On 26 April 1986, the most serious accident in the history of the nuclear industry occurred at Unit 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine. The explosions that ruptured the Chernobyl reactor vessel released a cloud with high levels of radioactive material that spread over much of Europe. Radioactive caesium-137, which has a long half-life, is still measurable in soils and some foods in many parts of Europe.
In some way or another, the Chernobyl accident affected 7 million people in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The disaster immediately exposed 1,000 people to high levels of radiation, while 4,000 children later came down with thyroid cancer from drinking contaminated milk. More than 600,000 emergency workers were also exposed to radiation. Five million people currently live in radiated areas, although the levels of radiation are lower than those received by people who live in some areas of high natural background radiation in India,Iran, Brazil and China.
Twenty years after the accident, the cost had grown to hundreds of billions of dollars. Why? A wide range of costs were incurred, including:
- Direct damage caused by the accident.
- Sealing off the reactor creating an exclusion zone.
- Resettling 330,000 people.
- Health care.
- Research to find out how to produce uncontaminated food.
- Radiation monitoring of the environment.
- Toxic waster clean-up and disposal of radioactive waste.
- The opportunity cost of removing farm land and forests from use.
- Loss of power from the Chernobyl nuclear plant and the cancellation of Belarus’s nuclear power program.
The cost of a modern-day nuclear accident in a populated, industrial area could be much higher. That's because the Chernobyl disaster took place in a rural area, where agricultural was the primary industry. More than 5,700 square miles of farmland and forests were contaminated -- an area about the size of Connecticut.The economic cost of Hurricane Katrina was estimated at between $125 billion to $250 billion. It knocked GDP growth to 1.3% in the 4th quarter 2005. It affected 19% of U.S. oil production and briefly spiked gas prices to $5 a gallon.
A nuclear accident on the scale of Chernobyl would have a similar impact, but would last at least 20 years due to radiation contamination.