Chernobyl: Disaster, Response and Fallout

Chernobyl is a nuclear power plant in Ukraine that was the site of a disastrous nuclear accident on April 26, 1986. A routine test at the power plant went horribly wrong, and two massive explosions blew the 1,000-ton roof off one of the plant’s reactors, releasing 400 times more radiation than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The worst nuclear disaster in history killed two workers in the explosions and, within months, at least 28 more would be dead by acute radiation exposure. Eventually, thousands of people would show signs of health effects—including cancer—from the fallout.

The Chernobyl disaster not only stoked fears over the dangers of nuclear power, it also exposed the Soviet government’s lack of openness to the Soviet people and the international community. The meltdown and its aftermath drained the Soviet Union of billions in clean-up costs, led to the loss of a primary energy source and dealt a serious blow to national pride.

Then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would later say that he thought the Chernobyl meltdown, “even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later.”

Where Is Chernobyl?

Chernobyl is located in northern Ukraine, about 80 miles north of Kiev. A small town, Pripyat, was constructed a few miles from the site of the nuclear plant to accommodate workers and their families.

Construction of the Chernobyl power plant began in 1977, when the country was still part of the Soviet Union. By 1983, four reactors had been completed, and the addition of two more reactors was planned in subsequent years.

What Happened at Chernobyl?

A routine exercise to test whether an emergency water cooling system would work during a power loss started at 1:23 a.m. on April 26.

Within seconds, an uncontrolled reaction caused pressure to build up in Reactor No. 4 in the form of steam. The steam blasted the roof off the reactor, releasing plumes of radiation and chunks of burning, radioactive debris.

About two to three seconds later, a second explosion hurled out additional fuel. A fire started at the roof of Reactor No. 3, risking a breach at that facility. Automatic safety systems that would normally have kicked into action did not because they had been shut down prior to the test.

READ MORE: Chernobyl Disaster: The Meltdown by the Minute

Firefighters arrived at the scene within minutes and began to fight the blaze without gear to protect them from radiation. Many of them would soon number among the 28 killed by acute radiation exposure.

Eyewitness accounts of the firefighters who had helped battle the fires described the radiation as “tasting like metal,” and feeling pain like pins and needles on their faces, according to the CBC documentary series, Witness. Days later, many of those firefighters would be dead.

It wasn’t until 5 a.m. the following day that Reactor No. 3 was shut down. Some 24 hours later, Reactors No. 1 and 2 were also shut down.

By the afternoon of April 26, the Soviet government had mobilized troops to help fight the blaze. Some were dropped at the rooftop of the reactor to furiously shovel debris off the facility and spray water on the exposed reactor to keep it cool.

The workers were picked up within seconds to minimize their radiation exposure. It would take nearly two weeks to extinguish all the fires using sand, lead and nitrogen.

Pripyat Evacuated

Meanwhile, life went on as usual for almost a day in the neighboring town of Pripyat. Aside from the sight of trucks cleaning the streets with foam, there were initially few signs of the disaster unfolding just miles away.

It wasn’t until the next day, April 27, when the government began evacuations of Pripyat’s 50,000 residents. Residents were told they would be away for just a few days, so they took very little with them. Most would never return to their homes.

Soviet Secrecy

It took days for Soviet leadership to inform the international community that the disaster had occurred. The Soviet government made no official statement about the global-scale accident until Swedish leaders demanded an explanation when operators of a nuclear power plant in Stockholm registered unusually high radiation levels near their plant.

Finally, on April 28, the Kremlin reported that there had been an accident at Chernobyl and that authorities were handling it. The statement was followed by a state broadcast detailing the U.S. nuclear accident at Three Mile Island and other nuclear incidents in western countries.

Three days later, Soviet May Day parades to celebrate workers went ahead as usual in Moscow, Kiev and Belarus’ capital Minsk—even as hazardous amounts of radiation were still streaming from the wrecked power plant.

Most people, even within the Ukraine, were still unaware of the accident, the deaths, and the hasty evacuations of Pripyat.

READ MORE: The Chernobyl Cover-Up: How Officials Botched Evacuating an Irradiated City

Chernobyl Disaster Spewed Radiation

The damaged plant released a large quantity of radioactive substances, including iodine-131, cesium-137, plutonium and strontium-90, into the air for over a period of 10 days.

The radioactive cloud was deposited nearby as dust and debris, but was also carried by wind over the Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Scandinavia and other parts oEurope.

In an attempt to contain the fallout, on May 14, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev ordered the dispatch of hundreds of thousands of people, including firefighters, military reservists and miners, to the site to aid in clean-up. The corps worked steadily, often with inadequate protective gear, through 1989 to clear debris and contain the disaster.

Chernobyl Sarcophagus

Over a hurried construction period of 206 days, crews erected a steel and cement sarcophagus to entomb the damaged reactor and contain any further release of radiation.

