Abandoned town of Prypyat in Ukraine after the Chernobyl accident
The principal environmental effect of the aftermath of the Chernobyl’ accident has been the accumulation of radioactive fallout in the upper layers of soil, where it has destroyed important farmland. The second most important impact has been the threat to surface water and groundwater. The cleanup in some of the most heavily contaminated areas within the evacuation zone, such as Pripyat’, involved the stripping and burying of topsoil and vegetation, the sealing of wells, and the building of structures designed to prevent surface water from entering streams and rivers that drain into the Dnieper River system, which provides Kyiv’s water supply.
By most measures, the country most seriously affected by the accident is Belarus (which changed its name from Belorussia after it, along with the other Soviet republics, became independent with the collapse of the USSR in 1991). Almost 20 percent of the republic’s farmland was removed from production during the years immediately after the accident. Half of the vast 27,850-sq km (10,750-sq mi) area described as being ‘seriously contaminated’ by radiation (with levels of radioactive cesium in topsoil exceeding 5 curies) is in Belarus. The regions commonly identified as experiencing the greatest contamination include the oblasts (regions) of Homyel’, Mahilyow, and Brest in southern and eastern Belarus; Kyiv, Zhytomyr, and Chernihiv in northern Ukraine; and Bryansk in southwestern Russia.
Effects on public health have been more difficult to figure and are subject to much controversy. It is not always clear which health problems are caused directly by radiation and which are caused by poor nutrition, the general low level of health, and the anxiety and stress produced by fear of radiation exposure. These issues surround the debate over the causes of higher death rates among the more than half a million workers who participated in the Chernobyl’ cleanup.
However, at least one type of cancer can be attributed directly to Chernobyl’. There has been a significant rise in the incidence of thyroid cancer among children in the areas where radiation levels are highest. Thyroid cancer rates in Homyel’ Oblast, for example, increased 22-fold from 1986 through 1990 compared to the period from 1981 through 1985.
Many observers have argued that the accident at Chernobyl’ accelerated the transformation of the USSR toward a more open society. Soviet officials, unable to conceal the accident from the world, reluctantly acknowledged the accident during an evening news telecast in Moscow on April 28 and in brief newspaper accounts on April 30. This was followed by regular coverage focused on the cleanup efforts in the months that followed. This reporting sharply contrasts to the lack of coverage of earlier catastrophic events (an accident at a nuclear weapons plant in the Ural Mountains in 1957 and major earthquakes in Central Asia in 1948 and 1964).
Also, after the accident several key officials in the Soviet nuclear power industry were dismissed, punished, or both, and a new Ministry of Nuclear Power was created in 1986. Before then, officials in the general electric power ministry had overseen nuclear power. Chernobyl’ also called into question the basic safety of nuclear power in both the USSR and several Eastern European countries whose power plants contained reactors based on the RBMK reactor design used at Chernobyl’. (In the RBMK design, there is no containment shell, the graphite blocks used to moderate the fission reaction are flammable, and excess steam in the reactor core will cause the nuclear reaction to increase). As a result, international organizations, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, became involved in programs to improve safety rules and upgrade the design of RBMK reactors in the USSR and Eastern Europe.
The accident, coupled with a general economic decline that set in during the last years of the USSR, also resulted in a dramatic scaling back of Soviet plans to use nuclear power to generate the bulk of electric power in Soviet regions remote from oil and gas energy resources. In Ukraine, opposition to further nuclear construction in the immediate post-Chernobyl’ years was particularly intense. In August 1990, for example, the Ukrainian parliament declared a moratorium on nuclear power plant construction. This ban was later lifted in 1993 because of severe energy shortages in Ukraine.
Earlier in 1990 the Ukrainian parliament had voted to close the Chernobyl’ plant permanently within five years, but closure was repeatedly postponed because of the country’s shortage of electricity-generating capacity. After a turbine fire in October 1991, the No. 2 reactor at Chernobyl’ was shut, leaving only two of the original four reactors at the plant in service. Reflecting mounting safety concerns in the international community, an agreement was concluded in April 1996 between the Ukrainian government and the G-7 countries (Group of Seven major industrial nations) to decommission the Chernobyl’ plant by the year 2000. In conjunction with the agreement, the G-7 countries pledged $300 million to finance programs to strengthen the sarcophagus, which some fear may collapse, and for more cleanup work. In November 1996, as part of the schedule for the decommissioning, the No. 1 reactor at Chernobyl’ was taken out of service, leaving only the third unit working. Finally, in December 2000 the plant was totally shut down. Although contained, the Aftermath of the Chernobyl’ Accident is one indicator of how dangerous nuclear power is whether for civilian or military purposes.