For Chernobyl, the past is not dead — three decades on, it isn’t even past

REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
Abandoned Pripyat

Americans tend to think first of Fukushima and Three Mile Island — the one closer in time, the other nearer in space — but it is Chernobyl’s horrors that top the short list (so far) of big nuclear-plant catastrophes.

And because so much secrecy shrouded Chernobyl for so long, it may also be the least well understood of the group.

For a decade or so, official explanations for the explosions of April 26, 1986, offered operator error as the cause. Now we know that design flaws made the V.I. Lenin Power Station’s cooling systems vulnerable to electrical outage, of the kind that might accompany an emergency shutdown, and that an ill-conceived testing protocol aimed at curing those problems actually set the catastrophe in motion.

As for the aftermath — well, when was the last time, before last week, that you read anything at all about the fate of the plant, or the 50,000 people permanently displaced from the nearby “company town” of Pripyat? Or the potentially hundreds of thousands of others exposed to its radiation plumes? Or the surrounding landscape littered with  chunks of nuclear fuel and shattered graphite ejected from Reactor No. 4? 

Recent days have brought some exceptional journalism about the enduring disaster, far better than the typical anniversary look-backs.  It demonstrates that, in Faulkner’s phrase, Chernobyl’s past isn’t dead — it isn’t even past.

Here are excerpts from and pointers to some of the pieces I found especially compelling.

First, the numbers

Because it’s so often touted by the pro-nuclear crowd that only 30 people died in history’s worst power-plant accident, it’s worth taking a look at other numbers assembled  by the Associated Press:

  • 9,000 to uncountable: The eventual death toll from Chernobyl is subject to speculation and dispute. … The World Health Organization’s cancer research arm suggests 9,000 people will die due to Chernobyl-related cancer and leukemia if the deaths follow a similar pattern to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. The Greenpeace environmental group says the eventual Chernobyl death toll could be 90,000.
  • About 600,000 people: Chernobyl’s so-called “liquidators,” those sent in to fight the fire and clean up the worst of the nuclear plant’s contamination. They were all exposed to elevated radiation levels.
  • 4,762 square kilometers (1,838 square miles): The amount of land around the plant that had to be abandoned because of heavy radiation and fallout, about half of it in Ukraine, where the plant is located, and the rest in Belarus. The area is approximately equal to the size of Rhode Island.

A new containment structure

Although helicopter crews buried the smoldering plant site with thousands tons of sand, clay, lead, steel and concrete, that was but a first-response effort at containment. Which was supposed to last for about 30 years.

Now under construction is the world’s largest movable building — imagine a quonset 350 feet high and 500 feet long, mounted on railroad carriages — which will be rolled over the old emergency “sarcophagus” next year.

The structure has a design lifespan of 100 years. Its job is to contain radiation that is expected to be problematic, depending on who’s estimating, for 30 to 300 times that long. And there are problems, notes The Wall Street Journal’s Nathan Hodge.

The project, known as the New Safe Confinement, is a feat of engineering. It will take two or three days to slide the 36,000-ton structure into place. The arch, which looks something like a dirigible hangar, is large enough to cover a dozen football fields.

The €2.15 billion ($2.45 billion) shelter implementation plan has been funded by international donors and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, an international financial institution. But the Chernobyl cleanup faces a shortfall: €100 million is needed to finish a storage facility for highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel from the other three Chernobyl reactors, all now offline.

Currently, spent fuel rods are stored in an aging facility. Completion of the project, [the EBRD’s Vince] Novak added, “has always been somehow in the shadow of the New Safe Confinement because it is not as attractive, not as sexy. But in terms of importance for nuclear safety, it’s equally important.”

Even if donors plug the gap, Chernobyl will continue to pose a financial challenge for Ukraine. More than 40 countries and the EBRD have contributed to the Chernobyl containment work, and international donors say it will be years before the Kiev government can take on the larger share of the burden. Ukraine is battling Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbas region, sending the economy reeling.

The human factor

By far the best reporting I saw on the cratered lives of Pripyat’s people came from Matthew Schofield, McClatchy Newspapers’ Berlin-based European correspondent.

He centers his story on Alexandr Sirota, 10 years old in the spring of 1986, a grade-schooler whose teacher at Pripyat’s School No. 1 was suddenly called to an emergency meeting, leaving her pupils to press their noses to the windows as the first military helicopters settled on the lawn of the hospital across the street.

When word reached them that something had caught fire at the power station, Sirota and his pals ran to a footbridge that arched over railroad tracks and offered a great view of the plant, which now was shrouded in something like smoke and fog.  This vantage point came to be known as “The Bridge of Death.”

Earlier, in the dark, the bridge had been crowded with adults watching the multicolored flames of burning graphite from the reactor. They’d “oohed” and “aahed.” It was beautiful. They’d also been soaking up a radiation dose determined to be about 500 roentgens, or two-thirds of a fatal dose. The legend is that none of those who stood on the bridge that morning survived.

Sirota says that isn’t true. He survived. He saw others who survived. Still, as he left the bridge, he was leaving behind many who would soon die agonizing deaths. …

As the sky outside his window glowed red, [his mother] put him to bed in his coat and boots. He woke to loudspeakers: “Attention, attention, dear comrades. … In the interest of the safety of the people, which is a priority to us, there is reason to evacuate.”

