Chernobyl: Not Just Another HBO Drama

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Tara Kibler

Thanks to the wildly popular HBO miniseries on the subject, the Chernobyl nuclear explosion of 1986 has become a hot topic in the news. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, an area covering approximately 1,000 square miles around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, has even become quite the tourist attraction. Journey with HeinOnline into the depths of the disaster, and learn a little more about nuclear energy in the U.S. while you’re at it.

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The Chernobyl Power Plant Explosion

In the early morning hours of April 26, 1986, citizens in the Ukrainian towns of Chernobyl and Pripyat were awakened by the sound of an explosion. None of them realized that what they had heard would later be deemed the world’s worst nuclear accident in cost and number of casualties. A routine safety test at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant had been hampered by an unforeseen power surge, and a subsequent chain reaction led to the overheating and eventual explosion of one of the plant’s nuclear reactor cores. The accident occurred due to a combination of a known fault in the reactor technology and human error caused by inadequate training.

The explosion and subsequent fires resulted in a radioactive cloud carrying an estimated four hundred times more radioactive material than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Radioactive material was dispersed over approximately 39,000 square miles throughout Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus as well as parts of Western Europe and even Canada. Closest to the power plant, flora and fauna were significantly contaminated. The 1.5 square miles of pine forest nearby soon became known as the “Red Forest” due to the red-brown color of the dead, irradiated trees. Animals in areas with the most contamination died or stopped reproducing; animals in less affected areas continue to be born with deformities or abnormalities to this day.

The disaster’s short- and long-term health risks, as well as its final death toll, are both highly speculative. Known health effects caused by the spread of radiation include:

  • An initial count of 31 people died in the weeks following the explosion—28 due to acute radiation syndrome, two from the explosion itself, and one from coronary thrombosis. Official lists of these initial deaths do not include the victim of coronary thrombosis. In 2006, a report from the UN Chernobyl Forum stated that only 30 deaths could be directly attributed to the accident.
  • A total of 134 people developed acute radiation syndrome from the accident. Those who developed the illness were the plant workers, first responders, and recovery personnel who had received the highest doses of radiation. Nineteen of these who initially survived acute radiation syndrome have died as of 2006, and there are indications that the rest of the number could be at risk of developing diseases such as leukemia and cataracts.
  • 135,000 people from surrounding towns and villages were evacuated, but not until after they had received some level of radiation exposure. The exposed population is expected to see a 28% increase in cancer rates over the next 70 years.
  • For several years after the accident, there was a marked increase in elective abortions in the most affected areas due to worries about the effects of radiation on unborn children.
  • Finally, there has been a sharp increase in aggressive thyroid cancer in children and adolescents. As of 2018, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) has reported that 20,000 cases of thyroid cancer in individuals under 18 can be traced to the Chernobyl disaster.

Given the uncertainty of its indirect impact on human health, the death toll of the Chernobyl disaster thus ranges from just 30 to numbers in the hundreds of thousands.

In direct response to the accident, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of the United Nations convened a conference for the creation of a Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident. Signed on September 26, 1986, the treaty bound its signatories to notify any potentially affected states of a nuclear accident in a timely manner. On the same day, member states signed the Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency to ensure that states notify the IAEA if they are able to assist with another country’s nuclear accident.

Users can find both of these treaties in HeinOnline’s World Treaty Library. In the Treaty Index on the welcome page, change one of the drop-down boxes to “Sign Date” and enter the date in the following format: YYYY-MM-DD. For these treaties, enter “1986-09-26” to view the available world treaties signed on that date.

Nuclear Power: Is It Worth the Risk?

Commercial nuclear power plants were established in the 1950s as a lower-cost, environmentally-friendly alternative to other forms of power that burn fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas. 450 nuclear power reactors worldwide currently generate approximately 11% of global electricity. The United States boasts 104 active nuclear power plants—more than any other country in the world and nearly twice the next two runners-up (France and Japan) combined. Since its introduction, nuclear power has been a hot topic debate between those concerned for the Earth’s environment and those wary of the risks involved.

Opponents of nuclear energy point to the negative health effects, environmental damage, and economic cost that come with nuclear power. Accidents in uranium mining and processing, terrorism toward nuclear plants, mishandling of radioactive waste, and unforeseen accidents like Chernobyl and 2011’s Fukushima are all potentially devastating weaknesses of the nuclear energy process. Opponents further argue that nuclear energy is currently not, and may never be, a source of truly sustainable energy.

Proponents argue that nuclear power is a high-yielding energy source produced without causing pollution or contributing to global warming. Nuclear power reduces the need to import expensive fossil fuels and therefore is argued as the only sustainable way for a country to achieve energy independence. Addressing the risks involved, proponents point to a lack of training, inadequate technology, and untimely accident recovery as the causes of nuclear accidents to date. They argue that new technology will further ensure the safety of nuclear power plants and of storing radioactive waste. In comparing the safety of energy sources, nuclear reactors have in fact caused the lowest number of fatalities per unit of energy produced—442 times fewer than coal.

A Rundown of U.S. Nuclear Energy Policies

Discover some of the most important nuclear legislation both before and after the Chernobyl incident in HeinOnline. All federal acts can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Statutes at Large. The legislative histories of each listed federal act can be found in HeinOnline’s U.S. Federal Legislative History Library.






  • In 1982, President Ronald Reagan signed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to institute a national program for safely and permanently disposing of radioactive waste. The responsibility of determining a site for the disposal as well as constructing and operating the repository was assigned to the newly established Department of Energy.



  • 1987 amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act designated Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the permanent storage facility for highly radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel. View the legislative history of the amendments which explicitly designate Yucca Mountain for this purpose.


  • In 1992, the Energy Policy Act was passed by Congress to address increased clean energy usage and efficiency in the United States, providing incentives for users of clean or renewable energy and lessening the country’s dependence on imported fuels.



  • Following through on his campaign promise, President Obama’s administration worked with the Department of Energy to eliminate funding and close Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository. The Obama administration instead established the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to review the options available for a repository site other than Yucca Mountain. The final report was released in 2012 and recommended any future sites be established independent of political control. View the report and those of other presidential commissions in HeinOnline’s Reports of U.S. Presidential Commissions and Other Advisory Bodies.
  • In 2011, the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan due to the effects of the Tohoku earthquake and the tsunami it caused. View the Congressional Research Service Report on the Fukushima Nuclear Crisis in HeinOnline’s U.S. Congressional Documents.
  • Under President Trump’s administration, research into non-Yucca repository sites has ceased. The Department of Energy requested funding to continue the Yucca Mountain Repository in 2018 and 2019, but Congress has decided not to provide funding so far. Meanwhile, U.S. nuclear power plants are storing waste in steel and concrete casks indefinitely on-site.
  • In 2017, the House of Representatives under the Trump administration passed the Advanced Nuclear Technology Act, intended to foster research on advanced nuclear reactor technology. View the House report on the act in HeinOnline’s U.S. Congressional Serial Set.
  • In March 2019, the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (NELA) was reintroduced to bolster innovation in energy and ensure clean, safe, and affordable power from advanced reactors.

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