Chernobyl: Cause and Effect

by E.S.

The disaster at Chernobyl is often called the worst nuclear accident of the century. Chernobyl was located in the former Soviet Union in what is now Ukraine. The area in and around Chernobyl is now a nuclear wasteland. People are not supposed to live in these areas, yet they still do, even with the danger of mutations and radiation sickness. This disaster is a curiosity for many, but, in truth, for all involved it was a terrifying and angering experience.

In the town of Chernobyl, all was quiet and peaceful. It was Friday, April twenty-fifth, only five days before May Day, and a feeling of festivity was in the air. Night came and the town slept peacefully. Little did they know that before the night was over, their lives would be forever changed. (Shcherbak 26)

It all began at exactly 1:32 a.m., when Lieutenant Colonel Leonid Telyatnikov received a telephone call. He was told that there was a fire at the nuclear power plant. He immediately dressed and ran to his car. As he approached the plant, he noticed fiery debris all around, and, as he got closer, he saw a bluish glow over what remained of Reactor Four. He immediately knew that this was no ordinary situation. Telyatnikov and the other fire fighters "knew what they had to do and proceeded quietly, on the run," according to Telyatnikov. The radiation sensor had frozen, reporting the radiation levels as being the highest it could indicate. It showed that the radiation levels were even higher than they had been in Hiroshima after the atomic bomb. Despite this, the fire fighters fought the blaze using only water and wearing no protection besides their uniforms and gas masks. (Grogen 57)

Meanwhile, in the nearby city of Pripyat, Lyubov Sirota, who could not sleep, went outside to get some fresh air. She saw the fire's glow, the star Wormwood, or Bitterness (in Russian, Chernobyl) which was prophesied in Revelations two thousand years ago, "and which that night abruptly incinerated people's hopes and plans" (qt. by Kharash). As quoted from the Holy Bible: "The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the fountains of water. The name of the star is Wormwood (Bitterness). A third of the waters became wormwood, and many men died of the water because it was made bitter"(Revelations 8:10-11). This was borne out, as many of Europe's rivers were contaminated from the radioactivity or "made bitter." Also, the Chernobyl fire's glow was very hot, so hot that it was blue, making it like a star. (Kharash, Revelations 8:10-11)

A number of fire fighters near the reactor were taken away when they showed symptoms of radiation sickness. Telyatnikov's team moved in. At 3:00 a.m. the fires were still burning but were not posing a threat to anything around the plant. About a half hour after this, Telyatnikov began vomiting, a sign of radiation sickness, but credited it to running around too much. At 5:00 a.m. Telyatnikov and his men were told to go to a local hospital, which was located in the neighboring town of Pripyat. They were feeling fine, but within a week would begin to develop radiation burns all over their bodies. (Grogen 58)

The next day, life went on as usual, but people began to feel ill. Merely a mile away from the Chernobyl plant, in the city of Pripyat, nine year old Sasha Sirota looked out his apartment window and stared, fascinated, at the crimson glow in the sky. He did not even suspect that he was in danger until he saw that injured workers were being taken to the medical center. That night, authorities woke him and his mother and told them to get ready to leave. They waited until the following afternoon, almost thirty-six hours after the explosion and fire at the Chernobyl plant, to be evacuated. (Ritter)

The fire at the Chernobyl plant ended up burning for eight days. Six of the firemen who had been up on the roof died, one leaving behind a one month old daughter. Telyatnikov and the other surviving fire fighters were taken to Moscow and admitted to a hospital where they were kept in sterile units because their immune systems were weakened. (Grogen 61)

The causes of the explosion were discovered later on. As it happens, there is a long list of problems other than the design errors that led to the explosion. A main issue was management errors. Wilson stated that "there were important admissions of management errors, as distinct from operator error." There were also the problems with the plant's organization. As stated in Reason, the head managers who conducted the test at Chernobyl "were electrical engineers from Moscow. The man in charge, an electrical engineer, was not a specialist in reactor plants" (qtd. in Meshkati). According to Pravda, "Neither the station's managers nor the Ministry of Power and Electrification's leadership had any concept of the necessary actions . . . There was a noticeable confusion even on minor matters" (qtd. in Meshkati).

