How Much Do You Know About the Chernobyl Disaster?

By: Torrance Grey

In addition to being a nuclear power plant, Chernobyl is ... ?

Chernobyl is neither the nearest town to the plant nor a big city, but it was the administrative center of the district where the nuclear power plant was situated and was home to about 14,000 people. Chernobyl was evacuated after the meltdown, though a few residents have returned to occupy their homes.

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was in which republic of the former USSR?

Today, Ukraine is an independent country. It's called "Ukrainia" by Russians and Ukrainians and sometimes "the Ukraine" by Westerners of a certain age. The use of the article "the" came about because "ukraine" means "borderland" as a common noun; hence "the borderland." However, that's a mildly offensive term to Ukrainians.

What year did the catastrophic accident take place?

1970 was the year that the nearby workers' community was founded (We'd mention it by name, but that's the answer to another question). It wasn't until the mid-'80s that the reactor meltdown occurred.

In general, nuclear power plants generate electricity through which process?

Nuclear fission is the breakup of atom nuclei into smaller nuclei, which releases a great deal of energy. Fusion and decay are also processes that release power, though not as effectively. "Cold fusion" dreams a pipe dream: Nuclear fusion at temperatures far lower than the solar/stellar ones required at present.

What was happening at the time of the reactor meltdown?

The drill was meant to practice protocols to keep the reactors going in the event of a power outage. Both the power to the reactors and the safety systems were deliberately shut off, to simulate actual conditions in case of a power failure.

What caused the meltdown itself?

Typically, in major accidents (not just nuclear, but events like plane crashes as well), there isn't a single cause, and this is true of the Chernobyl disaster. The event has been extensively studied, and all three of the above factors were found to be at play.

What is/was the name of the nearest town to the Chernobyl plant?

Atlas Obscura, the online magazine of the odd and amazing, wrote an article on the ghost town of Pripyat, which some urban adventurers are now exploring. Among other things, the reporter notes is that "all clocks are frozen at 11:55, the moment the electricity was cut." Spooky!

What kind of personnel responded first to the reactor meltdown?

Firefighters bore the brunt of the meltdown's immediate health effects. Many of the 28 persons who died of radiation sickness after the accident were firefighters (and others were employees of the plant).

What is the common name for the radioactive material that descends from the sky after such an accident?

You've undoubtedly heard this word, though probably in a metaphoric sense. It's been widely adopted as a term for "unwanted or negative results," e.g., "the fallout from the candidate's unwise public statement."

How many people had to be evacuated from Pripyat?

More than 49,000 people were living in the planned town of Pripyat. The evacuation took about three hours, an astoundingly quick process for nearly 50,000 people, but there had been drills for just this events. Plus, you've got to imagine that the town's residents were motivated to leave.

About how many people have died as a result of the nuclear accident?

When we say this, we don't mean that the death toll was "countless" and that a cover-up is the reason the true number is unknown. It's actually the opposite. A United Nations/Ukraine joint study has concluded that, long-term, the death toll is probably between 4,000 and 6,000. It's smaller groups, like survivors' organizations, which suggest the number is near 90,000.

Following the meltdown, the concept of "mSv/h" became important. It stands for "micro-sieverts per ____."

Our first guess would have been "hectare," imagining radiation pervading land and water at certain levels, depending on the distance from the plant. But the key unit here is that of time: How many mSv are you getting every hour (which can be extrapolated to every day)?

How many micro-sieverts of radiation is the average American exposed to per day?

Bear in mind, this is the very baseline. Want to fly coast-to-coast? Your exposure will rise to 400 mSV for the entire one-way trip. An exposure of about 100,000 mSV is required to raise your cancer risk. This puts the levels in the inhabitable "Blue Zone" (about 30-50 mSV per hour) in perspective.

What was the number of the reactor that melted down?

The nuclear power plant had four reactors. Number 1 had a partial meltdown in 1982, but the news was not made public at the time, and it was repaired and put back into service.

True or false: The Chernobyl incident isn't considered to be the worst nuclear power disaster in history.

To this day, the nuclear accident in Ukraine is the worst in history. This includes the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, which was the result of a tsunami following an earthquake.

What is the Chernobyl plant's "sarcophagus"?

A "sarcophagus" is, in general, a box built to hold a dead body. So it's apt that this has become the nickname for the massive steel-and-concrete structure built around the "dead" reactor. The sarcophagus itself is now covered with another structure, called the New Safe Confinement structure.

What was the name for the cleanup workers following the meltdown?

In a time period spanning about 18 months after the meltdown, nearly a quarter million workers filled this role. Actually, liquidators had many roles, including hunting down pets that had gone feral after the evacuation. (Sounds cold, but somebody had to do it, we suppose).

The cleanup effort, overall, has cost 18 billion ____ (the Russian currency).

18 billion rubles is about $27 million dollars, by 2019's exchange rate. Adjusted for inflation, it's fairer to day that the USSR spent somewhere around $65 million U.S. dollars on the cleanup effort.

What is the name for the uninhabited area surrounding the plant?

Many people simply call it "the Zone." It was established very shortly after the meltdown by a Soviet regulatory commission and remains in place to this day, with some adjustments to the individual zones within.

How large is the Exclusion Zone?

