Please zoom in or out and select the base layer according to your preference to make the map ready for printing, then press the Print button above.

The 1986 catastrophic nuclear accident in Chernobyl, Ukraine


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.

According with History channel “As part of their poorly designed experiment, the engineers disconnected the reactor’s emergency safety systems and its power-regulating system. Next, they compounded this recklessness with a series of mistakes. They ran the reactor at a power level so low that the reaction became unstable, and then removed too many of the reactor’s control rods in an attempt to power it up again. The reactor’s output rose to more than 200 megawatts but was proving increasingly difficult to control. Nevertheless, at 1:23 a.m. on April 26, the engineers continued with their experiment and shut down the turbine engine to see if its inertial spinning would power the reactor’s water pumps. In fact, it did not adequately power the water pumps, and without cooling water the power level in the reactor surged”.

Only 30 hours later (on April 27), Soviet authorities began an evacuation of the 30,000 inhabitants of Pripyat. Many fire fighters died. The army was brought in. Many suffered radiation burns. The radiation escaped into the atmosphere, being first noticed in Sweden before the Soviet authorities acknowledged the accident. It is still affecting people nowadays. The United Nations Agency “UNICEF” assessed the impact of Chernobyl on the health of children in Belarus and found increases in: congenital heart and circulatory diseases; disorders of the digestive organs; malignant tumors; disorders of the nervous system and sensory organs; disorders of the bone, muscle and connective tissue system (UN Report on Chernobyl).

The impact of the radiation also affected thousands of fertile hectares where people used to plant; the use of water from water wells also was banned. As well, horses and other animals were sacrificed for being radioactive. Some people didn´t want to go away from their lands and some others returned years after to their houses.The book "Voices from Chernobyl" from Svetlana Aleksiévich (Nobel Laureate) narrates people´s histories living there.

The information about the real social and ecological impact of Chernobyl is not well known. The damage to human health and wild life over a very large area in Europe was enormous. No compensation to the many victims (including mothers who decided to abort before birth) was made.  Thirty years on, there are plans for a Chernobyl Park as a tourist attraction,  and there is a $ 1.2 billion plan to build another safer confinement structure over the Chernobyl reactor.

The Chernobyl case reinforced strongly the  anti-nuclear world movement world-wide.

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.

-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
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

Guillaume Grandazzi, Commemorating the Chernobyl disaster: Remembering the future. 2006

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.

OMS Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident and Special Health Care Programmes

UN Report Chernobyl 1995

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

Nuclear disaster at Chernobyl


Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant

World Nuclear Organisation: Chernobyl Accident 1986

The Children of Chernobyl Affected by Cancer

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



Nuclear Monitor Issue: #641, 2006

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Chernobyl, las imágenes olvidadas a 30 años del desastre nuclear

El desastre nuclear de Chernobyl (1986) Documental completo

Meta information

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





The Plant


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