On 35th anniversary of Chornobyl disaster, Ukraine opens new nuclear waste site

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Ukraine’s president on Monday unveiled a new nuclear waste repository at Chornobyl, the site of the world’s worst civilian nuclear disaster that unfolded exactly 35 years ago.

The night of April 26, 1986, a reactor went into meltdown and sent nearly 10 tonnes of radioactive material into the atmosphere and surrounding regions about 100 kilometres north of Kyiv. Two workers were killed immediately and another 30 died within weeks from radiation exposure.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited Chornobyl on Monday with Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and vowed to “transform the exclusion zone, as Chornobyl is referred to, into a revival zone.”

“Ukraine is not alone, it has wide support [from its] partners,” Zelenskyy said.

Russian soldiers attend a ceremony at Mitino Memorial in Moscow on Monday to commemorate those who died in the Chornobyl disaster. (Pavel Golovkin/The Associated Press)

Moving forward, the Ukrainian authorities announced they will use the deserted exclusion zone around the Chornobyl power plant to build a storage facility for Ukraine’s nuclear waste for the next 100 years.

The ex-Soviet nation currently has four nuclear power plants operating and has to transport its nuclear waste to Russia. The new repository will allow the government to save up to $200 million US a year.

WATCH | A forest fire raged near the abandoned Chornobyl plant last year: 

A forest fire in Ukraine that’s been raging for more than a week is moving closer to the Chornobyl nuclear plant. 1:26

Clean-up workers exposed to radiation 

Following the explosion and fire in 1986, at least 134 others suffered acute radiation poisoning, many of them workers who were exposed to intense radiation while removing debris.

Firefighters were the first on the scene in the aftermath of the explosion. A memorial service held Monday commemorated their deaths. 

About 600,000 people, often referred to as Chornobyl’s “liquidators,” were sent in to fight the fire at the nuclear plant during the initial emergency response and the decontamination of the environment that took place later. 

Children’s beds are seen in a kindergarten in the abandoned city of Pripyat, Ukraine, near the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant, on April 12, 2021. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

Residents weren’t warned of fallout risk

Soviet authorities made the catastrophe even worse by failing to tell the public what had happened.

Although the nearby plant workers’ town of Pripyat was evacuated the next day, the two million residents of Kyiv weren’t informed despite the danger of nuclear fallout.

The world learned of the disaster only after heightened radiation was detected in Sweden.

Eventually, more than 100,000 people were evacuated from the vicinity and the 2,600-square-kilometre exclusion zone was established, where the only activity was workers disposing of waste and tending to a hastily built sarcophagus made of steel and concrete to cover the reactor.

WATCH | After 2011 Fukushima reactor meltdown, Chornobyl worker describes cleaning up radioactive waste:

Vasyl Kawatsruk lived through cleaning up radioactive material at Chernobyl. 5:16

New documents show accidents prior to 1986

Radiation continued to leak from the reactor building until 2019, when the entire building was covered by an enormous arch-shaped shelter.

On the 35th anniversary of the disaster on Monday, Ukrainian authorities declassified documents showing that serious accidents occurred at the power plant several times before April 26, 1986.

A man walks past a shelter covering the exploded reactor at the Chornobyl nuclear plant on April 15, 2021. (Efrem Lukatsky/The Associated Press)

Ukraine’s Security Service revealed that the Soviet authorities issued a decree on July 8, 1986, classifying all details of the Chornobyl disaster, including the number of people getting sick.

According to the agency, in October 1987, a French journalist tried to take soil and water samples abroad, but the KGB swapped his samples with clean ones.

WATCH | From the archives: How fallout from Chornobyl affected food imports in Canada:

30 years, an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine led to one of the world’s worst radiation leaks 2:10



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