The Global Significance of Chernobyl

Eddy Rosales Chavez
March 8, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017

Fig. 1: A road sign warns tresspasers, in English, about the dangers of the still radioactive site. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

On April 26, 1986, a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant exploded. The day before, the RBMK nuclear reactor was shut down for maintenance. The plant workers decided to use the shutdown as an opportunity to test the reactor's ability to work in the event of a power outage. The workers used the turned off reactor to power the plant's emergency equipment. However, RBMK reactors are known for their positive void coefficient. This means that under low power conditions, RBMK reactors are prone to large energy surges. During the early morning hours of April 26, the relatively small energy flow powering the emergency equipment experienced a massive surge that led to two explosions. Within minutes, other buildings in the plant also caught fire. At its peak, the fire plume rose 1 kilometer high. The fires lasted 10 days and it is estimated that between 100 to 250 tons of TNT equivalent in energy were released into the air. For the weeks the followed, radioactive debris spread throughout the region. [1]


On May 12, 1986 the Soviet Government announced that six people, in addition to the two plant workers who died during the the explosions, had died as a result of burns and radiation. This formal acknowledgement marked the first time in history that radiation from a nuclear power plant caused the death of civilians. The announcement, however, came only after many days of international pressure. [2]

Despite the severity of the explosions, the Soviet Government was apprehensive about admitting to having a problem on their hands. The Cold War tensions were high and acknowledging a nuclear explosion could damage the Soviet Union's image. Five days after the explosions, the city of Kiev planned to host its annual International Workers' Day (May Day) parade. [3] Despite knowing about the dangers of the explosion, the Soviet Government allowed the parade to continue in Kiev. [1] Thousands of Ukrainians walked the streets under falling radiation. Despite the government's efforts to play down the situation, inquiries by the Swedish Government regarding their own detection of high radiation levels throughout Scandinavia pressured the Kremlin into releasing a 20-second televised statement claiming that an issue at the Chernobyl plant had occurred but that it was getting dealt with by the authorities. [3] In the following days, however, it became apparent to both Ukrainians citizens and to the world that the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was far more serious than the government would admit. Ninety-two thousand Ukrainians were evacuated in the first weeks following the explosions. Fearing radiation contamination, the European Common Market then declared a ban on meat, produce and live animals from Eastern Europe. It would take years, however, until the full effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster could be assessed.

The former president of Russia, Mikhail Gorbachev, has publicly stated that Chernobyl was the "turning point" in the Soviet Union's demise. For one, the clean up amounted to billions of dollars that weakened an already fragile economy. Moreover, the attempt to cover up the disaster at the expense of Soviet citizens' lives, according to Gorbachev, tested the loyalty of even the most pro-Soviet supporters. Last, the incident highlighted the importance of an open press. Gorbavech himself believes that Chernobyl inspired his "glasnost" (гласность) or "openness" policies as president. [4]


On February 21, 2017 I had the opportunity to interview former New York Times journalist, Felicity Barringer. Ms. Barringer was one of the few American journalists allowed to work in the Soviet Union during the USSR's final years. Thirty years after the explosions, she still remembers the confusion of the Ukranian people as the news of the explosion developed. Based in Moscow and with access to limited information, she decided one night to visit the train station in search of answers. She vividly remembers the trains from Kiev arriving full of young children and their caretakers. Despite Ms. Barringer's belief that the children were being sent away to Moscow to escape the falling radiation, the passengers refused to speak to her of what was unraveling in Kiev. When questioned, they only repeated, almost verbatim, the Soviet Government's official announcement: "An accident has occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant as one of the reactors was damaged. Measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of the accident."


The impacts of the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster can be felt to this day. As shown in Fig. 1, Chernobyl is still radioactive and a danger to the public. The explosions and their aftermath weakened the Soviet economy, tested the Kremlin's most loyal supporters and in the opinion of some, marked the start of the USSR's decline.

© Eddy Rosales-Chavez. 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] M. V. Ramana, "Twenty Years After Chernobyl: Debates and Lessons," Econ. Polit. Weekly 41, 1743 (2006).

[2] F. Barringer, "Chernobyl 'Radiation and Burns' Have Killed Six, Moscow Reports," New York Times, 13 May 86.

[3] L. Golinkin, "The Lasting Effects of the Post-Chernobyl Parade," Time, 30 Apr 16.

[4] M. J. Stern, "How a Nuclear CatastropheUndermined an Entire Empire," Slate Magazine. 25 Jan 13.