Chernobyl Disaster Facts

How Chernobyl Compares to Other Nuclear Disasters

UKR Chernobyl

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On April 26, 1986, the worst accident in the history of the nuclear industry occurred in Chernobyl, Ukraine. It released more radiation than the atom bomb released in Hiroshima. Radioactive fumes leaked for two weeks. It took seven months to build a concrete shelter over the reactor.

The Chernobyl disaster contaminated 150,000 square miles in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. The isotopes Strontium-90 and Caesium-137 still linger. There are 187 communities that remain abandoned. At the time of the explosion, a massive release of radioactive material spread over much of Europe.

Key Takeaways

  • As the worst nuclear accident to date, the Chernobyl disaster has had far-reaching economic effects.
  • Some of these hastened the end of the U.S.S.R.
  • The radioactive cloud spread over Europe, contaminating food sources.
  • Despite Chernobyl, some governments and scientists advocate the benefits of nuclear power plants. 


A combination of poor design and human error caused the explosion.  The crew wanted to find out if the turbines alone could keep the cooling safety system running. They could not turn the reactor off, so they powered it down to 25% of normal. To conduct the test at this low level, they switched off the safety system.

Things did not go as planned. The reactor power fell to less than 1% of normal. When they started powering it back up to the desired level, a power surge occurred. That started a dangerous chain reaction. Without the safety system, it quickly ruptured the reactor. 

The explosion blew off the 1000-ton sealing cap. Temperatures rose above 2000°C, melting the fuel rods. Then the graphite covering the fuel rods caught on fire. It burned for nine days, steadily releasing radiation.


Two workers died immediately from the explosion. Another 28 firemen and emergency clean-up workers died in the first three months from radiation.

At least 20,000 children got thyroid cancer from the radiation. The rate of suicides, post-traumatic stress, and depression increased in the population around the area. Around 330,000 people who lived near the plant were relocated.

Economic Impact

Over the next 30 years, Chernobyl's cost grew to $700 billion. Why? Here are the 12 primary reasons:

  1. The damage directly caused by the accident
  2. The cost of sealing off the reactor. The initial sarcophagus began crumbling. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and a group of foreign donors funded a Safe Confinement building that cost 2 billion euros.
  3. The creation of an exclusion zone of 30 kilometers around the power plant
  4. The resettlement of 200,000 people
  5. Health care for many of the 10 million people exposed to radiation
  6. Seven million people are still receiving benefits payments in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. That costs Ukraine at least 5% of its annual budget and Belarus at least 6% of its budget.
  7. Research to find out how to make contaminated food safe
  8. The monitoring of environmental radiation levels
  9. Toxic waste clean-up and disposal of radioactive waste
  10. Removing radioactive material from farmland and forests
  11. Loss of power from the Chernobyl plant itself. Unit 4 was shut down. Reactors 1, 2, and 3 were restarted in October 1986. They produced power until December 2000. 
  12. The cancellation of Belarus’s nuclear power program. Belarus estimates total losses of $235 billion.

The accident couldn't have happened at a worse time.

The Berlin Wall came crashing down in 1990, ending the Soviet Union. Both Ukraine and Belarus had been former U.S.S.R. satellite countries. Now, they were facing independence. Ukraine had been the "breadbasket" of the Soviet world. The accident destroyed this role. There were few small businesses to take its place.

The accident made new business development more difficult. Few companies wanted to invest in an area threatened by radiation. Who wants to buy a product marked "Made in Chernobyl"?

Chernobyl Today

Workers constructed a concrete and steel sarcophagus around Unit 4. This structure had weakened, so a permanent structure was built around it. It cost at least $765 million. The Safe Confinement structure was completed in 2019.

In 2000, the last reactor was shut down. The three working reactors are being decommissioned. That means disposal of fuel and wastes and decontamination of the plant and surrounding area.

Although the area is still contaminated, it is safe to visit for short periods of time.

Some residents returned to their homes.

At first, animals did experience mutations from the radiation. Since then, wildlife in the area has thrived. Since humans are excluded, the number of animals has increased. These include beavers, moose, wolves, and wild boars.

Comparison With Other Nuclear Disasters

The Chernobyl disaster took place in a rural farming region. The cost of a nuclear accident in a populated, industrial area would have been much higher.

The 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident, costing $210 billion did not create as much economic damage as Chernobyl. It forced Japan to close 11 of its 50 nuclear reactors. It reduced the country's electricity generation by 40%.

Chernobyl released much more radiation than the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. 

The Three Mile Island may have had a more significant economic impact than Chernobyl.

It shut down the development of new nuclear plants in the United States. The accident occurred in 1974. There were no new plant applications until 2007. As a result, U.S. nuclear engineering companies lost their competitive edge to other countries.

The Chernobyl accident cost more than Hurricane Katrina, estimated at between $125 billion and $250 billion. Katrina also lowered economic growth to 1.3% in the 4th quarter of 2005.