Chernobyl 2012: the Disaster that Keeps Reminding

Posted on 15 July 2012 by Jerry

In you need a reminder of how bad nuclear fallout and contamination can be just think about how panicked the world was about the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown.  Of course the world’s worst nuclear accident with the largest area of contamination was the April 26, 1986 catastrophic accident at Chernobyl, in the Ukrainian SSR.  Fukushima, at least up to this point, pales by comparison (see ).  Let us check in on the aftermath of that 25+ year old disaster to remind ourselves of why we cannot allow the use of a single nuclear weapon, let alone the 3100 launch ready warheads allowed the United States and Russia by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed on April 8, 2010.

After the accident at Chernobyl there was a race to bury the Unit 4 nuclear reactor and the remaining 95% of its radioactive inventory under steel pipes, steel panels, and concrete.  The structure that was created was officially called the Object Shelter, also known as the sarcophagus.  When constructed, workers faced extreme radiation and had little time in which to complete their work.  Put together as best they could, this structure has been steadily deteriorating in the last 25+ years.  This has forced the construction of a New Safe Confinement (NSC or New Shelter).

This new structure is being built in the sixteen mile exclusion zone around the facility that remains sealed because of the continuing severe radiation levels.  The NSC is scheduled to be completed in the 2014 – 2015 timeframe and is estimated to cost about $1.5 billion dollars.  Funded by a consortium of countries, the U.S. is the largest single contributor.  The NSC is designed to contain the radiation for at least 100 years while future generations decide how to handle the ongoing problem. A video animation at provides an excellent description of the NSC and demonstrates the significant scale of the project.

Also within the sixteen mile sealed exclusion zone is a pine forest which poses a unique problem.  Some of this forest is so badly contaminated that a forest fire could create a sizable smoke cloud that could carry radioactive particles across the European continent.  The problem is “these dying radioactive plantations are considered too dangerous and expensive to clear.” Fire fighters in Chernobyl maintain a watch on the surrounding forests and lumber forth in traditional soviet fire engines to put out a fire when one is spotted.  This is very dangerous work for the fire fighters who are the first, and possibly last, line of defense protecting an unsuspecting European continent from a radioactive smoke cloud.

It is difficult to compare the damage done at Chernobyl with that which would occur as a result of an explosion of a contemporary nuclear warhead.  We shouldn’t doubt that a comparison has been conducted, but it is undoubtedly classified.  Our last public use of a nuclear weapon was on the city of Nagasaki, Japan on the 9th of August 1945. 

It is safe to assume the power of today’s nuclear warhead dwarfs that of the Nagasaki weapon.  Even with the release of the radioactive cloud that Chernobyl created, a containment structure was quickly constructed that confined 95% of the nuclear material that was in that reactor.  An above ground detonation of a nuclear warhead would release all of its radioactive material into the atmosphere.  When the radioactive material from the two sources is compared, it is very different; different isotopes with different half lives and different types of contamination.  Most experts believe today’s nuclear warheads would be worse than Chernobyl by some orders of magnitude.

Seeing Chernobyl and the ongoing effort to prevent further damage, and recalling the worldwide concerns caused by the Fukushima meltdown should reinforce our commitment to seek the elimination of all nuclear weapons.  We need to stop minimizing our view of these horrible weapons by assuming they are just one more arrow in our diplomatic and negotiating quiver.  They are much more serious than just an instrument of foreign policy.  They have outlived their usefulness and could literally end life on our planet.  We must redouble our efforts to maintain constant pressure on the two nuclear super powers to disarm.

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