When you hear a phrase like “industrial accident,” “man-made disaster,” or “nuclear spill,” a single, ominous word springs immediately to mind: Chernobyl. Nearly 30 years have passed since history’s worst meltdown enraged, saddened, and horrified the world, yet the lingering effects of radiation — and human suffering — continue to plague the towns, cities, forests, and families that were destroyed.
The Chernobyl Disaster: A Deadly Chain of Mistakes
The Soviet Union is not remembered for its abundant wealth, cautious policies, or regard for human safety. Combine a climate of worker expendability with the pressures of the Cold War, the race for technological superiority, and a tight national budget, and you have a disaster waiting to happen. That disaster was Chernobyl.
The plant itself is not actually located in today’s Russia, despite the common association between the two. Formally known as the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station, Chernobyl sits near the now-abandoned city of Pripyat in Ukraine. Construction on Chernobyl’s first reactor was completed in 1977, and over the next several years, an additional three reactors were added to the plant. A fifth reactor was under construction — but it would never be completed.
In the small hours of April 26, 1986, plant officials made the fateful decision to conduct a test. Ironically, the test was meant to evaluate plant safety in the event of an emergency. The procedure, however, did not go as planned.
There were numerous warning signs and opportunities to halt the increasingly unstable test procedure which led to the disaster. The operating crew changed midway through the delicate process, and more experienced workers were replaced by a less experienced shift. Even after unusual data readouts began to appear, plant officials ordered the test to push ahead anyway.
Nuclear reactors create extreme amounts of heat and utilize control rods to keep cooling fluid at the proper temperature. When rods are added to the liquid, the liquid cools as the rods absorb neutrons. If too many rods are damaged or removed, temperature control can fail, and the core can overheat and have a “meltdown.”
When Reactor No. 4 melted down, a total of only six out of 205 control rods remained in the core. Worse still, the control rods at Chernobyl were made out of the wrong material: their graphite tips actually intensified the chain reaction that led to the meltdown.
Chernobyl Releases Over 5 Times More Radiation than Fukushima
The Chernobyl meltdown might be more literally described as an explosion. To put its violent power into perspective, the final reading on plant equipment showed an operational output of 33,000 megawatts — 10 times more than it should have been during normal operation. The water cooling the core turned into steam with furious speed, resulting in a massive explosion. (“Massive” is probably an understatement. The steam explosion at Chernobyl tore the reactor apart, sending a 2,000-ton plate flying through the roof.)
The Fukushima disaster in 2011 released 900 PBq (petabecquerels) of radiation into the atmosphere. Chernobyl released 5,200 — more than five times that amount.
The peak level of radiation detected at Fukushima was 72,900 mSV/h (millisieverts). The peak level at Chernobyl was 300,000.
But Chernobyl would not be remembered today were it simply a powerful explosion. It is remembered for its terrible toll on human life.
Thousands Killed and Disabled, 250% Increase in Birth Deformities
The immediate death toll was 31 people. But radiation — creeping, silent, invisible — is not feared for its immediate effects.
After the accident occurred, Soviet officials ordered hundreds of thousands of clean-up workers known as “liquidators” into the heart of the plant to contain the disaster. Some came from the military. Some were civilians. Many of them died.
Vyacheslav Grishin, head of the Chernobyl Union liquidators, reports that 60,000 people were killed over time by the lingering effects of radiation. He says another 165,000 were disabled. The true numbers are disputed to this day.
Even the unborn were victimized by the disaster — and continue to suffer even today. According to Chernobyl Children International, Belarusian children born since 1986 experience a 200% increase in birth defects, and a 250% increase in congenital birth deformities.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports dramatic increases in the incidence of thyroid cancer. So many people underwent neck surgery related to radiation-induced thyroid cancer that the tell-tale scar left behind became known as the “Chernobyl Necklace.” WHO also reports that the leukemia rate among liquidators with the highest exposure levels approximately doubled.
And it isn’t only cancer that stalks victims and survivors today. Russian studies have noted increases in the number of cataracts, heart disease cases, and individuals affected by emotional problems.
Today, the city of Pripyat — a city built for Chernobyl workers, once vibrant with life and activity — remains eerily quiet. The population has dropped from 49,360 to zero.
The Chernobyl meltdown occurred in mid-1980s Soviet Russia. Unsurprisingly (and unfortunately), personal injury and wrongful death litigation was less successful than it may have been under more relaxed political regimes. Today, it is well known that the Soviet government actively tried to suppress information about the accident, but satellite images ruined attempts at secrecy. Chernobyl is not a name associated with justice or compensation.
The disaster did spur a wave of international nuclear liability reform, and today, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia are collectively responsible for fronting the considerable costs of ongoing decontamination efforts and healthcare.
WHO estimates that another 4,000 wrongful deaths could still be waiting to claim innocent victims.
Scientists estimate that the Chernobyl area will be uninhabitable for hundreds or even thousands of years to come.
If you or someone you love was hurt in a chemical spill accident, you may be entitled to financial compensation. To speak confidentially with an experienced attorney, call the law offices of The Reiff Law Firm at (215) 246-9000, or contact us online. Your first consultation is free, so call right away to discuss your legal options.