The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
18. Chernobyl

Copyright 2000     Jason Manning     All Rights Reserved
Chernobyl's Unit  4, encased in the sarcophagus ten years after the accident

It was a disaster so epic in scope that not even the Soviet Union could keep it secret.  On 28 April 1986, technicians at Sweden's Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant outside Stockholm detected extremely high radiation levels -- four to five times normal emissions.  But it wasn't coming from Swedish reactors.  Similar readings were received in Finland, Norway and Denmark.  Eventually, specialists concluded that dangerous radiation was being carried by prevailing winds coming from the USSR.  Initially the Soviets emphatically denied having any problems, but finally they had to admit that an accident had occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power station north of Kiev.
In the early morning hours of April 26, plant operators conducted a safety test on Chernobyl's Unit 4.  The RBMK-1000 reactor's power was reduced as was the water coolant system.  When Unit 4 suddenly overheated, a power surge caused a hydrogen explosion, blowing off the roof and igniting dozens of fires around the plant.  The reactor's graphite core burned out of control, spewing 50 tons of radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere.  Despite herculean efforts to extinguish the blaze, the core burned for twelve days.
At the time of the accident, casualties were estimated to be as high as 2,000.  In fact, 38 people died as a direct result, 237 suffered from acute radiation syndrome, 12,000 children received large doses to the thyroid gland, and 9,000 were irradiated in utero.  There remains little agreement about the long term effects.  Some officials claim that 4 million people were affected in some way; Dr. John Gofman anticipated 475,000 cancer deaths as a result of Chernobyl.  The UN Children's Fund reported a 38 percent increase in children with malignant bone disorders and blood diseases.  Radiation levels were 2,500 times above normal in the immediate vicinity of the plant. More than 100,000 people were evacuated from a 300-square-mile area, including all 40,000 residents of the town of Pripyat, two miles from the plant.  Dozens of Soviet medical teams were organized to treat the sick, and UCLA's Dr. Robert Gale flew with two colleagues to Moscow to perform operations on victims whose bone marrow had been severely irradiated.
Chernobyl was located in the Ukraine, an important agricultural region.  There was concern that radioactive dust had contaminated the water supply for nearby Kiev's 2.4 million inhabitants.  The city's 250,000 schoolchildren were let out early, and many were evacuated. A group of Michigan tourists who were visiting Kiev during the meltdown absorbed 1,500 millirems of radiation -- 50 times the level of a chest x-ray.  But the effects extended far beyond the Chernobyl vicinity; the fallout affected the entire northern hemisphere.  The twelve-nation European Community boycotted Eastern European meat and farm products when shipments were found to be contaminated.  Poland banned the sale of cow's milk and gave iodine solutions to children sixteen years of age and under.  Rumania declared a nationwide state of alert.  Residents in West Germany and Great Britain wondered whether it was safe to drink the water or let their children play outdoors.  Fallout was detected as far away as Japan and Ottawa, Canada.  Iodine 131 was found in rainwater in the Pacific Northwest, though not enough to be harmful.  Millions the world over worried about the extent and danger of the Chernobyl fallout, despite official assurances that only those living within 200 miles of the accident faced grave health risks.
For the Kremlin, Chernobyl was a diplomatic nightmare.  European governments harshly criticized the Soviets for keeping silent more than a week after the accident.  West Germany insisted that the Soviet Union either shut down their nuclear plants or allow them to be inspected by international teams.  American experts like physicist Robert Sachs pointed out that Chernobyl's four RBMK-1000 models, like many other Soviet reactors, were inadequate.  (Soviet reactors were not built within "containment" structures, as were those in the United States and other nations.)  This caused additional concern in America since the Soviet Union was helping Cuba build two nuclear reactors 250 miles away from Miami.
Many were convinced that all nuclear power plants should be shut down.  Chernobyl reinvigorated the anti-nuclear movement.  By 1986, twenty five nations were operating 306 nuclear plants.  France, Canada and Japan relied heavily on nuclear energy.  In West Germany, which derived one-third of its energy from nuclear power, an anti-nuclear political party called the Greens was already a force to be reckoned with, and Chernobyl only strengthened its hand.  Violence erupted when 10,000 protestors marched in Hamburg.  In the United States, safety concerns in the wake of 1979's Three Mile Island incident had dramatically slowed nuclear power plant construction. After Chernobyl, three towns voted against the opening of a nearby nuclear plant at Seabrook, New Hampshire.  A CNN/U.S. News poll taken two weeks after Chernobyl disclosed that 52 percent opposed new nuclear plants, up from 29 percent after Three Mile Island, while 28 percent wanted all nuclear plants shut down.  A group called the Union of Concerned Scientists called for the same thing.
The Soviet Union encased Chernobyl's Unit 4 in a concrete sarcophagus; the unit would have to be isolated for centuries while the radionuclides decayed.  A plastic film was sprayed over the soil around the site to keep the radioactive dust from spreading.  Valery Boldin, Mikhail Gorbachev's chief of staff, spoke of reports indicated that "radioactivity had contaminated enormous areas, some of which would be unsuitable for human habitation for many decades."  Ten years after the accident, roughly 25 percent of the land in nearby Belarus remained unsuitable for cultivation.  In the "red forest" close by the accident site, irradiation killed all the trees, which had to be treated as radioactive waste.  Many forests in the region were considered high risk areas for years to come
American Sovietologist Suzanne Massey felt Chernobyl was of symbolic importance because it proved Soviet technology was inferior and that in the new "information age" the Politburo would be unable to conceal that fact from the rest of the world.  The futile attempt to cover up the Chernobyl disaster was a severe blow to the prestige of the new Soviet secretary general, Mikhail Gorbachev, who had been trumpeting a policy of glasnost, or openness, in the Soviet Union's relations with other countries.  Gorbachev did not make a public statement on Chernobyl until May 14, at which time he dwelled more on the "anti-Soviet propaganda" of the Western media than on the accident itself.
Oddly enough, "Chernobyl" is the Ukrainian word for Wormwood, the name of the star that, according to Biblical prophecy (Revelations 8:10), will fall from heaven and poison the waters of the earth, so that many will perish.  According to Dr. Robert Gale, the Chernobyl incident was a "final warning" -- one that some speculate may have encouraged Gorbachev and President Reagan to renew efforts to reduce superpower stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

