous number of people living with disabilities. The total number of liquidators is estimated at 830,000 – most of them were young military soldiers aged 18 to 22 years old. Approximately 20% of all the liquidators died by 2005, most of them passing away in their 30s and 40s.
1 in 5 liquidators died before 2005
9 out of 10 survivors live with disabilities
Out of those who are still alive, 90% became inundated with disabling health problems such as: thyroid cancer, leukemia, heart & cardiovascular diseases, mini-satellite mutations, different solid cancers, and respiratory diseases.
Today, Chernobyl liquidators represent the highest risk group; both in terms of their health and the future health of their children.
OVER 8,000,000 PEOPLE DIRECTLY AFFECTED BY CHERNOBYL DISASTER
270,000 people who live in the deadly areas near Chernobyl, classified as Level 1, represent the highest risk group today. This group of people has the lowest life expectancy and major issues with health.
The second risk group consists of more then 3,000,000 people who live in the highly contaminated areas classified as Level 2. Scientists have observed an increase in various chronic diseases for this group of people. These diseases include, but are not limited to: thyroid cancer, leukemia, other solid cancers, and genetic abnormalities.
CHILDREN REPRESENT HIGH RISK
Children represent high risk: 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.
CHERNOBYL CONSEQUENCES – THE ENVIRONMENT
Today, contaminated soil contains high levels of radionuclides such as Plutonium, Cesium 137, Strontium 90, and Americium 241. Below, you can compare Cesium 137 contamination maps of Ukraine: before the accident, 21 days after the accident, as well as the condition at present. These maps were obtained at an international conference in Kiev, Ukraine on April 20, 2011. Source: Atlas. Ukraine Radioactive Contamination.
BEFORE THE ACCIDENT
21 DAYS AFTER THE ACCIDENT
As a result of the Chernobyl disaster; Ukraine, Russia and Belarus received the most hazardous levels or radiation. Across the three countries, 162,050 km2 was contaminated with various levels of radiation. Scientists marked the land with 3 levels of severity based on radiation measurements.
Over 10,000 km2 of land were contaminated with levels above 555 KBq/m2. The “Exclusion Zone” is classified as Level 1, where some spots have levels as high as 18,500 kBq/m2. These levels exceed normal levels of radiation by up to 4625 times. Unfortunately, many continue to live in these areas.
Approximately 21,000 km2 of land was contaminated with levels from 185 to 555 kBq/m2. In addition to presenting major health hazards, these lands are also barriers for food industry. Depending on the geographical location, the majority of the food (such as milk, meat, eggs, fish, and vegetables) cannot be used for consumption and has to be substituted with imported goods.
The majority of the land was contaminated with radiation levels that fall in the range designated by Level 3. These lands present the least threat to human health and nature, but are still dangerous in the long term. Based on the availability of existing scientific research, we cannot determine the exact threat. However, the percentage of healthy people in these areas is decreasing by comparison with non-contaminated areas.
CONTAMINATION OF LANDS BY COUNTRY
Ukraine, Belarus and Russia – 162,050 km²
European countries – 45,260 km²