The True Cost of the Chernobyl Disaster Has Been Greater Than It Seems (2023)

In terms of direct deaths attributable to the accident, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster turned out to be anything but a highly destructive force. Whereas the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki claimed close to 200,000 immediate victims — more than 100,000 killed and the rest injured — the Chernobyl explosion caused 2 immediate deaths and 29 deaths from acute radiation sickness in the course of the next three months. Altogether, 237 people were airlifted from Chernobyl to Moscow and treated in the special clinic there. Out of these, 134 showed symptoms of acute radiation syndrome. It has been claimed that a total of 50 people died of acute radiation syndrome, and that 4,000 may die in the future of radiation-related causes. But the ultimate Chernobyl mortality toll, though difficult to estimate, may yet turn out to be significantly higher. Current estimates place it between the 4,000 deaths estimated by United Nations agencies in 2005 and the 90,000 suggested by Greenpeace International.

In Ukraine, in the first five years after the disaster, cases of cancer among children increased by more than 90 percent. During the first twenty years after the accident, approximately 5,000 cases of thyroid cancer were registered in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus among those who were younger than eighteen at the time of the explosion. The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 5,000 cancer deaths were related to the Chernobyl accident, but this figure is often challenged by independent experts. In Ukraine in 2005, 19,000 families were receiving government assistance owing to the loss of a breadwinner whose death was deemed to be related to the Chernobyl accident. Other consequences include genetic damage to people born after the disaster. Scientists are particularly concerned about cases of microsatellite instability (MSI), a condition that affects the ability of DNA to replicate and repair itself, which has been detected in children whose fathers were exposed to radiation after the accident. Similar changes were found earlier among children of Soviet soldiers who absorbed radiation during nuclear tests.

The cost of the disaster was enormous, and all three East Slavic countries had to deal with it in one way or another. They adopted largely similar formulas, defining the most contaminated areas whose inhabitants were in need of resettlement or assistance and then establishing categories of citizens who were considered to have been most severely affected, making them eligible for financial compensation and privileged access to medical facilities. Altogether close to 7 million people would receive some form of compensation for the effects of the Chernobyl fallout. But the size of the groups eligible for subsidies and the amount of financial compensation differed in the three states, depending on the interplay of politics and economic circumstances.

(Video) Chernobyl Disaster 1986: What really happened?

Russia’s oil and gas riches helped it deal with the post-Chernobyl crisis, while resource-poor Ukraine and Belarus had nothing comparable. Those two countries introduced a special Chernobyl tax in the early 1990s, amounting in Belarus to 18 percent of all wages paid in the nonagricultural sector. In general, however, the Belarusian government dealt with the enormous challenge by continuing the Soviet tradition of suppressing investigations of major disasters. Although Belarus was the post-Soviet country most affected by Chernobyl fall-out, its antinuclear movement never attained the proportions of its Ukrainian counterpart. Nor did the Belarusian Popular Front exercise influence comparable to that of the Ukrainian Rukh. The Belarusian parliament and government lacked the political will and, more importantly, the resources to admit the full scope of the disaster and deal effectively with its consequences. In 1993, the Belarusian parliament adopted laws reducing the levels of soil contamination considered dangerous for human habitation. Even then, with significantly less territory and population covered by social welfare laws, the government only managed to allocate less than 60 percent of the funds approved by legislators for Chernobyl-related programs.

When it comes to Western assistance, Ukraine got most of the attention and resources, largely because it inherited the Chernobyl nuclear plant and its devastated Unit 4. The first priority identified by Ukraine as requiring Western help after the closure of the Chernobyl plant was the construction of a new shelter over the sarcophagus that had been hastily built to cover the damaged fourth reactor in the first months after the explosion. The Ukrainian government announced an international competition for the construction of the new shelter in 1992. In June 1997, the G-7 countries pledged $300 million toward the realization of the project, whose total cost was then estimated at $760 million. A special Chernobyl Shelter Fund was created at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to collect the rest of the funds. That turned out to be a major challenge.

