In April 1986, one of the deadliest nuclear disasters in history took place. An out-of-date design, lack of regulation and operator error combined to cause an explosion and fire at a nuclear reactor near the Ukrainian town of Chernobyl.
The total amount of radiation that resulted has been estimated as having 400 times the potency of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
Initially, the authorities tried to get away with evacuating the 50,000 people living in the nearby town of Pripyat (3km from the power plant). With evidence that radiation was spreading, they took the unprecedented step of creating an exclusion zone within 30km of the reactor.
They also launched a massive operation to prevent another explosion at the reactor and decontaminate the land. In the end, 200,000 people had to move.
Due to the complexity of the task, and the fact that radiation limited the amount of time that workers could spend on the clean up, around 700,000 people ended up being involved.
Soviet estimates put the cost of the clean up at $18bn ($39bn in today’s money). Other estimates put the cost to neighbouring Belarus alone at $235bn. Even today Ukraine spends 5% of its total spending on special pensions and healthcare benefits. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev believes the cost of Chernobyl sped up the collapse of the USSR.
Nuclear fallout spread across Europe, carried by winds. While scientists believe that it had a minimal impact on public health, it led to a backlash against nuclear power. In 1987, a public referendum led to Italy phasing out its nuclear plants by 1990.