Chernobyl; the power of nuclear

This month we are considering environmental history, a topic which has been defined by Google as ‘… the study of human interaction with the natural world over time.’ Environmental history is quite a new type of historiography and in case anyone is wondering what is meant by historiography, Google defines that as ‘the study of historical writing’ and ‘writing of history’. This week’s post has been specially written for our competition winner, focusing on the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in April 1986. There is so much one can write about on this subject, as there is just a vast amount of source material available on the internet alone. However, this post will seek to pick out the historical significance of such a disaster and conclude with the lessons we can learn from history.

What happened?

On the night of 25th April 1986 the reactor crew of reportedly ‘undertrained technicians’ at Reactor 4 ‘of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant’ were preparing for a test ‘prior to a routine shutdown’ It has been claimed that the test was ill-judged, as the technicians lost control of the whole system, resulting in the explosion of the Reactor 4 power plant that took place in the early hours of 26th April 1986. It is believed that the main source of the problem was an increased surge in energy levels causing the core of the reactor to combust.

Environmental and social/human impacts?

Two immediate deaths were the result of that fatal night and further deaths took place within the first three weeks, while still further casualties suffering from radiation sickness as the remaining radioactive material drifted with the wind in waves of dust and rain over Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and much of Scandinavia and Europe. It has even been found that some UK farms remain infected with radiation, after more than twenty years, making them unusable. The sheer volume of radiation is believed to be 100 times more than both the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Indeed, this event highlights the consequences of human experimenting with the use of nuclear power. Moreover, the bombing of various cities throughout the Second World War, the fears about the Arms Race and even the current state in which we live, whereby many nations have nuclear weapons on standby.

Radiation sickness has been a significant problem throughout Ukraine as a result, which, due to the subsequent weather patterns, has also affected people in other parts of Eastern Europe. Radiation sickness understandably was a fairly new and unfamiliar affliction at the time, not to mention a widespread problem in the late 1980s for much of Eastern Europe. What is more, it has been discovered that more than a million inhabitants of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus are possible sufferers of radiation sickness: ‘By 2000, about 4000 cases of thyroid cancer had been diagnosed in exposed children.’

With regards to the inhabitants, some resettlement of the areas affected by the nuclear disaster has taken place over the past two decades, with the main focus being currently in Belarus. As well as animals beginning to return, even birds resting in the derelict and deserted plant, despite the alleged risks that remain in the affected area.

Political impact on the Soviet Union?

However, despite this seemingly gradual return to normality, one source has strongly suggested a link between the explosion of Reactor 4 and the collapse of the Soviet Union six years later. In that public confidence in the regime is believed to have been eroded by the disaster of the 26th April 1986. Indeed, even Gorbachev himself, the current leader of the S.U. stated that not only was Chernobyl a ‘turning point’ that “opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we know it could no longer continue.” , but also that it may have been ‘the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union’

Lesson for the future?

As a result of this disaster, there is a lot that society can learn about the impact of radioactivity on the environment and humanity.
Indeed, one report has argued that ‘some very tangible practical benefits have resulted from the Chernobyl accident. The main ones concern reactor safety, notably in eastern Europe.’ This is also a learning curve for nuclear plants in Western Europe. Indeed, this disaster can be, in some ways related to the Titanic or other examples in history whereby something which humanity knows little about goes wrong for the world to see. Yet at the same time the events can teach the rest of the world how to work for a better future.


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