National Geographic

Geography in the News: Chernobyl’s Legacy

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM

Chernobyl’s legacy endures

Chernobyl is a place known around the world. The meltdown at the Chernobyl power plant in 1986 made front-page news and, until Japan’s Fukushima disaster of 2011, was considered the world’s worst nuclear accident. With North Korea’s recent threats of nuclear strikea aimed at South Korea, Japan and the United States, the geography of Chernobyl’s impacts and the lessons learned are worth repeating to each generation.

Chernobyl’s massive radioactive cloud blanketed northern Europe in 1986, releasing the largest amount of radioactive gas and particles of any reactor accident into an area of resident civilian population. Most affected were Ukrainians, especially those cleanup workers initially at the site.

Nevertheless, because there were no detailed data on the health of the population prior to 1986, the actual numbers of health-related illnesses caused by the radiation have been difficult to measure. New and controversial research in 2009, (Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment), however, reported the premature death toll from Chernobyl between 1986 and 2004 at about 985,000. Early estimates by the Associated Press (Dec. 16, 2000) were that the health of 3.4 million of Ukraine’s 50 million people was negatively affected, including 1.26 million children, whose future health risks included thyroid cancer. The accuracy of these specific numbers continues to be disputed and debated, but they still represent the huge impacts of the Chernobyl event.

Chernobyl was a city of 12,500 at the time of the accident. It is located 80 miles (130 km) north of Kiev in the Ukraine. Prior to 1990, the Ukraine, known as “Russia’s Breadbasket,” was a prosperous republic of the Soviet Union. The Ukraine produced more than a fifth of Soviet grain, half of its sugar beets and a fourth of its meat and dairy products. With its rich coal deposits, the region produced 60 percent of Soviet steel and was the leading industrial republic.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the demand for electrical power to fuel its thriving factories led the Soviets to build more coal-fired thermal generators and nuclear reactor power plants. Without adequate environmental safeguard regulations and watchdog groups to oversee the engineering, however, shoddy work resulted. This left the Chernobyl nuclear plant and similar others scattered across the former Soviet Union among the world’s most dangerous environmental hazards.

During a test on April 26, 1986, one of the Chernobyl power plant’s four nuclear reactors exploded, resulting in a fire in the reactor’s graphite core. The event released a radioactive cloud that dispersed across most of Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

gitn_1198_Chernobyl cs2
Map by Geography in the News and
Boundaries and names shown do not necessarily reflect the map policy of the National Geographic Society.

In an effort to maintain secrecy about the event, Soviet planners refused to acknowledge the magnitude of the explosion and the peril to the surrounding population for several days. Even as the fire burned and workers exposed themselves to deadly levels of radiation in efforts to extinguish it, leaders were unwilling to release information.

The Chernobyl-style nuclear reactor was of inferior design, as stated in 1992 by Dr. Ludmila N. Ilyina, a distinguished Russian geographer. She counted 46 operating reactors across the former Soviet Union, with 26 more under construction at the time the U.S.S.R. dissolved. Almost all of the older reactors were of an inferior design and 17 were of the Chernobyl design.

Nuclear power plant accidents are not limited to the Chernobyl design, however. The Chalk River plant near Ottawa, Canada, had a partial meltdown in 1952. Windscale Pile No. 1, north of Liverpool, England, contaminated a 200 square mile (518 sq. km.) area after a reactor fire in 1957. A Greifswald, East Germany plant experienced a near meltdown in 1976. Moreover, after a fire in one of its two reactors, the Three Mile Island plant near Harrisburg, Penn., had a partial meltdown in 1979.

None of these older disasters even compares to Chernobyl in magnitude of human suffering and ecological impacts of the radioactive release. As we gain more data on the Fukushima nuclear accident, however, many predict it ultimately may approach Chernobyl in terms of death and related diseases.

As nuclear plants age, their threats increase particularly in countries with declining economies, political unrest and poor environmental laws. The main nuclear disaster worries for the future are concentrated on these aging reactors, security of nuclear materials and, of course, rogue nations’ and isolated groups’ nuclear threats.

And that is Geography in the News.

Sources: GITN 1198 Chernobyl Revisited,, May 19, 2013; GITN 553 Chernobyl: World’s Worst Nuclear Accident, Jan 5, 2001;;—Appendix-2–Health-Impacts/#.UXVJFoLC-Hs;

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM  is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.

Nearly 900 of the 1200, full-length weekly articles Geography in the News (with Spanish translations) are available in the K-12 online education resource, including maps and other supporting materials and critical thinking questions.




  1. Jim
    May 16, 12:08 pm

    Thank you for this misleading pile of crap. Who are the “many” that predict the Fukushima Daiichi disaster to match the magnitude of the Chernobyl disaster? Are any of these mysterious people actually qualified to draw such conclusions?

  2. Tom
    April 17, 6:54 pm

    I thought the consensus view was that Chernobyl remains the worst nuclear disaster, even after Fukushima Daiichi.

  3. Kaye
    April 15, 4:01 am

    Thank you for this reminder about Chernobyl.

    To see the effects of Chernobyl radiation, google “The Legacy of Chernobyl” to see photos of the horrible birth defects caused by the Chernobyl’s radiation.

    Regarding Fukushima, highly recommend Enenews dot com which has been doing an amazing job reporting on Fukushima daily.