There was once a city - The worst nuclear disaster in human history

 The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants. It doesn’t care about our government, our ideologies and our religions. It will lie in wait for all time. And this at last is the gift of Chernobyl.”

H ow is this our Business?

Many years ago, I took quite some interest in the story behind the nuclear disaster that changed the lives of thousands of residents of Pripyat, a former model Soviet metropolis, founded on February 4, 1970 and located just two kilometers away from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

The city was built to house workers at the Chernobyl nuclear power station situated northwest of the city of Chernobyl (Ukrainian: Chornobyl) and 65 miles (104 km) north of Kiev, Ukraine. 

Pripyat is described as an initially young, vibrant and wealthy place with a population of 49,400 residents. The city also had an average age of about 26 years with an urban outlook containing 13,414 apartments in 160 apartment blocks along with 18 halls of residence accommodating up to 7,621 single males or females, and eight halls of residence for married or de facto couples.

The city housed 15 kindergartens and elementary schools for 4,980 children, and 5 secondary schools for 6,786 students. This is according to Wikipedia.

However on 26th April 1986, almost 34years ago, that city and its immediate environs was decimated forever in what is considered the worst nuclear disaster in the history of mankind and one of only two nuclear energy disasters rated at seven—the maximum severity—on the International Nuclear Event Scale, the other being the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan.

Today, none of the cultural history, heritage, values and beauty of the cities of Chernobyl or Pripyat will ever matter, as they remain cast in the undesirable chapter of the black book of world’s worst disasters.

I recollect the first time I read in the news a couple of years ago, that Nigeria was tinkering with the idea of building a nuclear power plant to put an end to our perennial and generational misery with public power supply. My initial reaction was of genuine concern and fear, founded squarely on the Chernobyl disaster. Was this unfounded? Do you reckon?

The World Bank had published in a report years ago that 40% of the population of Nigeria are without electricity, thus providing justification and credence for the construction of a nuclear power plant to bridge the power deficit.

The mainstream media had reported that Nigeria hoped to begin construction of the nuclear power plant in 2011 and plans to start nuclear power production in 2017-2020. The plant was proposed to be located in Itu, Akwa Ibom State, this is despite warnings from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Nigeria lacked the technical competence to manage nuclear related issues or disaster.

Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of the history of mankind. I hope this piece does just that.

How bad was it?

We may never truly know the scale of the damage, but the gory images from the disaster will provide valuable insight into how easy humans can self-destruct to become refugees here on mother earth.

 

 

 

 

The accident caused the largest uncontrolled radioactive release into the environment ever recorded for any civilian operation, and these large quantities were released into the air for about 10 days.

Between 50 and 185 million curies of radionuclides (radioactive forms of chemical elements) escaped into the atmosphere—several times more radioactivity than that created by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. And this was only just about 30 percent of Chernobyl’s 185 metric tons of uranium.

The radioactivity was thereafter spread by the wind over Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine and soon reached as far west as France and Italy.

But in the immediate aftermath of the accident itself, an area of about one thousand hectares became consumed by the release of invisible effects of radiation. That area of natural vegetation is now known as the “Red Forest” because so many trees turned reddish-brown and died after absorbing high levels of radiation.

One person was killed immediately as a result of two massive explosions and a second died in hospital soon after as a result of injuries received. Another person is reported to have also died at the time from coronary thrombosis.

Acute radiation syndrome (ARS) was originally diagnosed in 237 people onsite and those involved with the clean-up exercise although it was later confirmed in 134 cases.

Of these, 28 people died – six of which were firemen – as a result of ARS within a few weeks of the accident. Nineteen more workers subsequently died between 1987 and 2004, but their deaths cannot necessarily be attributed to radiation exposure. Dozens more contracted serious radiation sickness; some of these people were reported to have later died.

The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation reports that more than 6,000 children and adolescents developed thyroid cancer after being exposed to radiation from the incident, although some experts have challenged that claim.

The disaster has been estimated to cost some $235 billion in damages. What is now Belarus, which saw 23 percent of its territory contaminated by the accident, lost about a fifth of its agricultural land.

The disaster was so bad that in subsequent years many livestock were born deformed, and among humans, several thousand radiation-induced illnesses and cancer deaths were expected in the long term.

What then really happened?

On 25 April, prior to a routine shutdown, the reactor crew at Chernobyl 4, began preparing for a test to determine how long turbines would spin and supply power to the main circulating pumps following a loss of main electrical power supply. This test had been carried out at Chernobyl the previous year, but the power from the turbine ran down too rapidly, so new voltage regulator designs were to be tested.

This test placed the reactor in a dangerously unstable condition which virtually guaranteed an accident as it required disabling some of its safety systems. The overpressure caused the cover plate of the reactor to become partially detached, rupturing the fuel channels and jamming all the control rods, which by that time were only halfway down. In the aftermath of this meltdown was two massive explosions that blew off the safety cap of the reactor spewing massive burning lumps of radioactive materials and sparks unguarded and directly into the air above the reactor.

 

 

The Chernobyl disaster sparked criticism of unsafe procedures and design flaws in Soviet reactors and nuclear plants. At these times, nuclear power stations were presented as achievements of Soviet engineering, harnessing nuclear power for peaceful projects and to better human lives. It was therefore a slur on its technological advancement to suffer such a cruel failure of its much touted superior designs.

