March 2018

Chernobyl's reactor number four and its steel and concrete sarcophagus. Photos © Chuck Wightman.

Chernobyl: Green, Tranquil and Toxic

April 26, 1986. Chernobyl’s Reactor Four erupts in the morning sky – shuddering through the homes of its workers in the town of Pripyat 3 kilometres away. Official silence is maintained by the Soviet government until Swedish radiation detectors sound the alarm days later.

Today it’s possible to tour Chernobyl, Pripyat and the reactor complex. The Exclusion Zone enclosing Chernobyl in a thirty kilometre restricted radius is two hours drive from Kiev, breezing through small villages and thick forest on a sparsely traveled two lane highway. A military checkpoint marks the entry to the zone: Guards emerge from a small office to ensure our papers are in order. I notice little difference from one side of the gate to the other. Both sides are lush and green. “Further away from the main road,” my guide Yuriy says, “many have returned to their former villages.” Unofficial numbers estimate as many as a thousand voluntary returnees. “Most are older peasants, left with few alternatives, owing to disruptions in compensation payments.”

Shortly we are within the ten kilometre exclusion zone, the original evacuation line set a few days after the disaster. The thirty kilometre zone was set nearly a month later. Residents of Chernobyl and Pripyat were originally told they would return home in a matter of weeks. All tolled 300,000 people were resettled.

The streets of Chernobyl are ribboned with huge stainless steel pipes bringing heat (from a gas plant outside the city) and water supplies to the offices of the remaining workers. 3,000 people currently work decommissioning the complex, and constructing a permanent nuclear waste handling facility. Workers live in the town of Slavutich, 30 kilometres away, commuting via a special train.

Many Westerners are unaware the remaining three reactors at Chernobyl continued operation long after the accident at number four. Construction proceeded on the fifth and sixth reactors – in a planned twelve reactor complex – until 1989, just prior to the accident’s third anniversary. The remaining reactors were gradually decommissioned until the last shutdown in December of 2000, when western governments pledged substantial aid to alleviate the power shortfall, most of which has yet to materialize.

The monument in the centre of Chernobyl, to the 600,000 liquidators who struggled to bring the disaster under control.

Larger than life portraits of senior Soviets watch time erode in a back room of Pripyat's theatre.

Near Chernobyl’s centre a monument honours the 600,000 fire fighters and “liquidators” who fought the blaze and cleaned up the aftermath. Only fifty-six deaths are officially acknowledged as a result of the catastrophe, but estimates of cancers and other illnesses start around 2500 and rise from there. We share a solemn moment admiring the bravery, dedication and honour, of those who fought to contain the disaster.

Pausing at the tour office, Yuriy displays pictures of the site in different stages of remediation. A large map delineates the zones of contamination, now highly contested in establishing who is entitled to compensation, and what land is fit to be inhabited. The zones sprawl far beyond the exclusion borders. I can’t help but wonder what the people living in these towns and villages have been told.

The area surrounding the power plant looks similar to any industrial zone, with little obvious indication of the disaster. A massive field of hydro towers sits dormant. Construction cranes slowly corrode beside the hulking concrete cooling tower built to serve reactors five and six. There is little evidence of the thousands of workers here, and the site feels strangely empty.

International agencies have agreed that current levels of radiation are safe for the brief exposure my day trip involves, but I wonder about the workers. Yuriy notes they are paid five times the normal Ukrainian wage (roughly $1500 per month), working only two weeks each month, but the money seems paltry given the risk.

Once home to some 48,000 people, Pripyat is eerie in its solitude. Our tour of the town begins in a junior school’s entrance, boasting greetings and posters similar to those of any school, intact as though time has stopped mere moments ago. Gas masks are strewn near the main foyer, a facet of Cold War preparedness. I have never seen a real gas mask before. They offer a curious contrast between East and West: our children offered only ludicrous ‘duck and cover’ drills. I imagine the panic of these children, discovering the enemy is not ten thousand kilometres away, but a familiar landmark, mere minutes down the road.

Books in the school library are slowly moldering. The chemistry lab looks as though a cyclone has passed through. The gymnasium’s hardwood is buckled, creaking ominously as we cross.

The best view of Pripyat is from a hotel at the centre of town. Marble slab still lines the foyer, but everything else has been stripped away. Ascending the stairs to the upper floors, our feet crunch on shards of glass that were once the hotel’s windows. Small trees have begun to sprout from the floor, as seeds have blown through the empty frames.

The view is haunting: rows of Soviet bloc apartments, now nearly smothered by trees; the reactors resting solemnly in the distance. The sky is cast an appropriate grey, but the trees are a lush green, birds are singing. The images conjure the notion of paradise lost, now slowly being redeemed.

Returning to earth, Yuriy points our Geiger counter to some moss sprouting from the pavement. Surprisingly, it reads even more radioactive than the gates to the crippled reactor. Biomass is known to absorb substantial quantities of radiation.

Significant debate continues as to how much radioactive material actually escaped from the reactor during the explosion and subsequent nine days of fire in the core. Estimates range from twenty percent, to almost all of the reactor’s fuel, leaving possibly less than five percent in the core.

Adjacent to the hotel is an amusement park, slated to open the May Day holiday weekend in 1986. Its Ferris wheel stands intact, awaiting children who will never come. A nearby theatre contains a treasure trove of larger than life paintings of Soviet leaders, and there is the sense of being in a giant open air museum of the former Soviet era. Even streetlights feature small hammer and sickle designs.

An elderly returnee couple pose inside of their humble cottage.

An astounding field of radioactive vehicles, from tanks and trucks to helicopters, offers the clearest sense of the disaster's human magnitude.

Venturing to an outer village, we are invited to a modest meal by an elderly returnee couple, and their Belarusian friend. Only every third or fourth house is inhabited; the rest succumb to a now familiar decay. Conversing through Yuriy’s translation, their remarks surprise me, all three longing for the regimented days of Stalin.

While acknowledging the purges and famines, they resent the present corruption. As easy as it would be to dismiss their laments as those of simple country folk, they sagely observe that Europe is integrating, while the Soviet Union has disintegrated. The borders, they all agree, are false. ‘All one people,’ pronounces the Belarusian, frustrated with the hassles he experiences crossing from his own country.

My hosts don’t understand why their government cannot provide them with a market for the few cows they raise, though they quickly assure us the food they have proffered is not local, as much as I am certain it is. Their moonshine would peel paint, though it certainly shakes the damp out.

Some distance outside of Chernobyl, the vehicle graveyard is my final stop. My itinerary describes “thousands of trucks, helicopters, and armored personnel vehicles so soaked in radiation it is dangerous to approach.” A crude viewing stand has been erected on the far side of the road, to facilitate a full appreciation. The helicopters seem bigger than houses, larger than anything I have ever seen. These are the choppers that continually dumped loads of clay and lead into the fire in an attempt to smother it.

‘Only fifty-six dead,’ I remember. The memorial in Chernobyl makes no list of names of those to be honoured. It is only here, at the vehicle graveyard, that one can begin to imagine the human toll.

Chuck Wightman

February 5, 2010 by admin · Leave a Comment 

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