Chernobyl Miniseries: Cheat sheet

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I started watching the HBO miniseries Chernobyl this Monday and halfway through the first episode, I realized that I the History connoisseur didn’t really understand the whole story of what happened there. It got me to wondering if I don’t know, how many other people don’t know? The first episode really didn’t do a lot of explaining though it was just the first episode. I decided to try to explain what happened at Chernobyl and answer some basic questions that I thought of while watching it. Think of this as the cliff notes version of Chernobyl.

What is the Chernobyl Disaster?

The Chernobyl disaster was a catastrophic Nuclear Accident that occurred on April 25–26, 1986. The accident happened at the Chernobyl Nuclear power plant, hence the name Chernobyl. The accident is considered the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in the history of the world in terms of cost and casualties. Chernobyl is one of only two nuclear accidents classified as a level 7 (the highest level) on the International Nuclear event scale. The other Nuclear accident to be rated a 7 was the Fukushima accident in Japan in 2011.

What Caused the Accident?

The accident occurred during a safety test that was supposed to simulate a station blackout power failure. During the test, emergency safety and power regulating systems were intentionally cut off. A combination of reactor design flaws and the reactor operators incorrectly arranging the core during the test, led to uncontrolled reaction conditions. Water flashed into steam, which generated a destructive steam explosion and a subsequent open-air graphite fire. The fire produced considerable updrafts (small scale current of rising air) for 9 days. The fire was finally contained on May 4, 1986.

What was the Nuclear fallout of the accident?

The Accident at Chernobyl released at least 100 times more radiation than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The radiation fallout from the blast went into the atmosphere and could be detected as far away as Western Europe in Sweden. Chernobyl is located in modern-day Ukraine which was part of the U.S.S.R back in 1986.

What was the death toll?

Unclear. The initial blast killed 2 plant workers and reportedly prompted another worker to die of a subsequent heart attack after the explosion went off. The radiation effects and fallout is where the death toll climbs. 28 clean up workers and firefighters died of acute radiation poisoning during the first few months after the cleanup. Thousands of children who drink irradiated milk ended up contracting thyroid cancer, and 15 of those kids died. The number of premature cancer deaths attributed to Chernobyl is hotly contested. The Chernobyl forum predicted up to 4,000 deaths due to the accident. Greenpeace predicted up to 93,000 deaths due to the accident. The total number is a figure I don’t think we will ever honestly know.

Did the Soviet Union really try to cover up the accident?

Yes. In the immediate aftermath of the accident, The Soviet Union not only didn’t tell their own citizens of the incident, but it also left neighboring countries in the dark about the accident. On April 28 Swedish air monitors detected significant amounts of radiation in the atmosphere. The air monitors also discovered the radiation was emanating from the Soviet Union. Sweden contacted the Soviet Union to ask if a nuclear accident happened there and the Soviet Union denied it. It was only after Sweden, suggested they were about to file an official alert with the International Atomic Energy Agency, did the Soviet Union come clean about the Chernobyl accident. In true Soviet fashion, it didn’t come all the way clean, it only admitted it was a “minor” accident and that it was contained, both statements were false. It took until May 6 for the Soviet Union to close Schools in Kiev which is the Ukrainian capitol and which is located 65 miles from Chernobyl, and to warn residents to stay inside. Once over 100,000 people were evacuated, the jig was up, and the whole international community started realizing the severity of the accident.

When did the evacuation actually start happening?

About 36 hours after the accident first occurred, Soviet officials began evacuating some 115,000 people. Unfortunately, the Soviets lied to the people and told them they would be able to return in 3 days. With this info most people left behind pets and valuables, given they were giving only 50 minutes to evacuate. After the evacuation, all land within an 18.6-mile radius of the plant was closed off. Checkpoints were even established to control access. This exclusion zone was later expanded in later years so that 220,000 more people were forced to evacuate their homes. Some humans have come back illegally to occupy the land, but the vast majority of these homes and property are still unoccupied.

Chernobyl was shut down right? After the accident occurred?

Yes and no. All of the other reactors at the plant were initially shut down in the aftermath of the accident. A year and a half later they were restarted back up much to the chagrin of the international community. Given the other reactors had the same flaws as the one that blew and the continual radiation fall out, you can understand why people were upset about restarting them. People continued working at the plant, a fire in 1991 caused the closure of reactor 2. In 1995 A newly independent Ukraine agreed to close the other two reactors in exchange for financial assistance from the G-7 Countries (C.R.E.A.M). Reactor one was shut down in 1996, and reactor three was shut down in 2000.

The clean up is over right? I mean this did occur in 1986?

No, The workers entombed the reactor in a concrete structure known as the sarcophagus. It, unfortunately, has begun to deteriorate and spring leaks. Ukraine is hoping to put a new 32,000-ton arch structure on top of the sarcophagus in hopes to contain the leaks this year some time, According to the Ukrainian government, the Chernobyl site won’t be cleared till 2065. Radioactive particles will remain in the environment for generations to come.

What was the rest of the fallout from the accident?

After the accident, an increase of 150,000 elective abortions was performed worldwide due to mothers fearing their child will be born mutants (real-life Xmen!) due to the radiation fall out from Chernobyl. The Soviet Union spent an estimated 18 billion rubles (equivalent to 18 billion dollars at the time) on containment and clean up of Chernobyl which virtually bankrupted the Soviet Union. Today an estimated 5–7% of the Ukraine budget is spent on Chernobyl recovery activities. The excursion area around Chernobyl has become an animal sanctuary. Animals are free from being hunted and poisoned in the region. Unfortunately, the radiation has caused some abnormalities in the animals, such as birds born with deformed beaks. There was a significant slowdown in the amount of new nuclear reactor plants being built after the accident in 1986. The accident led to the rise of anti-nuclear power movement in countries and people worldwide. Most people are still scared of nuclear power because of the Chernobyl incident and other subsequent incidents

The irony of Chernobyl is that it has become a tourist attraction. Ukraine opened it up to tourism in 2011. People still can’t live there, but you can take a guided tour of the ghost towns and see the wildlife in the area. In order to minimize exposure to radiation, the guides tell the tourist not to eat or smoke outside. Like the saying goes common sense is not common

Originally published at on May 13, 2019.

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