Background Information: Key Terms & Recommended Reading

Stalking Chernobyl
Photo courtesy of Vlad Vozniuk/URBEX.


Below you can find key terms relating to the Chernobyl disaster and its aftermath, as well as recommended reading for further information.




Key Terms

Recommended Reading




Key Terms


Acute Radiation Sickness/Syndrome (ARS)

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ARS is "an acute illness caused by irradiation of the entire body (or most of the body) by a high dose of penetrating radiation in a very short period of time (usually a matter of minutes)... Examples of people who suffered from ARS are the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs, the firefighters that first responded after the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant event in 1986, and some unintentional exposures to sterilization irradiators."

The World Health Organization states that 134 Chernobyl liquidators received radiation doses high enough to be diagnosed with acute radiation sickness.


Chernobyl

Chernobyl is the name of both a city and a nuclear power facility. The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was located approximately 14.5km from the city of Chernobyl. The city was evacuated about 30 hours after the nuclear explosion and remains within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Before the disaster, it was home to an estimated 14,000 people.


Dosimeter

The Encyclopaedia Britannica explains that a dosimeter is an "instrument that measures exposure to ionizing radiation over a given period. There are three types of dosimeters worn by persons who work with or near sources of radiation," the most popular and inexpensive being the film badge. In a "film badge" dosimeter, "photographic or dental X-ray film, wrapped in light-tight paper, is mounted in plastic. Badges are checked periodically, and the degree of exposure of the film indicates the cumulative amount of radiation to which the wearer has been exposed."


Dosimetrist

According to the American Association of Medical Dosimetrists, a "Dosimetrist is a member of the radiation oncology team who has knowledge of the overall characteristics and clinical relevance of radiation oncology treatment machines and equipment, is cognizant of procedures commonly used in brachytherapy and has the education and expertise necessary to generate radiation dose distributions and dose calculations in collaboration with the medical physicist and radiation oncologist."


Exclusion Zone

As described by the BBC, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is the 30-km radius around the power plant that was evacuated in the wake of the disaster. The zone remains in place today and is largely uninhabited, although "stalkers" continue to defy the official government prohibitions and enter the zone in search of adventure or to lead tours of the destroyed area. In total, about 116,000 people people were evacuated from the exclusion zone.


International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

According to the agency's website, the IAEA was created in 1957 "in response to the deep fears and expectations generated by the discoveries and diverse uses of nuclear technology. The Agency’s genesis was U.S. President Eisenhower’s 'Atoms for Peace' address to the General Assembly of the United Nations on 8 December 1953." Its mandate is "to work with its Member States and multiple partners worldwide to promote safe, secure and peaceful nuclear technologies. The objectives of the IAEA’s dual mission – to promote and control the Atom – are defined in Article II of the IAEA Statute."


International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES)

The International Atomic Energy Agency described the INES as "a tool for communicating the safety significance of nuclear and radiological events to the public. Member States use INES on a voluntary basis to rate and communicate events that occur within their territory. It is not a notification or reporting system to be used in emergency response." The scale is used for the rating of events that result in a release of radioactive material into the environment and in the radiation exposure of workers and the public.


Liquidators

The term "liquidators" refers to a specific group of people who, as Wikipedia puts it, were "the civil and military personnel who were called upon to deal with consequences of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union on the site of the event. The liquidators are widely credited with limiting both the immediate and long-term damage from the disaster."

The Chernobyl Gallery website explains that "the term 'liquidator' is now used to describe workers who entered areas designated as 'contaminated' between 1986 and 1989 to help reduce the consequences of the explosion. These people included power plants operators and emergency workers such as firefighters and military personnel, as well as many non-professionals. Their tasks included cleaning up the debris from around the reactor, construction of the sarcophagus, decontamination, road building, and destruction and burial of contaminated buildings, forests and equipment. Information on the danger involved was often unknown or suppressed."

The site further notes that:

"While liquidators were praised as heroes by the Soviet government and the press, at the time some struggled to have their participation officially recognized for years. The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that 350,000 of the liquidators involved in the initial plant cleanup received an average total body radiation dose of 100 millisieverts, equal to about 1,000 chest x-rays and about five times the maximum dose permitted for workers in nuclear facilities….

"The authorities agree that 28 workers lost their lives to acute radiation sickness, while another 106 of the liquidators were treated and survived. But the health toll for the survivors continues to be a matter of debate. One advocacy group, the Chernobyl Union, says 90,000 of the 200,000 surviving liquidators have major long-term health problems. A study by Belarusian physicians however states that the rate of cancers among liquidators from Belarus is about four times greater than the rest of the population.

"In contemporary Russian the word ‘liquidator’ is a noun that needs no explanatory footnote as it connotes a mix of survivor, victim and hero."



Pripyat

The town was 3km away from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. It was evacuated after the explosion and remains "a ghost town" today. According to the Washington Post, it was once reserved solely for workers at the Chernobyl plant.


Settlers

Chernobyl settlers are people who were evacuated from the exclusion zone but later returned to continue living there. According to Chernobyl Gallery, "Approximately 1,200 re-settlers returned to the Zone, the majority over the age of 50 with almost half settling in Chernobyl. Today just over 200 remain. About 80% of those are women, now in their 70s and 80s."


Stalkers

Stalkers are people who defy the official government prohibitions and illegally enter the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in search of adventure or to lead tours of the destroyed area for tourists. According to National Geographic, the stalkers enter the exclusion zone "cloaked in darkness and camouflage" and "navigate miles of irradiated forest, sleep in abandoned villages, and watch the sunrise unfurl over the town of Pripyat's crumbling Brezhnev baroque rooftops."



