Chernobyl and its Political Implications

Abigail Lebovitz
February 18, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: Image of an abandoned basketball court in the town of Pripyat. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

On April 26th 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant blew up. Chernobyl was the first power plant in Soviet Ukraine and seen as a flagship of the peaceful atomic energy of the USSR. Accompanying the plant, the city of Pripyat was build close by to accommodate the nuclear experts and other workers. The disaster is thought to have stemmed from flaw in the product of the reactor as well as operating error. The accident led to thirty fatalities, many due to Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS). Over two hundred non- fatal cases of ARS were confirmed in people on site and involved in clean up. The contamination to the area and intake of radioactive iodine fallout has also been linked to a large proportion of childhood thyroid diagnosis since the accident. [1]

Political Implications

The Chernobyl accident led to many political consequences along with the health and environmental issues. Firstly, the accident prompted nuclear energy policy to arise as a significant public issue. It also led to a distrust and unease between Soviet citizens, specifically those in the evacuated and nearby areas, and President Gorbachov's regime. Doubt was casted on Gorbachev's legitimacy and ability to respond to the incident and protect the soviet citizens. [2]

Before the accident, President Gorbachov had imposed the glasnost policy in hopes to increase the transparency of Russian politics to the state-- an area that had been considered blurry in the past. However, the Chernobyl accident caused a regression to old, secretive politics. After the incident, Gorbachov was criticized for hiding and delaying the relay of crucial information to western civilizations. Along with a distrust in the Gorbachov regime, Chernobyl also had large financial implications, "end[ing] any belief in the socio-economic acceleration of the country." [3] The combination of a loss in moral, lives, and finances has led many to consider the Chernobyl incident to be one of commencing events that eventually lead to the fall of the Soviet Union.


The town of Pripyat is another example of the political implications in the wake of the Chernobyl incident. The town had been initially created to house workers, nuclear experts and their families. The population size of the town was around 50,000 people, all of whom who had to evacuate at the explosion of reaction number four. The evacuation of Pripyat occurred in just a couple of hours; however, it took some time for the government to inform the citizens of Pripyat the detrimental extent of the explosion. [4] Some of the citizens of Pripyat, like many of the firemen, were killed trying to put out the radioactive fire. Many other citizens were effected by radiation, some cases fatal and others causing later health issues including thyroid cancer. Since the day of the explosion, the town of Pripyat is inhabitable. As seen in Fig. 1, many of the buildings have deteriorated and typify the disorder in the wake of the explosion. A few individuals have returned to the village but these are isolated cases. The town recently became open for tourist visits. In the wake of the disaster and the lack of human inhabitants, the wildlife of Pripyat has flourished in the past forty years.


The Chernobyl incident can not be directly proven to have caused the fall of the Soviet Union; however, it is possible to argue that some of the consequences of the accident could have started or been part of the domino effect that eventually led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Before the event, Soviet citizens had a trust in the system that did not exist to the same degree after the disaster. The Chernobyl event likely amplified the lack of transparency in the Soviet government and also showed that the government did not have the ability to fully protect citizens with the apparent health issues in the aftermath. Many other flaws arose from the incident in terms of health, ecological, and other general operating responses of the government.

© Abigail Lebovitz. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "Annex D: Health Effects Due to Radiation From the Chernobyl Accident," in Sources and Effects of Ionizing Radiation, UNSCEAR 2008, Vol. II (United Nations, 2011).

[2] "The Chernobyl' Accident: Social and Political Implications," U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, SOV 87-10078X, December 1987.

[3] M. Mccauley, The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union (Routledge, 2007).

[4] R. E. Ebel, Chernobyl and Its Aftermath: A Chronology of Events (Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C., 1994).