26th April has been a key date in many events through history. For instance – William Shakespeare was baptized; Prince George, later King George VI of Britain married Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and the US rocket Ranger IV landed on the moon but failed to send back pictures due to ‘a technical problem’. However, I have picked something that, in both the short and long term as far as I am concerned, is much more important than anything else.
It was on this Saturday, 26th April 1986 – at around 1.20 in the morning – that a chain reaction in one of the four reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant went out of control. The result was a massive sequence of explosions. Thirty people died instantly and very many more died over the weeks, months and years that followed.
It was two days later, on 28th April 1986, that the Tass news agency released its first report. The abnormal levels of radioactivity had already been detected in Scandinavia, and were soon traced across Europe and beyond. To say ‘nothing would be the same again’ is a rather significant understatement. The battle to contain the contamination and avert a greater catastrophe ultimately involved over half a million workers and cost an estimated 18 billion Rubles. During the accident itself 31 people died, and long-term effects such as cancers are still being investigated.
The Chernobyl accident is considered the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history, both in terms of cost and casualties. It is one of only two nuclear energy accidents classified as a level 7 event (the maximum classification) on the International Nuclear Event Scale, the other being the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011. The remains of the No.4 reactor building were enclosed in a large cover which was named the “Object Shelter”, often known as the sarcophagus. The purpose of the structure was to reduce the spread of the remaining radioactive dust and debris wreckage and the protection of the wreckage from further weathering. The sarcophagus was finished in December 1986 at a time when what was left of the reactor was entering the cold shutdown phase. The enclosure was not intended as a radiation shield, but was built quickly as occupational safety for the crews of the other undamaged reactors at the power station, with No.3 continuing to produce electricity up into 2000.