The site of what is often regarded as the worst disaster in nuclear power history, the Chernobyl (AKA Chornobyl or V.I. Lenin Memorial) Nuclear Power Plant was one of USSR's biggest and most modern nuclear plants, designed to give power to the city of Kiev / Kyivnote , Ukrainian SSR (now Ukraine). The disaster was the first accident to score a 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale, its highest rating (the only other with this rating is the Fukushima Daiichi disaster of 2011), and surrounding areas remain uninhabitable to this day.
The disaster, which happened on April 26, 1986 at 01:23 am Moscow time, was the result of several factors. The RBMK reactor designs used in Soviet plants were inherently flawed in that they could heat up very quickly and had an (unknown to its designers and operators) tendency to surge power levels when a SCRAM (AZ-5) button was pressed to stop the reaction. Reactor #4 (the newest of Chernobyl's reactors and the one in which the accident occurred) had a strong containment structure on the side, but not on its roof. The plant personnel were also carrying out a dangerous test with Reactor #4 for power outage protocols at night (since they didn't want to interfere with citizens' electricity usage) with inexperienced workers (the test was originally scheduled for earlier in the day, but Kiev's power grid controller asked for a delay due to end of month power requirements requiring the plant remain at 1600MW power for longer than it was supposed to, which led to a build up of xenon in the reactor that did not go away when the test got underway 11 hours later. By then, a shift change had occurred, and the experienced reactor operators were relieved by less experienced personnel not familiar with the test protocols). As they tried to maintain a delicate balance between cooling the reactor and powering it, things slowly got more and more out of hand. Then, communication between both sides got cut off. The person overseeing the test, Anatoly Dyatlov, insisted the test be done even as the reactor's power dropped to 200MW due to reactor poisoning (the test conditions were that it be done at a reactor core power of 700MW, as operating at 200MW was well below safety limits, and xenon-135 released as a fission byproduct caused the power to continue dropping). The explosion occurred when after several desperate corrections, the side controlling the graphite-tipped control rods (which had already taken out a dangerously large number of them to begin with) noticed that things were going wrong, and put too many back into the reactor all at once, triggering the disaster. The explosion wasn't like, say, a nuclear bomb explosion (where the relatively small bomb reaches millions of degrees), but more comparable to a boiler explosion (where the water temperature gets so high the vessel can't contain the pressure).
As this was still during the years of the Soviet Union, and Mikhail Gorbachev had only been in office for a year at this point, news about the disaster was slow to come out. The day after the disaster the people in the nearby company town of Pripyat were just minding their own business as usual, and it was not until the second day that action was actually taken: the government forces showed up at Pripyat and told everybody to pack only their essentials (they claimed the citizens of Pripyat could return later) and evacuate immediately. The radiation spread through Belarus, and the Kremlin remained tight-lipped. Then it spread to the Baltic states, and the Kremlin remained tight-lipped. Then the radiation reached the Capitalist bloc in Sweden... and that's where the cat got out of the bag and the Soviet Union had to admit that the accident happened. The international reaction led to a halt of almost all nuclear reactor development worldwide, with some (such as Italy) going so far as to close down their nuclear plants. Many neighboring areas to the plant were made instantly unsafe for habitation, with a 30 km Exclusion Zone established, with cities in the zone (most notably Pripyat, the city where workers of the plant lived) remaining ghost towns to this day.
The Soviets also had to contend with the plant remains, given that there was (and will be for the next several thousand years) enough plutonium inside Reactor #4 to potentially poison one hundred million people. Their initial response was to haphazardly have hundreds of thousands of men wearing lead suits briefly push some of the debris on the top of the reactor building down into the reactor for three minutes each, since the radiation levels were so high that doing it any longer would be extremely dangerous, even in the best radiation protection suits available. Once this was done, they hastily built a temporary containment structure (the "Sarcophagus") around what was left of Reactor #4. The plant remained operational until they could safely decommission each of the other reactors, with the plant finally closing down in the year 2000. Since the containment structure was meant to only be a short-term solution, a giant moving arch structure called the Chernobyl New Safe Confinement was built next to the plant. After several delays, the arch was moved into place in November 2016, and the end wall was completed in late 2018.
