32 Photos of the Infamous 1986 Chernobyl Disaster

An aerial view of the Chernobyl nuclear power plan is seen two or three days after the explosion in April 1986. AP

The Chernobyl disaster was a nuclear meltdown that occurred on April 26, 1986, in the No. 4 light water graphite moderated reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat, in what was part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic of the Soviet Union.

During a late night safety test which simulated a station power-failure in which safety systems were deliberately turned off, a combination of inherent reactor design flaws and the reactor operator negligence resulted in uncontrolled reactor conditions. Water flashed into the steam generating a steam explosion and graphite fire. The fire produced updrafts and toxic plumes were sent into the atmosphere. The radioactive material became a fall-out precipitate over large tracts of western USSR and Europe.

The Chernobyl disaster was the worst nuclear power accident in history, both in terms of cost and casualties. It is one of only two nuclear energy accidents classified as a level 7 event, the maximum classification, on the International Nuclear Event Scale (the other being the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011).

The initial evidence that a major release of radioactive material was affecting other countries was announced by Sweden. Workers from the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant, about 680 miles from the Chernobyl site, were found to have radioactive particles on their clothes. After searching for the source of the radioactivity and determining that there was no leak at the Swedish plant on April 28, the disaster was determined to have come from the Soviet Union.

It has been approximated that about four hundred times more radioactive material was released from Chernobyl than by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. By contrast, the Chernobyl accident released about one hundredth to one thousandth of the total amount of radioactivity released during the era of nuclear weapons testing.

According to Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union spent 18 billion rubles (equivalent to 18 billion USD at the time) on containment and decontamination, virtually bankrupting itself. In Belarus alone, the total cost over 30 years is estimated at $302 billion. 5-7% of all government spending in Ukraine is still related to the Chernobyl disaster. Much of the current costs are related to the payment of Chernobyl related social benefits to over 7 million people across three different countries.

Four British morning newspaper front pages the morning after the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. AP
27 April 1986: The first photo to be taken of the reactor, at 4 pm, 14 hours after the explosion. This was taken from the first helicopter to fly over the disaster zone to evaluate radiation levels. The view is foggy due to radiation, which also explains why the shot was not taken too close to the window. Later, radiation experts learned that at 200 meters above the reactor, levels reached 1500 rems, despite the fact that their counters did not exceed 500 rems Photograph: Igor Kostin/Corbis
June 1986- The remains of reactor number 4, from the roof of the third reactor Photograph- Igor Kostin: Corbis
May 1986: A helicopter decontaminates the disaster site. After the explosion, the nuclear power station was covered in radioactive dust. Aircraft and helicopters flew over the site, spraying sticky decontamination fluid that fixed the radiation to the ground. Workers have known as ‘liquidators’ then rolled the dried remains like a carpet and buried the nuclear waste Photograph: Igor Kostin/Corbis
Radioactively contaminated vehicles lay dormant near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on Nov. 10, 2000. Some 1,350 Soviet military helicopters, buses, bulldozers, tankers, transporters, fire engines and ambulances were used while fighting against the April 26, 1986, nuclear accident at Chernobyl. All were irradiated during the cleanup operation. EFREM LUKATSKY/AP
Summer 1986: The majority of liquidators were men called up from military reserves because of their experience in clean-up operations or chemical protection units. The army did not have adequate uniforms for use in radioactive conditions, so those enlisted had to cobble together their own clothing made from lead sheets measuring 2-4mm thick. These sheets were cut to size to make aprons covering their bodies in front and behind, especially to protect the spine and bone marrow. ‘The clever ones also added a vine leaf for extra comfort,’ said Kostin Photograph: Igor Kostin/Corbis
October 1986: To mark the end of the clean-up operation atop reactor 3, the authorities ordered three men to attach a red flag to the summit of the chimney. A group of liquidators had already made two fruitless attempts by helicopter, so the three men had to climb the 78-meter chimney via a spiral staircase, despite the dangerous radiation levels. Radiation expert Alexander Yourtchenko carried the pole, followed by Valéri Starodoumov with the flag, while lieutenant-colonel Alexander Sotnikov ascended with the radio. The whole operation was timed to last only 9 minutes given the high radiation levels. At the end, the trio was rewarded with a bottle of Pepsi (a luxury in 1986) and a day off Photograph: Igor Kostin/Corbis
The shattered remains of the control room for Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant are seen on Nov 10, 2000. EFREM LUKATSKY:AP
May 1986: In the 30km no-go zone around the reactor, liquidators measure radiation levels in neighboring fields using antiquated radiation counters, wearing anti-chemical warfare suits that offer no protection against radioactivity, and “pig muzzle” masks. The young plants will not be harvested, instead used by scientists to study genetic mutations in plants Photograph: Igor Kostin/Corbis
A worker wearing a protective overall and mask is seen amid boxes full with contaminated vegetables on the landfill in Berlin-Wannsee on May 9, 1986. Vegetables with low radiation were stored at this landfill following a decision by local authorities in Berlin, Germany, which bans the sale of contaminated leafy vegetables due to the nuclear accident in Chernobyl. RAINER KLOSTERMEIER/AP
Summer 1987- Genetics and botanical experts noted that many plants were victims of gigantism in the year following the disaster. These monster plants were soon eliminated by natural selection Photograph- Igor Kostin: Corbis
June 1986: Dead fish are collected by an artificial lake within the Chernobyl site that was used to cool the turbines. The fish, which died from exposure to radiation, are abnormally large and flabby. They jumped out of the lake where they could be picked up by the bare hands of any passerby Photograph: Igor Kostin/Corbis
August 1987: The village of Kopachi is buried, house by house. It was located 7km from the Chernobyl reactor that housed the control room and decontamination area in the months after the disaster. A bulldozer would dig a large trench in front of each house before burying the building and covering it with earth and flattening the soil. Entire villages would be buried this way Photograph: Igor Kostin/Corbis
January 1987- In a specialist radiation unit in Moscow, a liquidator is examined by a doctor in a sterile, air-conditioned room after an operation Photograph- Igor Kostin: Corbis
May 1986, A young carpenter who helped fight the fire at the Chernobyl nuclear plant is treated for burns and radiation at the Soviet Health Ministry’s Hospital No 6 in Moscow. Telegraph
1988: Relatives attend the funeral of radiation expert Alexander Goureïev, one of the liquidators who cleared the roof of reactor 3. These experts were often referred to as “roof cats”. Goureïev died as a result of contracting a radiation-related illness Photograph: Igor Kostin/Corbis