Thirty kilometers is approximately 19 miles; as the term "radius" implies, the Zone is shaped as a circle. Within the circles are "sub-zones" of Black, Red and Blue.

What is the definition of the "Black Zone"?

The Black Zone isn't defined by units of distance, but rather by radiation — it's the area where radiation levels are at more than 200 micro-sieverts per hour. As noted elsewhere, this is comparable to the exposure you'd get in a coast-to-coast U.S. flight — but still not the kind of exposure that humans should be getting, long-term.

What is the definition of the "Red Zone"?

What differentiates the Red Zone from the Black Zone is that the Red Zone is projected to be inhabited again some day. About the concept of "vacation homes" near a dead nuclear power plant ... We really don't imagine there'll be any takers on that one.

What is the "Blue Zone"?

Not everyone had to leave this part of the Exclusion Zone, but the young and pregnant women were/are at higher risk from radiation. They were moved out of this exterior ring of the Exclusion Zone in 1986, after the major round of evacuations.

True or false: The reactor meltdown did not cause the Chernobyl plant to be completely shut down.

This might surprise you, but the other reactors continued to operate for some time. Number 2 was shut down in 1992, 1 in 1996, and number 3 stayed running until the year 2000.

What is the nearest large city to the former Chernobyl plant?

Kiev, also spelled "Kyiv," is the capital of Ukraine. This tidbit is a "know before you go" piece of information, as Kiev is where the tour companies offering Pripyat/Chernobyl visits are generally based, and where you'll most likely stay if you want to be comfortable.

What mechanism is used to detect a person's radiation exposure?

You've very likely seen this in movies. It's a handheld device run up and down a person's body, not actually touching skin or clothing. Geiger counters obviously became useful after the accident.

Who was the Soviet premier at the time of the incident?

Andrei Gromyko held the highest office from mid-1985 to 1988. He was a conservative with "hardline" policies toward the West, but was increasingly occupied with internal issues, not least of which was the reactor meltdown at Chernobyl.

Who was the American president at the time?

President Reagan, the former governor of California, was a proponent of nuclear energy himself. He spared government funding for America's nuclear program during a drastic round of budget-cutting in the early 1980s.

Who are the "samosely"?

It might surprise you to know that some people wanted to return to the evacuation area. You'd expect people to want to get out (and then hit up the government to be repaid for their relocation costs). But people are strange sometimes; see also Centralia, Pennsylvania, and the residents who stubbornly stay in that ghost town despite living above a raging mine fire.

The "samosely" are mostly what kind of people?

When you think about it, this isn't surprising — these people had spent their entire lives in one area, and were ill-equipped for life elsewhere. The Soviet government first tried to prevent samosely from returning to their homes, but eventually practiced a kind of "benign neglect" about the samosely phenomenon.

Years before the Chernobyl incident, the United States had its own power-plant accident. Where was it?

Three Mile Island is in Pennsylvania. In 1979, there was a leak of radioactive coolant caused by a valve stuck in its open position. Despite evacuations and an increase in anti-nuclear sentiment, there has been no statistically significant increase in cancers due to the leak.

What kind of cancer is the most likely to result from a nuclear accident, like Chernobyl's?

About 15 children are estimated to have gotten thyroid cancer as a result of the accident and died of their cancers. Today, people living near nuclear power plants are often eligible for government-provided iodine tablets to keep on hand; taken shortly after exposure, these can prevent thyroid cancer.

True or false: Tours of Chernobyl and Pripyat are only open to Russians and citizens of former USSR republics.

Anyone can take an Exclusion Zone tour. Guides have Geiger counters, and tourists are screened post-tour to ensure that they are not carrying radioactive material out of the Zone as souvenirs.

What material, commonly found in pencils, mostly fueled the reactor fire?

Nuclear-grade graphite is a bit different from what you find in a pencil, of course. It's used in nuclear reactors, thanks in part to its ability to tolerate high temperatures — but when it burns, it burns very hot.

The Chernobyl plant had a rarely used official name. Which historical figure was it named for?

Lenin, of course, was one of the master architects of Soviet Communism. The city of St. Petersburg was renamed for him during the Soviet era. That was an honorary naming that went a little better than the Chernobyl plant (though the city has now reverted to its original name of St. Petersburg).

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Image: MediaProduction / E+ / Getty Images

About This Quiz

The ancient Greeks and Romans used to believe in portents. (Be patient; we're getting to Chernobyl, we promise!) That is, a meteor crashing into a city building or the death of a popular, winning gladiator might be interpreted as an omen of future bad things to come. 

This brings us to the USSR (officially, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; unofficially, Russia and its Friends). In the waning years of the Soviet Union — the rise of Gorbachev, Glasnost and the ultimate collapse of communism were all on the horizon — a catastrophic event took place that the ancients might have seen as a portent. It was a steam explosion, and then a reactor fire, at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Emergency responders rolled out, acting heroically; some lost their lives. But the damage was done: A plume of radioactive material was lifted high into the atmosphere by the heat of the fire, spread northwest over Belarus, to Europe ... as far as Norway. As you might imagine, there was more than one kind of fallout. Anti-nuclear sentiment was already running high in Europe, and Chernobyl fanned those flames — though, to be fair, the ultimate toll in deaths and illnesses was lower than you might expect. 

Revisit this frightening moment in world history now and share all your wisdom or gain some more.

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