Containment cost the Soviet Union 18 billion rubles,note and has cost hundreds of billions of dollars in containment and treatment since. The disaster was also a major factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 — the immense cost of cleanupnote , the fact that attempting to cover up the incident only made it worse, Valery Legasov's testimony and his tapes coming to light after his suicide, the human toll of the disaster and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's push for more openness to the world (his glastnost policy) all cascaded and led to the superpower dissolving five years after the incident. The Chernobyl disaster led to 31 immediate deaths, with cancer deaths in Soviet Union estimated to be in the thousands, and estimations vary wildly on the effects and number of deaths the radioactive cloud caused throughout Europe. Cow milk in some parts of Ukraine still has five times the safe level of radiations as of 2019.
Contrary to popular belief, the Exclusion Zone is not as unsafe as you might think, though the plant is still highly radioactive and it is not recommended to get very close to it. While travel into the Exclusion Zone is strictly controlled and usually available only through tour groups, Pripyat (which is closest to the plant) and Chernobyl are safe to visit and are fairly well preserved Soviet ghost towns, though staying there longer than with the tour groups would be unwise, and you would do well to listen to your tour guide's instructions while you're there. The Exclusion Zone has also become an unintentional wildlife preserve, with many scientists studying the effects of radiation on such life, though with few exceptions, animals in the area don't seem affected by it much note .
Due to being home to ghost towns, the impossibility of detecting radiation without proper tools until it's too late, the abandoned plant itself being incredibly ominous and foreboding and giving off a very unsettling feeling, Chernobyl and its surrounding area lends itself well to horror and post-apocalypse settings.
Tropes associated with Chernobyl in popular culture:
- Abandoned Area: An unfortunate result of the catastrophe. Families were told to pack only essential items with the implication that they would return (obviously, they never did), Pripyat and as a result, there are still family pictures, furniture, and other assorted items you'd find around the house still lying around relatively untouched, with the exception of most valuables and useful items—either the families took them with them, or they were looted in the years since the accident.
- Abandoned Hospital: The Pripyat hospital, which took in the first radiation casualties of the accident (most of them were liquidators). Their clothes are still piled in the basement, and make that building the most radioactive place in the area other than the actual reactor.
- Abandoned Playground: The theme park in Pripyat with its Ferris wheel. It was scheduled to open shortly after the disaster. There are also more conventional abandoned playgrounds in the area.
- Black Site: In connection to its Forbidden Zone status, some fiction portrays it as hiding something top secret. In fact, the somewhat secret Duga-1 over-the-horizon radar (also known as the "Russian Woodpecker") is located less than 10 km from Chernobyl, well within the exclusion zone.
- Company Town: Pripyat was this before the disaster. As was typical in the USSR for their key industry and military sites, the Soviets built an entire town near the plant to house its workers and their families. It possessed twenty schools, fifty stores and restaurants, ten gyms, and even an amusement park. Its population at the time of the disaster in 1986 was 49,360. After the disaster, the Soviets built an entire new town just for the evacuees, called Slavutych.
- Creepy Basement:
- The basement of Pripyat hospital is covered with Empty Piles of Clothing (which were worn by the liquidators, and are highly radioactive), and just walking into the room without adequate protection means significantly increased cancer risk.
- The concrete room beneath the reactor, where the Elephant's Foot is located. The thing is a mass of corium ('nuclear lava' if you will) which has flowed and (not quite) solidified down there after eating the reactor's floor. It is so radioactive that it makes this room one of the most dangerous environments on Earth, people actually can't stand nearby too long without dying. Back in the first months and years after the disaster, it could kill a grown man in mere minutes, nowadays it still takes several hours of being exposed to it.
