In the spring of 1986 the English language, and nearly every other, acquired a new word for catastrophe: Chernobyl. On April 25, 1986, when Reactor No. 4 at the nuclear power station near a leafy village some eighty miles north of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev began to melt down, the world
had no notion of the disaster about to unfold. Neither did Moscow. In a classic confusion of priorities that would open the floodgates for glasnost and, in due time, a rethinking of the Soviet nuclear landscape, the Politburo was concerned above all with bad press. A year earlier a new general secretary had arisen, Mikhail Gorbachev. Yet even as word spread that the accident at the station had already reached an unprecedented scale, with the specter of a radioactive Armageddon rising over Europe, Gorbachev and company seemed less concerned about the damage issuing from Chernobyl than the damage to Moscow’s reputation.
Having entered the English vernacular, “Chernobyl” has gained currency in the twenty years since the accident. “To go Chernobyl”–whether it be a relationship, teakettle or political career–is to melt down. Yet as scientists will tell you, what is commonly called the “accident” at Chernobyl was anything but. For this disaster was born of human decisions. The engineers at the plant had long been eager to test a theory. Those on the night shift decided to conduct an unauthorized test. Not specialists in nuclear science, they powered the reactor down, disabled emergency backup systems in order to see how long the turbines could operate and, hoping to learn how the reactor’s coolant system would function on low electricity, instead learned how its core would melt. The explosion tore off the reactor’s 1,000-ton steel-and-concrete roof, spewing the now famous radioactive maelstrom into the heavens. In all, Chernobyl released 100 times more radiation than the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The true death toll will never be known. The government of Ukraine has tallied more than 8,000 dead, nearly all victims of the fire and cleanup. The toll, in environmental and chromosomal damage, continues today and will for generations.
The Kremlin’s first reflex was to try to conceal the mess–even from rescue workers. Firefighters and thousands of other local workers were dispatched to the burning station with no warning. The scientists who flew in from Moscow came with only their razors. (They imagined they would stay just a couple of days.) No special clothing was distributed. No one was immediately evacuated from the nearby settlements, the so-called nuclear villages where the station’s workers and their families lived. Thirty-one workers died immediately from exposure. Hundreds more fell violently ill in the first hours. Only after the Swedes detected the fallout did Moscow admit that Chernobyl had become a man-made nuclear Vesuvius. Finally, more than thirty-six hours after the fire broke out, villagers were evacuated. The 48,000 inhabitants of Pripyat, the settlement in the woods closest to the plant, left their homes with as much as they could carry. By May 5, anyone living within twenty miles of the station was evacuated. The marshes and woods around Pripyat were cordoned off from the rest of the world. The region, comprising some seventy-six villages and settlements where more than 100,000 people once lived, has been known ever since simply as “the Zone.”