As former liquidator, Yaroslav Melnik, told the BBC in January 2017, “We worked in three shifts, but only for five to seven minutes at a time because of the danger. After finishing, we’d throw our clothes in the garbage.”

Starting in 2010, an international consortium organized the building of a bigger, more secure sarcophagus for the site. The 35,000-ton New Safe Confinement was built on tracks and then slid over the damaged reactor and existing sarcophagus in November 2016.

After the installation of the new structure, radiation near the plant dropped to just one-tenth of previous levels, according to official figures. The structure was designed to contain the radioactive debris for 100 years.

Chernobyl Elephant’s Foot

Deep within the basement of Reactor 4 lies the Chernobyl Elephant’s Foot, a huge mass of melted concrete, sand and highly radioactive nuclear fuel.

The mass was named for its wrinkled appearance, which reminded some observers of the wrinkled skin of an elephant’s leg and foot.

In the 1980s, the Elephant’s Foot gave off an estimated 10,000 roentgens of radiation each hour, enough to kill a person three feet away in less than two minutes. By 2001, that rate had dropped to roughly 800 roentgens per hour.

How Many People Died in Chernobyl?

Ukraine’s government declared in 1995 that 125,000 people had died from the effects of Chernobyl radiation. A 2005 report from the United Nations Chornobyl Forum estimated that while fewer than 50 people were killed in the months following the accident, up to 9,000 people could eventually die from excess cancer deaths linked to radiation exposure from Chernobyl.

As of 2005, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, some 6,000 thyroid cancers and 15 thyroid cancer deaths had been attributed to Chernobyl.

Health effects from the Chernobyl disaster remain unclear, apart from the initial 30 people the Soviet government confirmed killed from the explosions and acute radiation exposure. No official government studies were conducted following the explosion to assess its effects on workers, the liquidators and nearby populations.

A 2011 study by the U.S. National Institutes of Health concluded that exposure to radioactive iodine-131 from Chernobyl fallout was likely responsible for thyroid cancers that were still being reported among people who were children or adolescents at the time of the accident.

Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Apart from the ever-unfolding human toll from the disaster, the Chernobyl accident also left behind a huge area of radiation-tainted land.

A 770-mile-wide Chernobyl Exclusion Zone around the site isn’t considered safe for human habitation and can’t be used for logging or agriculture due to contaminated plants and soil. By 2017, however, entrepreneurs found a new use for the territory.

In December 2017, a Ukrainian-German company, Solar Chernobyl, announced construction of a massive solar power plant in the abandoned territory. The one-megawatt power plant, built just a few hundred feet from the damaged Reactor 4, was fitted with 3,800 photovoltaic panels. The Ukrainian government said that a collection of companies planned to eventually develop up to 99 more megawatts of solar power at the site.

That’s a lot of power, but still not close to the former output of the ruined nuclear power plant. At the time of the accident Chernobyl’s four reactors could generate 1,000 megawatts each.

Chernobyl Animals Thrive

Meanwhile, wildlife, including boars, wolves, beavers and bison, showed signs of flourishing at the Chernobyl site, according to an April 2016 study.

The researchers pointed out that while radiation exposure couldn’t be good for the animals, the benefits of the absence of humans outweighed radiation risk.

Chernobyl Today

Humans, on the other hand, aren’t expected to repopulate the area any time soon. Ukrainian authorities have said it will not be safe for people to live in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone for more than 24,000 years.

Today tourists can visit the site, which appears frozen in time, apart from signs of looting, natural weathering and the encroachment of nature.


“Chernobyl: The True Scale of the Accident,” September 5, 2005, World Health Organization.
Chernobyl Accident 1986, updated November 2016, World Nuclear Association
“Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident: An Overview,” April 2006, World Health Organization.
“Chernobyl’s Legacy 30 Years On,” by Tom Burridge, April 26, 2016, BBC News
“Higher Cancer Risk Continues After Chernobyl,” March 17, 2011, National Institutes of Health.
“How Many Cancer Deaths Did Chernobyl Really Cause?” by Lisbeth Gronlund, Union of Concerned Scientists.
“Animals Rule Chernobyl Three Decades After Nuclear Disaster,” by John Wendle, April 18, 2016, National Geographic.
“A Nuclear Disaster That Brought Down an Empire,” April 26, 2016, The Economist.
“World’s Largest Moveable Steel Structure Shelters Sarcophagus at Chernobyl,” April 27, 2017, PhysOrg/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
“Pictures: ‘Liquidators’ Endured Chernobyl 25 Years Ago,” by Marianne Lavelle, April 27, 2011, National Geographic.
“Chernobyl: Timeline of a Nuclear Nightmare,” by Kim Hjelmgaard, USA Today.
“A Vast New Tomb for the Most Dangerous Disaster Site in the World,” by Christian Borys, January 3, 2017, BBC Future Now.
“The Lessons of Chernobyl May Be Different Than We Thought,” by Ryan Faith, April 26, 2016, Vice News.
“25 Years After Chernobyl, We Don’t Know How Many Died,” by Roger Highfield, April 21, 2011, New Scientist.
“Chernobyl’s Transformation Into a Massive Solar Plant Is Almost Complete,” by David Nield, January 13, 2018, Science Alert.
“The Famous Photo of Chernobyl’s Most Dangerous Radioactive Material Was a Selfie.” January 24, 2016, Atlas Obscura.