- Disaster Dominoes: There were a great deal of different events that had to happen in order for the Chernobyl disaster to occur:
- The colossal sizenote of the RBMK reactor design and its loading assembly (itself a side-effect of being designed to be both cheap to make, run and maintain as well as being usable for producing weapons-grade plutonium if necessary) made a full-sized containment vessel and containment structure too expensive for the USSR to consider.
- Construction was rushed so people like Bryukhanov could get completion bonuses. This meant things like the roof being made of combustible rather than fireproof materials, and the turbine safety test being conducted after the plant went into full-scale operation rather than before.
- Several design flaws were present in the RBMK reactor design - some unknown at the time; others known, but classified and hidden even from the reactor operators.
- The standby pumps - designed to cool the core in the event of a loss of grid power (a likely possibility in the Cold War) took a long time to get up to speed (mostly due to the sheer size of the thing), which is what necessitated the alternative turbine safety procedure being attempted in the first place.
- Insertion time of the control rods was very slow, at around 20 seconds, compared to much less than five seconds for most reactor designs.
- The design of the control rods (the tip being of graphite instead of boron like the rest) was such that whilst being inserted they speed up the reaction rather than slowing it down.
- The high "positive void coefficient" of the design - basically, the hotter the reactor gets (or the less water there is being pumped through), the more steam bubbles form, which serves to not only cool the reactor less effectively but also to speed up the reactions as well; prime conditions for a runaway reaction.
- Dyatlov changing the parameters of the test, intended to be carried out at a minimum power level of 700-1000MW, to only 200MW. Several automatic safety systems were ordered to be disabled by Dyatlov in order for this to happen, since the RBMK was unstable at low power.
- Being unable to start the test on time (as another power station went offline earlier that day and Chernobyl was asked to stay operational longer) meant that the staff trained to complete the test had already gone home.
- Rushing to complete the test led to the power level in the reactor dropping too quickly to almost nothing (a process known as reactor poisoning), at which point all of the reactor control rods were removed in order to raise reactor power to the 200MW Dyatlov wanted for the test. It worked.*
- When the test was started, the coolant pumps winding down resulted in too little coolant being pumped through the core, resulting in steam bubbles forming and the reactor beginning a runaway feedback loop.
- When reactor power began to surge, Akimov hit the emergency shutdown button at which point the counter-intuitive design of the control rods made the overheating reactor even hotter, ultimately resulting in the reactor exploding.
- Driven to Suicide: Valery Legasov, a prominent chemist and member of USSR's Academy of Sciences. With the miscommunication going on, he was sent to investigate the then "small incident" at Chernobyl, only be horrified at the full-scale of the catastrophe; he worked frantically to avert a second steam explosion. He later hanged himself, leaving behind a series of recorded tapes, detailing how disillusioned he had become of the Soviet government's secrecy censoring key details of the Chernobyl disaster and its failure to confront the reactor design flaws. Legasov's suicide caused shockwaves through the industry. note
- Failsafe Failure: The AZ-5 system was intended to act as a SCRAM system, shutting off the reactor in an emergency. However, due to the graphite-tipped control rods, which actually increased reactivity before suppressing it, the already unstable reactor exploded when ~200 control rods were inserted at once, bringing its power output to about 30,000 MW - Chernobyl's nominal output was around 3,200 MW.
- Forbidden Zone: Again, the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
- Ghost Town: Pripyat is one of the most iconic (and creepy) examples in modern media.
- Heroic Sacrifice: The disaster could have been greater if not for the bravery of firefighters, engineers and military personnel deployed to the plant to deal with the fire and the meltdown. They are collectively known as Chernobyl liquidators. Many knew that the consequences of getting so close to the reactors was certain (and quite painful) death, but at the same time knew that if they didn't act, millions more could have died. At least 37 people died as a direct result of the disaster, and several went on to receive some of the highest bravery decorations the USSR granted at the time, including the Order of the Red Banner, the Order of Lenin (second highest) and the Hero of the Soviet Union (highest).