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Originally, it was expected that the new shelter would be built by 2005. But it was not until 2007 that the French Novarka consortium, which included Vinci Construction Grands Projets and Bouygues Construction, won the contract to erect a 30,000-ton sliding steel arch, 110 meters in height and 165 meters in length, with a span of 257 meters, over the old sarcophagus. Construction of the arch, which had to endure for the next one hundred years, began in 2010; the deadline for completion, originally scheduled for 2005, was later postponed to 2012, and then to 2013, 2015, 2017, and, finally, 2018. Its cost has been estimated at 1.5 billion euros, with the total cost of the New Safe Confinement Project exceeding 3 billion euros.

It took nine years after the fall of the USSR to close the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station and more than a quarter century to build a new shelter over the damaged reactor. The international community emerged victorious in the contest of security priorities. Relations between the two main actors in the post-Chernobyl drama, the Western funding agencies and the Ukrainian government, were not unlike those in a family with a teenager who promises not to behave dangerously if given an ever larger allowance. Some scholars referred to it as environmental blackmail.

(Video) The Chernobyl Disaster: How It Happened

But the closure of the Chernobyl power plant and the construction of the new shelter is more than just a story of nuclear extortion of funds by a poor country from rich ones. More than anything else, it is a story of the clash between the demands of individual nations for economic development and the security of the world, as well as of the threat posed to the latter by the political and economic decline of the nuclear powers and the uncertain future of the post-imperial states.

Moscow, the former capital of the empire responsible for the design and operation of the damaged reactor, all but retreated behind the borders of the Russian Federation, leaving it to Ukraine and the international community to clean up the mess. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 brought the fighting within 322 kilometers of the city of Enerhodar, the site of the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, which operates six reactors. The war also interrupted the nuclear cycle whereby Ukraine received its nuclear fuel from Russia and sent its spent fuel back there. In 2016, Ukraine began the construction of its own spent-fuel facility and declared plans to reduce its almost total dependence on Russian fuel by covering 40 percent of its needs with purchases from the U.S.-based Westinghouse Electric Company. While the war and the disruption of the traditional nuclear cycle brought new challenges to the struggling Ukrainian economy, the nuclear industry of the land of Chernobyl took another important step away from its Soviet legacy.

What remained unchanged and impervious to remedy by any amount of internal mobilization or outside assistance were the long-term consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. While the actual impact of radiation exposure on the health of the population is still debated, there can be little doubt that the society as a whole was left traumatized for decades to come. Every sixth Ukrainian adult reports being in poor health, a significantly higher percentage than in neighboring countries, and those affected by the Chernobyl radiation have lower levels of employment and fewer working hours than the rest of Ukraine’s population. And then there is the environment. The new shelter over the damaged reactor No. 4 notwithstanding, the area around the nuclear plant will not be safe for human habitation for at least another 20,000 years.

In April 2016, when the world marked the thirtieth anniversary of the disaster, there was a temptation to breathe a sigh of relief. The half-life of cesium-137, one of the most harmful nuclides released during the accident, is approximately thirty years. It is the longest “living” isotope of cesium that can affect the human body through external exposure and ingestion. Other deadly isotopes present in the disaster have long passed their half-life stages: iodine-131 after eight days, and cesium-134 after two years. Cesium-137 is the last of that deadly trio of isotopes. But the harmful impact of the accident is still far from over. With tests revealing that the cesium-137 around Chernobyl is not decaying as quickly as predicted, scholars believe that the isotope will continue to harm the environment for at least 180 years—the time required for half the cesium to be eliminated from the affected areas by weathering and migration. Other radionuclides will perhaps remain in the region forever. The half-life of plutonium-239, traces of which were found as far away as Sweden, is 24,000 years.

The world has already been overwhelmed by one Chernobyl and one exclusion zone. It cannot afford any more. It must learn its lessons from what happened in and around Chernobyl on April 26, 1986.

Adapted from Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe by Serhii Plokhy. Copyright © 2018 by Serhii Plokhy. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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FAQs

What was the cost of the Chernobyl disaster? ›

The initial emergency response, together with later decontamination of the environment, involved more than 500,000 personnel and cost an estimated 18 billion roubles—roughly US$68 billion in 2019, adjusted for inflation.

Could the Chernobyl disaster have been worse? ›

It is concluded that the Chernobyl accident could have been much worse with 200 to 400 times the radiation consequences. This would have had severe social consequences as well. (U.K.)

