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The 1986 catastrophic nuclear accident in Chernobyl, Ukraine

A catastrophic nuclear accident took place at the Chernobyl power plant causing tens of thousands of excess cancers and many birth malformations. 2,600 square km of forest and marshland on the border of Ukraine and Belarus became inhabitable.


Chernobyl is not merely a technological castatrophe of the past. It infuences the present. "The numbers of excess cancers and cancer deaths worldwide will be in the tens of thousands" (Lisbeth Gronlund, Union of Concerned Scentists, 2011). The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station was commissioned in 1977 by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). It was made by four reactors; the completion of the first reactor was in 1977, followed by reactor No. 2 (1978), No. 3 (1981), and No. 4 (1983). Chernobyl was the third nuclear power station in the Soviet Union.  The disaster occurred on the evening of April 25, 1986 when a group of engineers began an electrical-engineering experiment on the Number 4 reactor. The engineers wanted to see if the reactor’s turbine could run emergency water pumps on inertial power.

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:The 1986 catastrophic nuclear accident in Chernobyl, Ukraine
State or province:Ukraine,Belarus
Location of conflict:Pripyat, Goma
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Nuclear
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Nuclear power plants
Specific commodities:Electricity
Project Details and Actors
Project details

- The plant consisted in four reactors of type RBMK-1000, each capable of producing 1,000 megawatts (MW) of electric power, and the four together produced about 10% of Ukraine's electricity at the time of the accident. The accident took place in one of the 4 reactors.

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Type of populationSemi-urban
Affected Population:400,000
Start of the conflict:26/04/1986
Relevant government actors:International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Governments of the URSS, State Agency in Administration of Exclusion Zone (Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources),
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:WISE and many oher international NGOs
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Industrial workers
Informal workers
International ejos
Social movements
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Artistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of health damage
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Fires, Food insecurity (crop damage), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Other Environmental impacts
Other Environmental impactsDirect impact to non-human beings: cattle and wildlife.
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Occupational disease and accidents, Deaths, Other environmental related diseases, Other Health impacts
Other Health impactsThyroid carcinomas and other types of cancer.
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Militarization and increased police presence, Specific impacts on women, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Potential: Increase in violence and crime, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..)
Other socio-economic impactsNo compensation for liability by the Soviet Union was ever considered. A perfect case of (involuntary) cost-shifting.
Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Court decision (undecided)
Project cancelled
Development of alternatives:Some people continue living in the zone, they never wanted to move. They stay in the zone planting their potatoes, legumes and taking care of their animals.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Three units of the plant continued working up to 2001 when they were finally shut down. Many lessons have been learned from Chernobyl accident and preparations have been made to respond to and mitigate futures accidents but nuclear energy remain part of the political agenda of many contries around the world. The issue of liability for damages caused by the state of the Soviet Union inside and outside its territory was not even considered.
Nowadays, there are millions of people around Europes continuing paying the costs of the air/water and soil polution in their health. Experts said Chernobyl will be uninhabitable for 20,000 more years.
Sources & Materials
References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Psychological and perceived health effects of the Chernobyl disaster: A 20-year review
[click to view]

Guillaume Grandazzi, Commemorating the Chernobyl disaster: Remembering the future. 2006
[click to view]

J. P. Dupuy, Pour un catastrophisme éclairé. Quand l'impossible est certain, Paris: Seuil 2002 (the pedagogy of catastrophes - the influential interpretation of Chernobyl by Jean Pierre Dupy).

Union of Concerned Scientists. How Many Cancers Did Chernobyl Really Cause?—Updated Version. LISBETH GRONLUND, CO-DIRECTOR AND SENIOR SCIENTIST | APRIL 17, 2011.
[click to view]

OMS Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident and Special Health Care Programmes
[click to view]

UN Report Chernobyl 1995
[click to view]

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

Nuclear disaster at Chernobyl
[click to view]

[click to view]

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
[click to view]

World Nuclear Organisation: Chernobyl Accident 1986
[click to view]

The Children of Chernobyl Affected by Cancer
[click to view]

WISE, Chernobyl: Five years of disaster. Nuclear Monitor Issue: #349-350, Special: Chernobyl: Five years of disaster

[click to view]


Nuclear Monitor Issue: #641, 2006
[click to view]

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Chernobyl, las imágenes olvidadas a 30 años del desastre nuclear
[click to view]

El desastre nuclear de Chernobyl (1986) Documental completo
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:Grettel Navas and Joan Martínez Alier, ENVJustice
Last update18/08/2019
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