Counting the costs of Chernobyl

Published 13.06.2019 20:07
Updated 14.06.2019 00:01

Chernobyl. One word that needs no translation and no context. A word that transcends language barriers in conveying a strong message. Disaster. Suffering. Human loss. With the conclusion of HBO's acclaimed mini-series, Chernobyl, we have learned much more about the disaster and what it meant for those that lived through it and continue to live three decades later. I wondered what the actual costs of the disaster were and through some research found out some surprising facts I'd like to share. While the human suffering is immeasurable, I wanted to get as close as possible to actual costs incurred as a result of the disaster.

First things first. Chernobyl is actually on the northern border of Ukraine and Belarus. It's only 93 kilometers north of Kiev making it much more central a location than I had previously thought. It's also 350 kilometers away from the Belorussian capital of Minsk and 1,160 kilometers away from the German capital of Berlin. This places the Chernobyl nuclear disaster closer to the German capital Berlin, than it does the Turkish capital of Ankara which is 1,300 kilometers away. In fact, the power plant meltdown is closer to London then it is to Malta or even Turkey's southeastern border. Russia's eastern coastline is 7,000 kilometers away whereas London is only 2,000 kilometers away. This proximity to Europe signals that Chernobyl and the fallout (literally) from the disaster is as much a European concern as it is a Russian one.

While many of these distances may seem like they are far removed from the disaster, the danger of the Chernobyl tragedy is largely in the dispersion of the nuclear fallout via wind patterns. In the movie we learn the West first hears of the meltdown because of atmospheric readings made in Stockholm. As such, while much was made of how the explosion and resulting radiation was 400 times greater than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the radiation was far more dispersed, essentially covering much of Belarus, Ukraine, Europe, the Black Sea, and western Russia. In this way the loss of human life was far less pronounced. As far as total cost, however, Chernobyl was massive.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency's "Chernobyl's Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts" report, the total cost of the Chernobyl disaster was over $235 billion. This includes cleanup costs as well as social benefits to seven million survivors and opportunity costs of vacated agricultural and logging land. In fact Belarus was spending 22 percent of their total government budget in 1991 on Chernobyl related expenditures which declined to six percent in 2002. The spending by Ukraine after the dissolution of the Soviet Union caused the country to lose at least a decade in terms of economic development. The cost of initially moving over 100,000 residents and later another quarter of a million more was a burden the economies of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia were unable to bare, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the end of the mini-series, Mikhail Gorbachev is quoted as commenting on the economic cost in a 2006 interview: "The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl 20 years ago this month, even more than my launch of Perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later." Perhaps Gorbachev is correct and the economic costs of Chernobyl were so great as to bring the Soviet Union to its knees. While the total cost would be impossible to calculate, to say that the costs were so great that it is imperative to do whatever possible to prevent another nuclear disaster would be a massive understatement.

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