Was Chernobyl disaster worse than a nuclear bomb? ›

"Compared with other nuclear events: The Chernobyl explosion put 400 times more radioactive material into the Earth's atmosphere than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima; atomic weapons tests conducted in the 1950s and 1960s all together are estimated to have put some 100 to 1,000 times more radioactive material into ...

How big was the impact of Chernobyl? ›

The Chernobyl disaster caused serious radiation sickness and contamination. Between 50 and 185 million curies of radionuclides escaped into the atmosphere. Millions of acres of forest and farmland were contaminated, livestock was born deformed, and humans suffered long-term negative health effects.

How much economic damage did Chernobyl Cause? ›

However, the magnitude of the impact is clear from a variety of government estimates from the 1990s, which put the cost of the accident, over two decades, at hundreds of billions of dollars. [6 Belarus, for instance, has estimated the losses over 30 years at US $235 billion.]

Why is Chernobyl so valuable? ›

Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which has been captured by Russian forces, holds great importance. It is not just the site of the world's worst nuclear accident but also seems to be a factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is still radioactive.

Why did Putin want Chernobyl? ›

The route from Belarus to Kyiv through Chernobyl might be particularly appealing to Russian military planners because it would allow them to cross the Dnieper River in Belarus, avoiding a potentially hazardous crossing of the major river, which bisects Ukraine, behind enemy lines.

Is reactor 4 still burning? ›

Chernobyl reactor 4 is no longer burning. The reactor was originally covered after the disaster, but it resulted in a leak of nuclear waste and needed to be replaced. The systems for a new cover for the reactor were being tested in 2020 and is sometimes referred to as a "sarcophagus."

Could Chernobyl still melt down? ›

It is no longer 'melting', but parts of it are still apparently hot enough for the uranium atoms to fission more than expected, spewing out neutrons that break more uranium atoms apart. The overall reactivity is low, but it is concerning that it's rising.

Why is Chernobyl still radioactive but not Hiroshima? ›

The first was that the explosion at Chernobyl happened on the ground, whereas the explosion at Hiroshima happened high in the air above the city, which greatly reduced the radioactive levels. The second difference was the strength of the explosions.

How much worse was Chernobyl than 3 Mile Island? ›

Three Mile Island was a level 5; Chernobyl was a level 7--the only level 7 event so far. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster, caused by design flaws and operator error, spewed radioactive graphite and clouds over Ukraine and Belarus and reached as far as Sweden.

What is the most radioactive place on earth? ›

1. Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Plant, Japan is one of the world's most radioactive places. When a 9.1 magnitude earthquake caused a tsunami in 2011, it overwhelmed the existing safety features of the Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Plant and caused the worst nuclear power plant disaster since Chernobyl.

How many deaths is Chernobyl responsible for? ›

There is consensus that a total of approximately 30 people died from immediate blast trauma and acute radiation syndrome (ARS) in the seconds to months after the disaster, respectively, with 60 in total in the decades since, inclusive of later radiation induced cancer.

How long before Chernobyl is habitable? ›

Experts have said it will be at least 3,000 years for the area to become safe, while others believe this is too optimistic. It is thought that the reactor site will not become habitable again for at least 20,000 years, according to a 2016 report.

How much longer will Chernobyl be radioactive? ›

How Long Will It Take For Ground Radiation To Break Down? On average, the response to when Chernobyl and, by extension, Pripyat, will be habitable again is about 20,000 years.

Who paid to clean up Chernobyl? ›

Gottemoeller said the U.S. government had already given over $240 million to help clean up the Chernobyl site and that, last week, a U.S. delegation to Ukraine led by former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski pledged an additional $123 million toward completing the construction of a new confinement shelter ...

What happens if Chernobyl gets blown up? ›

In the very unlikely scenario that all four reactors exploded simultaneously, it would resort to chaos. Not only in terms of the fallout but ecologically and politically – and radioactive would have completely reshaped life over central and Eastern Europe virtually overnight.

Why is Chernobyl still toxic? ›

Researchers know the dirt in the Chernobyl exclusion zone can contain radionuclides including cesium-137, strontium-90, several isotopes of plutonium and uranium, and americium-241. Even at very low levels, they're all toxic, carcinogenic or both if inhaled.