Works Cited & Collections

ABC News. Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster: Gorbachev Speaks, May 14, 1986. Accessed December 2, 2016.

“Chapter VIII Shutdown of the Chernobyl Plant - Chernobyl: Assessment of Radiological and Health Impact.” Accessed December 6, 2016.

Mattie Lopez. National Geographic Documentary 2014 What Really Happened at Chernobyl Full Documentary HD. Accessed December 15, 2016.

Nuclear Disaster. Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster Explained! RBMK-1000 Explosion of Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster Scheme! Accessed December 12, 2016.

NuclearAdvisor. Seconds From Disaster - Meltdown at Chernobyl - FULL - Accessed December 12, 2016.

The Chernobyl Disaster: How It Happened. Accessed December 11, 2016.

Unknown. “Chernobyl Evacuation.” Accessed December 11, 2016.

“Pripyat and PowerPlant.” Accessed December 9, 2016.

Willis, Carl. “Control Room 2.” Accessed December 3, 2016.

The Exclusion Zone

BlueDotBash. New Safe Confinement - Timelapse 2013-2016 (with Highlights), 2016.

“Chernobyl’s New Safe Confinement.” Accessed December 13, 2016.

“Lazurny Public Pool (Before).” Accessed December 10, 2016.

Postalovsky_A. “Pripyat: Swimming Pool in the Dead City.” Pripyat and Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, August 7, 2014.

“Припятское: Плавательный Бассейн В Мертвом Городе.” Припять И Чернобыльская Зона Отчуждения, August 7, 2014.

“Pripyat in Numbers - Website of the City of Pripyat - Chernobyl Disaster, News, Articles, Media.” Accessed December 15, 2016.

“Duga Radar.” Wikipedia, November 25, 2016.

“Jupiter Factory Pripyat | The Chernobyl Gallery.” Accessed December 16, 2016.

“МЁРТВЫЕ ГОРОДА / ГОРОДА-ПРИЗРАКИ (Главный стадион ‘Авангард’ в Г. Припять.).” Accessed December 16, 2016.

“Pripyat: Short Introduction - Website of the City of Pripyat - Chernobyl Disaster, News, Articles, Media.” Accessed December 9, 2016.

“Prometheus Theatre.” Accessed December 16, 2016.

“Rassokha Equipment Cemetery.” Accessed December 16, 2016.

“Reactor 4 Meltdown.” Accessed December 9, 2016.

The Effects

Aleksievich, Svetlana, and Keith Gessen. “Voices from Chernobyl: the oral history of a nuclear disaster.” Braille Jymico Inc, 2006.

35 years after Chernobyl’s meltdown, the fallout of radiation continues

Two studies provide new insight into the effects of ionizing radiation.

The fallout from Chernobyl is both vast and ongoing. In 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident killed two workers at the plant immediately, and in the following days and weeks, the fatalities rose. Today, two studies show how the accident’s effects continue to manifest in ripples of illness and death.

In one study, researchers based in the United States and Ukraine looked at genetic mutations in the children of people who had been exposed to radiation in the other, scientists evaluated the genomic profile of cancerous tumors removed from people exposed to the blast’s radiation.

The reason why the scientists are looking again at the fallout from the explosion today is not out of morbid curiosity. Rather, these studies are a bid to better understand how genetic material may be changed by radiation — and how exposure manifests in the genetics of future generations, too. With ongoing threats to staff and residents around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and 440 active nuclear reactors around the globe, it’s crucial to understand the long-term, and generational effects, of ionizing radiation.

What happened at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant?

Shortly after midnight on April 26, 1986, a nuclear power plant 2 miles from the city of Pripyat, in what was then the Soviet Union (now Ukraine), started to malfunction. Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was in trouble. The reactor and its emergency cooling core had been shut down the day before for routine maintenance and tests. But the test had to be postponed. Despite the delay, communication and safety protocols lapsed, and, the cooling core was kept offline. Steam started to build in the cooling pipes, causing a power surge the plant’s engineers couldn’t shut down.

The explosions began at 1:23 am, spreading a toxic cloud full of radioactive debris into the air above the plant. The explosion also caused a fire, which tore through another building and further spread the radioactive cloud across the surrounding communities. Over the next several hours, two plant workers died of acute radiation poisoning. The people of Pripyat, meanwhile, started vomiting and reporting a metallic taste in their mouths. They weren’t evacuated until more than 24 hours after the planet blew up.

