An Historian

historical stuff by Gareth Millward


1986 – Chernobyl


26 April 1986 – Pripyat

The Chernobyl Disaster is one of those iconic events that has permeated into many aspects of our society. While it certainly wasn’t the first nuclear disaster (or, indeed, the last), it occurred at a time in which its political, environmental and cultural effects were amplified. Chernobyl, now a byword for catastrophe, has had a lasting impact upon the last three decades. And so, here it is at number 2 in the 30-for-30.

Homer, your bravery and quick thinking have turned a potential Chernobyl into a mere Three-Mile Island. Bravo!

Montgomery C. Burns, The Simpsons, 5 November 1995

The Simpsons plays on the caricature of nuclear power. It is simultaneously the economic centre of Springfield and - on more than one occasion - a potential cause of Armageddon...

The Simpsons plays on the caricature of nuclear power. It is simultaneously the economic centre of Springfield and – on more than one occasion – a potential cause of Armageddon…

As with most historical events, the more fascinating aspects of Chernobyl are not the scientific facts, but the way it came to be represented and reconstructed by various people. However, the reality of how the plant came to its demise is intriguing. One might be forgiven for thinking that Pripyat – the abandoned Ukrainian city in which Chernobyl was built – can never be visited. That a massive mushroom cloud billowed above, leaving a massive crater below. That the local fish have three eyes, and that anyone not disintegrated by the blast died soon after from horrific radiation burns. Much like the monsters of the early-modern period, though, the myth of Chernobyl is built on elements of truth that have been exaggerated and reinforced in the popular imagination.

Panaroma of Pripyat, the city built to house the workers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. (Source)

Panaroma of Pripyat, the city built to house the workers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. (Source)

First, the plant did not explode like a Hiroshima-style A-bomb. A power surge, combined with poor safety procedures, produced a fire within one of the reactors.1 This then caused a chemical explosion (it’s not a good idea to expose graphite to fire), which created a cloud of radioactive ash. As a direct result of the explosion, two workers died. A further 28 died within three months as a result of the rescue and containment operation. The prevailing winds meant that much of the fallout landed in the nearby republics of Belarus and Russia rather than in the Ukraine itself. While this has significantly raised the risk of cancer in these areas,2 the wider region is still inhabited and, while far from ideal, it is safe enough for people to live there.3. Indeed, while Pripyat and the immediate environs are restricted and abandoned, it is still possible to visit the city. You could even drive through it, if you were so inclined…

This is not, of course, to downplay the scale of the disaster. It was incredibly expensive. Pripyat will remain uninhabited for 20,000 years. And there are not only significant levels of cancer in Ukraine and Belarus; lives were irreparably disrupted by the relocation of 50,000 citizens from the city. But Chernobyl was never the comic-book Apocalypse that it appears to be portrayed as. So. Why does this myth keep repeating?

First, the most boring explanation. It’s a good story. The idea of a far-flung place, nuclear explosions, mutant trees and radioactivity. These are the stuff of science fiction and play into fears of engineers playing God. They’ve been around for a long time. The Hulk and Spider-Man both debuted in 1962. That same year, the Cuban Missile Crisis (allegedly) brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. The word “nuclear” is iconic. Mix it in with “explosion” and “Russia” (because all of the USSR was “Russia”), and you’ve got yourself a blockbuster.

Which brings us onto perhaps the most important aspect. The Cold War. Not only did the late-Cold War setting allow the West to use Chernobyl as a sign of Soviet incompetence4 – an almost literal metaphor of how the country was falling apart – it also led to major problems dealing with the aftermath. When the USSR disintegrated in the 1990s, responsibility was spread between the Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian governments. Consequently, there remain serious social and political problems along the Dneiper river.5 This has served as a constant reminder of the long-term effects of nuclear power if it goes wrong. This food for the anti-nuclear lobby and, in turn, keeps Chernobyl in the public consciousness. For others, Chernobyl must be held up as the exception, caused by incompetence. Nuclear power is such an important part of many Western countries’ energy infrastructure that all fear must be projected onto Chernobyl and focused away from the potential disasters closer to home.6 Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Western experts sought to improve safety standards in the East as a way of enforcing their own professional power and to show to the world that nuclear was safe when “done properly”.7

When the Fukushima plant went into meltdown following the 2011 earthquake in Japan, comparisons were immediately drawn.8 But this hasn’t captured the imagination in the same way. At the time, there was a great deal of speculation, fuelled again by the “disaster movie” narrative being spun by the rolling news media. Yet the limited fallout and the relatively swift response appear to have nipped it in the bud. It probably helps that Japan is “one of us” – a technologically advanced capitalist nation. Thus, despite being the only other “level 7” nuclear accident, Fukushima is not talked about in the same tones as Chernobyl.

The disaster is one of the most iconic events of the last thirty years. It simultaneously seems to be blown completely out of proportion as a cartoonish Apocalypse; and underplayed as a long-term catastrophe outside of the city of Pripyat itself. With the political situations in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine currently unstable, it is clear that Chernobyl is not over – and the management of the aftermath continues to be a concern. For these reasons, Chernobyl is the entry for 1986.

  1. Marples argues that the disaster was as a direct result of complacency on behalf of the nuclear industry in the USSR in the 1970s and 1980s. See David R. Marples, ‘The Chernobyl Disaster’ in Current History 86(522) (1987), 325-43.
  2. Adriana Petryna, ‘Biological citizenship: The science and politics of Chernobyl-exposed populations’ in Osiris 19 (2004), 250-65.
  3. International Atomic Energy Agency, Chernobyl +15: Frequently Asked Chernobyl Questions (undated, but presumably c. April 2001) < > (captured by The Internet Archive, 2 December 2003) (accessed 3 February 2015)
  4. Nicky Falkoff, ‘Heroes with a Half Life: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and American repression of radiophobia after Chernobyl’ in The Journal of Popular Culture 46(5) (2013), 931-49.
  5. BBC News, ‘Belarus cursed by Chernobyl’ (26 April 2005) < > (accessed 3 February 2015); Petryna, ‘Biological citizens’.
  6. Falkoff, ‘Heroes with a Half Life’.
  7. Thomas R. Wellock, ‘The children of Chernobyl: Engineers and the campaign for safety in Soviet-designed reactors in Central and Eastern Europe’ in History & Technology 29(1) (2013), 3-32.
  8. BBC News, ‘How does Fukushima differ from Chernobyl?’ (16 December 2011) < > (accessed 3 February 2015).
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