Will Chernobyl ever be cleaned up? ›

Dr Corkhill noted: “Since the clean-up of Chernobyl is anticipated to take around 100 years, and Fukushima at least 50 years, anything we can do to speed up the process will be beneficial to Ukraine and Japan, in both financial and safety terms.”

Could Chernobyl have been saved? ›

The Chernobyl series seems to suggest there were a number of ways the explosion could have been prevented. These include if the staff at Chernobyl had been better trained, if the Soviet government had learned from the lessons of the past and if they had not been so averse to spending money.

Why did Russia take Chernobyl first? ›

Military experts believe Russia moved to capture Chernobyl simply because it is one of the fastest land routes for invading forces. 2. Chernobyl was seen as an easy target because it is so close to the border and also because of the 2,600 square kilometre 'exclusion zone' that covers the area.

Who does Russia blame for Chernobyl? ›

On 26 April 1986, Dyatlov supervised a test at Reactor 4 of the nuclear plant, which resulted in the Chernobyl disaster. In preparation, Dyatlov ordered the power to be reduced to 200MW, which was lower than the 700MW stipulated in the test plan.

What is Chernobyl used for today? ›

Although Chernobyl's last reactor went offline in 2000, the site now serves as a nuclear waste storage facility—and a highly contaminated one.

Why can't you look at the elephant's foot? ›

In one hour, the Elephant's Foot would expose you to the radiation of over four and a half million chest x-rays. That dose is almost 1,000 times stronger than exposures that have been clearly linked to increased cancer risk.

Can you just shut down a nuclear reactor? ›

Since there's effectively no way to immediately shut a nuclear reactor all the way down, the cooling systems must operate in some fashion after a shutdown or else the fuel will heat up above its melting point and...melt, possibly releasing radioactive nuclides into the environment. This is what happened at Fukushima.

Can Chernobyl power plant explode again? ›

As water continues to recede, the fear is that "the fission reaction accelerates exponentially," Hyatt says, leading to "an uncontrolled release of nuclear energy." There's no chance of a repeat of 1986, when the explosion and fire sent a radioactive cloud over Europe.

Is Chernobyl reactor 1 still active? ›

The site of the Chernobyl power plant sits in an exclusion zone with a near 19-mile radius, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). All reactors at the site are now closed, but some remained active as late as the year 2000.

How long will it take for Chernobyl to decay? ›

35 years have passed since the accident, and most of the plutonium-241 has already turned into americium-241. It remains to decay about 20% of the isotope. According to scientists, the peak of his creation (and therefore the greatest danger) will be 2056. The half-life of americium-241 is 433 years.

Did Chernobyl melt through the concrete? ›

Nuclear fission released enough heat to melt the fuel rods, cases, core containment vessel and anything else nearby, including the concrete floor of the reactor building.

Are the bodies of Chernobyl firefighters still radioactive? ›

Yes, highly radioactive. They remain where they were dumbed in a cellar beneath the hospital where the firefighters were treated within, what is now, the exclusion zone. They are checked from time to time but are to dangerous to handle.

How long would it take for the Earth to recover from nuclear war? ›

Recovery would probably take about 3-10 years, but the Academy's study notes that long term global changes cannot be completely ruled out. The reduced ozone concentrations would have a number of consequences outside the areas in which the detonations occurred.

How long until Hiroshima was habitable? ›

The restoration process took approximately two years and the city's population, which had dwindled to about eighty thousand after the bombing, doubled in a short time.

Is Chernobyl worse than Fukushima? ›

The accident at Fukushima occurred after a series of tsunami waves struck the facility and disabled systems needed to cool the nuclear fuel. The accident at Chernobyl stemmed from a flawed reactor design and human error. It released about 10 times the radiation that was released after the Fukushima accident.

Can Chernobyl be weaponized? ›

Nuclear-power-plant accidents, such as those at Fukushima and Chernobyl, may not be capable of destroying the civilized world like nuclear weapons are, with their initial blast, radiation, and nuclear-winter-induced famine.

What US city has the most radiation? ›

Viewed from space, Jacksonville, Florida, appears as a tiny glowing dot. But what about from a statistical vantage point, one reached with radiation data instead of rocket fuel? Yep, still glowing. Even though Jacksonville is America's Most Radioactive City, it's no Chernobyl.

