Chernobyl: Not The Only Soviet Meltdown of the Late 20th Century

Chernobyl Reactor No. 4 Before the Nuclear Meltdown (image via Pinterest)

On Friday afternoon, April 26, 1986, life in Pripyat Ukraine was wonderful. The newly founded city was flourishing with men, women, and children, all enjoying the modernism of the new nuclear city. It is estimated that at the time, there were roughly 50,000 people living and working in Pripyat, essentially all in support of the Chernobyl power plant. In the Soviet Union, nuclear power plants were seen as a pinnacle display of Soviet engineering, and were considered safer than other types of power plants at the time. This would all prove to be untrue just hours later.

Earlier that afternoon, operators at the Chernobyl power plant began a safety test on Reactor No. 4, to ensure that the plants cooling systems were still functional in the occurrence of a power outage. The test was soon put on hold, and set to begin later that evening. At around 1:23 a.m. on the morning of April 26, the test is given the green light to proceed. Almost immediately, “an unexpected power surge occurs, and an operator presses the emergency shutdown button, but the control rods jam as they enter the core” (History). Seconds later, a series of explosions blow the roof off of Reactor No. 4, as nuclear fires breakout everywhere around the reactor, and inside of it as well. Firefighters arrive on the scene within minutes and began battling the nuclear blaze, none wearing protective gear to combat the radiation (History).  By 6:00 a.m., almost all of the fires are extinguished other than that inside the reactor itself, but the disaster was far from over. An article from the Current Digest of the Soviet Press describing the cleanup process wrote, “in a number of places the grounds of the atomic power station’s industrial area look as if they were covered with pockmarks. Everything must be cleaned up. It’s an unbelievably complicated business” (Prokopchuk).

Reactor N0. 4 Shortly After the Explosion (image via Pinterest)

A day and a half later, evacuations began for over 100 thousand inhabitants of Pripyat and its surrounding communities. Many of the inhabitants were already sick, complaining of headaches and vomiting (Livescience). Residents were told that the evacuations were temporary, and thus many left their homes leaving everything behind, unknowing that they would never return. Many of these people would eventually die from cancers and other effects of the radiation, decades later.

A Recent Image of a Child’s Teddy Bear That Was Left Behind in a Pripyat Apartment During Evacuation (image via Frank Grace; Flickr)

The cleanup process began immediately and is still continuing to date. Many of the early responders knew they would die from the radiation, but bravely continued on. The process began by trying to limit the radiation seepage from the reactor, by dumping lead, sand, and other materials on the toxic waste. Eventually, a steel dome was placed over the entire reactor, designed to keep the radiation inside. Over time, this dome began to leak and rust, but in 2019, a new dome was placed over the original at a cost of over 2 billion euros.

Original Chernobyl Dome (image via Wikipedia)
New Chernobyl Dome (image via Washington Post)

For the Soviet Union, the Chernobyl meltdown was another catastrophe in a series of downward spiraling events leading up to the eventual dissolution of the USSR. Around the same time, the Soviet Army was facing another disaster in Afghanistan. Both events were quite costly for the Soviets international reputation, internal reputation, and economic well being. Between the two situations, billions and billions of rubles were lost, further damaging an already struggling economy, not to mention the thousands and thousands of lives lost as well. The accident also “fueled resentment in both Ukraine and Belorussia against the central authorities”, further threatening Soviet legitimacy (17 Moments). The events also enforced Gorbachev’s desires to end the nuclear arms race, as he stated, “We learned what nuclear war can be” (Freeze 457). Five  years later, the Soviet Union collapsed, its final meltdown.

 

 

Works Cited

Freeze, G. L. (2009). Russia: a history. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Greenspan, J. (2019, April 15). Chernobyl Disaster: The Meltdown by the Minute. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/chernobyl-disaster-timeline
Lallanilla, M. (2019, June 20). Chernobyl: Facts About the Nuclear Disaster. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/39961-chernobyl.html
Prokupchuk, S. (1986, May 25). Current Digest of the Soviet Press. Retrieved from
https://dlib-eastvie. com.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/browse/issue/850152
Siegelbaum, L. (2015, September 2). Meltdown in Chernobyl. Retrieved from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1985-2/meltdown-in-chernobyl/

 

 

 

 

 

6 Replies to “Chernobyl: Not The Only Soviet Meltdown of the Late 20th Century”

  1. I like the way you narrate the drama of the accident, and how unexpected it was given the seemingly peaceful surroundings. That article in the Current Digest sounds fascinating as well, but there must be a mistake in the URL because I couldn’t track back to it. I agree that the economic and political consequences of the disaster were detrimental to the Soviet Union’s reform efforts in the 80s. And of course the environmental impact of Chernobyl was devastating as well and continues to shape the lives of millions of people in the region and elsewhere. What lessons (if any) do you think the world has learned as a result of nuclear accidents such as Chernobyl, and more recently, Fukashima?

    1. Hi Dr Nelson, thanks for taking the time to read my post. I thought the URL was pasted correctly, but i guess not. I will definitely address that and see if i can get it fixed. I think the world has come to the realization of two things; how fragile nuclear power can be, and how catastrophic a nuclear war would be. Although I do believe nuclear power will continue to progress and become more common, i think the world will continue to see a drawback of nuclear weapons programs.

  2. I like the title of this post. I feel like the Chernobyl Disaster is a broadened metaphor about the Soviet system and why it collapsed. Its crazy to think that this disaster was detected thanks to radioactive measurements being collected as far west as Sweden.

    1. Hi Chris, thanks for reading my post. There is a ton of really interesting facts from the Chernobyl disaster. It really did change the world in many ways.

  3. The Chernobyl Disaster is such an interesting topic especially since all individuals near the facility had no time to collect their belongings. It is also crazy that the dome to replace and contain the radiation cost over 2 billion euros! Defiantly a critical blow to the already declining Soviet reign.

    1. HI Paul, thanks for reading my post. The recent dome that was placed over the reactor in 2019, was funded in part by other nations. There is an organization called the “Chernobyl Shelter Fund”, where money and resources are collected to help Ukraine continue to make the scene safer.

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