Chernobyl & the Nuclear Power Controversy

April 19, 2006

Student readings explore the Chernobyl meltdown 20 years ago and the pros and cons of nuclear power; discussion questions and suggestions for further inquiry follow.

The Chernobyl meltdown and its aftermath

On April 25, 1986, Prypiat, Ukraine, which was then part of the Soviet Union, was home to about 49,000 people. Many of them worked less than two miles away at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, servicing its four nuclear reactors.

Ludmilla Ignatenko, wife of firefighter Vasily Ignatenko, told an interviewer, "We were newlyweds. We still walked around holding hands, even when we were just going to the store. I would say to him, 'I love you.' But I didn't know then how much... We lived in the dormitory of the fire station where he worked on the second floor." On the night of April 25, 1986, Ludmilla says, "I heard a noise. I looked out the window. He saw me. 'Close the window and go back to sleep. There's a fire at the reactor. I'll be back soon.'"

"I didn't see the explosion itself," said Ludmilla. "Just the flames. Everything was radiant. The whole sky. A tall flame. And smoke. The heat was awful. And he's still not back... The smoke was from the burning bitumen, which had covered the roof. He said later it was like walking on tar. They tried to beat down the flames. They kicked at the burning graphite with their feet... They weren't wearing their canvas gear. They went off just as they were, in their shirt sleeves. No one told them."

That morning Ludmilla learned that Vasily was in the hospital. "No hugging or kissing. Don't even get near him," the radiologist told her. "He was all swollen and puffed up." She stayed in a nearby dormitory, visiting him whenever she could. "Every day I met a brand new person. The burns started to come to the surface, in his mouth, on his tongue, his cheeks—at first there were little lesions and then they grew." Within two weeks Vasily was dead.

On April 25, 1986, Reactor #4 at Chernobyl had been shut down for routine maintenance. Technicians decided to run a test to improve its safety. The result was a disaster—two explosions tore off the reactor's 1,000-ton steel-and-concrete roof and sent a fireball of radioactive fission products and debris into the air . Carried by northwest winds, a radioactive stew headed out over neighboring Belarus, also a Soviet republic at the time, then over Sweden and the other Scandinavian nations, Holland, Belgium and Britain, and, when the wind shifted, over the rest of Europe. Ultimately, radioactive contamination was detected in nearly every country in the Northern Hemisphere, even in Japan.

According to the World Health Organization, the explosions released 200 times more radioactivity than the atomic bombs that killed 200,000 at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, on August 6 and 9, 1945. The secretive Soviet government at first denied that anything significant had occurred. But even now, no one has an accurate count of the death toll from the initial blasts, the exposure of firefighters, "liquidators" (those involved in the cleanup of the site), and the children and adults living nearby as well as downwind, especially in Belarus. Estimates range from 4,000 to tens of thousands.

A widow of one of the many thousands of liquidators said, "We were expecting our first child. My husband wanted a boy and I wanted a girl. The doctors tried to convince me: 'You need to get an abortion. Your husband was at Chernobyl.' He was a truck driver; they called him in during the first days. He drove sand. But I didn't believe anyone... The baby was born dead. She was missing two fingers."

All the people of Prypiat and the neighboring villages were evacuated from their homes with whatever they could carry. The rest of the people in what became known as "the Zone"—more than 100,000 people from 76 villages—were evacuated by May 5, many of them to unfamiliar cities.

Since that terrible April day many studies have examined the multiple effects of the Chernobyl meltdown. Young children and teenagers suffered some of the worst effects: thousands of thyroid cancers; among adults there were increases in the rates of stomach, breast, lung, skin and prostate cancers. In neighboring Belarus between 1990-1994 there were, among other illnesses, 43% increases in disorders of the nervous system and 62% increases in disorders of bone, muscles and connective tissue.

The women of Ukraine and Belarus suffered from increases in miscarriages and from premature births and stillbirths. Of three million Ukrainians, 84% were exposed to radiation and the resulting non-malignant sicknesses, among them one million children.

Besides "the Zone" in Ukraine, Belarus experienced the worst environmental and economic effects, for 70% of the fallout landed in that republic. It lost 22% of its agricultural land and huge areas of its forests. Mushrooms, berries, plants and fish—all diet staples—were contaminated. It also lost skilled workers who moved elsewhere.

At Chernobyl the core of Reactor #4 was eventually entombed in 300,000 tons of concrete and steel. But no one knows how many tons of nuclear fuel are within or how much radiation is seeping through cracks. The other three reactors were, in time, also shut down. Similar reactors in the Soviet Union and Lithuania were modified for design flaws.

