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The Effects of the Chernobyl Disaster

Updated on October 31, 2019
melbel profile image

Melanie has a BS in physical science and is in grad school for analytics & modeling.

On April 26th, 1986 the Chernobyl Nuclear Power plant in Soviet Ukraine experienced an unexpected power surge during a routine systems test. A series of steam explosions exposed part of the reactor to open-air, causing it to ignite, sending an enormous plume of radioactive fallout into the atmosphere.1

Thirty-one plant workers and firefighters were killed as a direct result of the accident, but the effects of the disaster were far-reaching.

The Chernobyl nuclear plant
The Chernobyl nuclear plant | Source

In the days following the incident, Soviet authorities did not publicize to the global community that the incident had even occurred. The incident was discovered on April 28th when plant workers at a nuclear facility in Sweden noticed high levels of radiation coming into the plant from the outside.

Following the Chernobyl disaster, much of Europe experienced large amounts of radioactive fallout, particularly from three radioactive isotopes: cesium-137, strontium-90, and iodine-131. Specifically, strontium-90 and cesium-137 are the biggest factors in keeping the area surrounding Pripyat, known as the Chernobyl exclusion zone, closed.

Radioisotopes Released & Their Half-Lives

8.02 days
2.065 years
30.17 years
28.8 years
The forest has slowly closed in on Pripyat
The forest has slowly closed in on Pripyat | Source

Did you know?

Following the incident, radioactive material was discovered in nearly every country throughout the northern hemisphere.

The Red Forest

The Red Forest, located just outside Pripyat, is considered to be one of the most contaminated places in the world. It is thus named because of the dead trees' red color after the disaster. Because the Red Forest was downwind from the Chernobyl Plant when the plume was released, it received the largest dose of radiation.

Unfortunately, the presence of radioactive material in the forest has hindered organic decomposers such as bacteria and fungi. Because of this, the dead plant material in the Red Forest is building up, posing a threat of forest fires that could further spread radioactive material.

Despite the initial effect radiation had in the Red Forest, the forest has thrived in the past 30 years without the presence of humans. Trees have slowly encroached into the city, eventually covering the city and wildlife has begun to flourish. The radiation keeping humans away has caused Pripyat to become, arguably, the most protected animal sanctuary in the world. However, this comes at a price to both flora and fauna.

Studies have shown that a disproportionate number of young trees in the area are growing in odd, twisted shapes. This is due to problems with hormone signals which tell trees “which way is up.” In addition, the trees grow more slowly.

Wildlife in the Exclusion Zone

Since the incident, the wildlife in the Exclusion Zone has seen an increase in genetic mutations. Birds have been particularly affected, with an overall lower reproductive, lower survival rates, an increased incidence of albinism, and smaller brains.

Lower numbers of insects live within the exclusion zone. In particular, there are fewer grasshoppers, bees, and butterflies.

In some cases, wild game animals bagged outside of the exclusion zone show dangerously high levels of radiation.2

A radiation sign in the Red Forest
A radiation sign in the Red Forest | Source

Chernobyl Liquidators

Thousands of people were coerced by the Soviet Union by means of a direct order (and the withholding of information regarding the nature of the disaster) to clean up and seal off the area. Upwards of 530,000 people, known as ‘liquidators’, have been involved in the cleanup since the disaster.

Liquidators were exposed to both radiation and the poisonous materials used to contain the area. They were responsible for activities such as the removal of hazardous waste both inside and outside of the plant, the evacuation of the 49,000 residents of the city, extermination of domestic animals left in homes, and building a protective foundation to protect the surrounding aquifer.

Studies on the effects of radiation on the liquidators have proved difficult. Liquidators received varying doses of radiation based on the job they were given and the length of their term. In addition to this, the fall of the Soviet Union allowed people greater freedom to disperse following the cleanup.

Despite the difficulties in researching liquidators' health, a number of studies have been carried out, often with controversial results. Some studies show higher cancer risk throughout the population of liquidators and some show no increased incidence.

In most studies, among the liquidators who were later diagnosed with cancer, a higher percentage of them had thyroid cancer than the general population. Another study showed an increase in the incidence of brain cancer.