Other Nuclear Power Plant Incidents
At General Public Utility's Three Mile Island facility located near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, loss of coolant resulted in a partial meltdown, but most of the fallout was contained.  It took a U.S. Supreme Court decision to reopen the facility in October 1985.  In 1981, radioactive waste seeped out of a holding tank at a Japanese power station.  In 1986, a container of nuclear material leaked radiation in Gore, Oklahoma.  The U.S. General Accounting Office reported 151 nuclear plant incidents since 1971, but not until Chernobyl were fatalities directly attributed to an accident, though 33 cancer deaths were linked to an event at a plant near Liverpool, England in 1957 which contaminated 200 square miles.  And in 1958 an accident at a nuclear waste facility near Kyshtym in the Soviet Union turned 400 square miles into a dead region.  Facts were hard to come by thanks to the Soviet cover-up, but it was presumed that hundreds died, including prisoners sent in "death squads" to cover the irradiated soil with sand.  Thirty small towns simply disappeared from maps of the region, and the wasteland remained permanently evacuated in the 1980s.

The yellow on this map reveals the extent to which the radiation
cloud produced by the Chernobyl accident spread across the globe


Time, 19 May 1986, 26 May 1986, 23 June 1986, 21 July 1986, 1 September 1986

U.S. News & World Report, 12 May 1986, 19 May 1986, 26 May 1986

"Executive Summary"
NEA Committee on Radiation Protection and Public Health
OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, November 1996

Chernobyl: The Forbidden Truth
Alla Yaroshinskaya (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1995)

Ten Years That Shook the World
Valery Boldin (New York: HarperCollins, 1994)