35 years have passed since the worst nuclear accident in the world so far began. On the night of April 26, 1986, reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl power plant spun out of control during a low-power test.
The plant exploded and the building caught fire. The building was in ruins and a cloud of radioactive material lit up the sky. Even so, the Soviet authorities did not even notify the inhabitants of the city closest to the plant – Pripyat – and they continued to sleep without being sure what they had seen.
The first reactions came in the afternoon of the next day, when the plant workers and the roughly 50,000 residents of Pripyat were evacuated. But the two million residents of Kiev, today the capital of Ukraine, still had no idea what was going on.
In fact, the first warning of the high levels of radiation came from northern Sweden, specifically from the Forsmark plant, more than 1,100 kilometers from Chernobyl. Like a movie script, on April 28, 1986, one of the nuclear power plant employees was returning from the bathroom when he passed one of the radiation monitors and saw the altered levels. The numbers increased more when they monitored the worker’s shoes.
Initially, they believed that there was an accident at Forsmark, but after analyzing the particles they determined that this was the kind of radiation found in Soviet nuclear plants. The information coincided with the behavior of the weather: just that weekend the wind had blown from the southeast and it had rained, so the particles ended up on the ground and concentrated on the employee’s shoes.
“Thanks to our early detection, we were able to inform the Swedish authorities, who then informed the world about radioactive contamination from the disaster in the Soviet Union,” Claes-Göran Runermark, the operations manager in charge at the time, said in a interview with the official media of the European Parliament.
Finland and Germany also reported high levels of radioactivity. And only after that, on April 28, did the Soviet authorities briefly report on official television channels what had happened. “There was an accident at the Chernobyl power plant and one of the reactors was damaged,” the statement read.
The attempt to contain the radiation of Chernobyl and the thousands of later affected
Eventually, more than 100,000 people were evacuated from the surrounding area and an exclusion zone of 2,600 square kilometers was established. The only people who could get in were the workers who disposed of the radioactive material and built what was known as the “sarcophagus” to cover the damaged reactor, all in a race against time to prevent the radiation from spreading further.
The idea was that the concrete and steel structure would contain all the radioactive material that they could not deposit in the waste they built after the accident. But for many it was too late. At least 38 people, including plant workers and the firefighters who came to the scene, died in the three months after the disaster. Almost all died from acute radiation illnesses and one from cardiac arrest, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
It is still debated how many people were later affected by the radiation to which they were exposed and which caused diseases such as cancer. The IAEA estimates that there are at least 1,800 documented cases of children with thyroid cancer who were between the ages of 0 and 14 when the accident occurred. This without counting suicides and alcoholism problems, which increased after the accident. “The psychological effects of Chernobyl were and continue to be widespread and profound,” said the IAEA.
In addition, it is unknown how many people outside the Ukrainian territory could be affected, since the radiation spread through several Soviet countries and even reached Scandinavian nations, such as Sweden and Finland. In the first three weeks after the accident, cesium and other radioactive isotopes were found there that were blown away from Chernobyl.
In addition, 150,000 square kilometers in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine are contaminated, according to the IAEA. Despite how widely the radiation spread, “no study has been able to point to a direct link between Chernobyl and an increased risk of cancer or other health problems outside the immediately affected republics of Ukraine, Belarus and the Russian Federation,” the nuclear organism pointed out.
Until 2019, there were radiation leaks. The only way to contain them was the new structure they created to replace the “sarcophagus”, which deteriorated over the years, creating a “potentially dangerous situation”, in the words of the IAEA.
Therefore, the authorities and experts designed a plan to replace the coverage with a new structure, called “the ark.” This was built 180 meters from the plant and once the 110-meter-high mass was ready, they transported it on rails to cover the old shell, work that ended at the end of 2018. The entire project cost the International Fund of Chernobyl Protection about 1,500 million euros.
Chernobyl, the place of a few inhabitants and a place coveted by tourists
Since the Chernobyl accident, an area covering 30 kilometers around the old plant is considered the “exclusion zone” that, in theory, cannot be inhabited. Soviet authorities relocated at least 200,000 people who lived near the plant. Ukraine even decided that from 2021 it will use the deserted area to store the fuel it uses in its four nuclear power plants.
Thus, the country can save up to $ 200 million a year because it does not have to export spent fuel to Russia, as it does so far.
For all this, permanent residence in Chernobyl is prohibited, although more than 100 people still live in the exclusion zone that surrounds the former nuclear plant. “It is a great happiness to live at home, but it is sad that it is not how it used to be,” Yevgeny Markevich, an 85-year-old teacher who still lives near Chernobyl, told the AP agency. He even grows potatoes and cucumbers on the land that was contaminated.
A little more common are tourists. One of the main attractions is to see the ruins of Pripyat, the ancient city that is now being invaded by decay and vegetation. There are so many interested travelers that Ukrainians are working to build roads that make it easier for visitors to navigate the ruins.
“This is a place of tragedy and memory, but it is also a place where you can see how a person can overcome the consequences of a global catastrophe,” Bohdan Borukhovskyi, Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of the Environment, told AP.
Indeed, Chernobyl remains the mark of the worst nuclear accident in history and of what humanity has done to recover from it in these 35 years.