How Much Do You Know About the Chernobyl Disaster?

By: Torrance Grey

How Much Do You Know About the Chernobyl Disaster?
Image: MediaProduction / E+ / Getty Images

About This Quiz

The ancient Greeks and Romans used to believe in portents. (Be patient; we're getting to Chernobyl, we promise!) That is, a meteor crashing into a city building or the death of a popular, winning gladiator might be interpreted as an omen of future bad things to come. 

This brings us to the USSR (officially, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; unofficially, Russia and its Friends). In the waning years of the Soviet Union — the rise of Gorbachev, Glasnost and the ultimate collapse of communism were all on the horizon — a catastrophic event took place that the ancients might have seen as a portent. It was a steam explosion, and then a reactor fire, at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Emergency responders rolled out, acting heroically; some lost their lives. But the damage was done: A plume of radioactive material was lifted high into the atmosphere by the heat of the fire, spread northwest over Belarus, to Europe ... as far as Norway. As you might imagine, there was more than one kind of fallout. Anti-nuclear sentiment was already running high in Europe, and Chernobyl fanned those flames — though, to be fair, the ultimate toll in deaths and illnesses was lower than you might expect. 

Revisit this frightening moment in world history now and share all your wisdom or gain some more.

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was in which republic of the former USSR?
Latvia
Georgia
Russia proper
Ukraine
Today, Ukraine is an independent country. It's called "Ukrainia" by Russians and Ukrainians and sometimes "the Ukraine" by Westerners of a certain age. The use of the article "the" came about because "ukraine" means "borderland" as a common noun; hence "the borderland." However, that's a mildly offensive term to Ukrainians.

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What year did the catastrophic accident take place?
1970
1976
1986
1970 was the year that the nearby workers' community was founded (We'd mention it by name, but that's the answer to another question). It wasn't until the mid-'80s that the reactor meltdown occurred.
1993

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In general, nuclear power plants generate electricity through which process?
Decay
Fission
Nuclear fission is the breakup of atom nuclei into smaller nuclei, which releases a great deal of energy. Fusion and decay are also processes that release power, though not as effectively. "Cold fusion" dreams a pipe dream: Nuclear fusion at temperatures far lower than the solar/stellar ones required at present.
Fusion
Cold fusion

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What was happening at the time of the reactor meltdown?
A post-Lenten party
A powerful thunderstorm
A safety drill
The drill was meant to practice protocols to keep the reactors going in the event of a power outage. Both the power to the reactors and the safety systems were deliberately shut off, to simulate actual conditions in case of a power failure.
Nothing; the reactor just melted down.

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What caused the meltdown itself?
Deviation from emergency protocols
Flaws in the reactor design
A power surge
All of these
Typically, in major accidents (not just nuclear, but events like plane crashes as well), there isn't a single cause, and this is true of the Chernobyl disaster. The event has been extensively studied, and all three of the above factors were found to be at play.

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What is/was the name of the nearest town to the Chernobyl plant?
Arkhangelsk
Odessa
Pripyat
Atlas Obscura, the online magazine of the odd and amazing, wrote an article on the ghost town of Pripyat, which some urban adventurers are now exploring. Among other things, the reporter notes is that "all clocks are frozen at 11:55, the moment the electricity was cut." Spooky!
St. Petersburg

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What is the common name for the radioactive material that descends from the sky after such an accident?
Fallout
You've undoubtedly heard this word, though probably in a metaphoric sense. It's been widely adopted as a term for "unwanted or negative results," e.g., "the fallout from the candidate's unwise public statement."
Acid snow
Pyrocumulate
Nuclear curtain

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What kind of personnel responded first to the reactor meltdown?
Air Force officers
Firefighters
Firefighters bore the brunt of the meltdown's immediate health effects. Many of the 28 persons who died of radiation sickness after the accident were firefighters (and others were employees of the plant).
Police officers
Nuclear-cleanup experts

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About how many people have died as a result of the nuclear accident?
68
4,000
90,000
No one really knows.
When we say this, we don't mean that the death toll was "countless" and that a cover-up is the reason the true number is unknown. It's actually the opposite. A United Nations/Ukraine joint study has concluded that, long-term, the death toll is probably between 4,000 and 6,000. It's smaller groups, like survivors' organizations, which suggest the number is near 90,000.

