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Chernobyl

CHERNOBYL

The disaster at Chernobyl (Ukrainian spelling: Chornobyl) on April 26, 1986 occurred as a result of an experiment on how long safety equipment would function during shutdown at the fourth reactor unit at Ukraine's first and largest nuclear power station. The operators had dismantled safety mechanisms at the reactor to prevent its automatic shutdown, but this reactor type (a graphitemoderated Soviet RBMK) became unstable if operated at low power. An operator error caused a power surge that blew the roof off the reactor unit, releasing the contents of the reactor into the atmosphere for a period of about twelve days.

The accident contaminated an area of about 100,000 square miles. This area encompassed about 20 percent of the territory of Belarus; about 8 percent of Ukraine; and about 0.5-1.0 percent of the Russian Federation. Altogether the area is approximately the size of the state of Kentucky or of Scotland and Northern Ireland combined. The most serious radioactive elements to be disseminated by the accident were Iodine-131, Cesium-137, and Strontium-90. The authorities contained the graphite fire with sand and boron, and coal miners constructed a shelf underneath it to prevent it from falling into the water table.

After the accident, about 135,000 people were evacuated from settlements around the reactor, including the town of Pripyat (population 45,000), the home of the plant workers and their families, and the town of Chernobyl (population 10,000), though the latter remained the center of the cleanup operations for several years. The initial evacuation zone was a 30-kilometer (about 18.6 miles) radius around the destroyed reactor unit. After the spring of 1989 the authorities published maps to show that radioactive fallout had been much more extensive, and approximately 250,000 people subsequently moved to new homes.

Though the Soviet authorities did not release accurate information about the accident, and classified the health data, under international pressure they sent a team of experts to a meeting of the IAEA (The International Atomic Energy Agency) in August 1986, which revealed some of the causes of the accident. The IAEA in turn was allowed to play a key role in improving the safety of Soviet RBMK reactors, though it did not demand the closure of the plant until 1994. A trial of Chernobyl managers took place in 1987, and the plant director and chief engineer received sentences of hard labor, ten and five years respectively.

Chernobyl remains shrouded in controversy as to its immediate and long-term effects. The initial explosion and graphite fire killed thirty-one operators, firemen, and first-aid workers and saw several thousand hospitalized. Over the summer of 1986 up until 1990, it also caused high casualties among cleanup workers. According to statistics from the Ukrainian government, more than 12,000 "liquidators" died, the majority of which were young men between the ages of twenty and forty. A figure of 125,000 deaths issued by the Ukrainian ministry of health in 1996 appears to include all subsequent deaths, natural or otherwise, of those living in the contaminated zone of Ukraine.

According to specialists from the WHO (World Health Organization) the most discernible health impact

of the high levels of radiation in the affected territories has been the dramatic rise in thyroid gland cancer among children. In Belarus, for example, a 1994 study noted that congenital defects in the areas with a cesium content of the soil of onefive curies per square kilometer have doubled since 1986, while in areas with more than fifteen curies, the rise has been more than eight times the norm.

Among liquidators and especially among evacuees, studies have demonstrated a discernible and alarming rise in morbidity since Chernobyl when compared to the general population. This applies particularly to circulatory and digestive diseases, and to respiratory problems. Less certain is the concept referred to as "Chernobyl AIDS," the rise of which may reflect more attention to medical problems, better access to health care, or psychological fears and tension among the population living in contaminated zones. Rises in children's diabetes and anemia are evident, and again appear much higher in irradiated zones. The connection between these problems and the rise in radiation content of the soil have yet to be determined.

To date, the rates of leukemia and lymphoma though they have risen since the accidentremain within the European average, though in the upper seventy-fifth percentile. One difficulty here is the unreliability or sheer lack of reporting in the 1970s. The induction period for leukemia is four to fifteen years, thus it appears premature to state, as some authorities have, that Chernobyl will not result in higher rates of leukemia.

