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On 26 April 1986, reactor number 4 in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station in Ukraine, exploded during a long-delayed safety test.


The Number 4 reactor exploded because the night shift operators were unprepared for a test and the power plant had long-standing design flaws.

The initial explosion only killed two operators but dozen from the rescue crew died of radiation exposure, also known as Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS), in the following months. 

UN review panels have identified less than a hundred premature deaths in the decades following the incident. However, long term estimates on the eventual global death toll range from 4,000-16,000.

Over 100,000  people were relocated after an “exclusion zone ” was set up at a 30-kilometer radius from the reactor. The radiation from the initial explosion and the nine-day long fire spread from Western Europe to the far east of the USSR.

Around 500,000 Soviet citizens were recruited for radiation containment, and clean up efforts, at a cost of 68 billion 2019 US dollars.



It further delegitimized the nuclear power industry in the West after the accident at the Three Mile Island plant in the United States and the association with nuclear weapons.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union believes the disaster was a major factor in his former country’s collapse. The economic cost of the clean-up undermined an already creaking, unreformed Soviet economy and severely hurt the Union’s credibility at home and abroad. Ten upgraded reactors of the same design are still in operation in Russia today.

The USSR first denied and minimized the scale of the disaster but startling and haunting images of the plant and surrounding communities were eventually allowed.

IMS has images from this historic tragedy in its archive. Many have not been seen since the 1980s and others were never published. You can access the images here. We ask you to please, understand these are raw photos of a disaster. See the photos here.


In history, this is the first of two Level 7 nuclear incidents and generally considered to be the worst.

The other accident happened in 2011 in Fukashima, after the strong earthquake and the consequential tsunami.

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