Lessons Learnt from Chornobyl: from Tragedy to Prospects

Every time we hear words “Chornobyl” or “Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant”, terrible associations inadvertently come to mind: catastrophe, fire, hazard, human victims, radiation, resettlement… Terrible consequences of ChNPP-4 accident (26 April 1986) still draw forth tears and emotions of people, who worked at the nuclear power plant or participated in the accident elimination, and other Ukrainians. The scale of Chornobyl accident set the whole world in turmoil. Therefore, countries operating nuclear units defined that prevention of such events is the main priority in development of national nuclear power engineering. This is confirmed by Ukraine’s experience gained after the Chornobyl accident.


ChNPP. Administrative building No. 1

Which measures were taken after the catastrophe for maximally effective response to emergencies? What social and economic consequences of the accident our country had to overcame? Which changes were made into the regulatory and legal framework? How did the approach to informing the public on issues related to the use of nuclear power changed?

These and many other questions were given to Volodymyr Holosha – Head of Ukrainian State Agency on Exclusion Zone Management (in 1994-1996, Minister of Ukraine on Emergencies and Protection of the Population against Chornobyl Accident Consequences).

The paper is based on the discussion with V. Holosha.

Political aspects of the Chornobyl accident

Operation of nuclear power plants in the world confirms the necessity to hold regular safety reassessment, considering previous experience, in order to improve nuclear and radiation safety level. Sometimes, authoritative managers of the nuclear sphere can restrict to some extent implementation of the necessary decisions.

Such cases were typical for the USSR, when significant success in development of nuclear science and engineering was politicized, thereby making it impossible to perform unbiased assessment. Hence, after accident at Three Mile Island NPP (USA, 1979), statements were only made like “under socialism such an accident is impossible” instead of total reassessment of NPP safety.

The National Report “Chornobyl, 25 Years On. Safety for the Future” states that “…politicization of nuclear science and engineering in the USSR, image of its exclusivity and infallibility created through the years, absence of independent nuclear regulation and efficient state control of nuclear power safety are the root causes of the Chornobyl tragedy”. Experts also emphasized the following in the Report: due to extreme secrecy, the Soviet nuclear sphere became isolated, unable to use the best world experience in development of the relevant technologies. This factor appeared one of the causes of the Chornobyl tragedy.

Volodymyr Holosha: “Accident at ChNPP has become a kind of catalyst to change views of political elites on the safe use of nuclear power for the peaceful purposes”.

After 26 April 1986, the situation has changed. The USSR, and later independent Ukraine, revised approach to the use of nuclear energy. After the Chornobyl accident, safe operation of nuclear power facilities became a nationwide objective. This gave impetus to the strengthening of state safety regulation in the nuclear sphere.

On 5 December 2000, the State Nuclear Regulatory Committee (at present called Inspectorate) was created in Ukraine by order of the President. This authority performs independent safety regulation of nuclear energy use. At present, Ukraine’s policy in the sphere of nuclear energy is referred to as one of the most transparent in the world.

Social and economic aspects of the Chornobyl NPP accident

The political aspect affected social and economic processes related to ChNPP accident consequences. On 2 August 1990, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukrainian Soviet Republic approved the economically unreasonable resolution “On Moratorium on the Construction of New Nuclear Power Plants in Ukrainian Soviet Republic” that was a result of world populist decisions taken after the Chornobyl accident on termination or suspension of nuclear industry development.

Volodymyr Holosha: “The Moratorium was imposed as an answer to political phobias related to the nuclear energy”.

The Resolution should have been valid during five years. However, this decision changed due to problems in the power supply of Ukraine’s population. On 21 October 1993, the Moratorium was lifted.

Volodymyr Holosha: “The Moratorium caused major problems with the power supply in the whole country. There were constant interruptions and frequent power outages” .

In addition, losses because of the Moratorium to introduce new capacities at operating nuclear facilities at that time made approximately 67.32 billion rubles.

The Moratorium also affected the level of GNP.

Volodymyr Holosha: “The point is that per 1 hryvnya of produced electric power, commercial products are produced for several hryvnyas. There is regularity such as electric power is the basic constituent to produce any product, from milk to machine engineering. Therefore, the Moratorium led to underproduction of the required amount of products that caused rise of prices for goods”.

According to Volodymyr Holosha, prescheduled shutdown of Chornobyl NPP caused even greater economic losses. ChNPP-2 was shut down in 1991, ChNPP-1 – in 1996 and ChNPP-3 – in 2000. This political decision, made on 17 February 1990 by the Verkhovna Rada of Ministers of Ukrainian Soviet Republic, caused loss of approximately 14.51 billion USD in Ukraine (according to assessments given in the Report).

The total amount of losses in Ukraine due to the Chornobyl accident is estimated at 198.42 billion USD. Significant part of indirect costs (in industry, agriculture, etc.) and costs resulted from prescheduled decommissioning of Chornobyl NPP (178.25 billion USD) were extremely notable for Ukrainian economy (Table 1).