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How many people had to be evacuated from Pripyat?
12,000
Nearly 50,000
More than 49,000 people were living in the planned town of Pripyat. The evacuation took about three hours, an astoundingly quick process for nearly 50,000 people, but there had been drills for just this events. Plus, you've got to imagine that the town's residents were motivated to leave.
About 100,000
No one had to be evacuated.

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True or false: The Chernobyl incident is considered to be the worst nuclear power disaster in history.
True
To this day, the nuclear accident in Ukraine is the worst in history. This includes the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, which was the result of a tsunami following an earthquake.
False

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What is the name for the uninhabited area surrounding the plant?
The Destabilized Zone
The Exclusion Zone
Many people simply call it "the Zone." It was established very shortly after the meltdown by a Soviet regulatory commission and remains in place to this day, with some adjustments to the individual zones within.
No Man's Land
The 48th Parallel

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Following the meltdown, the concept of "mSv/h" became important. It stands for "micro-sieverts per ____."
Hectare
Hour
Our first guess would have been "hectare," imagining radiation pervading land and water at certain levels, depending on the distance from the plant. But the key unit here is that of time: How many mSv are you getting every hour (which can be extrapolated to every day)?
House
Human

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How many micro-sieverts of radiation is the average American exposed to per day?
0
Less than 1
5
10
Bear in mind, this is the very baseline. Want to fly coast-to-coast? Your exposure will rise to 400 mSV for the entire one-way trip. An exposure of about 100,000 mSV is required to raise your cancer risk. This puts the levels in the inhabitable "Blue Zone" (about 30-50 mSV per hour) in perspective.

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What was the number of the reactor that melted down?
1
3
4
The nuclear power plant had four reactors. Number 1 had a partial meltdown in 1982, but the news was not made public at the time, and it was repaired and put back into service.
The reactors had names, not numbers.

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What is the Chernobyl plant's "sarcophagus"?
The shield/building built around Reactor #4
A "sarcophagus" is, in general, a box built to hold a dead body. So it's apt that this has become the nickname for the massive steel-and-concrete structure built around the "dead" reactor. The sarcophagus itself is now covered with another structure, called the New Safe Confinement structure.
A memorial to dead emergency workers
An underground lake of radioactive water
The wall around the entire plant

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What was the name for the cleanup workers following the meltdown?
Liquidators
In a time period spanning about 18 months after the meltdown, nearly a quarter million workers filled this role. Actually, liquidators had many roles, including hunting down pets that had gone feral after the evacuation. (Sounds cold, but somebody had to do it, we suppose).
Remediators
Restorers
Suicide Kings

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The cleanup effort, overall, has cost 18 billion ____ (the Russian currency).
Dinars
Forints
Rubles
18 billion rubles is about $27 million dollars, by 2019's exchange rate. Adjusted for inflation, it's fairer to day that the USSR spent somewhere around $65 million U.S. dollars on the cleanup effort.
Zlotys

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How large is the Exclusion Zone?
A one-mile radius
A 30-kilometer radius
Thirty kilometers is approximately 19 miles; as the term "radius" implies, the Zone is shaped as a circle. Within the circles are "sub-zones" of Black, Red and Blue.
A 50-mile radius
A 1000-square mile rectangle

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What is the definition of the "Black Zone"?
An area that humans can never enter again
An area where people will never return to live
The Black Zone isn't defined by units of distance, but rather by radiation — it's the area where radiation levels are at more than 200 micro-sieverts per hour. As noted elsewhere, this is comparable to the exposure you'd get in a coast-to-coast U.S. flight — but still not the kind of exposure that humans should be getting, long-term.
An area where only adults can live
An area that can only be entered at night

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What is the definition of the "Red Zone"?
An area where evacuees can come back after radiation levels drop
What differentiates the Red Zone from the Black Zone is that the Red Zone is projected to be inhabited again some day. About the concept of "vacation homes" near a dead nuclear power plant ... We really don't imagine there'll be any takers on that one.
An area where only the healthiest people have been allowed to re-settle
An area where people can have vacation homes
An area strictly policed by the military

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What is the "Blue Zone"?
An area with 30 to 50 micro-sieverts of radiation levels
An area that children and pregnant women had to leave
The part of the Zone furthest out from the plant
All of these
Not everyone had to leave this part of the Exclusion Zone, but the young and pregnant women were/are at higher risk from radiation. They were moved out of this exterior ring of the Exclusion Zone in 1986, after the major round of evacuations.

