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It was in the early Saturday morning hours on April 26, 1986 when a Soviet-built nuclear reactor suffered a cataclysmic system failure, resulting in an explosion that blew off the reactor's roof. The explosion led to the contamination of large territories in present-day Belarus, Ukraine and the Russian Federation. Roughly fifty people, most of who were involved in emergency response and recovery, died of radiation sickness in the immediate aftermath. The Chernobyl Forum, a cooperative research programme led by the IAEA and WHO, concluded in 2005 that an estimated 4,000 people are likely to die prematurely in the coming years as a result of their exposure. Everyday life in the region was greatly affected as over 350,000 people were evacuated from severely contaminated areas. The accident left an indelible impact on life in the region.
Since 1986, the IAEA and partner organizations in the United Nations system have been working with the three most affected countries to improve social, economic and environmental conditions in the area. Radiation levels in the environment have fallen dramatically. Land has been returned to economic use. Progress has been slow yet incremental.
The IAEA has undertaken many projects related to assistance, technical cooperation, and research – all working towards the goal of mitigating the health and environmental consequences of the accident. The Agency has also made progress over the last quarter-century to establish a global nuclear safety framework and improve nuclear reactor safety.
On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, the IAEA Division of Public Information presents the following stories, photographs and video that depict the current environmental, social and technical aspects of the affected regions in Belarus and Ukraine.
Stories and photographs: Dana Sacchetti and Gill Tudor; Video: Petr Pavlicek; Design: Kresimir Nikolic
The village of Chernobyl lies about 15 km south-east of the nuclear power plant that bears its name – considerably further away than the ghost city of Pripyat. It too was evacuated after the accident, but is now home to a rotating workforce of around 3,800 people – engineers, scientists, firefighters, administrators and the like – who are employed at the plant and around the Exclusion Zone. To limit their exposure to radiation, workers do not live permanently in Chernobyl but typically follow a shift pattern of four days on, three days off or 15 days on, 15 days off.
A collection of dilapidated, mostly concrete buildings, Chernobyl also boasts a small general store, a bank cash machine and a simple guesthouse for official visitors. The bar is closed, but a Soviet-era monument in the main square still stands as a relic of a past era.
In recent years, the UN and affected governments have modified their approach to the region around Chernobyl by shifting emphasis from emergency response to sustainable development. Since 2009, The IAEA has been working with three UN agencies to educate local communities about the effects of Chernobyl and to enhance understanding of scientific research regarding health and environmental aspects of radiation.
The International Chernobyl Research and Information Network (ICRIN) project is a multi-year effort to distribute information in plain language that can help fight stigma against radiation and dispel widespread misconceptions that still persist. ICRIN works to create information centers in rural areas, disseminate information through schools, health care systems, and media, and implements small-scale community infrastructure projects aimed at improving living conditions and promoting self-reliance.
Partners within the ICRIN effort are the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Children´s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
To learn more about ICRIN: click here
Though it no longer produces electricity, over 3,000 people still work at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. These workers are engaged in a long list of tasks, including the decommissioning of units 1, 2, and 3; managing the nuclear and radioactive material that still exists on site; monitoring the environment around the plant; and building the new shelter that will encase the damaged 4th reactor.
Workers are regularly monitored for radiation protection and work in shifts to limit the amount of exposure to potentially harmful radiation. Many of them commute 50 kilometers to Chernobyl from Slavutych, a town that was built to replace the abandoned city of Pripyat.
There has been much discussion and research on the effect of the Chernobyl accident on wildlife. Cases of immediate damage to plants and animals exposed to high levels of radiation were widely documented, such as a tract of highly irradiated pine trees near the plant that turned red. The possible extent of ongoing genetic or other damage is the subject of continued scientific debate.
What is clear, however, is that the virtual exclusion of human beings from large tracts of forest, open ground and wetlands has left the way clear for many plant, animal and bird populations to expand undisturbed. Both Belarus and Ukraine have designated Exclusion Zone areas as natural reserves. The numbers for native species such as wolves, wild boar, moose, beavers and deer are booming, and several rare species such as lynx and brown bear have made an appearance. The population of European bison in the Belarus forest reserve has increased from 16 in 1996 to more than 70 today. A handful of endangered Przewalski horses such as this one were introduced into the Ukrainian Exclusion Zone and multiplied to a population of nearly 100 – the largest wild population of Przewalski horses outside Mongolia. Many have wandered into the Belarus zone, where they are equally protected.
Although it is technically illegal for anyone to live permanently in the Exclusion Zone, some former residents have defied the rules and slipped back over the years. The authorities turn a blind eye to these mainly elderly 'self-settlers', whose numbers have dwindled through age to just a few hundred scattered in Chernobyl village and across other former settlements.