What is the most radioactive food? ›

Some foods contain trace amounts of naturally-occurring radionuclides. Bananas and Brazil nuts are the most well known examples of foods that contain radioactivity.

Where on Earth is radiation the weakest? ›

About Cosmic Radiation. The Earth's atmosphere and magnetic shield protect us from cosmic radiation. Earth's magnetic shield protects us from the cosmic radiation and is strongest at the equator and weakest near the poles.

Who paid to cover Chernobyl? ›

The following countries have made donations: Argentina, Australia, Azerbaijan, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Iceland, India, Israel, Korea, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Portugal, Romania, the Slovak Republic , Slovenia and Turkey. The fund has received more than € 1.6 billion from 45 donors to date.

What is the Chernobyl death toll? ›

This includes some 50 emergency workers who died of acute radiation syndrome and nine children who died of thyroid cancer, and an estimated total of 3940 deaths from radiation-induced cancer and leukemia among the 200 000 emergency workers from 1986-1987, 116 000 evacuees and 270 000 residents of the most contaminated ...

Was there victim compensation for Chernobyl? ›

Of the funds paid in compensation, a total of $728 million was raised through voluntary private contributions to a special government relief fund. In previous statements the government said the total expected economic losses from the disaster would be more than $2.8 billion.

Did any Chernobyl workers survive? ›

Alexander Yuvchenko was on duty at Chernobyl's reactor number 4 the night it exploded on 26 April 1986. He is one of the few working there that night to have survived. He suffered serious burns and went through many operations to save his life, and he is still ill from the radiation.

Did America help clean up Chernobyl? ›

America did help try and clean up the nuclear waste at Chernobyl after the meltdown in 1986. As of 2011, the United States had given the Ukrainian government $240 million to help with the nuclear cleanup. American scientists have also helped by offering advice and expertise to cleanup workers.

Was Chernobyl a man-made accident? ›

The explosion at Chernobyl is one of the world's most infamous man-made disasters — and with good reason. It started innocently enough, with engineers performing a routine experiment that was supposed to find out if the plant's emergency water cooling would work during a power outage.

Why would Putin want Chernobyl? ›

The route from Belarus to Kyiv through Chernobyl might be particularly appealing to Russian military planners because it would allow them to cross the Dnieper River in Belarus, avoiding a potentially hazardous crossing of the major river, which bisects Ukraine, behind enemy lines.

Why does Russia want Chernobyl power? ›

Some Russian military massed in the Chernobyl exclusion zone before crossing into Ukraine early on February 24, a Russian security source said, according to Reuters. Russia wants to control the Chernobyl nuclear reactor to signal to NATO not to interfere militarily, the source told the agency.

How long will Chernobyl cover last? ›

The New Safe Confinement is a megaproject that is part of the Shelter Implementation Plan and supported by the Chernobyl Shelter Fund. It was designed with the primary goal of confining the radioactive remains of reactor 4 for the next 100 years.

Can Chernobyl still explode? ›

With no working reactors, there is no risk of a meltdown. But the ruins from the 1986 disaster still pose considerable dangers.

What happens if Chernobyl loses power? ›

Without power, the 20,000 spent-fuel assemblies stored there are at risk of overheating if the coolant evaporates. “After that evaporation will occur, that will lead to nuclear discharge,” the Ukrainian government warned.

Is Chernobyl radiation still spreading? ›

The radioactivity in the plant has decayed significantly since 1986.

Who is to blame for Chernobyl explode? ›

But who was to blame? Viktor Bryukhanov was officially held responsible for what happened at Chernobyl. He had helped to build and run the plant, and played a pivotal role in how the disaster was managed in the aftermath of the reactor explosion. Here's more about Viktor Bryukhanov.

Who cleared Chernobyl roof? ›

The debris had to be cleaned up. After tons of materials were dumped by helicopter, began the cleanup and the construction of a sarcophagus. They were hundreds of thousands to participate in these operations which lasted six months. They were called the liquidators.

Did Russia pay Chernobyl compensation? ›

Anatoliy Burdov worked on the emergency response to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. He was exposed to a huge amount of radioactive emissions. He was entitled to various social benefits, but the authorities refused to pay them.

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