“In Germany, when Hitler and his regime brought about so much misery and suffering, they recognized it as a crime. And they strive to make sure it never happens again. So why are the doings of the nuclear industry not recognized for what they are?” — Natalia Mansurova
It was late into the night on April 26th, 1986 when the first explosion occurred. A couple moments passed, and then another explosion. The small town of Pripyat was asleep. A clock would have read nearly 1:30 A.M. Twenty minutes after the explosion, firefighters entered the scene, with no idea of what awaited them.
That night, a power surge caused by running the power at low power yielded a steam explosion. The Nuclear Energy Institute reports that this “was the product of a severely flawed Soviet-era reactor design, combined with human error.” The plant also lacked an appropriate ‘containment structure.’ Radiation filled the air. The World Nuclear Association estimates that approximately 5,200 petabecquerels were released.
For many, Chernobyl once stood as evidence of scientific innovation and advancement. According to this interview and article, the Soviet Union designed it with the ability to heat a city with over a million people. The plant was marketed as a job opportunity for young people, and the small town of Pripyat was portrayed as idyllic. When asked if the plant was safe, the Minister of Power and Electrification of Ukraine said, “The odds of a meltdown are one in 10,000 years.”
This is perhaps some of the reason why the explosion’s impacts were so shocking. The situation was simply catastrophic. Many in immediate contact with the radiation died from radiation poisoning or other illnesses linked to radiation. By May 17th, 1986, thirteen people had died. This included at least four firefighters. By May 29th, 1986, the Los Angeles Times reported that nineteen had died and thirty-five were severely affected; however, 300 “received significant doses of radiation.” The effects of radiation only increased as cases of thyroid cancer increase. The World Health Organization (WHO) stated that it saw four thousand cases of thyroid cancer by 2005, the time of its posting.
In the first month after the explosion, the Soviet Union’s response was terribly slow. The town of Pripyat itself was not evacuated until the afternoon of April 27th, 1986. Additionally, it failed to alert the international community immediately. Radiation decreased as the radius from Chernobyl increased, but it was still present. Radioactive material floated through the air, but the Soviet Union said nothing. It was not until early morning on April 28th, 1986 that the international community realized something was wrong. A Swedish power plant employee discovered radiation on his shoes.
Finally, on May 14th of that same year, Mikhail Gorbachev finally released an official statement on behalf of the Soviet Union. Although it temporarily placated the situation, many Soviets felt distrust towards the government. To change this, Gorbachev advocated for glasnost (or openness) and released documents related to the nuclear explosion. However, this ultimately led to more problems as people considered other ways in which their government censored their knowledge. Gorbachev’s Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman said, “It was glasnost that destroyed the Soviet Union.”
For people who are interested in firsthand accounts of the Chernobyl disaster, there are many sources. This interview is a clip from “Bell Tolls for Chernobyl.” It was released in 1987, and it focuses on B. Chugunov. He was part of the first reactor crew. In this interview with the Pulitzer Center, Natalia Manzurova shared her story of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. She worked as a nuclear engineer for the Soviet Union, and it was part of her responsibilities to assess and “clean-up” the radiation left. Both contribute to our understanding of the psychological effects of this disaster.