What caused the explosions? To what extent, if any, were the power plant operators responsible? To what extent were design flaws responsible? Were design flaws deliberately concealed? Answers are controversial.

Today nobody lives in Prypiat. Buildings, hospitals, and homes contain clothes, tables, chairs, toys but are empty of people. Visitors treat Prypiat as if it is a museum, though many buildings are too radioactive to enter. Scientists estimate that the city will not be safe for people to live in for several centuries but that the most dangerous radioactive elements will require 900 years to decay enough to make the area safe.

Nevertheless, many evacuees from "the Zone," with the help of the United Nations, have returned to live and work in its radioactive marsh and woods and on land from which radioactive dust rises during plowing.

Sources: The first-person accounts of Ludmilla Ignatenko and the liquidation widow are from Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. Translated by Keith Gessen. Other sources include; Andrew Meier, "The Unforgettable Fire," The Nation, 4/17/06; and a UNICEF analysis of children's illnesses.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What are possible causes of the Chernobyl explosions and meltdown? Why do you suppose answers are controversial?

3. What makes an explosion at a nuclear power plant more dangerous than one at a different type of power plant?

4. What were major immediate effects of the explosions? Other effects?

5. Why is there still a problem with Reactor #4 at Chernobyl?

Student Reading 2:

The nuclear power controversy

Part One: The case for nuclear power

The terrible events at Chernobyl had a powerful effect globally. They dramatized beyond any words the potential dangers of nuclear power plants and continue to affect discussions about their future. Some nations—for example, Germany, Sweden and Belgium—now have laws requiring the phase-out of such plants. Many others—among them France, Britain and Switzerland—are committed to a nuclear future.

In the United States, no new nuclear facility has been put on line for more than 30 years. Though the Bush administration supports nuclear power, any effort to build new plants will run into strong opposition.

Speaking on behalf of the administration's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman described the administration's vision of "a world in which all responsible nations work together to share the benefits of peaceful nuclear power... We can provide vast quantities of affordable electricity, increase energy diversity, promote economic development, reduce pollution and carbon emissions, curb nuclear wastes and significantly reduce the risk of more terrorism... . Even if we were to suddenly discover massive new reserves of oil within the territory of the United States which allowed us to eliminate all our oil imports, we would still have to deal with the pollution and greenhouse gases emitted by burning fossil fuels—not to mention the pollution caused by other nations," said Bodman. "Processing spent uranium fuel for use in advanced reactors will allow us to extract much more energy from the same amount of nuclear material." Bodman maintained that "putting this material back into the reactors as fuel will greatly reduce the risk that it might be stolen or seized for destructive purposes." (, 2/13/06)

Others make similar arguments. Speaking on the global future of nuclear power, C. Pierre Zaleski of the University of Paris, said, "My final conclusion is that there is a large potential for the development of nuclear energy." He emphasized "the geopolitical risk connected with the supply of oil and gas, as well as the increased perception of finite fossil fuel resources and the detrimental effects of greenhouse gases..." (Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, (2/05)

An interdisciplinary faculty group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said it believes nuclear power technology "is an important option for the United States and the world to meet future energy needs without emitting carbon dioxide and other atmospheric pollutants." But the group named four unresolved problems: "high relative costs, perceived adverse safety, environmental and health effects; potential security risks stemming from proliferation; and unresolved challenges in long term management of nuclear wastes." (, 2003)

These issues have not stopped Duke Power from announcing that it will apply to build its first new nuclear plant in more than 30 years outside Gaffney, South Carolina. The application process takes three to five years, according to Duke officials, who expect to have the plant online around 2015. The project means jobs and money. A local politician, L. Hoke Parris, said, "The financial impact here will be phenomenal. Right now, downtown's pretty much dead... I think people are just pretty much comfortable with nuclear power in this part of the country. We're getting farther away from Chernobyl and Three Mile Island." (The 1979 partial meltdown at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear reactor was the worst nuclear power accident in U.S. history.)

The promise of 1,500 jobs to construct the plant and another 1,000 to run it—along with millions in annual tax revenues to be split between the county and the state—are creating enthusiasm for the project. But the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League said it intended to oppose it. ( New York Times, 4/10/06)

Part Two: The case against nuclear power

Opposition to nuclear power is strong among environmental groups. The Natural Resources Defense Council says, "Our overarching goal is the reduction, and ultimate elimination, of unacceptable risks to people and the environment from the exploitation of nuclear energy for both military and peaceful purposes." It calls the Bush administration's "vision" to extract and recycle spent nuclear fuel to be "unaffordable, uneconomical, unrealistic, unreliable, and unsafe." (

Greenpeace declares that "'Inherently safe' reactors are a myth. An accident can occur in any nuclear reactor, causing the release of large quantities of deadly fission products into the environment...

