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Big Picture Science

The cat­a­stroph­ic explo­sion at the Cher­nobyl nuclear pow­er plant in April 1986 trig­gered the full-scale destruc­tion of the reac­tor. But now researchers with access to once-clas­si­fied Sovi­et doc­u­ments are chal­leng­ing the offi­cial ver­sion of what hap­pened both before and after the explo­sion. They say that the acci­dent was worse than we thought and that a num­ber of fac­tors – from para­noia to poor engi­neer­ing – made the mishap inevitable. Oth­ers claim a much larg­er death toll from extend­ed expo­sure to low lev­els of radi­a­tion. But with nuclear ener­gy being a pos­si­bly essen­tial com­po­nent of deal­ing with ris­ing car­bon diox­ide emis­sions, how do we eval­u­ate risk under the long shad­ow of Chernobyl?