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Updated: Dec 2, 2022

Monday 26th April 2020 marks the 35th anniversary of the largest human-made disaster in the history of the nuclear power industry. It was on 26th April 1986, one of the worst atomic disasters took place. Not only did it cost the Soviet huge fiscal loss, but it also led to the loss of human life. On the 0-7 International Nuclear Event Scale, which indicates the severity of the nuclear disaster, 7 is the rating given to Chernobyl’s catastrophe.

Key Takeaways
-  Chernobyl is known for the nuclear meltdown at reactor 4 of its nuclear power station on 25th April 1986.
-  Chernobyl is in Pripyat in the former Ukrainian Republic of the Soviet Union.
-  The accident was deemed a direct consequence of the lack of Safety Culture. 
-  There is much debate on the acutal impacts of the accident.


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Where is Chernobyl

The disaster took place in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s number 4 reactor, near the city of Pripyat in the former Ukrainian Republic of the Soviet Union.

What happened at Chernobyl

The accident was a direct consequence of the lack of “safety culture”. It started during a test on an RBMK-type nuclear reactor. The carrying out of the trial was to assess if the slowing turbine could provide enough electrical power to run circulating pumps to lose the nuclear station’s electrical power. The primary reason which made the situation go out of control was a poor exchange of information and lack of coordination between the operators and the personnel in charge of the safety of the nuclear reactor. When the power dropped to an approximate zero level, the operators failed to fully restore the power to the level specified for the test, making the reactor unstable. Since operators were unaware of the risk the situation posed, the operators went ahead with the test. Moreover, the reactor's design was flawed as the damage to even 3 to 4 fuel assemblies would destroy the reactor. Hence, the peculiarity of the reactor’s design coupled with operators’ failure to follow safety protocols leads to the tragedy of Chernobyl.

Immediate Impacts of the Chernobyl Accident

Two explosions took place as a result of 26th April’s activity. First was the devastating steam explosion released from the superheated cooling water. The second was the core fire which released radioactive contaminants in the air for nine days that spread to USSR and Western Europe. According to the World Nuclear Association, two plant workers died due to the explosion on the same day. Out of the 134 hospitalised, 28 people died as a result of acute radiation syndrome. The two most hazardous, radioactive elements released in the atmosphere were iodine-131, later caesium-137.

Long Term Damages Caused by the Incident

In the long run, severe social and economic disruption took place in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine.

1. Human Damage

According to the World Nuclear Association, ten suspected radiation-induced cancer deaths occurred ten years following the catastrophe. Among children, thyroid cancer incidences increased 40 times since the explosion, and in adults, it went up 2.5 to 7 times. However, according to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, apart from the 5000 thyroid cancers, no public health impact can be attributed to radiation exposure.

Furthermore, according to the Chernobyl Forum report on Health, “the mental health impact of Chernobyl is the largest public health problem caused by accident”. People from the affected areas exhibit vital signs of distress and disappointment as they believe that they have little to no control over their lives.

2. Socio-Economic Damage

The Chernobyl catastrophe severely damaged the economic fabric of the affected areas. The incident placed a significant burden on national burdens. For instance, Ukraine’s 5-7% of government spending is devoted to Cherbonyl related recovery programs annually, and Belarus’s spending on Chernobyl related benefits was US$ 13 billion between 1991 and 2003.

Moreover, since the contaminated areas were primarily rural, we cannot underplay the damage to the agricultural sector. The incident left approximately 784 320 hectares of agricultural land of no use. Not only did it impact the agricultural industry, but it also damaged the services sector. Closure of the number of businesses, limitations on agricultural production and increased cost of production are to name a few. Another long term noticeable damage incurred on the economic sector of the affected areas is the absence of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the areas affected because educated and skilled workers left the affected region.

According to UNSCEAR, 116,000 people were evacuated in 1986 from the Chernobyl power plant area to non-contaminated areas, and 220 000 people were relocated in the following years. This resettlement was a traumatic experience for affectees as they developed feelings of resentment due to the loss of their financial and social independence post-accident.

3. Environmental Consequences

According to the Chernobyl Forum, radionuclide deposition led to urban, rural and aquatic contamination. Approximately 14 EBq⁵ radioactive material was released into the atmosphere. Most radionuclides decayed away, but some remained deposited on open surfaces in urban areas, such as lawns, parks, streets, roads, town squares, building roofs and walls.


