Chernobyl – a quarter of century ago

An anniversary might be the best reason to mark my presence on Polandian for the third time this year. Most of the readers probably not only do remember about the disaster in Chernobyl, but also still have in mind the days after the disaster itself. I unfortunately cannot reminisce those strange days, as I was born some time after the dreadful accident.

Today, the actual cause of the explosion is said to be an experiment carried out with appaling breach of safety procedures. Those, who want to drill down into the technical details of experiment, please go on to wikipedia page on the accident, where you can also find links to a Polish article and links to other scientific papers.

The explosion occured on 26 April 1986, at 01:23 at night. Firefighters arrived at the scene soon, totally oblivious of the fact that radiation doses they would receive would be fatal. The fire was extinguished within hours, actions taken to minimise the radiation and concrete over the blown-up reactor were swift. The disaster left many casualties among the staff of the power plant, rescue workers and firefighters. It was absolutely typical for nuclear accidents, nuclear accident in Fukushima I from March 2011 will probably lead to deaths of people who sacrifice their lives to save lives of other people, but the explosion in Japan occured in a normal country with undisrupted flow of information. The Japanese government was accused of concealing information about the dangerous impact of the accident on local environment and people, indeed it could have done so to avert panic.

In the communist union, a country where flow of information was paralysed by fear and censorship, things looked much worse. Firstly, local authorities were afraid to inform federal authorities on Kremlin about the disaster. They did so with a delay, which postponed the evacuation of nearby cities by at least 30 hours (evcuation kicked off 36 hours after the initial expolosion). People from the Soviet Union were informed about the accident three days later, but the scale of disaster was still withheld. Soviet authorities failed to inform other countries about the explosion and radiation released into the air. Blown by easterly winds, the radioactive cloud moved over Poland a day later, on 28 April 1986. Polish scientists, who saw the radiation levels surging, at first thought a nuclear war had just begun. They contacted Polish government, but they also did not know anything about the disaster. Poles found out about the explosion in Chernobyl from BBC. A preventive actions to protect people against radiation were launched three days after the accident. Soviet authorities still denied the tragedy, but fortunately in those days Polish government acted to defend its own citizens, not comrades from the Soviet Union. The first western country to learn about the disaster was Sweden. They measured excessive radiation in their power plant on 28 April 1986 and launched an investigation, over which source of the radiation was traced back to the western Soviet Union.

The effects of the disaster would have been probably much lower, if it had occured in a democratic country.

– the disaster whipped up fears of nuclear energy,
– number of indirect fatalities remains unknown, as it is hard to estimate how many deaths were caused by the increased radiation and to how many other factors contributed to a much higher degree,
– the closed zone around the former power plant is the biggest natural, but unofficial reservoir in Europe, wildlife is thriving there, despite radiation,
– scientists are still divided when it comes to evaluation of real risks for human life and health incurred by the radiation,
– Ukraine is accused of wheedling out money from Chernobyl Shelter Fund.

Until recently I thought the nuclear accident as pernicious as the one that happened 25 years ago would not repeat. Nuclear power plants are much more modern, have better safety procedures established, are better run. But then on 11 March an eartquake of huge magnitude hit Japan. Fukushima I power plant was designed to survive such a quake and it did; it was also designed to withstand 5.7 metres high tsunami wave. Unfortunately the one which hit the power plant was 14 metres high. Day by day, situation in the Japanese stricken power plant was worsening, after a few weeks it scored 7 out of 7 points in the INES, which put it at a par with Chernobyl explosion.

Events in Fukushima were, however, hard to predict. Precautions have been taken, but as the reality proved, they tunred out to be insufficient. This event should be, in my opinion, seen as a black swan and should not bring to a halt nuclear energy development programmes, as it still has much more upsides than downsides.

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7 thoughts on “Chernobyl – a quarter of century ago

  1. We would appreciate a reliable source for the claim that the accident at Fukushima Daiichi has caused “many deaths” among rescue/recovery workers. In particular, the Wikipedia page you’ve linked to directly contradicts that claim.

  2. Bartek says:

    OK, I can’t provide you now with any reliable source, which makes good news.

    Post content corrected.

  3. Derek says:

    The problem with nuclear accidents is that you know when they begin, but you don’t know exactly when they end. The effects from nuclear accidents can linger for decades to come.

    I think Japan will end up being a bigger distaster. Japan’s problem has turned into seven problems. Three of them with reactors, four of them with spent fuel pools. There is exposed spent fuel right now, and pieces of spent fuel rods have been found as far as two miles away from the spent fuel pools. You have containment not containing, high levels of iodine-131 and cesium-137, as well as uranium and plutonium dust in the soil. There have been signs of spent fuel, and reactor cores going into unintentional criticality. It’s a mess right now.

  4. Wiktor says:

    Visiting the then-rather-newly-opened Chernobyl Museum in Kyiv was quite the harrowing experience I say. Made a ton of photos there and left a lasting shadow-impression, which I’ll have to liken to the one in Hiroshima.

    I don’t remember the cloud that gave us a scare, nor do I remember the Lugola solution, but I see it in my parents’ eyes when I mention the incident.
    Even more odd is the outright deadpan I get from my wife’s father – who lived in Kyiv then (and whose friends were evacuated from the zone itself). He won’t think, let alone speak about it. When we were going to visit the museum, he simply, quite literally, eloped.

    That is all.

  5. Mal says:

    The parts of this article about information flow and cover-up were interesting, but equating the scale of Fukushima with Chernobyl is not helpful.

    Chernobyl had practically no safety features, not even a containment for the core.
    As a result, a fuel rod fire was fully exposed to the atmosphere, spreading the cloud of particles across the whole of europe.

    In contrast, Fukushima had fully contained enclosures, so despite any rod melting that happening, this has not been exposed to the atmosphere. Most of the radiation leak has been from cracks in the enclosure.
    This is in the form of radioactive water. And there’s a reason reactors are usually built on the coasts – because radioactive particles get diluted in the ocean to such a level that only believers in homeopathy would be affected by them.

    So outside of the local vicinity in Japan, there’s really very little exposure.

    Having said all that, being in Tokyo when Fukushima happened was the scariest day of my life.

  6. Sylwia says:

    “Soviet authorities still denied the tragedy, but fortunately in those days Polish government acted to defend its own citizens”

    Not how I remember it. They trivialized the event to make people come to the May 1 parade. It’s not even certain when they’d tell at all if people didn’t already know from the Swedes.

  7. […] this year was the 1st anniversary of the Smolensk crash. It was also 25 years since the Chernobyl disaster, and while this was not a Polish affair specifically, it did have enough of a knock-on effect on […]

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