The Chornobyl Accident: the Way It Still Affects Ukraine

The Chornobyl Accident: the Way It Still Affects Ukraine

On April 26, 1986, an explosion occurred at the fourth power unit of the Chornobyl nuclear power plant, and a fire broke out. The fire spread to the roof of the third power unit, where they tried to extinguish it for about four hours. The explosions destroyed the reactor, and a cloud of radioactive dust formed in the atmosphere. 

While the radiation spread across Europe, it was only on 27 April that the so-called "temporary" evacuation was announced in Ukraine in Prypiat, located 3 km from the Chornobyl nuclear power plant. Almost all the residents — about 45,000 — left their homes. By the end of 1986, about 116,000 people had been evacuated from 188 settlements. 

As a result of the accident, the area near the station became a radiation-hazardous zone. After the evacuation of the population from the 30-kilometre zone around the station, the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone [an area to control the population's safety and the environment - ed.] was established, covering 2576.9 km2.

Read more about the impact of the Chornobyl accident on Ukrainians, the environment and what is happening to the plant in 2023.

Affected settlements and the environment

A total of 2,293 settlements in Ukraine, with a population of approximately 2.6 million people, were contaminated with radioactive materials. The radiation spread over 200,000 square kilometres, of which 52 km2 is agricultural land.

"The prevalence of radiation in the settlements mainly depended on the wind direction. As it turned out, the radiation first hit Kyiv, Chernihiv, Zhytomyr regions, and less Cherkasy, Rivne and Volyn regions," says Dmytro Bazyka, Director General of the National Research Centre for Radiation Medicine of the National Academy of Medical Sciences.

"The forests, rivers and lakes near the plant were heavily contaminated as a result of the Chornobyl explosion due to the release of radiation. As a result, the Chornobyl Radiation and Ecological Biosphere Reserve was created to preserve the flora and fauna around the plant, which includes the Red Book species. 

Some scientists have documented cases of genetic deformation of Chornobyl's nature and mutations. For example, Timothy Mousseau, a biologist at the University of South Carolina who studied the environment around the Chornobyl nuclear power plant, explains that the main reason for the appearance of mutations during irradiation is the appearance of a large number of hydrogen peroxide molecules and other aggressive oxidants that can penetrate the cell nucleus and destroy DNA. During his research, Timothy Mousseau recalls collecting deformed flowers and seeing many mutated trees.

Cancer and cardiovascular diseases

The Chornobyl accident affected people's health in different ways and times and will continue for many decades to come, says Dmytro Bazyka.

He says more than three million people have been recorded as disaster victims, but the number has decreased over the years due to increased mortality. More than 1.8 million people are known to have been affected by the accident at the plant. The most common diseases are cardiovascular and oncological.

In previous years, victims of the Chornobyl accident developed three so-called "early cancers" that progress from 2–5 to 30 years after exposure: thyroid cancer, leukaemia, and breast cancer. However, Bazyka notes that other forms of cancer can occur in 40 years. 

"According to the law of medicine, all diseases after radiation exposure have their sequence. First, if a person has received a large dose, they may develop acute radiation sickness. If the dose is lower, then immunity and haematopoiesis disorders develop. These are the first 3–5 years after exposure. Then comes the time for cancer, including leukaemia. It develops from two to forty years after exposure," says the professor. 

Leukaemia began to appear in the first years after the exposure, mainly among liquidators. Currently, the number of diseases associated with radiation exposure is decreasing. However, breast cancer develops mainly in women liquidators.

Bazyka adds that other cancers are developing in those affected by the radiation accident, and their frequency is increasing, which may continue for another forty years. As of 2023, people are still diagnosed with new cancers.

Demographic changes 

Dmytro Bazyka notes that in 1986, the birth rate decreased because people did not understand the effects of radiation on future generations and feared that children would have fatal and incurable diseases. Also, mortality increased. 

"The mortality rate is higher among those who suffered from acute radiation sickness of the rescue workers," says the professor. 

One of the factors that also affect life expectancy and mortality is resettlement. 

"The stress is also affecting health," says Bazyka.

Psychological consequences

The population experienced fear due to the unknown consequences of the disaster and resettlement. Many were forced to move house, which was accompanied by stress. Despite the new location, people still needed more understanding of the radiation effects. 

"When a person is exposed to radiation, they experience a certain psychological stress; if they were evacuated, it is also stressful, and radiation was superimposed on it, and thus one effect reinforced the other," the professor says. 

As of 2021, about 51% of the population perceived radiation as hazardous to health. In addition, 70.6 per cent were concerned about their and their children's health, and 35.3 per cent were concerned about the lack of information about the population's health.

Cultural impact

The Chornobyl disaster was also reflected in art. Ukrainians have reinterpreted the tragedy in paintings, poems and films. One of the symbols of the Chornobyl accident is the "Chornobyl pine tree". 

"It is supposed to have miraculous powers and is associated with the Second World War, growing almost on the line that connects the fourth emergency unit of the Chornobyl nuclear power plant with Prypiat. The Nazis allegedly used this pine tree to execute partisans. During the liquidation, the entire forest was buried because of hazardous emissions. Still, the pine tree was left behind," says Oksana Semenik, an art historian and researcher of the Chornobyl disaster in Ukrainian art.

The historian also says that another symbol is the Chornobyl Madonna: "The image of the Mother of God with a child has always been associated with beauty and the future that the birth of Christ gives humanity. But, instead, the Chornobyl Madonna symbolises the Apocalypse because these mothers and children are suffering from radiation, meaning there is no future." 

In particular, the problem of tragedy through this image is revealed by Ivan Drach in his poem "The Chornobyl Madonna". His Madonna is a mother who gave birth to a son involved in the explosion, and the poet compares the party and state leaders to King Herod.

"I think that the artists of that time wanted to convey a sense of apocalypse when everything breaks down. So, on the one hand, it is indeed the end of the world, but on the other hand, something new can be assembled from these fragments," notes Oksana Semenik.

What is happening with Chornobyl now? 

Before the full-scale Russian invasion, excursions were held on the territory of the Chornobyl zone. On February 24, 2022, Russian troops entered the area by crossing the border with Belarus. The Russians seized the power plant along with its employees. 

On March 31, 2022, Russian troops withdrew from the Chornobyl nuclear power plant. The Washington Post reported that the military had taken about $135 million worth of equipment from the Chornobyl power plant. 

"The Russian army took out 690 computers, 344 cars, 1500 dosimeters, almost all firefighting equipment and many irreplaceable devices necessary for the functioning of the power plant," said Mykola Bezpalyi, director of the Central Analytical Laboratory of the power plant.

Over three decades after the accident occurred, Ukraine and the world are still facing the problems caused by the explosion. However, we are encountering another similar threat: the temporary occupation of Zaporizhzhia NPP. 

The plant has repeatedly lost the external power supply necessary to maintain regular operation. The Russians are deploying military equipment on the territory, and workers are being held, abducted and tortured.  

"Europe's largest nuclear facility continues to suffer from the arbitrariness of the Russian military and their henchmen, while Ukrainian personnel are desperately trying to maintain nuclear and radiation safety across the continent," Energoatom reports.