As for thyroid cancer, its development has been sudden and rapid. As of 2003 about 2,000 children in Belarus and Ukraine have contracted the disease and it is expected to reach its peak in 2005. One WHO specialist has estimated that the illness may affect one child in ten living in the irradiated zones in the summer of 1986; hence ultimate totals could reach as high as 10,000. Though the mortality rate from this form of cancer among children is only about 10 percent, this still indicates an additional 1,000 deaths in the future. Moreover, this form of cancer is highly aggressive and can spread rapidly if not operated on. The correlation between thyroid gland cancer and radioactive fallout appears clear and is not negated by any medical authorities.

After pressure from the countries of the G7, Ukraine first imposed a moratorium on any new nuclear reactors (lifted in 1995) and then closed down the Chernobyl station at the end of the year 2000. The key issue at Chernobyl remains the construction and funding of a new roof over the destroyed reactor, the so-called sarcophagus. The current structure, which contains some twenty tons of radioactive fuel and dust, is cracking and is not expected to last more than ten years. There are fears of the release of radioactive dust within the confines of the station and beyond should the structure collapse.

It is fair to say that the dangers presented by former Soviet nuclear power stations in 2003 exceed those of a decade earlier. In the meantime, some 3.5 million people continue to live in contaminated zones. From a necessary panacea, evacuation of those living in zones with high soil contamination today has become an unpopular and slow-moving process. Elderly people in particular have returned to their homes in some areas.

See also: atomic energy; belarus and belarusians; ukraine and ukrainians

bibliography

Marples, David R. (1988). The Social Impact of the Chernobyl Disaster. London: Macmillan.

Medvedev, Zhores. (1992). The Legacy of Chernobyl. New York: Norton.

Petryna, Adriana. (2002). Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Shcherbak, Yurii. (1988). Chernobyl: A Documentary Story. London: Macmillan.

Yaroshinskaya, Alla. (1995). Chernobyl: The Forbidden Truth. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

David R. Marples

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Chernobyl

CHERNOBYL

On April 26, 1986, at 1:23 a.m., an accident occurred during a test of a turbine generator on the Unit 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the Ukraine. The accident resulted from the improper withdrawal of control rods and the inactivation of important safety systemsin violation of the operating ruleswhich caused the reactor to overheat, explode, and catch fire. Because the facility lacked an adequate containment structure, the damage to the reactor core and control building allowed large quantities of radiation and millions of curies of krypton-85, xenon-133, iodine-131, tellurium-132, strontium-89, strontium-90, plutonium-240, and other radionuclides from the rector core to be released during the ensuing ten days, necessitating the evacuation of tens of thousands of people and farm animals from the surrounding area and resulting in radiation sickness and burns in more than two hundred emergency personnel and firefighters, thirty-one of whom were injured fatally.

The heaviest contamination occurred in the vicinity of the reactor itself and, to a lesser extent, in neighboring countries of eastern Europe. Those living in the vicinity of the reactor were given potassium iodide preparations to inhibit the thyroidal uptake of radioactive iodine, but infants in a number of areas elsewhere in eastern Europe are estimated to have received sizeable radiation doses to the thyroid gland, largely through ingestion of radioiodine via cow's milk, and the incidence of thyroid cancer in such persons has since risen dramatically in Belarus and in Ukraine. In areas outside Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, organs other than the thyroid typically received only a small fraction of the radiation dose normally accumulated each year from natural background radiation. For example, the highest average effective dose in such areas during the first year was received in Bulgaria, where it is estimated to have approximated slightly less than one-third of the average annual effective dose received from natural sources. Because of the small magnitude of the average dose to a given individual, the ultimate health impacts of the accident cannot be predicted with certainty. However, nonthreshold risk models for the carcinogenic effects of radiation imply that the collective dose to the population of the northern hemisphere may cause up to thirty thousand additional cancer deaths during the next seventy years.

The accident, by far the worst nuclear reactor accident to date, highlighted flaws in the design, as well as the operation, of the Chernobyl reactor. The reactor's lack of adequate containment and its positive void coefficient, which made the reactor potentially unstable at low-risk power levels, prompted the International Atomic Energy Agency subsequently to recommend the decommissioning of all Chernobyl-type reactors, a recommendation yet to be fully implemented throughout eastern Europe. In spite of the fact that the accident also prompted reassessment and upgrading of the safety of nuclear power systems everywhere, nuclear power has fallen into disfavor in most countries because of the magnitude of the disaster. To many experts, nevertheless, nuclear power still compares favorably with other sources of energy in its impact on human health and the environment, and it is expected to continue to play a role in helping to meet the world's rapidly growing demands for energy.

