Meltdown in Chernobyl

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

On April 26, 1986, a surge of power at the Chernobyl nuclear power station’s no. 4 reactor in northern Ukraine triggered a massive explosion that became the world’s worst nuclear accident. Radioactive dust spewed into the air and was carried by prevailing winds over nearby Belorussia. Even while the Kremlin maintained a cautious silence, refusing to release any information about the blast, monitoring devices in Sweden were picking up significant traces of radioactivity. In the meantime, wild rumors were circulating throughout the region of the blast producing panic. Authorities evacuated some forty thousand people from the town of Pripyat closest to the accident. Thirty-eight people were killed instantly as a result of the accident, and it has been claimed — though not confirmed — that as many as 100,000 subsequently died or suffered severe harms to their health from radiation. Among them were workers — many of them volunteers — who were rushed to the scene to shut down the reactor and build a concrete sarcophagus around it. By the time Gorbachev went on television almost three weeks later to report on the accident, his credibility had suffered a severe blow.

One of the consequences of the accident was economic. The cost of the clean-up, including the provision of housing and other resources for evacuees, eventually ran into billions of rubles, burdening an already shaky economy. Another consequence was the Gorbachev administration’s reassessment of its information policy. The Chernobyl disaster marked a watershed in the government’s commitment to glasnost ‘, which until then had been little more than a slogan. Not only did the government welcome international assistance in treating victims of the accident, but the media was unleashed and began to engage in investigative reports about environmental degradation and accidents elsewhere in the Soviet Union.

Finally, and notwithstanding changes in official policy, the accident fueled resentment in both Ukraine and Belorussia against the central authorities. In Ukraine in particular, it added to an already acute sense of victimization derived from the famine of 1932-33 and brutal repression of Ukrainian nationalists after the Second World War.

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