In the early hours of 26 April 1986, a standard test at the No. 4 nuclear reactor in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant went wrong, causing what is considered to be the biggest nuclear disaster in history. The nearby city of Pripyat was evacuated, leaving the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone abandoned. It is, alongside the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, one of only two nuclear disasters rated at the highest level of seven on the International Nuclear Event Scale.
Pripyat was founded on 4 February 1970 for the purpose of serving the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Located in the Ukrainian SSR in the Soviet Union, today it is in Ukraine close to the border with Belarus. It was named after the nearby Pripyat River and was proclaimed a city in 1979. It was the source of much pride in the USSR, a city of tomorrow with the latest innovations in urban planning and technology. Pripyat was a showcase for the Soviet dream, a modern utopia with a contented population and the finest achievements in engineering and design.
Initial plans suggested that the nuclear power plant be built 25 km (16 miles) from Kiev however there was significant opposition from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences and so a more isolated area was chosen. The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and the accompanying city of Pripyat were therefore built 100 km (62 miles) away from Kiev, a decision which potentially saved thousands of lives later on. Administration of the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone passed from the Soviet Union to Ukraine upon independence in 1991, just 5 years after the disaster. It is seen by many as one of the reasons behind the eventual dissolution of the USSR.
The accident began at 1:23 am on the 26th of April 1986 during a safety test on an RBMK-type nuclear reactor. Because of a delay, the operating team which had prepared the test was not present and procedures were not adequately followed. Anatoly Dyatlov was in charge at the time of the accident and it was his insistence to continue with the test despite warnings from the team about abnormal test conditions that led to catastrophe. The disabling of safety systems coupled with design flaws in the RBMK reactor caused an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction. The reactor core ruptured, resulting in a disastrous steam explosion. It was followed by an open-air reactor core fire that burned for nine days, spewing radioactive contamination into the atmosphere.
The first fire fighters arrived at the scene at 1:45 am, unaware of the scale of the accident or the significant danger posed by the escaping radiation. They believed it to be an electrical fire at first but pieces of graphite littered on the ground suggested otherwise. A number of men from the Chernobyl Power Station fire brigade would die soon after from acute radiation sickness. The immediate risk was the fire on the roof and around reactor No. 4 spreading to reactor No. 3. Despite warnings, chief engineer, Nikolai Fomin, refused to shut down reactor No. 3 and eventually, the chief of the night shift, Yuri Bagdasarov, decided to go against orders and shut down regardless at 5 am, just as the fires on the roof were extinguished. The fire inside reactor No. 4 burned until 10th May 1986.
At first, the accident was played down by the authorities but a commission was put in place to investigate, headed by Valery Legasov, First Deputy Director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy. By the time they arrived in Pripyat, 2 people had died, 52 had been hospitalised and many residents were complaining of headaches and a metallic taste in their mouths. The commission gave the call to evacuate the city and everyone within a 10km (6.2 miles) radius. The evacuation of Pripyat began at 11 am on April 27th with 49,000 people being taken away by bus in an astonishing 3.5 hours, thanks in part to the innovative urban planning and modern layout which the city had been famed for before the accident. The exclusion zone was later expanded to a 30 km (19 miles) radius.
The announcement which was played on repeat during the evacuation was as follows:
For the attention of the residents of Pripyat! The City Council informs you that due to the accident at Chernobyl Power Station in the city of Pripyat the radioactive conditions in the vicinity are deteriorating. The Communist Party, its officials and the armed forces are taking necessary steps to combat this. Nevertheless, with the view to keep people as safe and healthy as possible, the children being top priority, we need to temporarily evacuate the citizens in the nearest towns of Kiev Oblast. For these reasons, starting from April 27, 1986 2 p.m. each apartment block will be able to have a bus at its disposal, supervised by the police and the city officials. It is highly advisable to take your documents, some vital personal belongings and a certain amount of food, just in case, with you. The senior executives of public and industrial facilities of the city has decided on the list of employees needed to stay in Pripyat to maintain these facilities in a good working order. All the houses will be guarded by the police during the evacuation period. Comrades, leaving your residences temporarily please make sure you have turned off the lights, electrical equipment and water off and shut the windows. Please keep calm and orderly in the process of this short-term evacuation.
News of the disaster was kept to a minimum, both inside the Soviet Union and to the outside world. On April 28th, high levels of radiation were detected at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden, over 1000 km (620 miles) away. Upon discovering no issues at their own nuclear power plants, the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority reported the readings to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Despite initial denials, the USSR subsequently admitted that there had been an accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. A news report on state television that evening was short and greatly downplayed the accident.
After the residents left, the core of reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl continued to burn and 5000 tons of sand, lead and clay were dropped on it from helicopters before it was finally extinguished on 10th May 1986. The super-heated core was at risk of burning through the reactor floor to the cooling bubbler pools underneath, potentially causing an even bigger steam explosion. Two brave engineers, Alexei Ananenko and Valeri Bezpalov, along with shift supervisor Boris Baranov, went into the pools to empty them by opening the sluice valves. The core was still in danger of burning through to the water table over time and so it was decided to mine underneath the reactor to install a cooling system.
The explosion and subsequent fire had resulted in over 100 tons of debris being deposited on the roof and efforts to use remote controlled vehicles to remove it proved unsuccessful, given that many of the machines stopped working due to the high levels of radiation. It was decided to use soldiers as “bio-robots” to help with the debris removal thus allowing for construction of a concrete sarcophagus. Thousands of troops went onto the roof wearing lead clothing for a maximum of 90 seconds each to shovel debris back into the reactor. The radiation exposure in that time is estimated to be equivalent to spending 6 months on Mars.
The initial concrete sarcophagus was completed in December 1986, covering reactor No. 4. A fire in reactor No. 2 in 1991 resulted in its closure, followed by reactor No. 1 in 1996 and finally reactor No. 3 in 2000. The New Safe Confinement was completed in July 2019, entombing reactor No. 4. It cost €2.1 billion and took 9 years to construct. It is designed to prevent the release of radioactive contaminants from exiting the shelter, protect the reactor from external influence, facilitate the disassembly and decommissioning of the reactor, and prevent water intrusion.
The initial explosion killed 2 of the power plant staff. 28 of the 134 firemen who tackled the initial blaze died of acute radiation syndrome. The official death toll stands at 31 however this figure has long been argued with suggestions ranging to as high as 16,000 fatalities related to the accident and its aftermath. The area will be uninhabitable for thousands of years and the overall cost, adjusted for inflation, stands at approximately $68 billion.
The Chernobyl disaster has had a significant cultural impact, featuring in video games such as the Call of Duty series, movies like Transformers: Dark of The Moon, A Good Day to Die Hard and Chernobyl Diaries and the hugely successful HBO/Sky Atlantic series Chernobyl.
The area is popular among adventure tourists and urban explorers from all over the world, with limited access allowed with escorted tours into the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone. Whether an explorer or not, it is hard to not want to know more about the terrible disaster, a day that turned many lives upside-down forever. By seeing the photos it really shows you, on some level, the extremity of it all.