Technicians on Reactor Number Four at the Soviet plant, in Ukraine, hoped to ascertain whether the reactor turbine could power the cooling pumps, in case of electrical failure. They did this by running the reactor on low power but disabling emergency safety systems – including the automatic shutdown.
The increasingly unstable reactor overheated but tests weren’t cancelled, regulations were ignored and mistakes piled up until 1.23am, when a chain reaction in the core caused a power surge and meltdown. The reactor exploded, sending flames and radioactive material 300 metres into the sky.
The nuclear disaster released several hundred times more radiation than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
What followed was a tragic and costly cover-up. Firefighters weren’t informed of the radiation, so were exposed to fatal doses, while the evacuation of the nearby city of Pryp’yat didn’t begin for 36 hours.
The ghost town of Pryp’yat, as it is today, with the New Safe Containment © Getty Images
It was only after monitoring stations in Sweden (620 miles away) picked up high radioactivity in the air that the accident was made public on Russian news.
The radiation was contained by early May, but at extreme risk to the workers who built a concrete-and-steel ‘sarcophagus’ over the reactor. As it was hastily constructed, the sarcophagus has deteriorated, so a New Safe Confinement is currently being built to shield Reactor Number Four for 100 years.
Yet the area around Chernobyl will not be safe for humans for another 20,000 years.
In the immediate aftermath, 32 people perished due to radioactivity, but countless more died later as radiation blew as far as Russia, France and Italy.
An ‘exclusion zone’ extended nearly 19 miles from the station, but that couldn’t stop the poisoning of wildlife, a drastic rise in cancer cases and worldwide fear that nuclear power was far from safe.
This article was first published in the April 2016 issue of History Revealed.