- Special mention goes to Alexei Ananenko, Boris Baranov and Valeri Bezpalov, who volunteered to dive into the bubbler pools underneath the reactor to manually open the valves to drain the water that was dangerously heating up and threatened a steam explosion. The bubbler pools were flooded with radioactive water and they risked severe radiation poisoning. They went in anyway and averted a catastrophe.
- Contrary to popular Western belief, all three men survived and continued to work in the industry. Ananenko and Bezpalov were alive in 2018, Baranov died of a heart attack in 2004. All three were awarded the Order for Courage in the Third Degree in 2018 (Baranov posthumously). Post-Rock band We Lost the Sea themselves (having written a song about the three men called "Bogatyri") admitted they believed these rumors as well and acknowledged the mistake.
- Hiroshima as a Unit of Measure: Reactor meltdown about to happen in your story? Use "X" Chernobyls to describe how bad it's going to get.
- Irony: The purpose of the test on Unit 4 was to try and improve reactor safety in the event of an attack. The end result however...
- Nuclear Nasty: As a place of radioactive contamination, many stories portray the area as a source of these. While radioactivity has nasty effects on living bodies, monstruously mutated organisms are mostly averted in real life. Local animals are not affected by the radiation heavily (not living long enough to see effects) and some even adapt to the radioactive environment.
- Reclaimed by Nature: It only took a few years for vegetation to take over the city of Pripyat itself. More than 30 years later, the background radiation is still too high for humans to inhabit the area, though you can safely travel through the countrysides just fine, as you wouldn't begin to feel any effects of the radiation for close to two weeks. Scientific studies of various flora and fauna have shown that they adapted to the radiation (various birds have increased levels of antioxidants to counter the free radicals), and are thriving just fine, albeit with a shorter-than-average lifespan.
Chernobyl in Media:
- Mentioned in Gunslinger Girl, as Elisabeta/Petruskha had lived in a part of the Ukraine that had been heavily affected by Chernobyl, which ended up giving her cancer. This led to her leg getting amputated, ruining her dream of becoming a ballerina, and led her to attempt suicide, which brought her to the attention of the Agency that made her a cyborg. It's revealed near the end of the series that Chernobyl also gave her leukemia, which eventually kills her.
- Chernobyl Diaries is a horror film following a group of American tourists who visit the Exclusion Zone. The trip goes downhill very quickly and ends with an accidental visit to the inside of the reactor itself and massacre by mutated humanoid zombies.
- The Babushkas Of Chernobyl is a 2015 documentary about the elderly villagers (most of them women) who had returned to live in their homes within the Exclusion Zone despite the danger. It records their daily routines and thoughts on the disaster and includes short interviews with doctors and other experts on the evacuated area.
- In Godzilla (2014), the ruins in the Janjira "death zone" were clearly inspired by photos of Pripyat.
- In Godzilla (1998), Nick Tatopoulos is studying the effects of radiations on earthworms in Chernobyl when the US military summons him to study Godzilla.
- The climactic fight of A Good Day to Die Hard occurs in Chernobyl.
- The Marie Curie biopic Radioactive shows flash forwards to various applications and consequences of radiation, including the accident at Chernobyl.
- A part of Transformers: Dark of the Moon takes place here; the protagonists discover some tech taken from the Ark (the Autobots' ship) and Shockwave (who, according to the prequel comics, had been sealed underneath Chernobyl for years) shows up and attacks the men investigating the tech.
- Universal Soldier: Regeneration has the protagonist diffusing a hostage situation at the Chernobyl plant.
- The environmental disaster that weakens the Klingon Empire at the beginning of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is widely considered to have been inspired by Chernobyl.
- The 1997 book Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster is a collection of interviews with survivors of the disaster compiled by Svetlana Alexievich. It was the first book to provide personal accounts of the accident's impact.
- Chernobyl is a 2019 miniseries that covers the events that occurred before, during, and after the disaster. Jared Harris plays Valery Legasov, the scientist put in charge of putting out the fire and mitigating the fallout.
- Life After People used footage of Pripyat to illustrate how civilization's remnants would fall apart after two decades without any human presence.