What does Chernobyl radiation do to your body?

Exposure to even low doses of ionizing radiation can damage the body in any number of ways, but one of the biggest concerns is cancer. This happens because ionizing radiation damages DNA. It is why Marie Curie, the famous scientist who discovered both polonium and radium, two radioactive elements, died of cancer. It is also why you need to wear a lead apron when you get an X-Ray to protect your body.

The severity and kind of illness people develop from ionizing radiation depends on several factors, including:

  • How much radiation they were exposed to
  • What tissue in the body was exposed to the radiation
  • Length of exposure (and/or the number of times exposed)
  • Vehicle for exposure — in other words, eating contaminated food, breathing it in, touching a radioactive element, etc)

What diseases did Chernobyl cause?

The World Health Organization estimates that the health of 5 million people in the former USSR was affected by the disaster in some way By other estimates, as many as 800,000 people in Belarus, a neighboring state, were affected by the radiation alone.

Some of the workers drafted to do the initial cleanup later developed leukemia. Lindsay Morton is a Senior Investigator with the National Institute of Health and an author on one of the new studies examining Chernobyl. She tells Inverse that people in the surrounding areas were likely exposed to radiation from Chernobylthrough “leafy greens and milk.” The radiation-contaminated plants, including the plants farm animals ate, and therefore any animal products those animals produced were contaminated, too.

In the years after the explosion, incidences of thyroid cancer skyrocketed in the surrounding areas. “Iodine is one of the building blocks in thyroid hormones,” Morton explains, “and the body can’t distinguish between iodine and radioactive iodine. So when a person ingests radioactive iodine, it concentrates in the thyroid.”

The rates of thyroid cancer increased the most in children, a morbid finding that suggests, according to one study, that children under the age of five are “particularly vulnerable to the effects of radiation.”

Do mutations from radiation exposure pass down?

There is some good news from the new studies. The first study, published Thursday in Science, found that parents who had been exposed to radiation from the accident were no more likely to have children with so-called de novo genetic mutations than parents who experienced no radiation exposure.

De novo mutations are genetic alterations that happen after conception and are not inherited directly from one’s parents rather, they may be the result of other factors, like age, environment, health, and other things that affect the biology of cells.

Stephen Chanock, one of the researchers on the new papers, tells Inverse that typically, you expect to see between 50 and 100 de novo mutations occur in any conception. Chanock is the Director of the Division of Cancer Epidemiology & Genetics at the National Institute of Health. In this study, Chanock and his colleagues couldn’t find any significant difference in the germline of parents who had been exposed to radiation and those who hadn’t.

“In science, it’s very difficult to prove a negative,” he says. “We modeled it many, many different ways, and we didn’t find any significant differences.”

Chanock and his colleagues note in the study that the children were conceived “months or years” after their parents had been exposed. As a result, the findings may not apply to children conceived closer to the moment when their parents are exposed to ionizing radiation.

How does radiation cause tumors?

The second study analyzed thyroid tumors, thyroid tissue, and blood collected from people who were exposed to radiation from Chernobyl, and then compared these samples to equivalent issues and blood taken from people who were not exposed to radiation. The comparison reveals a significant dose-dependent increase in double-strand DNA breaks among the exposed group.

Why it matters — Sometimes, when there’s a clean, double-strand DNA break, the cell can repair it quickly, Morton says. Other times, the repair job is less clean and efficient. When something like ionizing radiation is responsible for a double-strand DNA break, she says, there can be multiple double-strand DNA breaks.

“The DNA is broken in one place, and you have two of part A. Then the DNA is broken in another place, and you have two of part B.” Instead of the As being rejoined and the Bs being rejoined, Morton says, “A and B are joined. And that makes what's called a gene fusion. The cell has fused the wrong parts back together.”

Picture two shoelaces. One gets split in half and the other gets split in half. But instead of reconnecting each shoelace with its former part, you swap them. Half of shoelace 1 is now fused with shoelace 2, and vice versa. Not such a big deal when we’re talking about shoelaces. But with DNA, which has important instructions for your cells? That kind of mismatch, or gene fusion, is likely to cause some problems.

The higher dose of radiation the person had been exposed to, the more double-strand DNA breaks the researchers found. The association was clear, Morton says.

“We measured DNA double-strand breaks in multiple ways. And all of them showed consistent, clear, strong associations with radiation.”

Previous studies have shown double-strand DNA breaks in the blood of people recently exposed to ionizing radiation. But “double-strand DNA breaks have never actually been linked to a human tumor before,” Morton says.

Taken together, these findings have important consequences for how we understand ionizing radiation and how to protect ourselves from it.

“There’s a bit of a debate in radiation science about whether very low doses of ionizing would cause damage,” Morton says. The linear relationship between dose-dependent exposure and double-strand DNA breaks puts that question to rest.

