Chernobyl Disaster


Chernobyl (chĬrnō´byēl), Ukr. Chornobyl, abandoned city, N Ukraine, near the Belarus border, on the Pripyat River. Ten miles (16 km) to the north, in the town of Pripyat, is the Chernobyl nuclear power station, site of the worst nuclear reactor disaster in history. On Apr. 25, 1986, during an unauthorized test of one of the plant's four reactors, engineers initiated an uncontrolled chain reaction in the core of the reactor after disabling emergency backup systems. On Apr. 26, an explosion ripped the top off the containment building, expelling radioactive material into the atmosphere; more was released in the subsequent fire. Only after Swedish instruments detected fallout from the explosion did Soviet authorities admit that an accident had occurred. The reactor core was sealed off by air-dropping a cement mixture, but not before eight tons of radioactive material had escaped. Subsequently, the damaged reactor building was enclosed in a concrete and steel "sacrophagus," a massive structure that was constructed around it.

Twenty firefighters died immediately from overexposure to radioactivity, while hundreds suffered from severe radiation sickness. Pripyat, Chernobyl, and nearby towns were evacuated. People who lived near the plant in Ukraine and Belarus at the time have seen a greatly increased incidence of thyroid cancer, and genetic mutations have been discovered in children later born to exposed parents. Nearly all thyroid cancer cases, however, were successfully treated. Ukraine has estimated that some 4,400 people died as a result of the accident and during its cleanup, but a 2005 report prepared by several UN agencies and regional governments indicated that some 50 deaths were directly attributable to radiation from the disaster and an estimated 4,000 deaths might ultimately result from it, mainly due to higher cancer rates. That prediction was challenged the following year by a Greenpeace report that said more than 90,000 deaths might result, roughly half of which would be due to conditions other than cancer. The agricultural economies of E and N Europe were temporarily devastated, as farm products were contaminated by fallout. One Chernobyl reactor remained in operation until Dec., 2000, when the complex was shut down.

An exclusion zone encompassing the areas of highest radiation and including some 1,000 sq mi (2,600 sq km) was ultimately established, but many population centers outside the area were also abandoned. More than 90,000 people were relocated, though a few illegally returned. Wildlife in the area, however, has reestablished itself, flourishing to some degree in the absence of human activity. In 2016 a new confinement structure was placed over the entombed reactor.

See S. Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl (2005).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Chernobyl Disaster: Selected full-text books and articles

Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl By Adriana Petryna Princeton University Press, 2011
The Chernobyl Accident and Its Implications for the United Kingdom By Norman Worley; Jeffery Lewins Elsevier Applied Science, 1988
Nuclear Energy and Security in the Former Soviet Union By David R. Marples; Marilyn J. Young Westview Press, 1997
Science, Technology, and Ecopolitics in the USSR By Miron Rezun Praeger, 1996
Librarian's tip: discussion of Chernobyl disaster begins on p. 171
International Law and Pollution By Daniel Barstow Magraw University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991
Conflict over the World's Resources: Background, Trends, Case Studies, and Considerations for the Future By Robert Mandel Greenwood Press, 1988
Librarian's tip: Chap. 8 "Conflict over Pollution--The Chernobyl Disaster"
Risky Business: Communicating Issues of Science, Risk, and Public Policy By Lee E. Wilkins; Philip E. Patterson Greenwood Press, 1991
Bad Tidings: Communication and Catastrophe By Lynne Masel Walters; Lee Wilkins; Tim Walters Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1989
Librarian's tip: Chap. 8 "Reporting Chernobyl: Cutting the Government Fog to Cover the Nuclear Cloud"
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