Radioiodine was absorbed into milk which elevated the iodine intake of individuals consuming milk. Similarly, radionuclides, particularly Caesium and Strontium, were destroyed by plants from soil through their roots.

Radioactive material from Chernobyl resulted in levels of radioactive material in surface water systems in areas close to Cherbonyl and Western Europe radioactive material deposited in surface water. Moreover, surface run-off of radionuclides such as Caesium and Strontium from soil continues to contaminate water bodies to date.

Chernobyl impact disputed

Environmental Progress says, "At Chernobyl, three operators died in the steam explosion. Twenty-seven emergency workers died shortly, within four months, of Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS) and complications; another died of cancer in 2004. Four men were killed when their helicopter engaged in clean-up work crashed several months after the meltdown. Fifteen civilian thyroid cancer deaths have been confirmed in the following twenty-five years. The World Health Organization (WHO) predicts about 16,000 thyroid cancer cases by 2065 -- with a 1% fatality rate, this would be an additional 145 thyroid cancer deaths, on top of the fifteen which have already been confirmed. Should these additional deaths occur, WHO will add them to the total mortality from nuclear energy? The United Nations has modelled 4,000 excess cancer cases, which may occur within the liquidator population and eventually lead to death, yet these estimated excess cancers have not been observed. Should these deaths occur, as judged by a medical or scientific body, this report will be updated?"

A top US medical doctor, Robert Gale, MD, who treated radiation victims in Chernobyl, has criticised HBO’s depiction of the accident and radiation’s health effects as inaccurate and “dangerous.”

“Another error [in HBO’s “Chernobyl”] was to portray the victims as being dangerously radioactive,” UCLA’s Robert Gale wrote in “The Cancer Letter,” a subscription-based newsletter.

Gale has been a world-renowned expert on bone marrow transplantation, which is used to treat radiation victims before the Chernobyl accident. After the accident, Gale reached out to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who asked Gale to come “immediately.”

“I spent the next two years mostly in the Soviet Union working with my colleagues at the Institute for Biophysics and Clinical Hospital 6 dealing with a bit more than 200 persons with acute radiation exposures,” Gale writes.

“In the subsequent 30 years, I have been involved in several studies of the long-term medical consequences of the accident—initially in the ex-Soviet Union and later in the Russian Federation, Ukraine and Belorussia.”

Gale, who worked for UCLA at the time of the accident, says that the firefighters who suffered from Acute Radiation Syndrome were not contagious, as they are portrayed as by HBO's "Chernobyl."

“Most radiation contamination was superficial and relatively easily managed by routine procedures. This is entirely different than the [1987] Goiania [Brazil] accident, where the victims ate 137-caesium [from an old teletherapy machine], and we had to isolate them from most medical personnel.”

Gale criticises the portrayal in “Chernobyl” of a baby’s death supposedly from “absorbing” deadly amounts of radiation from her dying father, a firefighter who helped put out the blaze.

“The radiation would have killed the mother,” says HBO's fictional scientist-hero played by Emily Watson, “but the baby absorbed it instead.”

“Chernobyl” suggests strongly that the event occurred, I noted in my last column, to which several readers emailed or tweeted to claim that the event did occur. How did they know? The Voices From Chernobyl book described it.

“She looked healthy,” says a character from the book. “But she had cirrhosis of the liver. Her liver had twenty-eight roentgen. Congenital heart disease. Four hours later, they told me she was dead."

For many readers, those few sentences were apparently proof that a) a baby died, b) an autopsy was conducted, c) the autopsy found elevated radiation levels in the liver and heart disease, d) they traced the radiation to Chernobyl, and e) the results of the autopsy were withheld from scientific authorities but shared with the mother.

But there is no record that the event occurred, and Gale says it could not have happened.

“Lastly, there is the dangerous representation that, because one of the victims was radioactive, his pregnant wife endangered her unborn child by entering his hospital room,” writes Gale.

“First, as discussed, none of the victims was radioactive; their exposures were almost exclusively external, not internal,” writes Gale. “More importantly, a risk to a fetus from an exposure like this is infinitesimally small.”

Even high levels of radiation result in few congenital disabilities, Gale notes. “For example, amongst the several hundred pregnant women exposed to high-dose radiation from the A-bombs, there were only 29 children with attributable developmental defects. All were exposed in the second trimester when cells are migrating to the brain from the neural crest.”