Fallout: Looking back on the Chernobyl disaster after thirty five years

With the 35 th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster having arrived, there has been a renewal of interest in how the disaster occurred and how people dealt with the immediate aftermath.

Alla Shapiro, a 32-year old pediatrician at the time, working at the Children’s Hospital in Kiev, has vivid memories of the response, as she and others dealt with a sudden influx of children who had been exposed to the disaster. “I really didn’t have time to get scared or to get prepared. We saw the children arriving in a panic and in tears. It was a stressful event, but you have to act and do what you have to do. The negative thing was that we didn’t have any instruction, knowledge or training in radiation, so we exercised our [medical] background and did what we could. We also didn’t have enough supplies and proper protective clothing to wear during examinations,” said Shapiro to Scientific American.

Shapiro also spoke of the need for the general public, not only those in the medical field, to understand the scope of disaster, especially when specialized issues such as radiation poisoning are in play. “Without knowledge in this field, people can’t do anything, but fortunately we do have experts in the area of radiation,” said Shapiro to Scientific American. “What I witnessed [at Chernobyl] helped me realize that strong communication between the government and the public and doctors is necessary, otherwise it can cause bad outcomes.”

Information from the Soviet archives has also indicated the famous Chernobyl disaster wasn’t the first problem with the plant, with revelations of a radiation release in 1982, and other emergencies in 1984, all of which were covered up or quashed at the time, according to new reporting from Reuters. “The 35th anniversary of the Chernobyl tragedy is a reminder of how state-sponsored disinformation, as propagated by the totalitarian Soviet regime, led to the greatest man-made disaster in human history,” the Ukrainian foreign ministry told Reuters.

Fallout: Chernobyl and the Ecology of Disaster - UC Santa Barbara

Thirty-five years after the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl, the interdisciplinary virtual conference Fallout: Chernobyl and the Ecology of Disaster considers its afterlife and reverberations in various disciplines, including culture and the arts. Situated at a watershed moment during the Cold War, Chernobyl has spawned an unprecedented quantity of global responses from scientists, writers, filmmakers, and artists, and it has become a key moment for the global environmental movement. This conference views the accident and its aftermath in the context of broader global ecologies of disaster and considers how catastrophe is coded and understood — or fails to be understood — through the prism of science, art, literature, and film. How do all these disciplines and discourses confront the disaster, and where do they converge to produce the fiction, or the truth, of what we call “Chernobyl”? The conference brings together scholars and experts in Comparative Literature, History, Anthropology, Environmental Studies, Nuclear Engineering, Medicine, Art, Film, and Germanic and Slavic Studies. (Rescheduled from April 2020 when it was postponed due to COVID-19.)

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Summary Of Events

Thursday, April 29th, 2021 - 4:00 pm
"The Babushkas of Chernobyl"

A CWC Virtual Film Discussion with Director Holly Morris, Carsey-Wolf Center, University of California, Santa Barbara

Friday, April 30th, 2021 - 9:00-4:00 pm
Fallout: Chernobyl and the Ecology of Disaster

An Interdisciplinary Virtual Conference, Convened by Sara Pankenier Weld and Sven Spieker, Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara

(After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.)

The symposium is sponsored by the Division of Arts and Letters and the T. A. Barron Environmental Fund. Event partners include the Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies, the Graduate Center for Literary Research, and the Carsey-Wolf Center. Other sponsors include the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, Department of Global Studies, Comparative Literature Program, Environmental Studies, Cold War Studies, College of Creative Studies, and History Department.


Jeff Bellomi received his PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Santa Barbara. His doctoral dissertation on darkness, which is entitled Darker and Darker Still: Media-Technology, Darkness Narratives, and Fear, combines media studies, philosophy, and literature. He is currently a Lecturer in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara and in 2020 taught a course on Chernobyl in the Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Taking a multimedia approach to the topic, the course examined the impact of both Western and Soviet ideological complexes on immediate global reactions to the disaster as well as its lasting legacy.

Robert Peter Gale received his MD from the State University of New York at Buffalo and PhD in microbiology and immunology from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). From 1973-1993, Gale was on the faculty of the UCLA School of Medicine and remains on the UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center Staff. From 1986-1993, he was President of the Armand Hammer Center for Advanced Studies in Nuclear Energy and Health. Gale is currently Visiting Professor of Haematology at the Haematology Research Center, Division of Experimental Medicine, Department of Medicine, Imperial College London and Honorary Professor of Hematology at the Institute of Hematology at Peking Union Medical College. Prof. Gale is an expert on the medical response to nuclear and radiation accidents. Gale has published over 1,100 scientific articles and 25 books on medical topics, nuclear energy and weapons and politics of US-Russian relations with articles for theNew York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Der Spiegel, the Wall Street Journal and others. Dr. Gale has also written popular books on Chernobyl and US nuclear energy policy and screenplays for and/or appeared in several movies and received an Emmy award. His latest book Radiation: What It Is, What You Need to Know was published in 2013 by A. Knopf. Awards for his scientific achievements include the Presidential Award, New York Academy of Sciences, Scientist of Distinction Award, Weizmann Institute of Science, and Intra-Science Research Foundation Award.

