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8 moments that shaped the environmental movement

March 16, 2010, 6:28 a.m.
Chernobyl

Photo: lord_yo/Flickr

9 of 10

Chernobyl

On April 26, 1986, a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Ukraine exploded. The explosion, which ripped off the top of the building, and the subsequent fire sent a huge plume of radioactive fallout into the sky and over the surrounding countryside. The plume eventually touched large parts of the western Soviet Union and Europe and drifted as far as Ireland.

After the blast, workers and local firefighters worked feverishly to contain the fire and to prevent the other reactors from overheating. The fire in reactor wasn't finally extinguished until May 10, after weeks of near constant bombardment by helicopters dropping sand, lead, clay, boron and injections of liquid nitrogen. Many of the men fighting the fire and responding to the explosion died of radiation sickness soon after.

The Soviet Union failed to evacuate the nearby city of Prypiat right away and waited more than 36 hours to move people out. Citizens were told that the evacuation would be temporary and residents were moved out — forever as it turned out — on trains and in cars, buses and trucks. About 50,000 people from the city would be resettled elsewhere, and another 85,000 from the surrounding area were also moved. Today the nuclear plants lies shuttered, surrounded by a 17-mile exclusion zone where no one is allowed to live. The explosion, in tandem with the earlier accident at Three Mile Island, helped scuttle plans for new nuclear power plants around the world.