In HBO’s “Chernobyl,” the radiation victims look terrifying — more like monsters, or zombies, than human. Gale writes, “the effects are portrayed as something horrendous, unimaginable. This is inaccurate.

"In doing haematopoietic cell transplant, we commonly expose people to much higher radiation doses than received by any of the Chernobyl victims. So do radiation therapists. We know what the toxicities are, and we are reasonably effective in mitigating them.”

As I noted last month, HBO’s “Chernobyl” misrepresents radiation exposure as the main or only factor behind the deaths of 29 firefighters. In reality, writes Gale, there were “synchronous injuries” that “make people more susceptible to radiation damage [and] can kill people even if you successfully reverse the radiation-induced damage.”

Fear-mongering, Gale noted, resulted in many women unnecessarily terminating their pregnancies.

“We estimate incorrect advice from physicians regarding the relationship between maternal radiation exposure from Chernobyl and congenital disabilities,” writes Gale, “resulted in more than one million unnecessary abortions in the Soviet Union and Europe. Ignorance is dangerous.”

The very same doctors whose advice encouraged one million women to seek abortions are also behind the claims by groups ranging from Greenpeace to Helen Caldicott to MIT historian Kate Brown. Many more people died from Chernobyl radiation than experts, the World Health Organization and the United Nations found.

Gale knew that fear and panic would create more harm than radiation, and so “I later brought my family to Kiev to reassure people there was no need to evacuate.”

Most radiation victims survived, Gale notes. “Our scorecard treating the 204 victims was reasonably good. Sadly, 29 died, but we could rescue 175 (86 per cent). If we include the two immediate deaths at the Chernobyl NPF, there were 31 deaths.”

Gale used a novel treatment method, which he tested on himself. “One interesting intervention, suggested by Prof. David Golde (UCLA) was the use of a molecularly cloned haematopoietic growth factor,” writes Gale.

“Sargramostim had been tested in dogs and monkeys to increase granulocytes but had not been given to humans. We brought it into the Soviet Union from Switzerland—hidden in a passenger’s checked luggage with the permission of a Politburo Chernobyl commission,” Gale writes.

“The problem was the Soviets didn’t want the Chernobyl victims to be the first humans to receive a new therapy. The solution was for Vorobiev and me to inject one another with sargramostim,” writes Gale.

“We lived, and so, we got permission to proceed.”

“I’m amazed the producers didn’t get technical advice from a health physicist or radiobiologist rather than basing much of their screenplay on a novel (Voices of Chernobyl),” write Gale.

In his article, Gale takes issue with the portrayal of Soviet authorities as reluctant to seek outside help.

“I was immediately invited to come to Moscow and shortly after that to bring three colleagues,” Gale writes. “In my experience dealing with nuclear accidents, this is rather unusual and indicates a desire to do everything possible to help the victims—throwing politics to the wind. And whilst in Moscow, we were free to expropriate supplies and equipment from many Russian medical centres.”

“Even more extraordinary, when I requested the Soviets allow me to bring in an Israeli scientist to help (there were no diplomatic relations with Israel at the time), they agreed, albeit with some arm-twisting.”

Gale says the accident was impossible to cover up, as portrayed by HBO. "Anyone looking at the destroyed reactor building, mass of firefighting equipment, and personnel streaming into the reactor complex—the smoke from the fire visible from Pripyat about 4 km away etc.—I cannot imagine anyone would try to cover this up. It would be like standing in lower Manhattan after the destruction of the Twin Towers and pretending there was no problem."

"All governments try to contain bad news of this type," notes Gale. "I see rather little difference between the initial U.S. government reaction to the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident, the initial Japan government reaction to the Fukushima-Daiichi accident, and the Soviet response to Chernobyl."

“Although the 31 immediate Chernobyl-related deaths are sad,” he concludes, “the number of fatalities is tiny compared with many energy-related accidents, such as the Benxihu coal mine disaster in China 1942, which killed about 1500 miners, and the 1975 Banqiao dam accident, also in China, which killed about 250,000 people.”

“About 15,000 people reportedly die mining coal every year, although the actual number may be much higher, and this figure does not consider morbidity from occupational hazards such as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (black lung disease).

“About 1 million Egyptians are estimated to have become blind from trachoma because of construction of the Aswan High Dam. For reference, about 400 Americans are estimated to die on the highway over Memorial Day weekend.”