Chernobyl: What Happened, Why & Nuclear Energy Future

Accident on Chernobyl Power Plant
Chernobyl, April 26, 1986. This is the dramatic date. The day when one of the biggest man made disasters in the whole history of humankind happened. We are talking about the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident. 30 years after the disaster, we are still being seriously affected by what happened back there. The accident itself, and the following radioactive pollution, caused deaths, illnesses and injuries to numerous people. Thousands of inhabitants were evacuated, losing their homes forever. Hundreds of millions dollars counted as economic damage. The Chernobyl accident changed the whole nuclear energy development. It became the key factor determining the following nuclear power strategy for the whole world. What exactly happened? How did the world react? What lessons did the world make of the Chernobyl disaster? What will happen next? Discover everything in our timeline.
1986 year
The explosion took place at the fourth power block of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, located in the North of Ukraine. Catastrophic consequences of the disaster made it the biggest accident of the whole nuclear power history. Approximately 600 thousands of people took part in elimination of outcomes. 116 thousands of people, inhabiting the nuclear polluted areas, were evacuated. An exclusion zone of 30 kilometers was established around Chernobyl. 5 millions hectares of land were excluded from agriculture. In total, the area of more than 200 thousands square kilometers was polluted. The number of Chernobyl disaster victims is still the object of disputes. Radiation sickness and burns took life of 31 liquidators. The total number of victims, including those died from radiation sickness in following years, is estimated to be a few thousands of people. Although, some people believe that there are is no evidence enough for such a conclusion.
The map of nuclide Cesium-137 radioactive pollution, 1993
Now look at the table below. Three most dangerous radioactive nuclides are shown. Cesium-137 is ranked the second total ejection activity radionuclide. However, unlike Iodine-131 with the biggest ejection, Cesium-137 has a significantly longer hali-life period. It takes 30 years vs 8 days. What does that mean? Iodine hit people and environment stronger. However, Cesium-137, even being weaker in terms of damage, has been there till 2016 June.
The most dangerous radionuclides, ejected to the atmosphere due to the accident
8 days
30,2 years
28,8 years
Chernobyl disaster slowed down the Soviet nuclear energy development. In 90s, Russian nuclear energy was stagnating. A similar decrease happened in USA and Europe as well. First scepticism took place back in 1979, after Three Mile Island nuclear accident in US. In 1980, Sweden was first to announce the ban on building new reactors. After Chernobyl disaster, Italy (1987), Belgium (1999) and Germany (2000) proclaimed the same statement. Their fears were strong despite the Chernobyl plant type was Soviet specialty. No one else was using such nuclear reactors. Even though, Chernobyl accident aggravated negative opinions towards NPPs. In 90s, the number of NPPs put into operation descended to its minimum from 1955.
Nuclear power by years and states; input and output of capacities, MW
x103 MW
11 023
Three Mile Island and Chernobyl led to the new approach to the NPP security. It became obvious that global teamworking was vital to prevent new nuclear disasters. The call was answered. In 1989, the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WATO) was launched. WATO works in several directions. Basically, it takes care of nuclear energy works. Firstly, it coordinates NPP maintenance programs within participating countries. Secondly, WATO provides partnership checks on production activity. Also, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) adopted the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident. Furthermore, they adopted the Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency. Both of them are meant to coordinate efforts in case of emergency. In 1998, IAEA designed The International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale. It evaluates emergency cases which led to radiation polluting the environment.
Major accident (Chernobyl disaster, Fukushima-1 disaster)
Serious accident (Kyshtym disaster, Mayak plant, 1957)
Accident with environmental risks (Three Mile Island disaster)
Accident with no significant environmental risks
Serious incident
Abnormal situation
15 years after Chernobyl disaster. The new period of nuclear power development is in progress. It was called Nuclear Renaissance. There are few reasons to discuss the industry rebirth of nuclear energy.
Energy demand increasing due to, first and foremost, high industrial development in China and India. By 2008, the world energy consumption increased by 39% comparing to 1990.
Ecological aspect. By the beginning of 2000s, the global warming problem took central position in social consciousness. Everyone was thinking about it. Within global warming context, the term of alternative energy appeared. In here, alternative energy means no or less pollution for environment. A special IEA research studied the subject. From 1971, the usage of nuclear power led to avoiding 56 Gt carbon dioxide ejecting to the atmosphere. As a result, NPPs became part of green power list. The benefit of less carbon dioxide pollution is significant. As for the risks of using nuclear power, they sidelined.
