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38 years ago, Soviet negligence and lies caused the worst nuclear disaster of the 20th century. The emission of radiation transformed a formerly comfortable and thriving region into a restricted area. While radioactive materials were spreading across the continent, Soviet officials tried to conceal the disaster caused by reactor design flaws and human error.

Photo: Volodymyr Repik / AP

In line with the Soviet tradition, Russia does not shy away from harming nature and people to achieve totalitarian goals. In 2022, Russia temporarily occupied the Chornobyl NPP, and the Zaporizhzhia NPP, the largest in Europe, is still occupied and in danger. For the first time in history, nuclear facilities are used in military actions.

Where is Chornobyl?

The Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant, opened in 1977, is located in the north of Ukraine, about 130 km north of Kyiv and about 20 km south of the border with Belarus. The old town of Chornobyl, which gave the plant its name, is about 15 km southeast of the NPP. 

The Chornobyl Exclusion Zone, imposed after the nuclear disaster, stretches within a 30 km radius of the power plant. The total population was between 115,000 and 135,000 lived in this area at the time of the accident.

When did Chornobyl disaster happen?

On April 26, 1986, a nuclear accident occurred at the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

The day before, the fourth reactor of the NPP was supposed to be stopped to conduct an experiment. Although the actual technical circumstances did not correspond to the test plan, it was decided to proceed.

What happened at Chornobyl NPP?

The experiment started on April 26 at 01:23, and the situation got out of control. Several minutes later, two explosions rang out. The reactor completely collapsed, and an intense fire broke out.

The explosion at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant released about 50 million Curies of radiation. For reference, the amount of radiation released into the air after the nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima was 210 times less than during the Chornobyl explosion.

In the destroyed reactor, uncontrolled reactions continued with the release of heat from the burning of graphite. It was possible to stop the active eruption of radioactive substances from the destroyed reactor only at the end of May 1986. 

The radioactive cloud covered not only Ukraine but the entire continent. More than 145 thousand square kilometers of territory were contaminated with radionuclides. Before the Chornobyl explosion, the world had never faced a disaster of this magnitude. Its consequences are still being felt almost forty years later.

Abandoned amusement park in Pripyat, Ukraine following the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster that occurred in 1986.
Photo: Gleb Garanich

Disinformation kills too

The most drastic lesson for humanity should be the way the Soviet authorities reacted. Instead of saving lives, instant evacuation, and safety measures, they chose secrecy, lies, and ideology interests.

The first official local report about the disaster at the Chornobyl NPP appeared only 36 hours later when the radio of the neighboring city Prypiat announced the “temporary evacuation” of residents. 

Despite the growing radiation level, the Soviet officials decided to organize a May 1 demonstration urging children and adults to parade on the streets, exposed to radiation.

There have been at least 1800 documented cases of thyroid cancer in children who were between 0 and 14 years of age when the accident occurred, which is far higher than normal. The thyroid gland of young children is particularly susceptible to the uptake of radioactive iodine.

The Soviet authorities hid information about the accident until foreign countries detected abnormal radiation levels in their territories. Totalitarian regime faked the medical histories of patients ill because of radiation, persecuted those who knew too much, and classified information about the disaster.

The lie was deadly. Just imagine that for two days after the disaster, the world knew nothing about it. Millions of lives were affected by radiation across the continent.

Read more: Why did the forest in Chornobyl turn red?

How many people died after Chornobyl?

The initial explosion resulted in the death of two workers. Twenty-eight of the firemen and emergency clean-up workers died in the first three months after the explosion from Acute Radiation Sickness and one from cardiac arrest.

Many firefighters and military personnel arrived “bare-handed” without any means of protection. They stopped another potential catastrophe, a hydrogen explosion, at the cost of their health and lives. 

Over 600,000 people participated in the liquidation in total. 60,000​​ of them died, including from diseases, in the following decades.

The Chornobyl disaster left 2,218 villages and towns in Ukraine with a population of approximately 2.4 million people contaminated with radionuclides – and affected almost 5 million people around the world. The impact of Chornobyl was felt in Belarus, Sweden, Norway, Poland, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Finland, and the United Kingdom.