The sequence of events minutes, and even hours, before the explosion is still fuzzy. It is believed that for some unknown reason, there was a sudden loss of water that was used to cool 1,661 uranium fuel assemblies that were set in pressure pipes surrounded by 1,700 tons of graphite blocks, causing the fuel rods to overheat. The zirconium alloy around the fuel assemblies, along with the pressure tubing, melted at about 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit, overheating the graphite. The temperature rose still more. At 5,100 degrees Fahrenheit, the uranium-oxide fuel began to melt. The operators flooded the reactor with water. It was too late and the water was instantly turned into a superheated steam, which reacted with the graphite, fuel and zirconium to produce hydrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide. Over many hours, the gases built up and combined with oxygen released by the cracked pressure tubes, triggering a massive explosion. (Barnathan & Strasser 22-23)

The explosion completely destroyed Reactor Four and a portion of the building, where a worker's body was never found. The graphite began to burn. Melted metal fissioned out of control, releasing radioactive isotopes that were sucked up into the smoke, creating a dangerous cloud of deadly radiation. (Barnathan & Strasser 23-24)

Helicopters dumped huge loads of lead, sand, and boron onto the plant, attempting unsuccessfully to staunch it. They could not use water because it would have reacted with the graphite to make carbon monoxide, which is flammable. The only way to stop the fire was for the flammable materials' elements to run out or for the atmosphere's oxygen to deplete. (Barnathan & Strasser 24-25)

The Soviet government, instead of informing other countries of their blunder and helping other countries with safety precautions, covered up the accident and acted as if nothing had occurred. They did not even bother to evacuate the area. The rest of the world found out in a rather frightening way. The first inkling that something was wrong came from Sweden at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, April 28, two days after the accident. At this time, technicians at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant saw signals indicating frighteningly high levels of radiation in the area. At first they thought that it must be a leak in one of their reactors, so high was the radiation level, and began to search frantically for one. They found nothing. They lined all of the plantŐs workers up, about six hundred people, and tested all of them with a Geiger counter. The workers' clothing gave off radiation high above the normal contamination levels. Outside, monitors took readings of the plants and soil around the plant. The monitors indicated nearly five times the normal amount of radioactive emissions, which is only one thousandth of a rem annually. (Greenwald 39, Begley 36)

Similar reports came from parts of Finland, Norway, and Sweden. The indications all gave one unmistakable conclusion: somewhere, radiation was being expelled into the air in dangerous amounts. Sweden, after hours of searching, confirmed that the source of the radiation was not their country, and soon became suspicious of the Soviet Union. The Swedes' suspicion was confirmed after reviewing Europe's recent wind patterns. When Scandinavia demanded an explanation from Moscow, their accusations were only denied or met with silence. Finally, after a six-hour argument between the Soviet Union and Scandinavia, at 9:00 p.m., that same Monday, an expressionless newscaster on Moscow television read a statement from the Council of Ministers that consisted of four sentences and explained next to nothing. After reading it, the newscaster nonchalantly put the paper aside and went on with other news. The statement read, in full:

An accident has taken place at the Chernobyl power station, and one of the reactors was damaged. Measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of the accident. Those affected by it are being given assistance. A government commission has been set up (qtd. in Greenwald 39).
Evacuations had started only hours before this statement was read, after serious damage had already been done. Had the Soviet government acted earlier, many deaths and problems could have been prevented. (Ritter)

Evacuations were also very discriminatory. According to Jessica Lee in USA Today, "Increased ethnic unrest threatens because 'Byelorussians were not evacuated immediately after the accident.'" This angered many people along with the fact that "Communist officials failed to evacuate nearby towns and cities right away, although they knew of the danger" (qt. by Lemonick). According to official Valentin Budko, in the Narodichi district, only forty-two miles from Chernobyl, "the evacuation of children was finished only on June 7. Little wonder that there are so many sick children in our district, especially those with hyperplasia of the thyroid gland" (qtd. in Lemonick).