Eric McFarland studied Nuclear Engineering and received his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined the Nuclear Engineering faculty at MIT where his research moved from nuclear reaction fundamentals to use of nuclear phenomena in chemical reaction analysis. In 1991 he moved to the Chemical and Nuclear Engineering Department at UCSB. His fundamental work included experimentally demonstrating that chemical reactions on surfaces are mediated by non-adiabatic electronic excitations not described using the conventional Born-Oppenheimer approximation. McFarland also received an M.D. from Harvard Medical School and did post-graduate training in surgery. He practiced Emergency Medicine and worked as a volunteer physician for several relief agencies.

Stanislav Menzelevskyi was born in 1983 in Chisinau, Moldova. He received a bachelor’s degree in Arts in Cultural Studies (with distinction) from National University of “Kyiv-Mohyla Akademy” and a master’s degree in Cultural Studies (with distinction) from the same university. He is an ex-member of Editorial Board of Political Critique, Commons and ProStory magazines and co-founder of Medusa independent publishing project. Since November 2011, he works at Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Center (State Film Archive), where he, as Head of Research and Programming Department, researches silent and sound Soviet cinema, writes articles on cinematic and cultural topics, organizes film screenings and retrospectives (e.g. in 2015 he curated Ukrainian Avant-garde retrospective at Arsenal Film Center, Berlin). He is co-author of Atomopolis. Assembling Utopia (2016) and Lviv-Intervision (2018) documentaries. In 2013 he was a Carnegie visiting scholar at the Harriman Institute, Columbia University and in 2019 was a Fulbright visiting scholar at UC Berkeley University of California, Berkeley.

Andrei Tcacenco received his PhD in History from the University of California, Santa Cruz in September 2020. His dissertation was entitled The Culture of Complaint: Morality and Intimacy in the Soviet Union, 1953-Present. He is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of History and Russian Studies at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. His research interests include daily life in the Soviet Union, the histories of deviancy, crime, and nationalism under Late Socialism, as well as the history of postsocialism. This talk is part of an upcoming article on the history of nationalism in Soviet Ukraine after Stalin’s death.

Alice Miceli was born in 1980 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and began her education in Paris studying film at the Ecole Supérieure d’Etudes Cinématographiques. She returned to Brazil to study for her graduate degree in art and architecture at Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro . In addition to her work in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Miceli has traveled to Angola, Cambodia, Colombia, and Bosnia as a part of her research "In Depth (landmines)", centered on photographic representation of impenetrable landscapes, which, together with Chernobyl, also includes the space of landmine fields. She has received major awards for her work, including the 2014 PIPA Prize, Rio de Janeiro and the 2015 Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation Grants & Commissions Award, Miami. She has held residencies at Yaddo, Bogliasco, Macdowell and the Dora Maar House, among others. Her works are held in collections such as the PIPA Institute, the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro and the CIFO Collection. Projeto Chernobyl was exhibited as an ongoing research at the transmediale festival in Berlin, editions 2007, 2008 and 2009, and at the transitio_MX Festival, Mexico City, 2009. It was shown completed for the first time at the 29th Biennale de São Paulo, 2010, and then as a solo show at the Americas Society, in New York, in 2019-20, and featured in Art in America, the New York Times, Hyperallergic and Bomb Magazine, among others. In 2022, Alice's work on landmine fields will be a solo show at the Escola das Artes, Universidade Católica Portuguesa, in Porto, Portugal, where she will also be a visiting artist.

Elana Resnick is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is a faculty affiliate of the Interdepartmental PhD Emphasis in Environment and Society and the Founder/Director of UCSB's Infrastructural Inequalities Research Group. She is currently working on a book manuscript about waste and race in Europe. Based on over three consecutive years of fieldwork in Bulgaria conducted on city streets, in landfills, Romani neighborhoods, executive offices, and at the Ministry of the Environment, the book examines the juncture of material waste management and racialization. Her research has been funded by the Woodrow Wilson Center, the Council for European Studies, the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, Fulbright-Hays, American Councils, and the Wenner-Gren Foundation.

Sara Pankenier Weld is an Associate Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Specializing in Russian, Scandinavian, American, and comparative literature, she researches childhood and children’s literature across disciplinary and national boundaries. Her research focuses especially on modernism and the avant-garde, as well as increasingly comparative research interests across regions and time periods. Her books include the award-winning monograph Voiceless Vanguard: The Infantilist Aesthetic of the Russian Avant-Garde (2014) and The Ecology of the Russian Avant-Garde Picturebook (2018). Her current research examines Nabokov and childhood, Catherine the Great’s writings for children, and Svetlana Alexievich’s childhood accounts from Chernobyl.

