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The Environmental Impact of the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster

Updated: Nov 20, 2020

The Worst Nuclear Disaster in History: Chernobyl

By Amber Campbell

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Maybe you’ve heard of it, maybe you’ve seen the HBO 5 part series that tells a tale of the almost-truth. There are many stories and tales, speculations about the effects of radiation on humans, from cancer, to birth defects, skin diseases, upright monstrosities, and everything in between. But what happened to the land on which the disaster occurred?

On Saturday April 26th, 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near the city of Pripyat in the north Ukrainian SSR, a safety test was run on the No. 4 nuclear reactor. The safety test creates a simulation of an electrical power outage, to ensure that the reactor could maintain the circulation of its cooling water before the backup generators kicked in. There was about a one minute gap between the outage and the kick of the generators, proposing a safety concern, as without the cooling water, the nuclear reactor core could overheat.

To run the test, it was necessary to decrease the reactor power. However, on this late April night, the power dropped to nearly zero unexpectedly. The operators could not restore the reactor to correct power, putting it in a potentially stable condition. The operating instructions did not cover this, leaving the operators unaware of the risk this would cause, and they continued the test.

When the test was completed, the operators signaled to shutdown the reactor, but these stable conditions, along with design flaws of the reactor itself, resulted in a nuclear chain reaction.

This chain reaction caused a sudden release of energy, to an extent that vaporized the cooling water, causing the core of the reactor to rupture in a steam explosion. Following this, an open-air fire started in the reactor core. This fire caused the release of the radioactive contamination that many of us may think of when we hear “Chernobyl”. The contamination lasted for nine days, spreading through the USSR and Western Europe. Up to 30% of Chernobyl’s 190 metric tons of uranium was in the air following the explosion. It was finally contained on May 4th, 1986, but that does not go to say the effects ended then as well.

You may have heard varying extents of consequences, ranging from mutated animals to increased cancer rates and other illnesses due to radiation exposure. But what happened to the environment?

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, an area of four square miles near the site became known as the “Red Forest”. The nickname signifies the many trees that, due to the absorption of high levels of radiation, turned reddish-brown and subsequently died.

Since then, many trees have regrown, but the pasture grasses in the surrounding area are still being removed from the diets of local animals. The high radiocaesium levels from the fire contaminated the surface land and vegetation, and left parts of the land where radiation exposures are too high, despite the combat efforts that have been in place since 1990.

Due to these high levels of exposure, the land has not been used in decades, which allows for a consistent growth of the animal and plant population, hence increasing the biodiversity in the area. The anomalies in plants and animals some scientists have discovered evidence of are slowly decreasing over time, such as elevated levels of cataracts and albinism in wildlife.

While it may appear that things may be going back to normal in the areas surrounding Chernobyl, the clean up is nowhere near done. Radioactive hazard cleanup is not scheduled to be complete until 2065, nearly 80 years after the explosion.

The Chernobyl plant continued to run for another 14 years, until finally the last standing reactor, No. 3, was shut off by then-president of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchima, in December 2000. Despite this plant being shut down, there are still 10 RBMK reactor cores like those of Chernobyl in operation in Ukraine and Russia today. While they have been modified for safety regulations, they serve as an eerie reminder of the damage that was caused, and the potential havoc that could be wrecked in the future. There is no way to reverse the effects of the radioactive fallout on the land, the grass, the water, the air, that the explosion had caused.

Written by writer Amber Campbell


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