Chernobyl was the worst case scenario anti-nuclear power activists had been warning about for the previous 20 years. Gross negligence created a situation that threatened the lives of millions of people in the western Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Only the unimaginable heroism of a small number of Soviet firefighters and soldiers prevented an even greater catastrophe.

On April 26, 1986 technicians at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant were running tests on the plants backup cooling system. Somehow during the testing the reactor's core was allowed to power down to a state of near total shutdown. No one knows exactly how this happened since the technicians responsible died of radiation poisoning shortly after the accident. In a nutshell, once it was discovered that the core had cooled so precipitously someone made the decision to remove all control rods from the core in an attempt to bring it back up to speed. After several other missteps too complicated to explain here power in the reactor core spiked causing an explosion that was quickly followed by a second larger explosion that blew the roof off the reactor building and exposed the core to the environment. Tons of radioactive materials from the core were blown into the air.

At first the Soviets kept their mouths closed about the accident hoping nobody would notice. But people did. Two days after the accident nuclear plant workers in Sweden were found to be contaminated with radiation. When no sources were found at the plant where they worked scientists concluded that the radiation could only be coming from the Soviet Union and that it must represent some form of nuclear disaster. Shortly after more evidence started to come in from Finland as well as other countries. Finally Soviet officials caved in to the facts and admitted what happened. The radiation released was hundreds of times greater than that released by the bombing of Hiroshima and spread west across not only Scandinavia but many other parts of Eastern and Western Europe as well.

Back at the accident site soldiers and firefighters were recruited to deal with the catastrophe. The men who volunteered during the first days of the crisis to contain the fire in the core knew they would not survive but went in anyway. Without their sacrifice radiation would have continued to leak unhindered into the atmosphere indefinitely and the human and environmental toll that resulted from the disaster would have been many times worse than it was. After the core fire was extinguished a steel sarcophogas was built around the destroyed reactor 4 building, one that will need to remain in place for thousands of years to come. Pripyat, a city of 50,000 that was the company town of the power plant was completely evacuated and remains a ghost town to this day. The long term effects on surrounding countries is a hotly debated topic even today with some reports claiming that hundreds of thousands of cancer deaths can be expected as a direct result of radiation that leaked from Chernobyl in 1986.

Left: Doomed soldiers remove radioactive material from the reactor's roof. Right: The sarcophagus.