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).
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.
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.
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.