When a reactor overheated and human error compounded the damage, disaster had only just begun. Chernobyl's contamination can still be felt to this day.
The Chernobyl disaster of April 25 and 26, 1986, was the most catastrophic nuclear accident of the 20th century. It has shaped and inspired nuclear policy, influenced environmentalist and activist groups, and left a direct, physiological impact on Pripyat, Ukraine and the Eastern European regions it contaminated.
The event happened due just as much to negligence as inevitability — with no fail-safes to prevent radiation from escaping in case of an accident, improperly trained personnel, and no enacted safety measures to ensure that those mistakes wouldn’t occur in the first place, the disaster was arguably lying in wait.
When a late-night safety test went awry and subsequent human error interfered with preventative measures, Chernobyl’s Reactor 4 became unmanageable. Water and steam merged together which lead to an explosion and a resulting open-air graphite fire. Two plant workers died that night and arguably suffered the least out of all those who eventually died from radiation or grew up with birth defects.
Over the next few days, 134 servicemen involved with the clean-up in and around Pripyat were hospitalized, 28 died of acute radiation syndrome (ARS) in the following weeks, and 14 died of radiation-induced cancer within the next ten years. Indeed, the complete effects the disaster had on the health of the public is still not totally known.
A simple miscalculation in safety measures during a late-night test quickly became the biggest nuclear disaster of the modern era. Brave souls on the ground sacrificed everything to stop it as the rest of the world watched in horror. 33 years later, the radioactive spirit of Chernobyl still lingers.
Ground Zero: A Timeline Of Events That Led To The Chernobyl Meltdown
The accident occurred a full year before President Reagan famously ordered USSR General Secretary Gorbachev to “tear down that wall.” The Pripyat Amusement Park was set to open on May 1st as part of the May Day celebrations, but that opportunity never came.
It was 1:23 A.M. local time when Reactor 4 suffered a fateful power increase too high to handle. This was before nuclear reactors were encased in a now standardized, protective containment vessel.
Chernobyl’s failings allowed vast amounts of radioactive isotopes to billow out into the atmosphere, covering parts of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, and the American east coast in varying amounts of fallout.
Areas closest to the site, like Pripyat, were affected most drastically, with Ukraine’s capital Kiev receiving around 60 percent of the fallout while a significant amount of Russian territory sustained considerable contamination as well. UNICEF estimated that over 350,000 people evacuated their homes between 1986 and 2000 specifically due to Chernobyl’s after effects.