The Chernobyl Disaster: Public Responses

Pat Yontrarak
March 17, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: Radioactive sign at Chernobyl. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

April 26, 1986 marked the day of the most disastrous accident in the history of the nuclear industry: the Chernobyl reactor accident. Insufficiently trained workers, who violated several operating regulations. along with flawed reactor design, where damage to just 3-4 fuel assemblies would destroy the whole reactor, were major contributors to the catastrophe. [1] According to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, UNSCEAR, the incident happened while carrying out a low-power engineering test of the Chernobyl Unit 4 reactor in the following sequence of events: the safety systems were switched off, the reactor was operated improperly, causing uncontainable power to be released, the reactor overheated, a series of explosions occurred, and the reactor was eventually completely destroyed. [2] As a result of the destruction of the Chernobyl 4 reactor, an array of radioisotopes were released for about 10 days, which caused extensive areas near the site to be exposed to radiation. This contamination lead to various medical, environmental, and economic issues that still affect the surrounding areas today. A photo of a radioactive sign at Chernobyl is shown in Fig.1.

Public Responses

Aside from visible impacts, the Chernobyl accident also affected the publics opinion on nuclear energy. According to a study, the level of opposition to nuclear power increased significantly after the incident in Finland, Yugoslavia, and Greece from around 30-40% to 60-75% in total; Austria, West Germany and Italy also faced considerable increments from around 45-60% to 70-80% in total. [3] Such evidence indicates that people from countries that are geographically located closer to the event had more significant psychological impacts and faced heightened fear. To support this notion, there was an observed relationship between the extent of perception change of a community and the level of radioactive contamination. [3] Perhaps, this was also due to peoples change in view of nuclear disasters as being more likely to occur than they previously thought. Therefore, it was not surprising that the proportion of citizens who were opposed to domestic nuclear programs spiked immediately after the accident, resulting in the government having to reevaluate these programs.

However, this rise in anti-nuclear sentiments was short-lived for some countries following the nuclear accident. According to a national survey, after the first year of the nuclear fallout, most people who were supporters of nuclear energy before the incident came to support these programs again. [4] This reversal in public perception was more prevalent for countries with strong nuclear programs, since people eventually became swayed by and found comfort in their communitys majority opinion that was favored towards using nuclear energy. This observation coincides with the attitude theory, which suggests that attitude changes will be temporary for indirectly- affected countries with low proportions of uncommitted responses to views on nuclear power prior to the fallout. [5] Although this may be the case, those who support domestic nuclear programs still expect revisions to policies including improving systems for emergency response in preparation for possible future accidents

Policy Adjustments

Following increased anti-nuclear sentiments and concerns regarding public safety of nuclear programs, most countries decided to adopt policy changes in their corresponding domestic nuclear programs and agreed on revised international policies. For instance, the Dutch parliament suspended plans to locate two additional nuclear reactors, Sweden confirmed its intentions of eliminating nuclear energy, and West Germany decided to set up a Federal Ministry for Environment and Reactor Safety. [4] From these examples, it appears that the fundamental nuclear policies of many of these countries were not altered since they were mostly geared towards the phasing out of nuclear energy already or that their decisions to not utilize nuclear power were strengthened. Also, there were countries that remained supportive of nuclear energy but their expansion plans were decelerated. Therefore, increased public concern caused governments to reconsider nuclear programs and revise safety protocols so that they were more stringent and ensured safety.


The Chernobyl catastrophe had disastrous effects on both the environment and humans, resulting in the public being immediately more fearful of and opposed to nuclear energy. These issues could have been alleviated through increased preparation for radioactive accidents beforehand, better handling of information regarding the accident, and strengthened international collaboration and transparency on these sensitive issues. [6] Even so, it lead to huge shifts in cooperation between industries and safety culture especially among directly affected countries, yielding some positive results from a catastrophic incident.

© Pat Yontrarak. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. 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] Z. W. Seh, "Causes of the Chernobyl Accident," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2015.

[2] "Annex J: Exposures and Effects of the Chernobyl Accident," in Sources and Effects of Ionizing Radiation - UNSCEAR 2000 Report to the General Assembly, Vol II (United Nations, 2000), pp 453 - 566.

[3] M. K. Lindell and R. W. Perry, "Effects of the Chernobyl Accident on Public Perceptions of Nuclear Plant Accident Risks," Risk Anal. 10, 393 (1990).

[4] O. Renn, "Public Responses to the Chernobyl Accident," J. Environ. Psychol. 10, 151 (1990).

[5] B. Verplanken, "Public Reactions to the Chernobyl Accident: A Case of Rationality?" Organ. Environ. 5, 253 (1991).

[6] V. Saenko et al., "The Chernobyl Accident and its Consequences," Clin. Oncol. 23, 234, (2011).