It's been 33 years since Chernobyl. We still don't know what the real death toll is.


Over three decades on from the Chernobyl disaster, there’s still a lot of unanswered questions about the nuclear explosion.

The accident, which is now known as the world’s worst nuclear disaster, resulted in 116,000 people being evacuated from their homes.

But while the disaster is back in the spotlight once again with the release of HBO’s five-part miniseries, Chernobyl, the death toll from the catastrophic accident is still unknown.

The real story behind HBO’s Chernobyl. Post continues after podcast. 

In the early morning hours of April 26, 1986, a safety test at the Chernobyl Nuclear power plant in the Ukraine malfunctioned.

Just seconds later, a series of explosions to the equivalent of 500 nuclear bombs was set off.

Instantly, two men were killed in the blast.

In the weeks that followed, more than 100 people, the majority being firefighters who were first on the scene, developed acute radiation syndrome. In just a few weeks time, 29 of them died.

Mamamia’s daily news podcast The Quicky spoke to Midnight in Chernobyl author Adam Higginbotham about the true story behind Chernobyl.

Watch the official trailer for HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl below. Post continues after video.


Speaking to The Quicky, Higginbotham explained that it was undoubtedly clear that first responders at the scene were showing obvious signs of radiation sickness. But despite the severity of the situation, it took 36 hours before the town of Pripyat was evacuated.

“The severity of this accident became apparent when the firefighters and operators who were immediately responsible for trying to put out these fires and contain the accident were at the hospital vomiting and showing obvious signs of radiation sickness,” Adam explained.

“But the Soviet government delayed the evacuation and they didn’t even tell the people that lived in Pripyat,” he added.

“They didn’t even tell them to go home and close their windows. They were determined to keep it a secret.”

Eventually, 36 hours after the initial explosion, over 26,500 people were evacuated by rail and road from the city.

According to Higginbotham, within about four months of the disaster, the total number of victims of the accident had risen to 31.

In the years following Chernobyl, there was an increase in birth abnormalities in newly-born children in the Ukraine and Belarus. Image: Getty.

Today, however, we can only estimate the true impact Chernobyl has had.

In fact, researchers remain divided on how fatal the Chernobyl disaster ultimately was.

In 2005, the World Health Organisation estimated the number of deaths potentially resulting from the accident could reach up to 4000 people.

As of 2005, however, less than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to the disaster.

On the other hand, the non-government organisation the Chernobyl Union of Ukraine, estimated the death toll to be 734,000, with most due to related cancers.

Similarly, radiation scientists Ian Fairlie and David Summer estimated the final death count resulting from the explosion would likely fall between 30,000 and 60,000 people.

chernobyl miners
Thousands of people were exposed to radiation during the Chernobyl clean-up process. Image: HBO.

The two scientists also suggested the contamination of food and livestock from the explosion may have had a wide-reaching impact on people's health, reaching far beyond the Soviet Union.

As the two scientists concluded: "The full effects of the Chernobyl accident will most certainly never be known. However it is clear that it is far greater than implied by official estimates".

The five-part miniseries Chernobyl is available to watch now on Foxtel. 

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