- In the Millennium episode, "Maranatha", it featured a Villain of the Week who was actually responsible for the Chernobyl disaster, as he was a religious psychotic who wanted to start the Apocalypse by creating wormwood.
- One episode of River Monsters was shot in Pripyat and near Reactor #4, as Jeremy Wade was searching for supposed giant mutated fish. In the end, he caught nothing that was close to a mutant monster. It was a Wels catfish, which he'd previously caught in an earlier season in Spain, but the one from Chernobyl was less than half the size of an ordinary Wels of the same general age.
- In episode 3 of Series 21 of Top Gear, The Final Challenge involves the hosts trying to run out of fuel so that they don't have to drive into this area. Only Richard Hammond succeeds. The other two end up having to drive into the exclusion zone, taking necessary precautions, and Jeremy Clarkson runs out of gas in Pripyat. The duo had to go through Pripyat at night, an absolutely terrifying experience as it is almost pitch black.
- In the The X-Files episode "The Host", Scully concludes that the Flukeman creature was created due to radioactive sewage from Chernobyl.
- The Arctic Thunder arcade game has a course called Chernobyl Meltdown. It references many of the other ways the Soviets used nuclear power, and ends with a drive through the plant. Artistic License applies heavily here.
- Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare has two levels that take place here. Told in flashback not long after the meltdown, it involves sneaking through the containment and hot zones lovingly crafted and recreated to the smallest detail from the real place.
- Chernobylite is a Survival Sandbox set in Pripyat. The protagonist is a scientist whose bride disappeared in the accident. Also focuses around a fictional material called Chernobylite that can defy physics and control flow of time, which has also attracted Russian interest and thus making them an antagonist force in the game.
- CHERNOBYL: The Untold Story is a Russian game that was created in response to the HBO miniseries, as the latter generated controversy there.
- In Metal Gear Solid, a codec reveals that Nastasha Romanenko used to live near the Chernobyl plant (implied to have been Pripyat) and her parents both died in the work to contain the disaster. This is the source of her strong anti-nuclear weapon stance.
- In Snatcher, the Catastrophe involving an explosion at a nuclear facility in Chernoton, Russia, releasing a biotoxin called Lucifer-Alpha is similar to the Chernobyl disaster.
- S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl takes place in a world where a second explosion occurs at the power plant and results in the Zone (as the game calls the area) becoming a bizarre place of anomalies and mutants. Taken further with the sequel having the subtitle "Call of Pripyat". The scary thing being that a second explosion was a real threat during the initial containment of the disaster, the molten "corium", responsible for formations like the Elephant's Foot, could've hit cooling water in the basement and triggered an even bigger flash-steam explosion if not for a few brave workers that swam around said water in the dark in order to drain it.
- The Strike Series entry Soviet Strike plays up the horror movie aspect of the setting while addressing the very real disaster through stock footage of the aftermath and potential terrorist threat of trying to gain access to the nuclear materials of the melted down reactor.
- On top of Chernobyl being mentioned in a few strips in xkcd, the comic creator even made a chart chronicling radiation doses, which, naturally, refers to Chernobyl quite a bit.
- In Polandball, Belarus is often depicted as having three eyes in reference to the Chernobyl disaster. (Chernobyl is located near the Ukraine/Belarus border, and Belarus suffered the majority of the contamination from the accident.)
- Referenced several times in The Simpsons, usually made in light that some kind of terrible accident was (barely) averted at the Springfield nuclear power plant.
- Spiderman The Animated Series: In The Six Forgotten Warriors arc towards the end of its run, the Big Bad has a base of operations beneath the power plant. Inevitably, Spidey, a bunch of mercs, Kingpin and the Sinister Six all end up outside, which is when they all take notice of their surroundings. Rhino doesn't see what the big deal is, Kingpin is nonplussed, while Scorpion, Vulture and Doc Ok are having a collective Oh, Crap!. The prospect of radiation poisoning steers both teams to call it a draw and leave pronto.