A paper released by the UN cited a dramatic increase in thyroid cancer, particularly in children and adolescents, conveying a higher incidence in the population.

Gas masks left behind in a Pripyat school
Gas masks left behind in a Pripyat school | Source

The Effects on Groundwater, the Pripyat River, and Kiev’s Water Supply

Despite the high solubility of cesium-containing salts, it has been argued that the groundwater surrounding the site was initially not directly affected by the disaster. Since the isotope of iodine had long decayed and the isotopes of strontium and cesium mostly settled and adsorbed to soil surfaces, the groundwater was largely protected. However, remediation efforts such as the burial of trees killed off by the initial blast of radiation brought the radiation in direct contact with the water table which may be a large factor in water contamination.

When the accident occurred at the nuclear power plant, the nearby Pripyat River was flooded (as it was the wet season.) Since the Pripyat River feeds into one of Europe’s largest rivers, the Dnieper River, this quickly became a problem in the days following the accident. Kiev, the capital and largest city of Ukraine, located just over 60 miles from Pripyat, drew water from the Dnieper reservoir.

Much of Ukraine experienced high levels of cesium-137 and strontium-90 in drinking water. Official remarks from governing officials, however, assured residents that the fallout was insoluble and had settled to the bottom of the river. Despite this, the safety guidelines for the amount of radioactive iodine allowed in drinking water were temporarily raised so that the water from the reservoir would pass as “safe.”

Within two months, Kiev halted its use of the Dnieper reservoir, moving operations to the Desna reservoir instead. It should also be noted that the Dnieper reservoir also carries radioactive waste from the Prydniprovsky Chemical Plant radioactive dumps. There are nine leaking open-air radioactive waste dumps located throughout the Ukrainian city of Dniprodzerzhynsk (a port on the Dnieper River.)

An abandoned school in Pripyat
An abandoned school in Pripyat | Source

Did you know?

Despite the accident in 1986, Chernobyl's last reactor wasn't shut down until 2000.

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The Effects of the Chernobyl Disaster on Europe

While Belarus received the short-end of the stick in terms of contamination and Ukraine was ground-zero for the incident, much of Europe was affected by the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster.

Despite the efforts to protect the water supply, bioaccumulation of radiocesium in fish quickly became an issue, even in closed lakes (no tributaries) from fallout carried outside of Ukraine. This effect was seen not only in the Ukraine and Belarus, but in parts of Russia, Germany, Great Britain, Sweden, Finland, and Norway.

Because fungi readily take up cesium-137, livestock feed was easily contaminated thus causing cesium-137 to bioaccumulate in livestock. This was (and still is) a problem throughout Europe.

As recent as 2010, over one thousand wild boars hunted in Germany were found to be contaminated with radiation above Germany’s allowable limit. In 2009, around 18,000 livestock in Norway were tested and declared unsafe for consumption until they had been fed food free of contaminants until declared safe for slaughter. The number of contaminated livestock decreased to 1,900 in 2012. However, this could be due to moving livestock to different feeding grounds.

The movement of more than 4.2 million sheep throughout the United Kingdom was restricted to prevent contamination. In 2000, the UK government began lifting restrictions with all restrictions being removed from Northern Ireland, restrictions in Scotland were removed in 2010. It wasn't until 2012 that all restrictions on sheep movement had been lifted throughout the United Kingdom.

  1. "Chernobyl Nuclear Accident." International Atomic Energy Agency.
  2. "Forests Around Chernobyl Aren’t Decaying Properly." Smithsonian

© 2015 Melanie Palen


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    • Emese Fromm profile image

      Emese Fromm 

      4 years ago from The Desert

      I lived in Romania at the time and we were relatively close (much closer than any Western country). I remember that we couldn't drink water for weeks, except from very deep wells, and they were testing our water for a long time to make sure it was safe. I was a kid, and we were joking about it, but we did so because it was scary and we were trying to keep our sense of humor... We were never told about effects, especially long term effects, other than the water issue. Anyway, good article!

    • Akriti Mattu profile image

      Akriti Mattu 

      4 years ago from Shimla, India

      This was one of the saddest disasters in history.


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