(NEW YORK) -- As Japan continues work to prevent a meltdown at its badly damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the world on Tuesday marks a grim anniversary of the nuclear age.
On April 26, 1986, a series of explosions inside reactor number four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine resulted in the worst nuclear accident in history. Following the blasts, large quantities of highly radioactive smoke were released into the atmosphere that spread over Western Russia and Europe. It’s estimated that as much as 60 percent of the fallout landed in Belarus.
During the five years after the accident, over 350,000 people were evacuated from Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine and resettled.
Meanwhile, more than 500,000 workers were ultimately required to contain the nuclear contamination. The high cost of the operation was a major factor in crippling the economy of the Soviet Union.
It’s believed that 31 people were killed as a direct result of the catastrophe at Chernobyl, including reactor staff and emergency workers, most of them dying within three months. Estimates of those who died over time due to radioactive contamination vary wildly. The World Health Organization puts the number at 4,000 while the Russian publication, Chernobyl, says the accident caused 985,000 deaths from 1986 to 2004.
The accident at Chernobyl was rated a seven, the highest level on the International Nuclear Event Scale, which was recently matched by the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. However, that accident is not considered as serious as what occurred at Chernobyl.
An investigation into what caused the explosion at Chernobyl's unit four pinned the blame on a flawed reactor design that was operated with inadequately trained personnel.
By October of 1986, Russian workers had encased unit four in concrete, which allowed the other reactors at the Chernobyl plant to continue operating until December 2000, when the last reactor there was shut down. Over time, some of those who were forced from their homes in contaminated regions have returned, including to parts of Belarus.
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