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
NameThe 1986 catastrophic nuclear accident in Chernobyl, Ukraine
SitePripyat, Goma
Accuracy of LocationHIGH local level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Nuclear
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Nuclear power plants
Specific CommoditiesElectricity
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.

-The accident was the result of a flawed reactor design that was operated with inadequately trained personnel. The accident happened because of a failed experiment.

-The resulting steam explosion and fires released at least 5% of the radioactive reactor core into the atmosphere and downwind.

- The costs of the accident only in terms of the building (sarcophagus) to contain the damages reactors and avoid radiactivity to escape have amounted to billions of USD. Many thousands of victims who have developed cancers have not been compensated for such damage.
Type of PopulationSemi-urban
Potential Affected Population400,000
Start Date26/04/1986
Relevant government actorsInternational Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Governments of the URSS, State Agency in Administration of Exclusion Zone (Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources),
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersWISE and many oher international NGOs
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)HIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
When did the mobilization beginMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups MobilizingIndustrial workers
Informal workers
International ejos
Social movements
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of MobilizationArtistic 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
OtherDirect 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
OtherThyroid carcinomas and other types of cancer.
Socio-economic 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..)
OtherNo compensation for liability by the Soviet Union was ever considered. A perfect case of (involuntary) cost-shifting.
Project StatusStopped
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseEnvironmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Court decision (undecided)
Project cancelled
Development of AlternativesSome 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 as a success?No
Why? Explain briefly.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 and Materials

OMS Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident and Special Health Care Programmes
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Psychological and perceived health effects of the Chernobyl disaster: A 20-year review
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UN Report Chernobyl 1995
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Guillaume Grandazzi, Commemorating the Chernobyl disaster: Remembering the future. 2006
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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.
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The Children of Chernobyl Affected by Cancer
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Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
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World Nuclear Organisation: Chernobyl Accident 1986
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Nuclear disaster at Chernobyl
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Nuclear Monitor Issue: #641, 2006
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WISE, Chernobyl: Five years of disaster. Nuclear Monitor Issue: #349-350, Special: Chernobyl: Five years of disaster

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Media Links

El desastre nuclear de Chernobyl (1986) Documental completo
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Chernobyl, las imágenes olvidadas a 30 años del desastre nuclear
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Other Documents

The Plant
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Despite the destruction, radiation and total isolation, she prefers to die in their own land. Elderly woman of 92 years, in 2011. Photo Gerd Ludwig Despite the destruction, radiation and total isolation, she prefers to die in their own land. Elderly woman of 92 years, in 2011.

Photo Gerd Ludwig
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Meta Information
ContributorGrettel Navas and Joan Martínez Alier, ENVJustice
Last update15/11/2016