Recommended Reading


In February 2019, a BBC journalist went to the Chernobyl exclusion zone to explore Pripyat and see how the landscape and the lives of the people who live there have evolved since the disaster.

"'This place is more than half of my life,' says Gennady Laptev. The broad-shouldered Ukrainian scientist is smiling wistfully as we stand on the now dry ground of what was Chernobyl nuclear power plant's cooling pond.

"'I was only 25 when I started my work here as a liquidator. Now, I'm almost 60.'

"There were thousands of liquidators - workers who came here as part of the mammoth, dangerous clean-up operation following the 1986 explosion. The worst nuclear accident in history.

"Gennady shows me a coffee table-sized platform, installed here to collect dust. This reservoir's bed dried out when the pumps taking water from the nearby river were finally switched off in 2014; 14 years after the remaining three reactors there were shut down.

"Analysing dust for radioactive contamination is just a small part of the decades-long study of this vast, abandoned area. The accident turned this landscape into a giant, contaminated laboratory, where hundreds of scientists have worked to find out how an environment recovers from nuclear catastrophe."

Source: The BBC


Chernobyl "stalkers" describe their motivation and experiences, while detailing the ongoing impact of radiation on the exclusion zone:

"Shalashov used to be what Ukrainians call a stalker, someone who defies the official government prohibitions and secretly enters the zone in the spirit of exploration, romance, bravado, desperation or simply because they found a way to get in undetected.

"'In the early days, the first stalkers in the zone were murderers and other criminals escaping the police, stealing things, this was somewhere they could go to hide. But my friends and I, we were only interested in the adventure of being there and seeing something new,' Shalashov said.

"'It was just a few people at first, but by the time I was doing it we were breaking in with a crew of about 10-15 people, depending on the day,' he said. 'We pretended to be in the army and made sure we were quieter than the grass or the wind. It was really something. The best days.'"

Source: USA Today


For a more detailed account of the Chernobyl disaster, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission provides an overview of the history and health effects of the event.

"On April 26, 1986, a sudden surge of power during a reactor systems test destroyed Unit 4 of the nuclear power station at Chernobyl, Ukraine, in the former Soviet Union. The accident and the fire that followed released massive amounts of radioactive material into the environment.

...

"After the accident, officials closed off the area within 30 kilometers (18 miles) of the plant, except for persons with official business at the plant and those people evaluating and dealing with the consequences of the accident and operating the undamaged reactors. The Soviet (and later on, Russian) government evacuated about 115,000 people from the most heavily contaminated areas in 1986, and another 220,000 people in subsequent years."

Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission


On the thirty-fourth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, and in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, an academic reflects on the role of religion during the pandemic and in the wake of the Chernobyl explosion.

"In March 2020, we were asked to work from home because of the pandemic of coronavirus. We could not even imagine how quickly the situation would escalate to a global lockdown. Looking at the warm and beautiful weather my husband said, 'It’s hard to believe that being outside can be dangerous—the world around looks exactly the same, like nothing has changed.'

"His words stung me with a flashback: Sonja, one of my informants in Belarus, said the same about the Chernobyl disaster. She told me that it was so hard for her to comprehend that all this familiar beauty can possess danger. The world for her had turned upside down as what used to bring life became a source of mortal danger: water, food, soil, and even human bodies. Radiation, just like a virus today, was described to me as an awakened primal power, an invisible, ancient evil that suddenly started targeting humans for their irresponsibility, greed, and arrogance."

Source: Public Orthodoxy


In this article from March 2020, a writer thinks about the many ways in which the pandemic was similar to Chernobyl.

"So, when I first heard about the Coronavirus, I immediately thought to myself: 'I will rather double everything I hear from the media to have a sense of the real situation'. When the Chernobyl accident happened back in April 26, 1986 (at 1:23:47 at night) in the USSR, the world was not prepared, as it was not prepared for COVID-19 in 2019 and 2020. And for us people, it takes some time to move emotions away and see how things really are. Maybe these similarities with the Chernobyl accident will help you make better decisions."

Source: Chernobyl Wel.Come


In April 2020, The Guardian reported that forest fires in Ukraine had reached the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, leading to a rise in radiation levels.

"Ukrainian officials have sought calm after forest fires in the restricted zone around Chernobyl, scene of the world’s worst nuclear accident, led to a rise in radiation levels.

"Firefighters said they had managed to put out the smaller of two forest fires that began at the weekend, apparently after someone began a grass fire, and had deployed more than 100 firefighters backed by planes and helicopters to extinguish the remaining blaze.

"The fire had caused radiation fears in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, which is located about 60 miles south of the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Government specialists on Monday sent to monitor the situation reported that there was no rise in radiation levels in Kyiv or the city suburbs.

"'You don’t have to be afraid of opening your windows and airing out your home during the quarantine,' wrote Yegor Firsov, head of Ukraine’s state ecological inspection service, in a Facebook post about the results of the radiation tests.

...

"An earlier post by Firsov had warned about heightened radiation levels at the site of the fire, which he said had been caused by the 'barbaric' practice of local grass fires often started in the spring and autumn. 'There is bad news – radiation is above normal in the fire’s centre,' Firsov wrote on Sunday.

"The post included a video with a Geiger counter showing radiation at 16 times above normal. The fire had spread to about 100 hectares of forest, Firsov wrote."

Source: The Guardian