"One of the biggest problems facing the nuclear industry is what to do with the radioactive waste generated in a nuclear reactor. Large quantities of low and intermediate level wastes in liquid or solid form require a disposal route, and the highly radioactive spent fuel rods have to be isolated from the biosphere for hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of years. The nuclear industry has had almost 50 years to find a solution to the nuclear waste problem and has failed to do so.

"When a nuclear reactor is shut down, many of its component parts have become radioactive. They have to be treated as nuclear waste... Vast sums of money will have to be spent on nuclear waste disposal, decommissioning, nuclear transports and the clean-up after radioactive accidents.

"There is little sense in continuing to increase the nuclear bill, it would be much wiser to invest in the development and deployment of clean and renewable resources like solar or wind power, wave power, biomass or geothermal energy." (

Controversy over relying on nuclear power plants for energy began at least 30 years before Chernobyl. The most dramatic early event occurred at Sellafield, United Kingdom on October 10, 1957. A fire started at a reactor pile where plutonium was generated for Britain's nuclear weapons program. It burned for many hours and sent a radioactive cloud across Europe to Switzerland. In the Sellafield area thousands of liters of contaminated milk were dumped.

On March 28, 1979, at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, technical failures and human error led to a partial meltdown. Radioactive gases were released, and several thousand children and pregnant women were evacuated, terrifying everyone in the area.

Public acceptance of new nuclear reactors depends upon how people view the performance of old ones. Recently, some of the old reactors have been leaking radioactive water into the ground. Near Braceville, Illinois, an Exelon Corporation generating station leaked tritium into underground water that entered the well of a nearby family. Tritium is a form of hydrogen and emits a radioactive particle. Exelon has found similar leaks at two of its other Illinois stations.

At the Indian Point 2 reactor in Buchanan, New York, workers found wet dirt near the plant's spent fuel pool, an indication that the pool was leaking. The tritium is slowly moving toward the nearby Hudson River. Indian Point officials say the quantities are very small and within the amount Indian Point is legally allowed to release into the river. ( New York Times, 3/17/06)

But Indian Point's three reactors have long been a target of environmental groups, especially because it is just 24 miles north of New York City and 50 million people live within what is called the "peak injury" zone. Riverkeeper, an advocacy organization that monitors the Hudson River's ecosystem, said, "Due to the plant's vulnerability to a terrorist attack, a laundry list of safety problems, the storage of 1,500 tons of radioactive waste on site and the lack of a workable evacuation plan, Riverkeeper is calling for the permanent closure of the Indian Point nuclear power plant." (

Opponents of nuclear power emphasize that the enrichment of uranium (a necessary step in operating a nuclear reactor) can also lead to the creation of nuclear bombs. Today a major international controversy has erupted over Iran's nuclear program and its announcement that it is enriching uranium. Iran maintains it is interested in nuclear power to satisfy its energy needs, not to create weapons. But the U.S. and the European Union regard Iran's behavior as untrustworthy.

Len Ackland, editor of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists at the time of Chernobyl, wrote, "There is the intimate connection between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons proliferation, and we have yet to overcome the problem of the susceptibility of complex systems to human error. Chernobyl remains the symbol of these dark sides of nuclear power." (, March/April 2006)

For Group Discussion

Divide the class into groups of four to six students to discuss the following two questions: What is the strongest argument for nuclear power? What is the strongest argument against nuclear power? Have each group begin with a go-around that gives every student a chance to respond to each of the questions. Then move to general discussion. Finally, ask students to decide, by consensus if possible, which argument is strongest. A reporter from each group can share the group's decisions with the whole class.

For Class Discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why are nuclear plants regarded as possible terrorist targets?

3. Why is nuclear waste regarded as a serious problem?

4. What is the connection between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons proliferation?

For Further Inquiry

1. Why has Germany decided to phase out nuclear energy but Britain hasn't?

2. What is the U.S. government's proposal for the disposal of nuclear wastes? Why is there controversy about it? What is its current status?

3. What are the groups calling for the shutdown of the Indian Point nuclear power plant doing? What successes, if any, have they had?

4. Why is the Iranian nuclear program regarded as a serious problem? After all, the U.S., Britain and France have nuclear weapons arsenals.

5. Why is North Korea's nuclear program regarded as a serious problem?

6. Investigate in detail one of the following effects of the Chernobyl meltdown: on children; on the environment; on the economy of Ukraine or Belarus.

7. Investigate one of the possible renewable energy sources. How much of this source currently supplies U.S. energy needs? What would it take to increase this supply? What is its potential?

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: