On April 26, 1986 at 1:23 in the morning, the number four reactor at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl suffered an unstoppable chain reaction, causing the worst man-made disaster in history.
During a low-power test, uranium fuel in the reactor overheated, and melted through protective barriers causing first an explosion which blew open the reactor, then allowed radioactive elements such as plutonium, iodine, strontium, and caesium to spread across Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and parts of western Europe.
The initial explosion caused the immediate death of just two workers at the plant. However, within the first three months after the accident, 28 fireman and clean-up workers died from acute radiation sickness and cardiac arrest.
Pripyat Ghost Town
Three miles from the plant lay the city of Pripyat (population 49,369), which was completely evacuated within 36 hours of the accident.
During the following months, thousands more were evacuated from surrounding affected areas, totaling around 200,000 people.
The explosion caused the release of over 100 types of radioactive material into the environment, and is considered to be more than 400 times more potent then the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
While most of the elements have a very short half-life, and thus decayed rapidly, there were a few, namely Strontium, Iodine, and Caesium, which have much longer half-lives, and lingered, spreading across great distances.
Iodine, which has a half-life of days, is particularly dangerous to the thyroid gland in children, and there have been at least 1800 documented cases of thyroid cancer in children who were affected by the blast.
The Cancer Threat
Longer lasting elements like Strontium, and Caesium have half-lives of 29 and 30 years respectively, and are linked to leukemia and liver cancers. Children born under the radioactive cloud have a limited life expectancy and their internal organs are often more akin to aged people. To detox such children involves removing them from this environment. If even this is just for a month it takes two years for Strontium and Caesium to build back up in their systems. These two years are effectively added to their life expectancy through Recuperation Holidays.
The environment also suffered considerable damage as mutations occurred in animals, and the surrounding pine forest turned brown and died, earning the name ‘Red Forest.’
The lack of a sarcophagus covering the reactor greatly exacerbated the problem. Immediately following the accident, one was hastily built. However, it is not durable or strong, and was built on a compromised structure. Major improvement work was carried out on the structure in 1998 and 1999, but the structure, which keeps more than 200 tons of radioactive material beneath from escaping into the air, has recently sprung some leaks.
Pripyat remains a virtual ghost-town to this day.