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Friday, November 21, 1997 Published at 18:22 GMT

Special Report: 1997: Chernobyl

Chernobyl: accident and aftermath
image: [ The reactor is still enclosed in a hurriedly constructed concrete sarcophagus, which is growing weaker over time ]
The reactor is still enclosed in a hurriedly constructed concrete sarcophagus, which is growing weaker over time

Reactor Four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant began to fail in the early hours of April 26, 1986. Seven seconds after the operators activated the 20-second shut down system, there was a power surge, and the chemical explosions that followed were so powerful that they blew the 1,000 ton cover off the top of the reactor.

[ image: Smashed by the blast ...]
Smashed by the blast ...
Design flaws in the power plant's cooling system probably caused the uncontrollable power surge that led to Chernobyl's destruction. Serious mistakes had also been made by the plant operators, who had disengaged several safety and cooling systems and taken other unauthorised actions during tests of electrical equipment. With procedures intended to ensure safe operation of the plant operating less than effectively, the Chernobyl unit was even more vulnerable to unforeseen power discharges .

The Chernobyl plant did not have an effective containment structure, and without that protection, radioactive material escaped into the wider environment. The crippled reactor is still encased in a hurriedly constructed concrete sarcophagus, which is growing weaker over time.

Contamination, Exposures, Evacuations

[ image:  ]
The accident that destroyed the reactor in Unit Four killed 31 people almost immediately. Soviet scientists estimate that about 4% of the 190 tons of uranium dioxide products escaped and began to spread unevenly across the surrounding countryside, effected by the vagaries of the weather. Both Soviet and Western scientists agree that most of the contaminating material affected Belarus, but that 40% spread to other nearby areas, including Ukraine.

Immediately after the accident, the main health concern involved levels of radio-iodine radiation. Although the 600,000 workers involved in the recovery and clean-up after the accident were exposed to high doses of radiation, the exact amount cannot be accurately measured. The workers, many of them volunteers, were not equipped with measuring equipment to monitor the dosages they were receiving, but estimates of about 165 millisieverts have been made. Doses of radiation above 10 millisieverts pose significant threats to the human body.

[ image:  ]
Soviet authorities started evacuating people from the area around Chernobyl within 36 hours of the accident. A month later, all those living within a 30 kilometre (18 mile) radius of the plant - about 116,000 people - had been relocated.

Several international organisations have studied the environmental and health impacts of the Chernobyl accident, among them the World Health Organisation and the International Red Cross. Most authorities agree that there is likely to be an increased incidence of radiation related cancers in the affected areas.

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Internet Links

Greenpeace: Chernobyl - Ten years after

Nuclear Information and Resource Service

Project Polyn: Chernobyl Accident and its consequences

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