The announcement warned that they were to leave at 2 p.m. Buses would be provided, and they’d be taken to their evacuation locations. They were told not to worry. Police would watch their homes and make sure there was no looting. “Only take what is necessary and vital documents,” the loudspeakers repeated, over and over. …

He spent most of the rest of 1986 in the hospital. He would not be cured, however. Doctors would tell him it was psychosomatic, and the official Ukrainian medical diagnosis for many who complained of radiation-related illnesses after Chernobyl was “radiophobia.”

… Sirota would continue to return to the hospital for stays of a month or more every year, at least once, until recently. “Who knows better what I need now than me?” he asks. “They give me the medicines and the needles. I take care of myself now.”

In the exclusion zone

A safety buffer about 35 miles across has been drawn with the Lenin plant at its center, but people come anyway.

Some are hobbyists like Artur N. Kalmykov, a young Ukrainian who took the New York Times’s Andrew E. Kramer on an unauthorized tour of such curiosities as highly radioactive moss, which appears especially competent at carrying fission products up out of the soil.

They also viewed some sites where loggers had been engaging in thoroughly illegal clear-cuts — using salvage logging as their cover story, just as their American counterparts sometimes do — to produce radioactive lumber for the marketplace while the charred trunks remain untouched.

The Zone of Alienation, as it is also known, is a rough circle with an 18-mile radius, fenced off with barbed wire. Access is strictly controlled, so that delegations and guided tours typically travel a few fixed routes.

Outside those areas frequented by tourists, Stop Corruption said, under the guise of salvage logging of trees killed in wildfires, healthy pines are being felled in great numbers for sale in Ukraine and Romania, from where the timber may be resold throughout Europe. …

In an interview in his offices in Kiev, Vitalii V. Petruk, the head of the Exclusion Zone Management Agency, denied that any illegal logging had taken place since he assumed the job in September. But since the revolution, he is the fifth director of the zone, which like the rest of Ukraine has been in a state of flux. …

Mr. Petruk is an unabashed advocate of increased commercial activity in the zone, including logging.

“How do we turn our shame into our advantage?” he said. His answer is “Zone of Change,” a proposal by his agency for increased logging to feed a chip-fueled steam power plant at the site that he noted would reduce dependence on Russian natural gas.

Wildlife and watchers

Although several accounts mention in passing that wildlife in the Chernobyl region appears largely unaffected by the radiation loads — some pieces mention “rebounding” numbers of bears, boars, wolves, elk and lynx, in part because hunting and trapping are down — there is considerable debate on this point.

A principal dissenter is Dr. Timothy Mousseau, who has been studying the area for 16 years; he discussed his findings with Linda Pentz Gunter for a piece in The Ecologist entitled “Blind Mice and Bird Brains: the silent spring of Chernobyl and Fukushima.”

“I suppose everyone loves a Cinderella story,” speculated Mousseau, an evolutionary biologist based at the University of South Carolina. “They want that happy ending.”

Ninety articles later, Mousseau and his research partners from around the world are able to demonstrate definitively and scientifically that non-human biota in both the Chernobyl zone and around Fukushima, are very far indeed from flourishing.

“Cancers are the first thing we think about,” Mousseau said. “We looked at birds and mice. In areas of higher radiation, the frequency of tumors is higher.” The research team has found mainly liver and bladder tumors in the voles and tumors on the head, body and wings of the birds studied, he said.

Mousseau and his fellow researchers found cataracts in birds and rodents. Male birds had a high rate of sterility  [40 percent in places]. And the brains of birds were smaller. All of these are known outcomes from radiation exposure. “Cataracts in birds is a problem,” Mousseau said. “A death sentence.”

There were also just fewer animals in general. “There were many fewer mammals, birds and insects in areas of higher radiation,” Mousseau said. 

Still, Chernobyl and environs remain a “nuclear option holiday” for a certain kind of tourist, according to travel writer Kim Willsher of The Guardian in the UK:

When I first visited, two years after the world’s worst nuclear accident, it took weeks of negotiating with the Soviet authorities to gain access to the plant. Today, busloads of visitors arrive on an almost daily basis. For less than £100, the adventurous can take a one-day tour of the so-called “dead zone”…

Aside from the frisson of standing yards from the shattered reactor, tours include a visit to an abandoned kindergarten, and the once top-secret Woodpecker “over-the-horizon” Soviet listening station. You can even traipse through the rural shack of a “self-settler,” one of the handful of elderly people living illegally in the dead zone, most of them without electricity or running water.

The most bizarre, however, has to be a visit to Pripyat, the ghost city that was home to Chernobyl workers until it was hastily evacuated 36 hours after the accident. In 1988, the city’s public address system was still broadcasting music that drifted eerily through the abandoned streets. Today, those same streets have been reclaimed by the trees that once lined them and there is total silence. Not even the birds sing.

* * *

Two more links for coverage beyond words: A selection of really creepy, 360-degree panoramas of Pripyat assembled by National Geographic can be viewed here; drone footage of the new containment dome under construction on, published by the Washington Post, is here.

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