Table 1


According economic and social consequences of the catastrophe at Chornobyl NPP, the following can be concluded: reduction of power production for the needs of economy and population; serious losses in agriculture and industry in general; damage to water industry and forested areas. Enormous, but extremely needed, costs and compensations to support suffered regions and population turned into a heavy burden for Ukrainian economy. Moreover, at present, major resources are still needed to eliminate consequences of the Chornobyl NPP.

These events contributed to the understanding that it is necessary to raise financial reserves for independent elimination of any crisis at nuclear facilities. Experience in elimination of Chornobyl NPP accident consequences showed that in unavailability of national reserves, international assistance is needed. Many countries and international organizations assisted Ukraine. The Action Plan should be developed for incidents to protect national economy and budget against unreasonable loads, as in case with the Chornobyl accident. Therefore, the Law of Ukraine “On Nuclear Energy Use and Radiation Safety”, approved in February 1995, included the mechanism to ensure social and economic compensation for the population of risks from radiation accidents. Such risks are financed from the special fund of the State Budget of Ukraine by means of the relevant fee. The fee is paid by the operating organization, enterprises on mining and processing of uranium ores, and enterprises, which are customers of the construction of nuclear installations or radioactive waste treatment facilities that are of national importance.

Main response aspects during elimination of Chornobyl accident consequences

Experience gained during elimination of Chornobyl accident consequences is crucial not only for Ukraine. The accident of 1986 became one of the largest man-made catastrophes in the world. It forced the humanity to think seriously on the safety of new technologies.


On the outskirts of ChNPP

The Soviet Union created the Plan of Civil Defense to response emergencies. It included information on measures during any emergency at NPP. The evacuation during the Chornobyl accident was performed in accordance with provisions of this document.

Volodymyr Holosha said that the evacuation was well organized without panic, mostly because ChNPP workers informed in details their relatives on the necessary actions.

Volodymyr Holosha: “I came on 27 April in the morning after the night shift and told my wife and daughter about the evacuation. I told them to take bags with the necessary things. Then I went to the plant. Others acted according to the same principle. Therefore, people were calm and organized, because their relatives, who worked at ChNPP, told them about the situation”.

At the same time, the section of the Plan of Civil Defense on emergencies at NPP had serious drawbacks.

Volodymyr Holosha defined the following problems:

1. According to the Plan, the 30-km zone was of a circular shape that envisaged evacuation of people evenly along the perimeter of stated border. However, the Chornobyl accident showed that there are factors, which can prevent resettlement based on this principle.

For example – hydrometeorological, and namely the wind rose. Experts did not fully considered wind direction during the evacuation. As a result, the victims were resettled in locations with a trace of radioactive contamination. For example, people evacuated to Ivankivsky, Polisky and other regions had to resettle one more time, as it was dangerous to stay there.

Hence, experience in elimination of the Chornobyl accident consequences showed the need of obligatory accounting of hydrometeorological conditions during the evacuation and flexibility of borders of the defined Exclusion Zone. At present, according to the Ukrainian legislation, 30-km zone or the Exclusion zone has an oval shape.

It is worth mentioning that this knowledge had considerable importance during evacuation of the population living near Fukushima-Daiichi NPP.

2. The lack of efficiency in decision-making is another problem. The process to assess crisis in the Soviet Union was unreasonably complicated and inefficient. Though evacuation after the Chornobyl accident was on a rather high level, the decision on its initiation was taken not at once on 26 April, but on a day later. Precious time was lost that caused increase in oncological diseases and victims among the population.

Gained experience in elimination of Chornobyl accident consequences forced the Ukrainian government and the operating organization to create crisis centers at all Ukrainian NPPs. Such crisis centers aim at generation of the necessary and the most efficient decision, taking into account world practices and IAEA recommendations. The crisis centers systematically hold common emergency trainings by the SNRIU and NAEK Energoatom to improve emergency preparedness systems.

3. The Plan of Civil Defense did not include clear recommendations on food and medical prophylaxis of the population during emergencies at nuclear power plants. After the Chornobyl accident, not all the radioactively contaminated locations in the region faced reorientation of food. The government did not impose a ban on the use of household plot and consumption of products grown in the contaminated areas.

The difficulty of the decision-making system and secrecy of emergency plans led to the situation, when iodine prophylaxis was performed with a significant delay. This resulted in active development of thyroid cancer of many citizens living in radioactively contaminated territories.

At present, the SNRIU defined the procedure for high priority measures of iodine prophylaxis among the population of Ukraine in case of a radiation accident (Order No. 154 dated 08 November 2011).

The Emergency Plan was completely revised in view of the gained experience in elimination of the Chornobyl catastrophe. The revision is based on the fact that efficiency of response fully depends on the national system of emergency response and efficient forecasting in order to protect people, eliminate accidents and their consequences.

Gradually, the Government of Ukraine developed a range of regulatory and legal acts aimed at accepted and efficient response, namely:

  • “Radiation Accident Response Plan”;
  • The Law of Ukraine “On Nuclear Energy Use and Radiation Safety”;
  • The Law of Ukraine “On Protection of Population and Territories from Man-Made and Natural Hazards”;
  • The Law of Ukraine “On Legal Principles of Civil Protection”;
  • The Law of Ukraine “On Human Protection against Impact of Ionizing Radiation”.