Valentina Grigorievna Koltunenko, known to her neighbours as 'Baba Valja' (Grandma Valja) is one of them. Now 76 years old, she lives alone in her four-roomed wooden house in the village of Opachichi. Her husband died before the accident, and her three children were living in Pripyat. The village was not evacuated immediately, since the wind was blowing the radioactive plume northwards from the plant into Belarus. But then it changed direction, radiation levels rose and the authorities moved everyone out.
She spent the winter in makeshift, shared accommodation in Makariv, west of Kiev, but got tired of waiting for the permanent housing that was promised. The following spring she returned to her old home and took up a cleaning job in Chernobyl, which had become a hub of emergency activities.
Now she lives on a small state pension, growing vegetables – potatoes, onions, beetroot, carrots – and buying other provisions from a shop that delivers once a week. Sympathetic forest wardens bring her wood and organise help to harvest her garden crops. Her home is warmed from the centre by a huge, wood-burning oven, and a radio-telephone chirrups quietly in a corner.
Scientists regularly monitor radiation around her house. In the uneven patchwork of contamination left by the accident, Opachichi survived with relatively low levels compared to other parts of the Exclusion Zone. This, and the advanced age of the self-settlers, helps explain the official tolerance.
"In autumn they come and measure beetroot, potatoes, everything that grows in the soil," she says. "A special lab comes too, to check the water. They say it's ok for us – we're elderly people."
One of the greatest tragedies of the Chernobyl accident has been the traumatic psychological impact on the population, fostering feelings of fear, uncertainty and helplessness. Attachment to the land runs deep, and many evacuees long to return to their native villages. Studies have shown that self-settlers like Baba Valja have generally coped better psychologically than those who were resettled and have not been able to return.
She says her children, who now live in Kiev and other parts of Ukraine, would have gone back to Pripyat if they could. "We like it here," she says. "It's good to live here."
Located just north of Ukraine, Belarus suffered the heaviest fallout from the Chernobyl accident. Even today, the country still devotes some 17 per cent of its annual budget to dealing with the accident's long-term consequences. The IAEA is one of the international organizations assisting Belarus and, in line with the country's priorities, currently conducts two field projects through its Technical Cooperation (TC) programme, focusing on projects in health care and forestry.
The TC health project is designed to improve the quality of cancer treatment in the south-eastern Gomel region, where the number of patients requiring radiation therapy is rising rapidly. An upgraded facility and new radiotherapy machine will replace an aging cobalt machine, with special attention paid to radiation safety aspects in the new and current facility.
As forests capture and retain radionuclides for many years, large swathes of forested area in Belarus remain contaminated and pose a significant source of exposure for the populace. An IAEA project underway is designed to help optimize management of these affected forests, one of Belarus's most important natural resources.
The Chernobyl complex still presents considerable nuclear and radioactive waste management challenges. Though spent nuclear fuel was recently removed from reactor 3, burned up fuel elements remain in reactors 1 and 2. Retrieving and conditioning unit 4's fuel that burned in a graphite fire 25 years ago won't be accomplished for decades. The technology to do so hasn't yet been invented.
In addition to nuclear fuel, several thousand cubic meters of liquid and solid radioactive waste remain. Ukraine expects to spend multiple billions of dollars over the next fifty years to treat and store Chernobyl's waste.
The region around Chernobyl is a patchwork in terms of human activity and land use. Though over 100 villages were abandoned in the wake of the accident, numerous other towns and communities remain. Khoiniki, a town of nearly 14,000 in Belarus' extreme south, is one such place. Belarus is placing renewed effort into revitalizing the town by offering housing subsidies and encouraging families to move there.
An elementary-level school for over 100 children was re-opened earlier this decade. Children are educated about the accident and learn about its consequences. Growing up in a Chernobyl-affected region does present challenges. Children are given lessons on the basics of radiation, how to live a healthy lifestyle, and warnings on eating certain locally grown foods. The school offers a full range of courses and activities and completes an annual medical examination of each student.
After the catastrophic accident at Chernobyl's fourth reactor in 1986, the three remaining reactors at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant continued to operate for several years until Ukraine shut down the final one in December 2000
After the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine achieved independence and joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1994 as a non-nuclear-weapon state. It concluded a safeguards agreement with the IAEA the following year, and the Agency then applied measures to account for and verify Ukraine's nuclear material, including that at Chernobyl.
Today, Chernobyl retains a sizeable quantity of nuclear material that is kept on site. More than 20,000 spent fuel assemblies (roughly 10 full reactor loads) are contained within the reactor buildings and one storage facility. The plan is to eventually move the fuel to a longer-term storage facility.
