“For the first time ever, we have confronted in reality the sinister power of uncontrolled nuclear energy.”
-Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986
Today as we face the challenge of finding alternative energy resources, increasing reliance on nuclear power remains a viable, though controversial, option. People spanning all generations have a vested interest in the question of nuclear power because nuclear power has immediate benefits, while nuclear disaster can cause long-term and persistent contamination for generations to come. Gen Xers, who were young adults during the 1970s and 1980s, witnessed several major nuclear power events that greatly impacted their views on nuclear power.
The most significant of these events was the 1986 Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant meltdown in the Ukraine. It is considered (along with the latest 2011 Fukushima disaster) to be the worst nuclear power plant accident in history. On April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl Power Plant, which was under the jurisdiction of the U.S.S.R., experienced a sudden unexpected power surge, leading the reactor vessel to rupture and a fire to break out. The fire sent a huge cloud into the atmosphere, which spread highly radioactive material across the Ukraine, Belarus, the U.S.S.R. and most of Western Europe. 30 workers at the power plant were killed and over 130 others in the immediate area were diagnosed with acute radiation poisoning over the next couple of weeks. Over 115,000 people were immediately evacuated from the nearby area and in the following year, another 220,000 people were relocated from the surrounding areas of the Ukraine, Belarus, and the U.S.S.R.
In the immediate aftermath, the U.S.S.R. concealed the seriousness of the disaster. It was not until April 28, 4 days after the incident, that nuclear power plant workers in Sweden discovered radioactive particles on their clothing. They deduced that the radioactive material did not come from a leak in their own plant and alerted the rest of Europe and the world to the grave impact of the accident. The accident released 400 times more radioactive fallout than Hiroshima, and covered an area of almost 3,930,000 sq. miles with varying degrees of radioactive fallout in each European country, depending on the weather.
The entirety of the long-term environmental and health consequences of the disaster still is not known. Due to the radioactive cloud, hazardous material was spread into surrounding water systems, soil, and air. The city of Gomel in Belarus, relatively close to the site of the accident, was reported to have heavy, black rain fall from the radioactive cloud. Many plants and animals in the surrounding areas either died, became infertile, or produced grossly malformed offspring. To this day, wild boar in Bavaria , Germany, that eat the contaminated topsoil mushrooms, show highly increased levels of radioactivity, so much so that Germany refuses the meat of thousands of hunted boars per year due to radiation levels unsafe for human consumption.
Likewise, scientists are still discovering the long-term health effects in humans. According to UNSCEAR, up to the year 2005 more than 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer were reported in children and adolescents exposed at the time of the accident, a number that is expected to increase. Studies suggest that even low doses of the ionized radiation produced at Chernobyl may have lead to increased cases of cataracts, cardiovascular disease, and varying forms of cancer, particularly leukemia. However, determining finite statistics is difficult because results must be estimated over a very long period of time and must use information and projections from the studies of atomic bomb survivors and other highly exposed populations, which is not the same as long-term exposure.
The lasting environmental and health effects of Chernobyl remain to be seen and probably will continue to impact generations to come. The impact on society, particularly on young Generation X, has resulted in widespread distrust and disillusionment of nuclear power. Only now, as global warming comes to the forefront of environmental concerns, is nuclear energy being re-considered by environmentalists and scientists as a viable economic option for a clean energy source. However, for those victims directly impacted by Chernobyl, those whose environment is still impacted by lingering radioactive waste, and those were alive to witness Chernobyl, the negative stigma and memory will not be easily eradicated.