Arthur C. Upton

(see also: Nuclear Power; Nuclear Waste; Radiation, Ionizing; Three Mile Island )

Bibliography

Eisenbud, M., and Gesell, T. (1999). Environmental Radioactivity: From Natural, Industrial, and Military Sources, 4th edition. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Heidenreich, W. F.; Kenigsberg, J.; Jacob, P.; Buglova, E.; Goulko, G.; Paretzke, H. G.; Demidchik, E. P.; and Golovneva, A. (1999). "Time Trends of Thyroid Cancer Incidence in Belarus After the Chernobyl Accident." Radiation Research 181:617625.

Krewitt, W.; Hurley, F.; Trukenmuller, A.; and Friedrich, R. (1998). "Health Risks of Energy Systems." Risk Analysis 18:377385.

Rhodes, R., and Beller, D. (2000). "The Need for Nuclear Power." Foreign Affairs 79:3044.

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Chernobyl

Chernobyl (chĬrnō´byēl), Ukr. Chornobyl, abandoned city, N Ukraine, near the Belarus border, on the Pripyat River. Ten miles (16 km) to the north, in the town of Pripyat, is the Chernobyl nuclear power station, site of the worst nuclear reactor disaster in history. On Apr. 25, 1986, during an unauthorized test of one of the plant's four reactors, engineers initiated an uncontrolled chain reaction in the core of the reactor after disabling emergency backup systems. On Apr. 26, an explosion ripped the top off the containment building, expelling radioactive material into the atmosphere; more was released in the subsequent fire. Only after Swedish instruments detected fallout from the explosion did Soviet authorities admit that an accident had occurred. The reactor core was sealed off by air-dropping a cement mixture, but not before eight tons of radioactive material had escaped.

Twenty firefighters died immediately from overexposure to radioactivity, while hundreds suffered from severe radiation sickness. Pripyat, Chernobyl, and nearby towns were evacuated. People who lived near the plant in Ukraine and Belarus at the time have seen a greatly increased incidence of thyroid cancer, and genetic mutations have been discovered in children later born to exposed parents. Nearly all thyroid cancer cases, however, were successfully treated. Ukraine has estimated that some 4,400 people died as a result of the accident and during its cleanup, but a 2005 report prepared by several UN agencies and regional governments indicated that some 50 deaths were directly attributable to radiation from the disaster and an estimated 4,000 deaths might ultimately result from it, mainly due to higher cancer rates. That prediction was challenged the following year by a Greenpeace report that said more than 90,000 deaths might result, roughly half of which would be due to conditions other than cancer. The agricultural economies of E and N Europe were temporarily devastated, as farm products were contaminated by fallout. One Chernobyl reactor remained in operation until Dec., 2000, when the complex was shut down.

See S. Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl (2005).

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Chernobyl

Chernobyl (Chornobyl) City on the River Pripyat River, n central Ukraine. It is 20km (12mi) from the Chernobyl power plant. On April 26, 1986, an explosion in one of the plant's reactors released eight tonnes of radioactive material into the atmosphere. Within the first few hours, 31 people died. Fallout spread across e and n Europe, contaminating agricultural produce. The long-term effects of contamination are inconclusive, but 25,000 local inhabitants have died prematurely. Two of the three remaining reactors were reworking by the end of 1986. In 1991 Ukraine pledged to shut down the plant, but energy needs dictated its continued output. With aid from the West, the plant finally closed in December 2000.

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Chernobyl

Chernobyl a town near Kiev in Ukraine where, in April 1986, an accident at a nuclear power station resulted in a serious escape of radioactive material, and the subsequent contamination of Ukraine, Belarus, and other parts of Europe. (See also cultural Chernobyl.)

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Chernobyl

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