Instability of oil and natural gas pricing and supply. This problem is strongly related to Middle East issues. Global political issues influence it as well. Any conflict fluctuates the availability of oil and gas. On the other hand, it is simple and affordable to store a year stock of nuclear fuel. This makes nuclear energy much more stable and profitable.
2011 year
Then, another man made disaster happened. Fukushima. This nuclear disaster became a serious reason to reconsider the world nuclear policy again. Unlike Chernobyl disaster, the Fukushima-1 accident affected all reactors of the plant. According to experts, it will take at least 40 years to claim the NPP area safe again. In one year after Fukushima disaster, all Japanese nuclear power plants were suspended. Some of them were closed permanently afterwards. Others are being under modernisation. Again, an accident in Fukushima made the public change its priorities.
Japanese Nuclear Reactors
June 2012
February 2016
54 functioning reactors (world third after France and USA; 30% of the whole power production in Japan)
0 reactors
3 reactors
After Fukushima, Germany stated the intention to stop all their nuclear plants by 2022. China, Switzerland, Israel, Malaysia, Thailand and Great Britain reconsider their nuclear programs. True, nuclear energy is profitable. However, seeing the lack of safety may lead to rejection of nuclear energy. International Energy Agency double decreased their forecast for nuclear power production by 2035.
2012 year
By 2012, the world volume of nuclear energy production descended to the minimum of 1999. Asian countries continue to develop their nuclear programs. However, it is balanced by Western Europe trends. They have been gradually removing their outdated nuclear power plants from service. After Fukushima, the public opinion turned against nuclear energy yet again. According to surveys, the nuclear power is the least popular among the world’s population. Moreover, it is also the major object of concern. Thus, 41% respondents are afraid of terrorists attacking nuclear power plants.
World’s public support for various energy sources
Sun power
Wind power
Water power
Nuclear power
World’s nuclear power plant locations
2014 year
In 2014, the number of functioning nuclear power plants descended. Even though, the total energy production increased. However, many developed countries are determined to close their nuclear programs completely. Moreover, Chinese industry growth slowed down. Considering the facts mentioned above, the civil nuclear power perspectives are not clear. They also depend on technology a lot. So far, no single country has any permanent buildings for disposal of nuclear waste (produced by nuclear power plants). Speaking of environment, it becomes an issue. Yes, nuclear energy ejects less carbon dioxide. However, radioactive waste is extremely dangerous itself. It can pollute water, air and land. Unless this problem will be taken care of, nuclear energy perspectives are hardly positive.
Public opinion towards nuclear power
Reactors function, new ones are under construction
Reactors function, new ones are planned
No reactors currently, but new ones are under construction
No reactors, but new ones are planned
Reactors function, no plans for new ones
Reactors function, but nuclear program is curtailed
Civil nuclear power is prohibited by law
No reactors
2016 year
The terrorism threat increasing, due to Middle East instability, leads to negative opinions towards nuclear power. After March 2016 terrorist attacks in Brussels, a terrorist’s plan was discovered. They did plan to attack one of Belgian nuclear power plants. It shows that even if NPPs are completely protected from natural disasters and human mistakes, they are still potentially dangerous. Thus, there is an extremely damaging terrorist attack risk. Either the global community copes with all the issues, or it should focus on other energy sources.
Accident Rate and Victims, sorted by energy sources, 1969-2000
OECD state
The rest of the world
Number of Accidents with Victims

Number of Victims

The Number of Victims per TW of Electricity Produced,
Natural gas
Water power
Nuclear power
Analysis of Chernobyl disaster aftermath is vitally important. First of all, it is a key source for studying the current state and perspectives of nuclear power according to its safety. However, there is another fact to mention. Today, the nuclear energy is the safest both by the number of accidents and by NPPs influencing the environment. Despite waste pollution, despite how dangerous accidents are, nuclear energy is still the safest known.

IEA forecasts that the number of countries developing nuclear power will increase and reach 36 by 2040. It will increase even taking countries, which plan to refuse from nuclear power at all within the nearest decades, into account. Even though, 30 years ago the biggest nuclear disaster in history named numerous questions. Even now, the global community still has to find an answer to many of them.
Neglected Ferris Wheel in Chernobyl Pripyat park. Photo by:
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