Chernobyl: How did the world’s worst nuclear accident happen? via Independent

Decades after the catastrophe, now a byword for state secrecy, crucial elements remain a mystery

Andy Gregory 

For most residents of Pripyat, Saturday 26 April 1986 seemed a relatively unremarkable day.

Some would have been aware of an incident at the nearby Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant, around which the town had sprouted up in the decade prior, but, in the words of one off-duty engineer: “There was no panic. The city lived a normal life. People were sunbathing on the beach.”

But the warning signs were there.


Decades after the world’s worst nuclear accident, crucial elements still remain a mystery.

The likely death toll from the catastrophe is continually being revised to this day, the impacts of the fallout upon populations caught up in the nuclear slipstream — from Andreyev and his family to those living hundreds of miles away — still an active area of academic research.

Furthermore, the profound extent to which the accident, and the Soviet Union’s infamous handling of it, impacted the course of global history will never truly be known.

For the leader of the USSR at the time, Mikhail Gorbachev, the disaster wrought history anew. Rather than the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Chernobyl was “perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union”, he would later lament.


In the simplest sense, it began with a disastrous experiment during routine tests of reactor four. Technicians wished to see whether an emergency water-cooling system would work during a power outage and, shutting down the reactor’s emergency safety system, withdrew most of the control rods from its core while keeping the reactor running.

Moments after their re-insertion, at 1.23am, the resulting reaction caused a partial meltdown in the core, summoning a large fireball that blew the 1,200-tonne concrete and steel lid from the reactor, which would spew roughly 400 times more radioactive material into the atmosphere than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Two workers were immediately killed in the blast, which bent the plant’s thick concrete walls “like rubber”. Another plant worker, Sasha Yuvchenko, would later recall standing to watch as a pillar of blue ionising radiation ascended into the sky, “flooding up into infinity from the reactor”, reflecting: “I remember thinking how beautiful it was”.

Several hundred staff members and firefighters then tackled an inferno that blazed for 10 days. According to Andreyev, who was working that night, their dosimeters were taken away and they were told told to wash their shoes in manganese solution before entering, suggesting the radiation on the streets of Pripyat was feared to be worse than inside the incinerated plant.


In those months, hundreds of thousands of emergency workers, troops, cleaners and miners were sent into the area during attempts to control the core meltdown and halt the spread of radioactive material, which would reach the US, China and northern Africa.

Dubbed “liquidators”, some 600,000 workers seeking to contain the spread were given special status that provided compensation in the form of fiscal benefits and additional health care.

While these liquidators were offered some compensation for their sacrifice, it appeared that Soviet authorities had known all along that there could be “accidents” at the nuclear plant.


In January 1979, a KGB report on the plant said: “According to operational data, there were deviations from design and violations of technology procedures during building and assembling works. It may lead to accidents”.

The documents, released by the SBU in 2003, revealed that between 1977 and 1981 there were 29 accidents at the nuclear plant.

In 1982, another incident releasing what the documents described as “significant quantities of radiation” would lead officials to engage in a significant cover-up effort, but this relatively minor event merely foreshadowed the scale of the deception that would come four years later.


Some workers would defy orders, with Andreyev recalling how he and other colleagues, none of them wearing protective gear, shut off the other nuclear reactors in what he described as a lifesaving measure.

Approximately 36 hours later, as officials began to acknowledge the huge scale of the problem, the order was given for Pripyat to be evacuated for three days. Most residents would never return.


It is believed that up to 200,000 women across western Europe chose to end wanted pregnancies on the mistaken advice of doctors who were mistrusting of the Soviet Union’s official line on radiation levels and who feared a possible rise in birth defects. There was no such increase in babies born with congenital defects, the World Health Organisation would conclude in 2005.

One estimate by Kiev’s National Research Centre for Radiation Medicine suggests that in the former Soviet Union alone, five million people have suffered as a result of Chernobyl.
More than 5,000 people who were children at the time living in the affected areas in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, have since developed thyroid cancers, which the UN attributes to radiation exposure.

While 330,000 people were moved out of the area, which now suffers far higher levels of poverty than other parts of the former Soviet Union, the upheaval proved “deeply traumatic” for many, according to the Chernobyl Forum.


In 2007, a study of nearly 5,000 men involved in the cleanup effort between 1986 and 1991 found they suffered an increased risk of suicide, describing their findings as “concrete evidence that psychological consequences represent the largest public health problem caused by the accident to date”.

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