Lessons from Chernobyl: The Fallout of Poor Leadership

My wife and I watched the five-part HBO miniseries Chernobyl earlier this year, and there’s a reason the docudrama earned 19 Emmy nominations. It’s a powerful, well-told story about one of the darkest times in modern history – the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, Soviet Union. Dark not just because of the tragic long-term impact the incident had on human lives and the environment, but also because of what it revealed about human nature and the pitfalls of leadership.

On April 26, 1986, a combination of human errors, design flaws in the Chernobyl reactor, and the intentional disabling of several safety systems caused a massive explosion. An uncontrollable chain reaction launched radioactive material across Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. At least 31 people died within the first three months from exposure and hundreds of others suffered from acute radiation sickness. Even today, more than 30 years later, an area of roughly 1,000 square miles remains part of an “Exclusion Zone” where public access is restricted because of radioactive contamination.

There are lessons for all leaders when we read about or watch stories of heroic difference makers, but there also are lessons in the warnings we can see in those leaders who were tested by history and flat-out failed. The Chernobyl miniseries provides us with both.

One of the things that struck me the deepest while watching was how many leaders gave in to personal fears and insecurities even when the stakes were at their highest. In this case, a lack of transparency among Soviet leaders with each other and with the outside world resulted in massive amounts of denial, blame-shifting, and coverups that literally cost people their lives and threatened or damaged the lives of countless others.

The victims included Valery Legasov, a Soviet nuclear physicist who was part of the response team. Legasov (played by Jared Harris in the HBO series) was outspoken about the immediate dangers of the accident and to the point about the causes, which didn’t win him friends among the Russian government officials who hoped to downplay the impact of the disaster or avoid responsibility for it. In 1988, two days after the second anniversary of the disaster and a day before he was to release the results of his investigation into its causes, Legasov hanged himself.

In addition, the culture in and around Chernobyl as well as in and around the government lacked transparency and trust. That led to cost-cutting on the nuclear reactor that put money ahead of safety. It led to ineffective training and management that grew lax when it came to safety protocols and procedures. And it led to pressures to comply with false narratives that resulted in poor decision-making.

For those who tried to clean up the mess the right way – people like Legasov, local firefighters, and several other scientists – the toxicity caused by the accident was intensified by the toxicity of the culture. Some died or became sick because they weren’t adequately protected from the dangers. Others, as seemed to be the case with Legasov, were drained of life by the fight to present a clear, truthful picture of what happened and why.

Most leaders don’t oversee operations like those at a nuclear power plant, but don’t think that any of us are immune to the trappings that ensnared many of the players in the Chernobyl saga. All leaders face the same temptations to cut corners when it comes to money and time, to put profits ahead of people, to respond to problems with pride instead of humility, and to build walls that shut off communication rather than highways that promote it. And all leaders face consequences from the types of cultures they help create. Those consequences might not prove fatal, at least not on the scale of Chernobyl, but they are no less real.

When I think about what leaders can do to guard against those temptations and those negative consequences, the first word that pops to mind is preparation – personal preparation and cultural preparation.

Jack Evans, the former chairman and CEO of the Cullum Companies and a popular mayor of Dallas in the early 1980s, often said, “You have what you tolerate.”[1] It was his way of pointing out that the results leaders see, from themselves and from their employees, are consequences of how they’ve prepared themselves and that culture to respond.

What you allow is what you get, and it’s hard, if not impossible, to turn that ship a different direction in a storm. Andy Stanley, in Next Generation Leader, put it this way: “There is no cramming for a test of character. It always comes as a pop quiz. You’re either ready or you’re not.” If you aren’t preparing your leadership core now, you won’t be ready when the pressure is on. If you aren’t creating a culture of trust and transparency now, people won’t act with trust and transparency when things get tough. You can expect nothing short of a meltdown, and it won’t be pretty.

The deadly fallout of disinformation

The spring and early summer have featured two crises in America: the coronavirus pandemic and the uprisings following the police killing of George Floyd. One thing has bound them together: the difficulty of separating facts from disinformation. A major driver of this has been autocratic regimes — China, Russia and Iran — using social media to try to influence American public opinion. History may provide the key for separating fact from fiction. It reveals how and why a one-party regime used disinformation to salvage its reputation following a disaster. This happened with the Soviet Union’s 1986 Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe, whose history also reveals how such disinformation can be countered.

The HBO series “Chernobyl” showed in chilling detail how Soviet authorities created a cloud of lies after the Soviet nuclear power plant in Ukraine melted down on April 26, 1986. Though brilliantly made, the show did not reveal the extent to which the Soviets tried to manipulate Western media reporting about the tragedy. Once secret Soviet intelligence archives in Ukraine have exposed how Moscow used its secret police and state-run media to manufacture alternative facts about the disaster’s cause and fatalities, which threatened the Soviet regime’s legitimacy.

