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What happened at Chernobyl?

May 30, 2019

The story of the world’s worst nuclear disaster is told in critically acclaimed new series

Igor Kostyn/Getty Images

Chernobyl, the new HBO mini-series about the 1986 nuclear disaster, has become something of a phenomenon among critics, and has piqued public interest in the facts behind the incident.

The five-part series, which tells the story of the worst nuclear incident in history, has been met with universal praise since its premiere last month, and was described by The Guardian as “masterful television, as stunning as it is gripping, and it is relentless in its awful tension, refusing to let go even for a second”.

Metro adds that the show “sinks into new levels of darkness” in its exploration of the “bleak aftermath” of the incident.

“It’s the power of devastating truths against wrestling lies which makes Chernobyl such compelling, vital television,” the paper says. “We already know the outcome from the flash-forward in the first episode, but the journey has been one of the most affecting and haunting shows to emerge this century.”

The catastrophic meltdown at the then-Soviet nuclear power plant, near the border between Ukraine and Belarus, resulted in the deaths of around 50 firefighters and rescue workers at the time, and thousands more people in the ensuing decades as a result of radiation released by the explosion.

Here’s a look at the full story behind the explosion.

What happened?

In the early hours of the 26 April 1986, workers at the Chernobyl plant, originally known as the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station, attempted an experiment at one of the site’s four reactors. 

The test was designed to see if it was possible to bridge the gap between the power grid going down - a common occurrence in the final years of the Soviet Union - and the plant’s back-up generators taking over.

However, the test was hurried and poorly planned, and a subsequent reactor meltdown saw two explosions blow the roof off the reactor and blast many tons of radioactive material into the atmosphere over Ukraine, Belarus and beyond.

How many people were affected?

Owing to the secretive nature of the Soviet government, the details of the catastrophe, including the death toll, were mostly hidden from both citizens of the USSR and the outside world.

The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) has identified 49 immediate deaths from trauma, acute radiation poisoning and a helicopter crash during the salvage operation.

The long-term implications, however, are more bleak. In 2005, UNSCEAR noted a spike in instances of thyroid cancer in nearby regions, and predicted that “a total of 4,000 deaths will eventually be attributable to the Chernobyl accident”.

More than 100,000 people were evacuated from the area immediately after the accident, and the total number of evacuees from severely contaminated areas eventually reached 340,000. These people have never been allowed to return home, and the off-limits areas are known collectively as the “Exclusion Zone”. Access to this zone can only be granted by the government of Ukraine, and only for 12 hours at a time in almost all cases.

Did Chernobyl destroy the Soviet Union?

It has been argued that the remarkably expensive clean-up operation and elaborate government cover-up may have been the catalyst for the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

“Soviet authorities had long failed to acknowledge domestic catastrophes,” says NBC News. “But this time, as winds carried the radioactive fallout across much of Europe, their delay angered the international community and exposed their pathological secretiveness.” 

Disillusionment with the government’s handling of the disaster within the Soviet Union also reached unprecedented levels, with tens of thousands of protesters taking to the streets of Kiev and elsewhere, the BBC reports.

According to Mikhail Gorbachev, the then-leader of the USSR, the Chernobyl disaster was a “turning point” that “opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we knew it could no longer continue”.

 “Chernobyl revealed itself as the symptom of a corrupt and failing system rather than a technological catastrophe,” adds the BBC.

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