To monitor the nuclear material at the plant site, the IAEA employs a safeguards system which is among the most advanced at any safeguarded nuclear facility. The Agency uses remote monitoring, makes on-site inspections, and applies seals to ensure the non-diversion of nuclear material.
Safeguarding the nuclear material in the destroyed reactor presents a unique challenge to the IAEA. Experts estimate that reactor 4 contains a large quantity of uranium in various forms, including spent nuclear fuel. And since much of unit 4 is inaccessible due to high levels of radiation, it is impossible to apply traditional safeguards methods to the damaged reactor. To ensure the non-diversion of this nuclear material, IAEA safeguards staff have worked with Chernobyl's plant operators to arrive at an inventive and practical solution.
The IAEA has installed monitoring equipment at access points in to unit 4. In addition, the Agency is setting up surveillance equipment capable of detecting any tampering with the spent fuel storage area inside the reactor hall. This safeguards approach provides confidence that any effort to remove a significant amount of nuclear material from unit 4 will be detected.
Outside of the nuclear plant site, Ukraine maintains several radioactive waste storage facilities within the exclusion zone. Given the challenging circumstances of waste removal following the accident, the exact nature of some of the material at these sites is unknown. The IAEA works closely with the Ukrainian authorities to gain a better understanding of the nature of this material so that any future work to move and or safeguard it will be made easier.
Creating sustainable employment after the Chernobyl accident is one area in which the IAEA has assisted Belarus. Through its Technical Cooperation programme, the IAEA has supplied equipment to measure radiation in food products at a factory in Khoiniki, a town in southern Belarus that was affected by contamination from Chernobyl. IAEA-supplied equipment and training is helping this factory to produce high-quality flour out of local raw stock. This equipment allows factory staff to detect and control any possible contamination during the entire production cycle.
In Ukraine, the IAEA is assisting the country with the decommissioning of the Chernobyl site, including management of the radioactive waste while the new safe confinement ('new sarcophagus') is being built. The IAEA is also working to enhance the radiation safety of the population and to promote the socioeconomic rehabilitation of the areas affected by the Chernobyl accident by providing scientific, methodological and information support.
Regionally, the IAEA is providing support across a number of fields for the areas affected by the accident, such as radiation protection of the population and area rehabilitation. In the health field, it is improving health services for patients undergoing nuclear medicine diagnosis and treatment, improving the quality and safety of radiotherapy services, upgrading the knowledge and clinical skills of medical physicists, radiation oncologists and technicians.
In 2007, a United Nations General Assembly Resolution noted with satisfaction the IAEA's Technical Cooperation work in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine, involving remediation of agricultural and urban environments, cost-effective agricultural countermeasures and monitoring of human exposure in areas affected by the Chernobyl disaster.
Under the United Nations Chernobyl Action plan, the IAEA's main activities are: radiological support for the rehabilitation of the areas affected by the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident; remediation of the Chernobyl-affected territories using environmentally sound technologies; radiological support for planning, design and implementation of the Chernobyl-related projects upon request from other international organisations; and dissemination of the materials of the Chernobyl Forum in order to facilitate risk communication with members of the general public, local authorities and communities.
One of the Chernobyl accident's lingering effects is that farmland remains contaminated in many regions around the site. When a significant part of Belarus' land was blanketed by radionuclides following the accident, the country worked with the IAEA and Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) to take countermeasures to minimize contamination of crops and animal products.
Since the mid-1990s, farmers in Belarus have grown rapeseed, a crop that has multiple uses. Cultivation of the bright yellow rapeseed is possible because radionuclides that remain in the soil (including cesium, strontium, and americium) are not absorbed into the plant's seeds. This allows for safe consumption and use of the rapeseed plant as animal feed and industrial lubricants.
"We can grow what we want in the contaminated areas. The problem is the cost to do so – taking countermeasures is expensive," remarked Dr Josef Brogdevitch of the Belarus Institute of Soil Studies. "We will use the land to its fullest potential but only on one condition – that it does not harm the people who live there."
Under its Technical Cooperation and Nuclear Safety programmes, the IAEA provides technical expertise and training for the eventual decommissioning and on-going radioactive waste management at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant site and in the surrounding affected areas. For instance, the IAEA assists the Ukrainian government in evaluating the amount and types of radioactive waste that accumulated at the nuclear power plant. This information in turn is used to implement strategies for waste classification and characterization, to develop safety assessments for a disposal facility, to implement risk assessment methodologies, to mitigate environmental risks, to continuously reduce radiological uncertainties and to train personnel.
