On April 26th, 1986, operators at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant conducted a poorly designed experiment with the Unit 4 reactor. After commencing the test, the operators waited too long to shut down the reactor, triggering extreme volatility. As they attempted to shut it down, steam began to form in the water surrounding the nuclear fuel, leading to runaway heat and power levels that caused the reactor to explode.
For 10 days, it spewed radioactive material, which spread across Europe, exposing millions to harm. Death tolls from radiation-induced cancers reached into the hundreds of thousands, according to some studies. Workers at the plant received the most concentrated doses; many later died from Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS). Soviet, Ukrainian, and Belarussian authorities evacuated 350,000 citizens over several years and dispatched over 600,000 workers, called liquidators, to decontaminate the area. They eventually cordoned off from the general public an area of 4,300 square kilometers.
Public outcry against nuclear energy was swift. In the West, the governments of Denmark, Sweden, and the Philippines promised to abandon their nuclear programs. Within a year, nine other nations either postponed or ended their plans for reactor construction. In Eastern Europe, protests against nuclear energy erupted in Lithuania and Ukraine in 1989 following policy changes from the Kremlin. Opinion polls revealed that, since Chernobyl, two-thirds of humanity opposed the further development of nuclear energy.
The Chernobyl accident is rightly terrifying. Some opponents of the technology wield the accident as evidence of nuclear energy’s profound safety risk to humans and the planet. They are wrong to do so.