Chernobyl Is at Risk Again – What You Need to Know

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In the 1970s, the then-Soviet-led government constructed a nuclear power plant on the Pripyat River in Ukraine, near the city of Chernobyl, about 80 miles north of Kyiv.  

One evening, on April 25, 1986, everything changed. 

Dawn of disaster 

A group of relatively inexperienced engineers ran an experiment, hoping to test the ability of the turbines of Reactor 4 to support emergency water pumping. They took a series of increasingly reckless and dangerous actions that rendered the reactor unstable and created conditions beyond their control. 

As coolant in the reactor failed to circulate properly, heat mounted to extremes, melting the reactor’s core. At 1:23 a.m. on April 26, Reactor 4 exploded, and a chain reaction sent fire rippling through the reactor complex. The uranium fuel rods came apart due to the power surge, and the resulting steam explosion produced an enormous fireball seen by people from miles around. The reactor’s roof blew off and a plume of radiation settled over the city of Pripyat, the town constructed to house workers from the Chernobyl plant.  

Years of fallout 

The explosion put eight tons of radioactive waste into the atmosphere. The radioactive cloud traveled beyond the borders of Ukraine, over nearby countries in Eastern Europe and beyond, with traces of it found across the globe. Residents of the then-Soviet republic of Belarus received about 60 percent of the fallout. Experts have noted that the radioactive cloud’s toxicity equaled that of 400 Hiroshimas. 

It took more than two weeks to completely extinguish the fires throughout the plant, and 115,000 people were evacuated from the 30-kilometer radius around the plant. The government pressed about 500,000 military and civilian workers into service to handle the aftermath and clean-up. Within days, 31 of the first-responding plant employees and firefighters died from acute radiation poisoning. Hundreds of other people became ill from radiation in the immediate aftermath.  

Today, despite early Soviet attempts to cover up the true costs of human life and infrastructure damage, international experts estimate that an additional 4,000 or more people later died as a result of their exposure to leaked radiation from the plant. Likely tens of thousands have experienced related health consequences, with many cancers credibly attributed to Chernobyl’s radiation.  

Welcome to dystopia 

An “Exclusion Zone” that extends for 20 miles around the reactor is now officially closed to human habitation, with wild horses and other animals the only inhabitants of crumbling buildings within it. Some 5 million people live on contaminated ground just outside the zone. Scientists estimate that the environmental damage in the blighted landscape around Chernobyl will persist for thousands of years. Experts note that they have only recently learned the full extent of how the Chernobyl disaster and its aftermath have affected human health.  

A steel-and-concrete New Safe Confinement structure, completed in 2019, now encases the remains of the original “sarcophagus” hastily built over Reactor 4 in the months following the disaster.  

Back into the unknown 

On the first day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, February 24, 2022, Russian forces wrested control of Chernobyl away from the Ukrainians after fierce fighting. Radiation levels rose as the troops’ heavy equipment disturbed the surrounding contaminated dust, leading to international alarm.  

By March 22, the European Space Agency had documented seven fires “burning unchecked” around the plant, with Ukrainian officials attributing all the fires to the “aggression” of the Russian troops.  

Ukrainian workers at the nuclear site have said that Russian tanks, whose soldiers were unprotected from radiation, stirred up clouds of toxic radioactive dust in the “Red Forest.” This area in the exclusion zone was so named because of the reddish tinge seen in the needles of its coniferous trees in the wake of the 1986 disaster.  

Earlier in March, the Russians completely pulled Chernobyl from Ukraine’s electrical grid. Before reconnection, the plant went for days without sufficient power to operate the necessary cooling systems. Ukrainian’s foreign minister said that the situation could produce “imminent” radiation leaks.  

Although no longer a working power station, Chernobyl must be maintained to prevent its waste material from creating further problems of contamination. Hundreds of the 2,400 personnel (technicians, guards, cooks, and others) who typically work there were held in what amount to hostage conditions for weeks following the Russian occupation.  

It remains unclear how much radiation may have been released by the Russians’ actions. Ukraine’s Energoatom agency has said that its radiation-monitoring system in the Exclusion Zone ceased to function after the Russians moved in. Meanwhile, Ukraine has urged international authorities to inspect and help control possible radiation leaks from the plant. 

Days after taking Chernobyl, Russian forces also took control of the six-reactor Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, the largest currently operating in Ukraine. While experts said that a full-scale nuclear meltdown at Zaporizhzhia is unlikely, it’s not impossible.  

Nuclear reactors are not typically designed to remain impervious to artillery shelling. Because the world has never before seen full-on aggressive war actively fought on the site of a nuclear power plant, no one can be sure that a massive disaster won’t happen.  


Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has rightly called the seizure of Chernobyl “a declaration of war against the whole of Europe.”  

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