Survivor Sasha Sirota and his mother now have major health problems. Mrs. Sirota has developed cataracts and a brain tumor at a young age. She writes poetry in Russian about what happen in Pripyat. Sasha, now twenty-one, has nervous disorders, insomnia, and a weakened immune system. He blames these problems on his and his mother's prolonged exposure to radiation. Leonid Telyatnikov now suffers from liver problems and has discovered that, due to his weakened immune system, he has contracted hepatitis B. (Ritter, Grogen 61)

Many villages around Chernobyl, including Chernobyl itself, are ghost towns, and many more should be. Human and animal mutations are common in these contaminated areas. Pregnant women living in these areas have a large chance of giving birth to stillborn or deformed babies, or infants with genetic problems, like Downs Syndrome. After the accident at Chernobyl, ten thousand European women, afraid that they would give birth to mutated infants because of the consequences of being exposed to such high levels of radiation, needlessly obtained abortions, killing thousands of potential lives. Researchers say that it was too soon after the accident for mutations to form. (Ritter, Mossman)

Animals in the areas affected by the Chernobyl fallout often deliver young that are stillborn or so deformed that they have to be destroyed. According to Vasili Leshenko, "We do not produce milk and cheese anymore" (qtd. in Kirk) because of the radiation. They have had two cases "of a calf born without eyes" (qtd. in Kirk). (Toufexis, Kirk)

Contrary to common belief, the United States has felt the effects of Chernobyl's fallout. The "effects of the Chernobyl accident were even apparent in the small but statistically significant excess mortality in the U.S. In May 1986 . . . The radioactive fallout resulting from Chernobyl was detected all over the world, from Finland to South Africa," according to Gould. (qtd. in Meshkati)

As of 1995, over 125,000 people had died due to the accident. There is probably a larger death toll now. Many estimates were made about the death toll. The Los Angeles Times predicted that "20 million (former) Soviets were exposed to radioactivity released at Chernobyl" (qtd. in Meshkati). The Economist wrote "the accident may yet cause up to 300,000 deaths" (qtd. in Meshkati). Read stated that the "Chernobyl accident may ultimately claim more victims than did World War II" (qtd. in Meshkati). Many more deaths are imminent, as implied in Greenpeace Magazine: "800,000 children are at risk of contracting leukemia" (qtd. in Meshkati).

Many of these deaths could have been prevented, had the Soviet Union taken responsibility for their mistakes. All of these deaths could have been prevented if the Soviet Union had nuclear power plant standards as high as the United States. As stated by the IAEA's International Nuclear Safety Group (INSAG) in "The Chernobyl Accident: Update of INSAG-1," "The accident can be said to have flowed from deficient safety culture, not only at the Chernobyl plant, but throughout the Soviet design, operation and regulatory organizations for nuclear power that existed at the time" (qtd. in Meshkati). (Ritter, Williams, Meshkati)

In "The 20th Century Plague" by Sharon Begley and Susan Katz, the effects of radiation on the body is laid out. The article tells how each radioactive element affects the body. For example, the study shows the following:

It is still thought that the Russians lied about the amount of radioactive particles were released into the atmosphere. As written by Chernousenko, "the accident released the lethal contents of 80 percent of the reactor core rather than the 3 percent figure announced to the world" (qtd. in Meshkati). According to Gould, "the released radiation, which killed between 7,000 and 10,000 volunteers, was roughly equivalent to the explosion of 1,000 Hiroshima bombs" (qtd. in Meshkati). Lemonick has stated that "the accident released at least 20 times more radiation than the government has admitted" (73).

The Chernobyl accident has cost a lot of money so far, and will cost even more in the future if Ukraine wants to be able to use the land ever again. The New York Times reports that "$26 billion is allotted for the resettlement of the 200,000 people still living in the irradiated areas" (qtd. in Meshkati). The Los Angeles Times claims that "it may end up costing $400 billion and it will take up to 200 years to 'totally wipe out' the effects of the accident in the affected areas" (qtd. in Meshkati). Put together, the accident will cost more money than the Soviet Union can dish out. (Meshkati)

Few school children today in the United States have even heard the word Chernobyl. The Chernobyl accident has, so far, taken 125,000 lives plus the 10,000 potential lives that were needlessly prevented. The Titanic accident killed one-ninetieth as many people, a mere 1,500. Still, the children of this new generation of Americans know more about the sinking of the Titanic than they do about Chernobyl. An accident like Chernobyl should be remembered forever, so that it never happens again.


Related Sources

This webpage was written by E.S., 4/01/99, for History and Thought of Western Man, Rich East High School, Park Forest, Illinois, United States of America.

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