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by William H. Benson

April 26, 2001

     Mount Vesuvius covered Pompei.  An earthquake struck San Francisco.  The Titanic bumped an ice berg and sank, and the Hindenburg was destroyed by fire at a tower mooring.  But the world’s biggest and worst accident to date happened at 1:23 a.m. on April 26, 1986 in the Ukraine near the town of Chernobyl.

     While technicians shut down the fourth unit of the V. I. Lenin nuclear reactor for routine maintenance and testing, the steam pressure increased until the graphite core exploded.  Hundreds of tons of fuel, concrete, steel, and other debris rocketed into the night sky and then rained down over the surrounding area.

     Even more deadly were the several tons of radiation that rose ever upwards into the atmosphere creating a nuclear wind that swept across the Soviet Union and Europe poisoning millions.  Immediately, pilots began performing death-defying and heroic acts flying choppers into the smoke and fire and radioactive cloud to dump sand, boron, and lead onto the burning reactor.

     The Chernobyl accident rendered an area the size of New York State unsafe for human habitation.  A city of 42,000 was abandoned for at least the next 500 years.  It killed, according to the official account, 31 people almost immediately, and 224 others in the next few weeks, but actually the death toll was probably in the several hundreds and may even reach tens of thousands once all that radioactive waste has completed its course.

     People began to die.  First it was the firefighters and the cleanup crews who had been inside the reactor.  Then, men, women, and children across the Soviet Union began to develop radiation-linked diseases.  Since the explosion, cancer rates in the former Soviet Union have risen 300 percent, respiratory diseases 2,000 percent, and the number of babies born with birth defects has soared to record numbers.

     As is true of all accidents, everyone points a finger at another.  Government officials accuse the workers of being inept.  The workers accuse the power plant’s builders of shoddy construction.  Mothers with sick and dying children accuse the government.  Scientists and engineers contradict one another. 

     Actually, the Chernobyl fiasco was a combination of things that came to a focal point on that spring night fifteen years ago.  From the start the power plant was doomed to disaster, for it was poorly designed, poorly constructed, and poorly managed by poorly trained engineers.

     What was remarkable was that the Soviet Union admitted to a failure–the first time ever.  The Soviet Union’s leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, confessed that mistakes had been made.

     Today a sarcophagus of steel-and-concrete walls and ceiling encloses the fourth unit reactor.  It must stand and remain intact for the next several tens of thousand years.  At the bottom in the basement lies a pool of deadly radioactive material that no one has actually seen, but a photograph suggests it resembles a giant elephant’s foot standing on the floor.

     The sarcophagus was built very quickly by untrained workers more interested in surviving than doing a good job.  Rain leaks through cracks in the roof and then leaks out through cracks in the floor.  It is a continual disaster. 

     Before he became President, Ronald Reagan wrote that communism is neither an economic nor a political system, but a form of insanity, an aberration.  “The Russians have told us over and over again their goal is to impose their incompetent and ridiculous system on the world. . . . How much more misery will it cause before it disappears. . . . It will not survive because it lays the groundwork for its own destruction by suppressing economic, political, and social freedom.  Given the opportunity, people will seek freedom.”

     Chernobyl was the largest nail into the coffin of the Soviet Union’s empire, which had become unmanageable, teetering on the verge of economic collapse, rife with corruption, incompetence, political paranoia, and an unbending bureaucracy.  Reagan was right.  Communism did collapse, and Chernobyl was symbolic of what was wrong with communism–poor quality, hazardous to the environment, shortened human lives, and an accident waiting to happen that unfortunately did.