The Chernobyl Syndrome

A worker measuring radiation after the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine, August 1986
TASS/Valery Zufarov/Vladimir Repik/Getty Images
A worker measuring radiation after the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine, August 1986

On the night of April 25, 1986, during a planned maintenance shutdown at the Chernobyl power plant in northern Ukraine, one of the four reactors overheated and began to burn. As plant engineers scrambled to regain control of it, they thought for a moment that there had been an earthquake. In fact, a buildup of steam had propelled the two-hundred-ton concrete top of the reactor’s casing into the air, with masses of radioactive material following close behind when the core exploded. The plant workers had been assured again and again of the safety of the “peaceful atom,” and they couldn’t imagine that the reactor had exploded.

Firefighters rushed to the scene without special equipment or a clear understanding of the potential risks; they had not been trained to deal with a nuclear explosion, because such training would have involved acknowledging that an explosion was possible. They kicked at chunks of radioactive graphite that had fallen around the reactor, and their boots stuck to the melting, flammable bitumen that had been used, against all safety regulations, to coat the roofs of the plant’s buildings. Efforts to douse mysteriously fizzy, incandescent fires only made the conflagrations seethe with radioactive steam. (These fires probably contained uranium dioxide, one of the fuels used in the reactor.)

Feeling hot, the firefighters unbuttoned their jackets and took off their helmets. After less than thirty minutes they began to vomit, develop excruciating headaches, and feel faint and unbearably thirsty. One drank highly radioactive water from the plant’s cooling pond, burning his digestive tract. Over the next few hours, the exposed firefighters and plant workers swelled up, their skin turning the eerie purple of radiation burn. Later it would turn black and peel away. After evacuation and treatment in Moscow, many of these first responders died and were buried in nesting pairs of zinc caskets. Their graves were covered with cement tiles to block the radiation emanating from their corpses.

General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev was informed that there had been an explosion and fire at the plant but that the reactor itself had not been seriously damaged. No one wanted to be the bearer of catastrophic news. When the occasional official raised the question of whether to warn civilians and evacuate the city of Pripyat, which had been built to house workers from the Chernobyl plant, he was admonished to wait for higher-ups to make a decision and for a committee to be formed. Panic and embarrassment were of greater concern than public safety. The KGB cut Pripyat’s intercity telephone lines and prevented residents from leaving, as part of the effort to keep news of the…

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