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Chernobyl nuclear disaster: 30 years on

Many areas are still off-limits. Photo credit: Diana Markosian
Many areas are still off-limits. Photo credit: Diana Markosian

On April 26th 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant's reactor number four blew up after errors in a safety test. What followed was an environmental disaster of huge proportions. In this guest blog, Jennifer looks back at the devastating human impact of the world's worst nuclear disaster to date.

30 years ago, radio-active particles, with the toxicity levels of 400 Hiroshima bombs, were released into the atmosphere and initially blew East, in the direction Ukraine’s border with Belarus. The fire at the reactor lasted days, in which the wind direction turned West, additionally sending the fallout across Europe.

Widespread effects

At the time, in Ukraine, a part of the Soviet Union, the truth of the accident and its continuing effects were not publicly released. It is reported that the realisation came to those outside the Soviet Union when high doses of radioactivity was recorded at a nuclear reactor in Finland – 100 times normal background levels. As far afield as here in the UK, the disaster affected 10,000 UK farms, including 334 in north Wales. Cumbrian and Welsh sheep underwent radiation testing to determine whether they were safe to eat up until as recently as 2012.

The area around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine, about 1000 square metres, is largely uninhabited and access is severely restricted. With a population of 120,000 people pre-1986, the Exclusion Zone, or Zone of Alienation, is the area most highly contaminated by the disaster.

The impact on children and families

Chernobyl aftermath
The disaster devastated lives across Ukraine and Belarus. CC BY 2.0 UK
If you think about it, this is only recent history and we may not yet know the full impact of the disaster and there is still much debate surrounding the link between the radiation and cancer rates and deaths. But there have been high levels of cancer and babies born with deformities and congenital defects in Ukraine and Belarus in the years following the explosion.

Charities, such as UK-based Chernobyl Children’s Lifeline, organise respite holidays for Belarusian children growing up under the shadow of Chernobyl, where they are looked after by a ‘host family’, as well as being seen by healthcare professionals who volunteer their time. These respite holidays are said to improve children’s health through access to clean, uncontaminated air, food and water.

There are a number of international charities working in Belarus and Ukraine to help improve the lives of the huge numbers of children born with disabilities and perceived deformities. SOS Children currently run three Children’s Villages in Belarus and two in Ukraine. One of their Villages in Belarus was constructed in direct response to the disaster, as a place where children suffering from the effects of radiation could be treated and receive the love and care they so desperately needed. 30 years on, the Village and the health centre attached to it continue to care for children exhibiting radiation-damage symptoms. Some 200 children are treated every year. 

Find out more about SOS Children's work with Chernobyl victims... 

A nuclear-free world?

Vigilance is an on-going issue. The Guardian reported in 2011 that Angela Merkel was moving away from nuclear power and shutting all Germany’s nuclear reactors by 2022, following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. Reports in 2014 of plans for a new nuclear power station to be built in Ostrovets (Belarus), and funded by Russia, are terrifying for those who still feel the effects of the disaster. One would hope that the recent experience would serve as a warning to properly regulate any activity and ensure safety for all.

The proven long-term effects may be disputed but it is agreed that the explosion of the Chernobyl reactor 30 years ago this month was the worst nuclear disaster we have seen.

On this anniversary, remember the lives lost and those whose lives continue to be affected by Chernobyl, living, breathing, eating and drinking in contaminated environments every day.