Energy Gone Amok: Chernobyl

This was written in Fall 2011 for a course on Energy Resources of the 21st Century.

Chernobyl is a name people the world over are familiar with. It has become synonymous with destruction, and it serves as a dire warning of the potential dangers surrounding nuclear energy. In April 1986, a reactor at the Ukrainian nuclear power plant exploded leading to the immediate death of two works and the subsequent death from acute radiation syndrome (ARS) of 28 others on-site at the time of the accident.

A variety of components led to the tragedy at Chernobyl, including inadequately trained workers and the flawed design of the reactor. According to the World Nuclear Association, the failure at Chernobyl was a “direct result of Cold War isolation and the resulting lack of any safety culture.” The accident occurred during a routine testing of Chernobyl 4.  A power surge occurred as the control rods were inserted into the reactor; this was caused a peculiarity of the reactor’s design. The resulting fuel fragmentation and rapid steam production caused an explosion, which killed two personnel. One was killed instantly and the other died at the hospital later that day. The initial explosion and ensuing fires caused much damage, but the large quantity of radioactive substances released into the air over the next ten days posed a more serious threat to the environment.

Chernobyl represents the only nuclear accident where radiation-related fatalities occurred. Firefighters dousing the fires on the roof of the turbine building were exposed to up to 20,000 millisieverts (mSv) of radiation on the first day. People living within a 30km radius were evacuated a couple of weeks after the accident. Most had only low level radiation exposure. According to the UNSCEAR, 20 years after the accident, other than increased risk for thyroid cancer, “there is no evidence of a major health impact attributable to the radiation exposure.”

It is unlikely that an accident of this particular nature will occur again. For one thing, the design flaws which mainly caused the accident were not used at other power plants, and with the knowledge gained from the Chernobyl misfortune, they will not be used elsewhere, either. Also, with the fall of the Soviet Union and subsequent end of the Cold War, safety protocol on nuclear power plants has become more uniform around the world, making accidents like this much less likely.

Although the accident at Chernobyl was terrible, Ukrainians have been resettling in previously contaminated areas more and more over the past two decades, particularly in the Belarus area. The remnants of radioactive fallout will remain in the environment for decades more, but the people of the area have recovered and will continue to do so.

Works Cited

“Chernobyl Accident 1986.” world-nuclear.org. World Nuclear Association, April 2011. Web. Sept 8, 2011.

“Frequently Asked Chernobyl Questions.” www.iaea.org. International Atomic Energy Agency, n.d. Web. Sept 8, 2011.

Photo Credit: World Nuclear Association

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