Chernobyl Q&A

Where is Chernobyl?

The town of Chernobyl is in Ukraine and situated near borders with Russia and Belarus. A few miles from this town, the Soviets developed a nuclear power site that was intended to have six reactors when completed.

What happened to cause the accident?

Four reactors had been completed on the site, and reactors #5 and 6 were under construction. Reactor #4 had been operating for two years and was undergoing maintenance checks and monitoring of the procedures to be used in case of emergency. The monitoring procedure was faulty and in the process of testing, there was an explosion and meltdown at reactor #4 that spewed over 200 times the amount of radiation released at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The accident happened about 1 a.m. the morning of April 26, 1986.

Who put out the fire?

600,000-800,000 firefighters and emergency workers came from all over the former Soviet Union to put out the fire. These people toiled for over two years to put out the fire, to bury radioactive equipment, homes, storage facilities, etc. They also built a "sarcophagus", or tomb, around the plant to hem in the radioactive material that had collapsed into the reactor. Many of these people are now dead, disabled, or have committed suicide.

What happened to the people living in the area?

The town of Pripyat, population 45,000, was evacuated soon after the accident. Evacuation procedures were chaotic. People had to leave their homes, never to return. Many were eventually re-settled in existing communities or new communities built especially for evacuees. To date, over 350,000 people have been relocated.

How many people were eventually affected by the disaster?

Over 7 million people were effected. The most heavily affected areas were in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. However, sheep in northern England and reindeer in Lapland had to be killed as they had been irradiated.

How much land was affected?

Over 63,000 square miles of land have been affected. Much land should no longer be used for agriculture. However, 4.5 million children and adults are still living on contaminated land, growing food on contaminated land, and as a consequence the food they are eating is also contaminated. Rural areas have been severely devastated.

What are the health consequences of Chernobyl?

There are now over 148,274 invalids on the Chernobyl registry in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. There is widespread agreement regarding a rise in thyroid cancer in those who were exposed to the radiation when they were very young. There are reported rises in other thyroid diseases, immune system disorders, and learning problems in children. There are extensive reports of high rates of heart and blood problems and lung and gastrointestinal disorders. However, the cause of these problems is not agreed among scientists and professionals. Some contribute these conditions to the stress of having been exposed to radiation and to the decline in medical care and income following the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Many of those exposed at the time of the accident have now reached adulthood and are having children. There are some indications that these children may be suffering from radiation effects on their parents.

What is being done today to deal with the effects of the disaster?

All reactors on the Chernobyl site are now shut down. The international community is funding construction of another "sarcophagus" which will help prevent further deterioration of the one built in the year following the disaster; 200 tons of radioactive material still sit within the reactor.

Each affected country has provided some sort of pension and other social rights to victims. However, medical care is spotty and pensions are insufficient to provide an adequate standard of living for the victims. Many resettlement villages are isolated from the mainstream of social life. Conditions of life make economic development in affected regions rare.

A major thrust of the United Nations Chernobyl Rehabilitation and Recovery program is to engage people of the villages and communities affected in the improvement of their own lives. These initial "social mobilization" programs show some success. Also, this type of self-help activity helps individuals who lives have been severely affected by the disaster to overcome the psychosocial stress and feeling of victimization that many experience.

Many of those affected by the Chernobyl disaster require massive and long-term humanitarian aid. Medical supplies and assistance to orphanages and social programs geared to dealing with the aftermath of the disaster are essential.

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