Today marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Pripyat, a small town in what was then the U.S.S.R. (For information about the National Chernobyl Museum in Kiev, click HERE.) Less than a month ago we commemorated the less worrying Three Mile Island accident. The anniversary of Chernobyl has an unfortunately heightened significance this year because another nuclear catastrophe occurred just weeks ago, on March 11, at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan.
That accident in Japan is ongoing. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s update today begins, “Overall, the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant remains very serious, but there are signs of recovery in some functions, such as electrical power and instrumentation.” The evacuation zones have been expanded, and white smoke is still billowing from Units 2, 3, and 4. Yesterday, TEPCO, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, reported that there are 70,000 tonnes of highly radioactive water in the basements under Units 1,2, and 3. The levels of radioactivity being detected in the surrounding areas and in the food are falling, and some restrictions on the distribution of milk and vegetables have been lifted. As bad as the accident in Japan is, and even though it is rated a 7 (the worst on the INES scale), it doesn’t seem nearly as bad as Chernobyl was—and continues to be.
Several days ago, NPR ran a story on All Things Considered that featured journalist Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history project Voices of Chernobyl, which she collected in the 1990s and which was translated into English in 2005. The book’s historical notes remind readers of the scope of the catastrophe and its lack of resolution. One reads, “As a result of Chernobyl, the country lost 485 villages and settlements. Of these, 70 have been buried underground.” Another reads, “The fourth reactor, now known as the Cover, still holds about twenty tons of nuclear fuel in its lead-and metal core. No one knows what is happening with it.”
The rest of Voices of Chernobyl is much more difficult to read. The Prologue is the voice of Lyudmilla Ignatenko, the wife of a firefighter. Her husband rushed to the initial scene in his shirt sleeves. He died in a hospital in Moscow within a couple of weeks, as did the other first responders. Though the doctors forbade it, she hugged and kissed her radioactive husband. When she gave birth to her daughter a few months later, the baby died within a few hours of liver cirrhosis and heart disease.
In Lyudmilla Ignatenko’s own words: “While I was there with him, they wouldn’t, but when I left—they photographed him. Without any clothes. Naked. One thin sheet on top of him. I changed that little sheet every day, and every day by evening it was covered in blood. I pick him up, and there are pieces of his skin on my hand, they stick to my hands. […] Any little wrinkle [in the sheet], that was already a wound on him. I clipped my nails down till they bled so I wouldn’t accidentally cut him. None of the nurses could approach him; if they needed anything they’d call me.”
In the words of Nadezhda Vygovskaya, an evacuee: “At eight in the morning there were already military people on the streets in gas masks. When we saw them on the streets, with all the military vehicles, we didn’t grow frightened—on the contrary, it calmed us. The army is here, everything will be fine. We didn’t understand then that the ‘peaceful atom’ could kill, that man is helpless before the laws of physics.”
In the words of Ivan Zhykhov, a chemical engineer: “What’s radiation? No one’s heard of it. Whereas I’ve just gone through a civil defense course where they gave us information from thirty years before, like that 50 roentgen is a fatal dose. They taught us to sit down so the wave of the explosion would miss us. They taught us about irradiation, thermal heat. But about the radioactive contamination of an area—the most dangerous factor of all—not a word.”
Zhykhov goes on: “In the middle of our time there they finally gave us dosimeters. These little boxes, with a crystal inside. Some of the guys started figuring, they should take them over to the burial site in the morning and let them catch radiation all day, that way they’ll get released sooner. Or maybe they’ll pay them more. So you had guys attaching them to their boots, there was a loop there, so that they’d be closer to the ground. It was theater of the absurd. […T]hese were little toys they’d picked out of their warehouse from fifty years ago. It was just psychotherapy for us. At the end of our time there we all got the same thing written into our medical cards: they multiplied the average radiation by the number of days we were there. And they got that initial average from our tents, not from where we worked.”
By the end of 1986, Chernobyl had been sealed with a concrete sarcophagus, and most of us thought that concluded the event. Of course, that’s not the case. The hope is that the Chernobyl nuclear power plant will be fully decommissioned by 2013. In the meantime, as Svetlana Alexievich points out in her afterword, “Thousands of Russian refugees from Armenia, Georgia, Abkhazia, Tajikistan, Chechnya—from anywhere where there’s shooting, they come to this abandoned land and the abandoned houses that weren’t destroyed and buried by special squadrons. […] All the talk about how the land, the water, the air can kill them sounds like a fairy tale to them. They have their own tale, which is a very old one, and they believe in it—it’s about how people kill each other with guns.”
In Japan, TEPCO has recently drawn up plans to do a cold shutdown within nine months and decommission Fukushima Daiichi within ten years, plans that strike some as overly optimistic.
Look for our post tomorrow for more in our series about radioactivity and things nuclear.