INDEPENDENT: Chernobyl: How did the world’s worst nuclear accident happen?

Decades after the catastrophe, now a byword for state secrecy, crucial elements remain a mystery

Andy Gregory
Wednesday, 29 April 2020 01:48

For most residents of Pripyat, Saturday 26 April 1986 seemed a relatively unremarkable day.

Some would have been aware of an incident at the nearby Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant, around which the town had sprouted up in the decade prior, but, in the words of one off-duty engineer: “There was no panic. The city lived a normal life. People were sunbathing on the beach.”

But the warning signs were there.

Soviet Union officials were driving the streets, hiding their monitors as they gauged the levels of radiation washing over the pedestrians they passed. Traders had been warned not to sell fresh greens and cabbages at the local market, and street sweepers were washing the streets with foam.

But this had happened during a previous accident at the plant, of which there had been dozens in the past decade, and everything appeared to have been fine.

For Yuri Andreyev, who recounted this to BBC Ukraine 30 years later, it was only as he strolled to the far edge of the town with his daughter — a decision he said he would forever regret — and spotted Chernobyl’s fourth reactor “laying in ruins”, that he would realise something was seriously wrong.

Decades after the world’s worst nuclear accident, crucial elements still remain a mystery.

The likely death toll from the catastrophe is continually being revised to this day, the impacts of the fallout upon populations caught up in the nuclear slipstream — from Andreyev and his family to those living hundreds of miles away — still an active area of academic research.

Furthermore, the profound extent to which the accident, and the Soviet Union’s infamous handling of it, impacted the course of global history will never truly be known.

For the leader of the USSR at the time, Mikhail Gorbachev, the disaster wrought history anew. Rather than the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Chernobyl was “perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union”, he would later lament.

But, as with the disaster itself, the true starting point of such catastrophe is hard to pinpoint.

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