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True or false: The reactor meltdown did not cause the Chernobyl plant to be completely shut down.
True
This might surprise you, but the other reactors continued to operate for some time. Number 2 was shut down in 1992, 1 in 1996, and number 3 stayed running until the year 2000.
False

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In addition to being a nuclear power plant, Chernobyl is ... ?
A cathedral
A lake
A mountain
A town
Chernobyl is neither the nearest town to the plant nor a big city, but it was the administrative center of the district where the nuclear power plant was situated and was home to about 14,000 people. Chernobyl was evacuated after the meltdown, though a few residents have returned to occupy their homes.

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What is the nearest large city to the former Chernobyl plant?
Moscow
Kiev
Kiev, also spelled "Kyiv," is the capital of Ukraine. This tidbit is a "know before you go" piece of information, as Kiev is where the tour companies offering Pripyat/Chernobyl visits are generally based, and where you'll most likely stay if you want to be comfortable.
Odessa
Tailinn

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What mechanism is used to detect a person's radiation exposure?
An autoclave
A Geiger counter
You've very likely seen this in movies. It's a handheld device run up and down a person's body, not actually touching skin or clothing. Geiger counters obviously became useful after the accident.
A triage tag
An X-ray machine

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Who was the American president at the time?
Jimmy Carter
Gerald Ford
George H.W. Bush
Ronald Reagan
President Reagan, the former governor of California, was a proponent of nuclear energy himself. He spared government funding for America's nuclear program during a drastic round of budget-cutting in the early 1980s.

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Who was the Soviet premier at the time of the incident?
Konstantin Chernenko
Mikhail Gorbachev
Andrei Gromyko
Andrei Gromyko held the highest office from mid-1985 to 1988. He was a conservative with "hardline" policies toward the West, but was increasingly occupied with internal issues, not least of which was the reactor meltdown at Chernobyl.
Boris Yeltsin

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Years before the Chernobyl incident, the United States had its own power-plant accident. Where was it?
Diablo Canyon
Oyster Creek
Plum Island
Three Mile Island
Three Mile Island is in Pennsylvania. In 1979, there was a leak of radioactive coolant caused by a valve stuck in its open position. Despite evacuations and an increase in anti-nuclear sentiment, there has been no statistically significant increase in cancers due to the leak.

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What kind of cancer is the most likely to result from a nuclear accident, like Chernobyl's?
Bone marrow
Brain
Lung
Thyroid
About 15 children are estimated to have gotten thyroid cancer as a result of the accident and died of their cancers. Today, people living near nuclear power plants are often eligible for government-provided iodine tablets to keep on hand; taken shortly after exposure, these can prevent thyroid cancer.

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True or false: Tours of Chernobyl and Pripyat are only open to Russians and citizens of former USSR republics.
True
False
Anyone can take an Exclusion Zone tour. Guides have Geiger counters, and tourists are screened post-tour to ensure that they are not carrying radioactive material out of the Zone as souvenirs.

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What material, commonly found in pencils, mostly fueled the reactor fire?
Aluminum
Graphite
Nuclear-grade graphite is a bit different from what you find in a pencil, of course. It's used in nuclear reactors, thanks in part to its ability to tolerate high temperatures — but when it burns, it burns very hot.
Steel
Wood

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The Chernobyl plant had a rarely used official name. Which historical figure was it named for?
Anna Akhmatova
Vladimir Lenin
Lenin, of course, was one of the master architects of Soviet Communism. The city of St. Petersburg was renamed for him during the Soviet era. That was an honorary naming that went a little better than the Chernobyl plant (though the city has now reverted to its original name of St. Petersburg).
Joseph Stalin
Leon Trotsky

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Who are the "samosely"?
Evacuation workers
The sarcophagus builders
Refugees who settled in Russia proper
Re-settlers in the Exclusion Zone
It might surprise you to know that some people wanted to return to the evacuation area. You'd expect people to want to get out (and then hit up the government to be repaid for their relocation costs). But people are strange sometimes; see also Centralia, Pennsylvania, and the residents who stubbornly stay in that ghost town despite living above a raging mine fire.

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The "samosely" are mostly what kind of people?
Criminals
Extreme adventurers
The elderly
When you think about it, this isn't surprising — these people had spent their entire lives in one area, and were ill-equipped for life elsewhere. The Soviet government first tried to prevent samosely from returning to their homes, but eventually practiced a kind of "benign neglect" about the samosely phenomenon.
The young

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