The Shelter that was erected in 1986 as a temporary construction to house the reactor and the waste will be reconstructed and remediated. The IAEA provided technical advice on the Shelter's design and training on managing residual material, thus reducing the risks and environmental impact, while increasing the safety of the reconstruction effort.
The Chernobyl nuclear plant site will be decommissioned; a mammoth undertaking that requires extensive planning. The IAEA is supporting the Ukrainian government develop an integrated approach to project management, human resource management, the decommissioning strategy, technological advice on decontaminating, dismantling and conditioning operational wastes; managing decommissioning schedule, cost control techniques, managing contractors, training personnel, quality assurance, internal communication, public information, international communication and the regulatory issues.
The accident's aftermath had a profound impact on thousands of people living in the region around the plant, but perhaps the greatest effect was seen in children. Elevated cases of thyroid cancer in children were seen in the weeks following Chernobyl. In the years since, national governments and UN agencies have marshaled resources to ensure that healthy lifestyles and reduction of risks are promoted, especially among children.
In Belarus, children learn about the accident and the response, and are encouraged to discuss and explore its impact inside and outside the classroom. One joint government agency, the Russia-Belarusian Information Center for Mitigating the Chernobyl Catastrophe Effects (RBIC), encourages youth to transition from the label of a 'Chernobyl victim' to an active participant in revitalization efforts. The agency works to create conditions for young people to participate in area rehabilitation activities.
Recently, RBIC hosted an art competition on Chernobyl for children from the three most-affected countries. Over 1000 submissions were received, depicting scenes of both devastation and hope. You can view a sample of the artwork here →.
When Unit 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded in the early hours of 26 April, 1986, it was not only Western countries that the Soviet authorities kept in the dark. News of the accident was not announced publicly in the Soviet Union until three days later, and even the populations directly affected by the accident were given little real information about what had happened or the nature of the risks. Rumours abounded, and mistrust of official information ran deep.
Times have changed, and the authorities in Ukraine, Belarus and the Russian Federation have made widespread efforts to inform and educate residents in contaminated areas – particularly on the continuing dangers, such as eating berries and mushrooms that remain strongly contaminated. This public information poster in the village of Chernobyl is headed ‘Rules of conduct for the population of radiation-polluted areas’.
Though progress has been made to improve the lives of local communities over the past quarter-century, economic hardship remains a reality for many who live in and around the affected regions. National budgetary support remains an important ingredient in revitalizing local economies for Belarus, Ukraine and portions of the Russian Federation.
Since large portions of Belarus' southern territory remain affected by high levels of radioactive contamination following the accident, the country is busily studying the development of plants and animal life to make decisions on land use and resettlement. To conduct this research, Belarus set aside 2,160 square kilometers of its territory in 1998 and established the Polesye Radiation Ecological Reserve (PSRER).
The reserve, seated squarely in the Belarussian Exclusion Zone, employs over 700 staff who perform tests to monitor radiation's effects on flora and fauna. Since much of the PSRER territory is still contaminated, workers also use environmental and radiation protection measures to protect against any further spread of radionuclides. The IAEA has helped by equipping the reserve with radiation measuring technology and providing training for some of its staff.
With little human activity on the reserve, some animal populations have been seen to be increasing. The reserve acts as a conservation zone for rare species such as the wisent (European bison), lynx and the Przewalski horse.
Since any forest fire could spread further contamination, PSRER staff maintains a vigorous system to watch for and fight any fires that may arise. A high level of security is maintained to prevent trespassers from entering the territory.
In 1986 this was an ultra-modern Soviet collective farm, raising 25,000 pigs. The farm, which lies about 30 km north of the Chernobyl plant inside the Belarus Exclusion Zone, was abandoned when its human residents were evacuated soon after the accident. The pigs had to stay for another four months. They survived, but most were too contaminated for human consumption. Several thousand tonnes of meat were buried in concrete, away from water courses, to ensure safe disposal.
One of the world's largest and most complex construction projects is underway at the reactor site. Since the 1986 accident, concern has persisted about the structural integrity of the existing Shelter, or sarcophagus. The original structure was built under hurried and dangerous conditions in the months following the reactor failure in 1986, but was only meant to last ten years. Instability of the structure is a major problem due to the possibility of collapse, which might lead to a possible release of radiation from fuel masses still inside the damaged reactor.
Construction of a new structure, the New Safe Confinement, has begun on site. Once completed, the new structure will confine the reactor for the coming century and will allow for longer-term safety and decommissioning of unit 4. Yet support for funding has been a challenge. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the body responsible for managing the project, estimates that 1.5 billion euros is needed to build the structure. Efforts continue to raise money for the structure, and the current status of the project can be found at the following website: chernobyltwentyfive.org