The long shadow cast by Chernobyl

Shortly before dawn on April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant's number four reactor exploded.

Saturday, 30th April 2016, 12:00 pm
A structure is build over Reactor Four to try and contain the radio active waste
A structure is build over Reactor Four to try and contain the radio active waste

It was the worst civilian nuclear disaster in history – 400 times more deadly than that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Sent to carry out routine tests, workers deactivated several major safety systems which shut down the reactor in the event of an accident.

But the experiment went very wrong. Two explosions blew off the top of the reactor and the fire in the core burned for days.

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The abandoned ferris wheel in Pripyat as long become a symbol of the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster

A cloud of deadly radioactive material dispersed into the environment. This silent killer poured out of the damaged reactor for the following 10 days, triggering an epidemic of thyroid cancer in children while also affecting livestock and crops.

Over the years, the economic losses – health and cleanup costs, compensation, lost productivity – have amounted to hundreds of billions of dollars.

With evidence of government bungling emerging in its wake, Chernobyl helped speed up the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The disaster killed 31 people immediately – almost all of them reactor staff and emergency workers. Between 30 and 50 emergency workers died shortly afterwards from acute radiation.

The burnt-out Reactor Four shortly after the explosion

Early estimates that hundreds of thousands of people would eventually die from the Chernobyl fall out were widely discredited but genetic damage done 30 years ago is slowly taking a toll.

Cancer rates around the area are unusually high, 65 times higher than normal according to some reports.

Upwards of 4400 Ukrainian children have already undergone operations for thyroid cancer, the most common consequence of radiation.

The Chernobyl plant was 1300 miles away but it took just a few days for the nuclear fallout to reach Scotland.

The abandoned ferris wheel in Pripyat as long become a symbol of the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster

By April 29, radiation traces were being picked up as far away as Norway, Austria and the Black Sea. Three days later the radioactive cloud made its way to Britain.

This wind-blown radioactive dust may have just drifted more or less harmlessly overhead. However, due to heavy rainfall, the dust washed out and fell as highly dangerous radioactive rain. One of the areas worst affected were the hill farms of Scotland, where the sheep ate contaminated grass. Lambs were then affected through their mothers’ milk.

At first, the government said there was nothing to worry about. Indeed, on May 13 the Secretary of State repeated that no special precautions were needed. Then suddenly there were warnings to avoid the rain water in affected areas and about milk supplied.

In late June it was officially admitted that sheep had absorbed dangerous amounts of radiation.

The burnt-out Reactor Four shortly after the explosion

Restrictions on their movement and slaughter were first enforced on June 24, 1986. That year, 2900 farms, stocking 1.5 million sheep and cattle, were affected.

The following year high levels of radioactivity were detected in some of the new season’s crop of lambs.

One farmer who was affected by the fallout, recalled when the disaster first hit Scotland.

He said: “When the restrictions were first announced it was pretty horrific. More than 3000 farms in Scotland were affected – mine included.

“At that time, and I suppose even thinking about it now, it was hard to get your head around the fact that this disaster had happened thousands of miles away in another country, so how on earth had it come to have such a devastating affect on us here in Scotland?

“Obviously, we were very concerned as to whether there would be any long-term future for farming in Scotland after the dust had finally settled.

“This was our livelihoods that were at risk and it was a very daunting and worrying time for farmers, their families and communities involved.

“Even years later, some farmers are still getting there lives and businesses together.

“The worst now is over God allow, and I hope, hand on heart, that this never, ever happens again.”

So the fallout from Chernobyl has certainly left a lasting mark on Scotland.

The final restrictions on sheep movement in Scotland were lifted in 2012 – some 26 years after the disaster.

Today, the 200 tons of fiercely radioactive remnants of reactor four continue to smoulder beneath the so-called sarcophagus.

The original covering – a concrete-and-steel crypt, hastily built six months after the accident in fairly heroic conditions – had a design life of just a decade.

Tall enough to cover the Statue of Liberty, the new containment is the largest moveable structure in the world.

The stadium sized structure is designed to contain Chernobyl’s nuclear mess for another century.

Thirty years on, every nuclear power plant in the world bears the catastrophic legacy of April 26, 1986 and each one also represents the threat of becoming the next Chernobyl.

Pripyat: from model city to a dangerous ghost town

The town of Pripyat, just a few kilometres from Chernobyl, was built to house the plant’s workers and their families. A model city, 50,000 people once lived there in apartment blocks on tree-lined streets. The self-contained town had 15 primary schools, five secondary schools, a technical college, its own hospital, two sports stadiums and an amusement park.

Shortly after the disaster it became clear that, due to the intense radioactive fallout, all the surrounding population would have to be evacuated.

On Sunday, April 27, 1986, a day after the explosion, a local radio announced the start of a mass evacuation. At 2pm, ten minutes after the announcement, 1100 buses started to pick up residents. Belongings had to be left behind, Sunday lunches were left on tables, pets and livestock were abandoned.

By 4.20pm the town was deserted. On May 3, the total evacuation zone was extended to a 30km radius. In early June another 35,000 people had to be moved as more radioactive areas were discovered.

Officially called the exclusion zone but known locally as the Dead Zone, it’s still empty – except for a few elderly people who have crept back, refusing to leave their homeland. Pripyat is now a ghost town, a morbid tourist destination with high levels of radiation rendering it uninhabitable for years to come.