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Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster

On April 26, 1986, the Cold War was starting to come to a close, tensions were not nearly as high as in the sixties and seventies, and nuclear energy was being used to power cities. The incident would take place at a nuclear power plant built in the wooded marshes of Chernobyl in Northern Ukraine near the small town of Pripyat where it would be discovered that nuclear energy was much more dangerous than previously realized for on that day, the worst nuclear disaster in world history took place. Still attempting to recover from the environmental disaster, this dramatic event in Chernobyl radically changed the world’s opinion on using nuclear reaction for power.

On April 25, 1986, reactor four was shut down for some routine maintenance and so that technicians could run a test that, in case of a power outage, the turbines could produce enough energy to keep the cooling system running until the backup generators came online. However, in order to get accurate results, the safety systems were shut off as well. At about 1 a.m., the reactor’s power dropped suddenly and the situation became alarming. Due to the absence of the safety systems, the reactor went out of control and exploded at 1:23 a.m. and the repercussions would last for decades.

Two days later, after the Soviets attempted to keep the incident a secret, the world found out about the explosion. It was discovered when various plants recorded unusually high levels of radiation in the area. Although the Soviets first denied any knowledge of the event, they eventually admitted that one of the reactors had been “damaged.” During the cover-up, the Soviets also attempted to clean the up mess. They tried to douse the fires created by the explosion with water, sand, lead, and even Nitrogen but the fires were not put out until nearly two weeks later. Citizens were told to stay indoors and the town of Pripyat was not evacuated until a day after the incident, but the damage had already been done and the radiation, 100 times more powerful than that of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, began to affect the citizens.

Thirty-one people died immediately after the explosion but, as a result of the radiation, thousands more would die due to long term effects. As cleanup continued, contaminated topsoil and water were contained and put into sealed barrels. Soviet engineers also encased the remains of the fourth reactor in a large, concrete sarcophagus to prevent additional radiation leakage. However, it had already begun to crumble by 1997. This nuclear incident was (one of the worst environmental) the worst nuclear disaster in history, and made the world second guess the use of nuclear reaction for power. It also revealed that the European nuclear plant designs, known as RBMK’s which used a less stable graphite to assist nuclear reactions and no containment structures at all, were inferior to the U.S.— made ones which used water and had superior methods of containment and safety. To finalize the chapter in history, in December of 2000, after years of negotiations the Chernobyl power plant was finally shut down for good.

Researched by Ryne Schultz
Volunteer for Cold War Museum
Student at Cosby High School

Chernobyl. http://history1900s.about.com/od/horribledisasters/p/Chernobyl.htm, 2008

Chernobyl Accident. http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/chernobyl/inf07.html, 2004

The Chernobyl Disaster. http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A2922103, 2004

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