Exclusion Zone:

In the late 1980s and in early 1990s, people around the world with the great fear treated Chornobyl and everything that was related to it. Today the situation has changed.

Volodymyr Holosha: “Outside the Exclusion Zone, real consequences of Chornobyl in view of impact on people and food are minimal. At present, only 150 populated places out of 2293 require special attention and relevant measures to make them safe for human health. In particular, this is north of Kyiv Oblast, north of Rivne Oblast, north of Zhytomyr Oblast and north of Volyn”.

This statement allows suggesting that an issue of Chornobyl consequences outside the Exclusion Zone is almost solved.

Another situation is in the Exclusion Zone itself. Significant amount of transuranic elements were released in the Zone after the accident: Plutonium (Pu) – 239, half-life of 24 000 years, and Americium (Am) – 241, half-life of 433 years. Therefore, purification of these territories is a long-term process. Hence, the Exclusion Zone cannot become suitable for life, but it can be made environmentally safe. Moreover, it would be reasonable to use this territory for economic purposes.

According to this view, the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine approved the Concept of State Policy Implementation in the Field of Developing Activity within Separate Areas Radioactively Contaminated due to the Chernobyl Accident (Resolution No. 535-r dated 18 July 2012). The document clearly defines objective of further development of the Exclusion Zone. The Concept task is to “define areas and priorities in organizational, production, scientific and technical, nature conservation and other activities in the Exclusion Zone aimed at minimization of the environmental hazards and preservation of natural resources, material, intellectual and cultural values, ensuring stability and biodiversity of ecosystems and using of the Exclusion Zone territory for economic purposes”.


View of ChNPP industrial site

Volodymyr Holosha said that the Exclusion Zone would be used for the following purposes:

  1. Use of these territories in economic purposes for nuclear power complex. For example, the Concept envisages transportation of hazardous radioactive waste, stored at facilities of the specialized enterprise “Radon”, which are located near the populated areas, to the Exclusion Zone for long-term storage with the relevant level of protection.
  2. Perform nature conservation measures. The priority areas are as follows: stabilization of radioecology situation and prevention of release of radioactive elements beyond the Exclusion Zone. The Concept envisages restoration of biodiversity in the Exclusion Zone, as there are unique species of flora and fauna. The Concept also states on the possibility to use the Exclusion Zone to develop renewable energy sources. At present, the joint project with the European Commission is implemented to construct pilot facility for biomass burning.

Communication with the public:

Volodymyr Holosha said that prior to the accident Chornobyl lacked in the proper information system. Tons of information on the catastrophe of 26 April 1986 spread around the world and broke through the information blockade within the USSR territory that caused fear, despair and hopelessness among the population. Absence of clear and true information induces ambiguous interpretation of events related to the Chornobyl accident.

During emergencies, communication with the public is of great importance, since the untimely and insignificant informing can cause social and psychological tension among the society. After the Chornobyl accident, the Government declared policy on public awareness, the priorities of which included transparency, honesty and openness. Volodymyr Holosha stated that at present officials report on their activity via mass-media and social networks.

During 1994 – 2000, the Ministry of Emergencies of Ukraine in cooperation with the United Nations created centers of social and psychological rehabilitation and informing of the public on elimination of Chornobyl accident consequences. Such centers are established in Borodyanka, Boyarka, Ivankiv, Slavutych, Korosten. They provide victims of the Chornobyl accident with social and psychological help; social services and public organizations with methodological support; population, who suffered from man-made catastrophes and natural disasters, with urgent psychological help.

Therefore, the Chornobyl accident gave a new meaning to the public awareness, prompt notification, and systemic work with the population. The tragic experience of Chornobyl resulted in fundamental changes in approaches of both state facilities and the operating organization to informing of the public.

Moreover, Japan faced the situation similar to the Chornobyl accident after Fukushima-Daiichi NPP accident. Japanese population was not fully informed on scales of the emergency. Representatives of the Japanese operating organization “TEPCO” did not provide the world community with the relevant information.

However, according to Volodymyr Holosha, the Japanese actively apply experience of Ukrainians. They even translated the National Report “Chornobyl, 25 Years On. Safety for the Future” in Japanese.

Volodymyr Holosha’s main messages:

  1. The Chornobyl accident, despite terrible consequences, became the catalyst to increase attention of the Ukrainian government to the nuclear sphere. Besides, it gave Ukraine a possibility to join international experience in ensuring and improving NPP safety.
  2. Post-Chornobyl world becomes safer and more environmentally friendly. Each year the situation improves owing to professionals, who work on elimination of Chornobyl accident consequences. Volodymyr Holosha: “It is great that the world starts forgetting the Chornobyl. This means we are moving in the right direction”.
  3. Chornobyl became a recreation territory for flora and fauna. At present, there are many rare species of plants and animals, which appeared after reduction of man-made loads (enterprises closed, the population reduced, etc.), in the Exclusion Zone and adjacent territories.

22/05/2014 Volodymyr Holosha, Head of the State Agency of Ukraine on Exclusion Zone Management; conversation by Dmytro Chumak