In 1986 the town of Chernobyl became forever linked to a radio-activity link that had far reaching, disastrous effects. How did it happen and what lessons should we have learnt?
Prior to 1986 very few people outside of Russia had heard of Chernobyl. Today, however, it is a different story. The name has become synonomous with nuclear disaster. And for good reason. On April 26, 1986 the worst nuclear power plant accident in history occurred. According to Psychology Today magazine, the incident was ‘a turning point in the history of modern civilization.’It is estimated that over the next 50 years, some 50,000 people will die from cancer as a result of the Soviet reactor meltdown.
The reactor site in Chernobyl is separated from the city by a small plantation of trees. But, on that fateful Saturday morning a cloud of smoke began drifting across the plantation towards the city. Soon the plantation was covered with a radioactive rainfall of ash. Yet, in the city no announcement was made that anything was wrong. Life for the 40,000 inhabitants continued as if nothing had happened. Slowly news began to spread that something seriously wrong had taken place at the plant. People began to panic. Yet, still there was no official announcement. The cloud mass was rising in the sky, sweeping hundreds of miles across BeloRussia, Poland, Russia and even Germany. International attention became focused on Chernobyl when Swedish scientists recorded high levels of radiation and became concerned.
Soviet reaction was swift. Some 600,000 firemen, army personell, and construction workers were sent to Chernobyl intent on sealing up the radiation leak. They accomplished this by covering the area with a 10 storey high, two metre thick mix of concrete and steel.
The next step was the evacuation of the surrounding area. Within days thousands of people had been removed from in and around Chernobyl. They were forced to leave all of their possessions behind. Nothing that could be contaminated was to be taken. Many people lost everything. In all some 135,000 people had to evacuate their homes – everyone who lived within a 20 mile radius.
As a result of the accident, most of the crop harvests in Russia had to be destroyed due to contamination. In Scandinavia 70 % of the reindeer meat had to be abandoned due to the fact that the animals had grazed on contaminated lichens.
In 1991, official figures announced that 576,000 people had been exposed to radiation as a result of the accident. About 30,000 have already died.
The Chernobyl disaster was a timely reminder of the vulnerability of man when the technology that he has harnessed gets upset. Thankfully, today the world has far fewer nuclear reactors than it did back then. May the memory of Chernobyl impel us all to reduce them even further.