 The Response

Shortly after the accident, firefighters arrived the scene to extinguish the fires and they were not rightly informed of how dangerously radioactive the smoke and the debris were, and may not even have known that the accident was anything more than a regular electrical fire.

It was thought by some quarters that the core fire was extinguished by a combined effort of helicopters dropping more than 5,000 tons (5,500 short tons) of sand, lead, clay, and neutron-absorbing boron onto the burning reactor.

From eyewitness accounts of the firefighters involved before they died (as reported on the CBC television series Witness), one described his experience of the radiation as “tasting like metal”, and feeling a sensation similar to that of pins and needles all over his face. (Culled from Wikipedia)

The townspeople, in the early hours of the morning, went about their usual business, completely oblivious to what had just happened. However, within a few hours of the explosion, dozens of people fell ill. Later, they reported severe headaches and metallic tastes in their mouths, along with uncontrollable fits of coughing and vomiting.

The plant operators’ town of Pripyat was subsequently evacuated on 27 April (45,000 residents). By 14 May, some 116,000 people that had been living within a 30-kilometre radius had been evacuated and later relocated. About 1000 of these returned unofficially to live within the contaminated zone.

 The residents were told to bring only what was necessary, and that they would remain evacuated for approximately three days. As a result, most personal belongings were left behind, and remain there today.

10 days after the accident, the evacuation area was expanded to 30 kilometers radius from the epicenter of the accident.

In the months after the explosion, attention turned to removing the radioactive debris from the roof. The worst of the radioactive debris was collected inside what was left of the reactor, however it was estimated that there was approximately 100 tons of debris on that roof that resulted from the explosion and which had to be removed to enable the safe construction of the ‘sarcophagus’ – a concrete structure that would entomb the reactor and reduce radioactive dust being released into the atmosphere.

The initial plan was to use robots to clear the debris off the roof. The Soviets used approximately 60 remote-controlled robots, most of them built in the Soviet Union although many failed due to the effect of high levels of radiation on their electronic controls.

The aftermath

The economic and political toll of this accident hastened the end of the USSR and fueled a global anti-nuclear movement.

A trial took place from 7 to 30 July 1987 in a makeshift courtroom setup in the House of Culture in Chernobyl, Ukraine. Five plant employees were sentenced to between 2 to 10 years in labor camps.

Declared unfit for human habitation, the Zones of Exclusion includes only the cities of Pripyat and Chernobyl. The cities were deemed too dangerous for humans for at least 24,000 years, for the sheer amount of radiation that now coated the environment.

 

“Thirteen years after the explosive catastrophe the awful legacy can still be seen not only in the surviving immediate victims, but also in thousands more who were born with radiation caused deformities and diseases and forever more those who have dangerous buildup of radiation in their bodies from the food they eat and the water they drink every day. It accumulates and festers and destroys lives in countless ways,” writes a photographer, Paul Fusco, who documented the terrible consequences of this disaster in his book Chernobyl Legacy.

“Now the new generation bears the legacy, a bewildering and horrifying array of defects; mangled babies, brain damaged, genetic damage, and physiological, neurological, psychological damages. They carry the malevolent seeds of Chernobyl that will be passed on to the next generation and again to the next, and the next, and the next.

Today, Pripyat is a ghost city fit only for tourism. The Ferris wheel that never turned has become an enduring symbol of the disaster.

If Nigeria still intends to pursue the ignoble path of damnation in her bid to show off her “borrowed” technological prowess and announce her arrival on the exclusive club of world nuclear powers, then the lessons from Chernobyl are still ever fresh to learn from.

Stay Woke people!

 

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8 thoughts on “There was once a city”

  1. Chernobyl!!! I first heard this in a movie and I was lost.. But Thanks to you i am now found..lol.. Brilliant piece

  2. Think Chernobyl! …..An associate responding to Michael Douglas in a movie. In every way, it represents total disaster.

  3. I got this chernobyl Story in one of my Historical geographical researches/adventures. It’s a big disaster and now a burden on Ukraine caused by communists USSR.

    Nice one and more detailed information on the main cause…

    Naija must not try Nuclear energy o !

    1. Declared unfit for human habitation, the Zones of Exclusion includes only the cities of Pripyat and Chernobyl. The cities were deemed too dangerous for humans for at least 24,000 years, for the sheer amount of radiation that now coated the environment.
      .
      .
      “Now the new generation bears the legacy, a bewildering and horrifying array of defects; mangled babies, brain damaged, genetic damage, and physiological, neurological, psychological damages. They carry the malevolent seeds of Chernobyl that will be passed on to the next generation and again to the next, and the next, and the next.”

      These are very scary. It will amount to self-destructiion if Nigeria ever tries this.

      May God Save Nigeria.

  4. I got a clearer picture of this incident after reading this article. Thanks for this writeup. I hope the Nigerian government will learn from other nation’s mistakes and not put their noses in things they can’t handle on the long run.

  5. Akinsola Oluwafemi

    If Nigeria still intends to pursue the ignoble path of damnation in her bid to show off her “borrowed” technological prowess and announce her arrival on the exclusive club of world nuclear powers, then the lessons from Chernobyl are still ever fresh to learn from.
    Unfortunately, we have a track record of poor and unplanned maintenance culture even for the smallest of non technical installations. I pray a bunch of selfish politicians will note take us through this route just because of their own mundane gains.

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