Immediately after the disaster, Soviet intelligence pursued “active measures” to protect its reputation. Such efforts were orchestrated by a special department in the KGB, “Service A,” which had long used forms of covert political warfare to influence world events in Moscow’s favor. These “dirty tricks” included forgery, disinformation and interfering in foreign elections. According to a high-level KGB defector to the United States, Stanislav Levchenko, in the 1980s, Service A deployed approximately 15,000 personnel.

Following instructions from KGB headquarters, “the Center,” the local Ukrainian KGB undertook active measures to influence western investigative journalists reporting about Chernobyl. In one instance, the KGB stole soil samples that a French journalist had taken from the radiated disaster zone and swapped them for non-contaminated samples. In another, the KGB targeted Newsweek’s Moscow correspondent, Steven Strasser, who reported about Chernobyl.

After Strasser arrived in Kyiv in June 1986, the KGB deployed eight officers and 19 members of a local volunteer brigade to “hinder his actions” and prevent his “collection of slanderous information.” In a recent interview with me, Strasser recalled that these efforts were hardly clandestine — a phalanx of “KGB goons” surrounded him as he tried to interview people on Kyiv’s streets. The KGB’s active measures against Strasser centered on a female agent, code-named “ROTA” (“Squadron”), who reported on his activities. She was probably his official Soviet Intourist (‘foreign tourist’) minder. It was an open secret that Intourist housed KGB officers and agents. After she stepped in, the KGB goons disappeared, leading Strasser to surmise at the time — correctly — that she outranked them.

Soviet authorities were unsuccessful in manipulating Strasser’s journalism about Chernobyl. In a Newsweek article on June 16, 1986, for example, he described Kyiv’s slow response to prevent children playing outside after the reactor meltdown, 80 miles away. However, the Soviet attempts do expose how a paranoid one-party regime labored to protect its reputation from Western investigative journalism following a disaster.

Another Soviet active measure was to forge documents to distract from Soviet mishandling of Chernobyl and deflect criticism to the United States. In Chernobyl’s aftermath, Service A concocted a letter purportedly written by a senior member of the U.S. Information Agency, Herbert Romerstein, a vocal anti-communist, who led America’s efforts to counter Soviet active measures. In the bogus Soviet letter, dated three days after Chernobyl, Romerstein purportedly instructed Sen. David F. Durenberger (R-Minn.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, about how the United States could “make the Chernobyl disaster into an effective propaganda campaign” against the Soviet Union. The KGB created its fake letter from an authentic one written by Romerstein, sent to a Czechoslovakian diplomat, retaining its original letterhead and his signature but inserting bogus text.

Unknown to the Eastern Bloc diplomat, Romerstein was prepared for potential manipulation and had inserted unique markings on his letter. When the forgery surfaced in the United States in August 1986, anonymously mailed to The Washington Post, it carried Romerstein’s secret markings. He confronted the Czech diplomat, who admitted that he had sent it to Prague, from where it presumably made its way to Service A. The U.S. Information Agency then exposed the forgery in a news conference. Instead of creating news about U.S. disinformation, the Soviet disinformation became the story The Post ran. As Romerstein later recalled, the FBI “used the forgery as an example of KGB methods, and we in fact got more mileage out of it than the Soviets ever could have.”

Despite these tactical failures, KGB efforts were strategically successful. Through a constellation of Soviet front groups in Western countries, it promoted the message that Chernobyl could happen anywhere, even the United States. The disaster was the inevitable result of all nuclear power. KGB messaging was recycled and amplified by Western “useful idiots” — the KGB’s term — in Soviet-front “peace” organizations and groups like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. With KGB help, “Chernobyl” became a byword for the problems of nuclear power generally, not lethal Soviet mismanagement.

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.

Effects On The Environment

Wolves in Chernobyl radioactivity region running among abandoned hoses.

Like with humans, radiation has a strong and negative impact on the environment. Directly after the incident, four square miles of forest turned red-brown, and trees died out, due to absorption of high levels of radiation. Over time, though, these forests have grown back, and most plant life seems generally unaffected today. In animals, like with humans, thyroid cancer became extremely prevalent and killed off large quantities of livestock as well as wild animals. The first generation of young following the exposure usually had extreme birth defects, or did not survive. Cataracts and albinism were also common. Fish in surrounding waterways and runoff areas were highly contaminated, and were above the estimated safe levels for consumption.

Giant catfish in the cooling pond of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

However, despite the initial harsh impact on the flora and fauna post explosion, wildlife in the surrounding area has actually seen a resurgence. In many cases, species which have been declining in population elsewhere in Russia and Europe have flourished due to the absence of human life in the exclusion zone. While the area will remain dangerous to humans for many thousands of years to come, nature has found a way to reclaim the city in the wake of a widely destructive human made disaster.

Watch the video: Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster: News Report From April 28, 1986 (January 2022).