Dealing with the long-lasting consequences

The ramifications of the Chornobyl tragedy, which affected millions, and its impact on nature and public health will be felt for generations. 

After the disaster on April 26, 1986, a 30-kilometer zone around the plant became an exclusion zone. It includes the nuclear power plant itself; the cities of Prypiat and Chornobyl, the north of the Kyiv region, as well as part of the Zhytomyr region up to the border with Belarus. Thousand of people were uprooted and forced to leave their homes.

Both Ukraine, its people, and the world have continued to deal with the aftermath of the explosion. The New Safe Confinement, a structure put to confine the remains of the reactor unit, was completed in Ukraine in 2019. It was designed to prevent the further release of radioactive contaminants and protect the reactor.

The New Safe Confinement.
Photo: Tim Porter

Who lives in Chornobyl today?

The towns and villages in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone were abandoned during the evacuation phase in 1986 – and they remain completely empty today, with some exceptions.

More than 5000 workers stay in the exclusion zone, whose professionalism was repeatedly recognized by the IAEA. These are drivers, electricians, machine operators, shift and workshop managers, cooks, security guards, engineers, and many others who have been ensuring the necessary work is done at Chornobyl.

Chornobyl NPP workers check the level of radiation in their bodies after the end of the working day.
Photo: AP Photo/Michael Forster Rothbart

They continued to perform their duties during 35 days of Russia’s occupation of the station in 2022, supporting the vital activity of the facilities and ensuring their safety and the uninterrupted operation of equipment.

There are also a small number of settlers in the Exclusion Zone: mostly elderly people who decided to return to their family homes despite all the restrictions and safety concerns.

Before the full-scale invasion, it used to be possible for tourists to visit Chornobyl: its is safe if done in compliance with safety regulations. As many as 100,000 people per year went to the exclusion zone to witness the abandoned city slowly being taken over by nature, a site of the biggest nuclear disaster in history, and the largest human-made movable construction – the new confinement – in the world.

What does Chornobyl look like today?

During the decades of human absence in the Chornobyl zone, most of it has been covered with young forests, where wild animals settle. Many Red Data Book animals are returning here. The number of elk, deer, wolves, and lynxes is growing. Even those who have never lived in this area settle here. Thus, even a gray stork, a brown bear, a white-tailed eagle and other species that were considered rare in these parts have found a home here.

The Exclusion Zone is also home to a population of Przewalski’s wild horses, a species that was exterminated in the wild in the 20th century. 

The Chornobyl Radiation-Ecological Biosphere Reserve, the largest reserve in Ukraine, was created in 2016. Local flora and fauna typical for the area 100-200 years ago were restored. Now this is a thriving sanctuary for rare Ukrainian animals and plants.

The world is at risk again

Today, Russia’s war includes attacks on nuclear facilities. When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the invaders captured the Chornobyl NPP and its personnel, destroyed the laboratories, and caused an increase in radiation levels by disturbing the radioactive dust.

Later this caused massive fires, and Ukrainian firefighters couldn’t reach the territory because of the invaders.

The Russian forces were kicked out of the territory during the Ukrainian counter-offensive in March 2022. Scientific and security enterprises in the Chornobyl zone have already returned to normal operation. Despite the damage brought by Russia to our land, the Chornobyl area will keep restoring and thriving under Ukrainian protection and care. It has a vast potential for scientific research in space and medicine. The unique experience of Ukrainian scientists and plant workers will be helpful in ensuring the safety of other NPP all over the world.

Nuclear blackmailing

The danger to global safety didn’t stop when Russia was forced to run from Chornobyl — the terrorist state keeps blackmailing the entire planet. The Zaporizhzhia NPP, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe and the 9th largest in the world, is still occupied by Russia. Russian forces continue to fire indiscriminate artillery near the power units and endanger the work of the Zaporizhzhia NPP.

Photo: Reuters

Russia’s blatant disrespect of international law shows that Russia has no intentions to cooperate or follow the agreements. The only way to restore nuclear security is for Russia to leave the ZNPP and return control of the power plant to Ukraine. The international community must act now to avoid the disaster horrors which we have already witnessed.