Marking the 35th anniversary of Chornobyl

The Number 4 Reactor at the Chornobyl Nuclear Station

Marco Levytsky, Editorial Writer.

April 26 marked the 35th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe. On that day in 1986, two explosions at Reactor Number 4 of the Chornobyl Nuclear Plant, located near the town of Prypyat about 150 kilometres north of Kyiv, blew off its 1,000-ton roof, releasing 400 times more radiation than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Thirty-one people died within the first few days of the accident. Another 4,000 to 10,000 people died from the consequences of the explosion. Over 70,000 became disabled. The radioactive radiation released by the Chornobyl explosion affected 1.9 million people in Ukraine. About 8.4 million people in Belarus, Russia and other countries were also affected. 47,500 people were evacuated from Prypyat, the city in which the power plant was located. Eventually, thousands of people would begin exhibiting very serious side effects — including cancer — from the fallout.

The accident occurred during a safety test which involved a simulation of an electrical power outage.

Firefighters arrived at the scene within minutes and began to fight the blaze without gear to protect them from radiation. Many of them would soon number among the 28 killed by acute radiation exposure. Firsthand accounts of what the firefighters experienced described the radiation as “tasting like metal,” and feeling pain like pins and needles on their faces, according to the CBC documentary series, Witness. Days later, many of those firefighters would be dead. It wasn’t until 5 a.m. the following day that Reactor No. 3 was shut down. Some 24 hours later, Reactors No. 1 and 2 were also shut down.

By the afternoon of April 26, the Soviet government had mobilized troops to help fight the blaze. Some were dropped at the rooftop of the reactor to furiously shovel debris off the facility and spray water on the exposed reactor to keep it cool. The workers were picked up within seconds to minimize their radiation exposure. It would take nearly two weeks to extinguish all the fires using sand, lead and nitrogen.

At first Soviet authorities tried to cover up the news of the disaster. It was only two days after the explosion, when radiation levels set off alarms at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden, over 1,000 kilometres away that the world became aware of this catastrophe. Workers at Forsmark reported the case to the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority, which determined that the radiation had originated elsewhere. That day, the Swedish government contacted the Soviet government to inquire about whether there had been a nuclear accident in the Soviet Union. The Soviets initially denied it, and it was only after the Swedish government suggested they were about to file an official alert with the International Atomic Energy Agency, that the Soviet government admitted that the accident had taken place.

At first, the Soviets only conceded that a minor accident had occurred, but once they began evacuating more than 100,000 people, the full scale of the disaster became known to the global community. Still, two days after the disaster, all they did was issue a terse announcement that “There has been an accident at the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant. One of the nuclear reactors was damaged. The effects of the accident are being remedied. Assistance has been provided for any affected people. An investigative commission has been set up.” And, despite the high radiation levels in the City of Kyiv, Soviet authorities decided to go ahead with the annual May Day festivities, the only concession to the danger levels being to cut the celebrations from the regular three and a half to four hours to under two hours.

This wanton disregard for human life proved to be the undoing of the USSR. In response to the acute embarrassment of having been caught trying to cover up the worst nuclear disaster in history, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev initiated the policy of perestroika (or openness) allowing some degree of freedom for the first time since the Bolshevik Revolution. But once Gorbachev opened up the floodgates, a tidal wave of pent-up discontent engulfed the entire Evil Empire. Within three years the Central European satellite states left the Soviet fold and by 1991 the USSR itself imploded, the catalyst being Ukraine’s Declaration of Independence, cemented by 91% approval in the December 1, 1991 referendum.

Thirty-five years later, the radiation still lingers and is present in all crops grown there. Some experts say it will take 20,000 years for the area to become completely safe. And the Ukrainian community continues to mark their calendars and spread awareness of this catastrophic event. The Alberta Provincial Council has urged our community to read and learn more about Chornobyl, join your church community in memorial service or light a candle in memory of those who perished in or suffered from the catastrophe. Let us remember and commemorate this event, so that it may never again be repeated and so the world will understand not only the dangers that attend the careless handling of nuclear power, but also what happens when a rogue state lies to its own citizens and then to the entire world.