Chernobyl

[Gabby Ongies]

On 26 April, 1986, a nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, present-day Ukraine (formerly the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic) was the scene of a catastrophic nuclear accident.

May 1986: A helicopter decontaminates the disaster site. Aircraft flew over the site, spraying sticky decontamination fluid that fixed the radiation to the ground. Workers known as 'liquidators' then rolled the dried remains like a carpet and buried the nuclear waste (Photograph: Igor Kostin/Corbis)

The accident was classified as a level 7 on the International Nuclear Even Scale, the highest level for a nuclear disaster, and it is widely considered the worst nuclear accident in history. Pripyat, a town of around 50,000 that was home to the plant workers and their families, was completely evacuated on 27 April 1986, and a 19 mile (30 kilometer) exclusion zone – the Zone of Alienation – was created that is only accessible to people working at the power plant due to the amount of radiation in the area (“Chernobyl”).  However, due to the high energy demand in Ukraine, the power plant remained operational until 15 December 2000, and even today workers rebuilding the sarcophagus around Reactor Four come into the exclusion zone on a daily basis, and a few Ukrainian scientists work inside the sarcophagus itself (“Chernobyl After the Disaster”). And as time has passed, brief visits and guided day-tours are now available, even though the radiation levels are

May 1986: In the 30km no-go zone around the reactor, liquidators measure radiation levels in neighbouring fields using antiquated radiation counters, wearing anti-chemical warfare suits that offer no protection against radioactivity, and "pig muzzle" masks. The young plants will not be harvested, instead used by scientists to study genetic mutations in plants (Photograph: Igor Kostin/Corbis)

still high enough that workers rebuilding the sarcophagus have a strict work schedule of five hours a day for a month, and then a mandatory 15 days of rest to prevent them from being exposed to too much radiation. Even the fact that it will be an estimated 20,000 years before the area will be safe for human habitation does not stop people from wanting to travel through the area to not only learn about what occurred, but see the aftermath firsthand.

The accident occurred while workers were conducting a systems test to correct a one-minute power gap that would prevent the reactor from cooling itself, a dangerous situation that could lead to a reactor meltdown. However, the test was delayed from the start due to another power station going offline, and even though the nightshift workers were not familiar with the procedures, the test continued. Numerous events occurred in quick succession – from the output of Reactor Four being rapidly reduced instead of a gradual decrease, the thermal level being about five percent of the level needed for the test, the reactor core being poisoned by the xenon-135, and the unexpected, rapid power increase – all of which contributed to the final disaster. The trigger, however, was an emergency shutdown of the reactor that happened for unknown reasons, and the emergency procedures led to a massive power spike, causing the core to overheat and explode. A second explosion

June 1986: The remains of reactor number 4, from the roof of the third reactor (Photograph: Igor Kostin/Corbis)

occurred seconds later due to a nuclear excursion, the accidental increase of nuclear chain reactions, and while the cause of this is also unknown, evidence suggests that the excursion only occurred in a small portion of the core. Reactor Number Four then caught fire, sending a plume of radioactive vapor fallout into the atmosphere. This plume covered an extensive area, drifting over a significant part of the western Soviet Union, Europe, and even made its way to Canada, creating not only internal problems, but international worries as well.  Few people know that there was a second explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power stationon 11 October, 1991 in the turbine hall of reactor 2. Liquidator friends contacted Kostin, who immediately

A second explosion occurred in October 1991 (Photograph: Igor Kostin/Corbin)

visited the site accompanied by his wife, Alla, who, too worried to stay at home, spent the whole night at a control post as she was not authorised to enter. The roof was blown off but, fortunately, there was no radioactive leak.

The fallout triggered alarms in Sweden, at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant, where workers found radioactive particles on their clothes, yet no radiation leak at the plant, pointing to problems in the western part of the Soviet Union. Yet, the Soviet Union kept the disaster a secret from its general public; even the people of Pripyat did not know what had happened. Instead of an immediate evacuation, the town continued to operate as usual, even with dozens falling ill soon after the explosion at the power plant; in fact, the evacuation did not begin until 14:00 on 27 April, about 36 hours after the initial explosion. To help expedite the evacuation, residents were told that they would only be gone for three days, causing many to leave their personal belongings behind, belongings that remain in Pripyat to this day. About 350,400 people were evacuated from the most severely contaminated regions in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine between 1986 and 2000, although some resettlement of these areas has been possible, as long as proper precautions are taken to minimize radiation exposure. This is due to the fact that the contamination was not spread evenly across the area either; while Ukraine, Belarus, and the Soviet Union received the majority of the fallout, Belarus was hardest hit, receiving about 60% of the fallout. Even so, areas in Belarus are looking at the possibility of resettling these currently prohibited areas (“Chernobyl”). Attitudes toward the exclusion zone, and to the disaster in general, have changed over the last quarter-century.

26 April 2011 was the 25thanniversary of the disaster at the Chernobyl plant. Despite the passage of time, those who lived near Chernobyl still suffer from the explosion, from the radiation, from the cost of cleanup; they cannot escape the disaster, because it has embedded itself genetically and psychologically (Stone, “Inside Chernobyl”). While only 57 deaths were caused directly by the accident, the effects of radiation on people has led to an increase in thyroid cancer, and although the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports increase in the rate of birth defects or abnormalities, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) says that there is the possibility of long-term genetic defects, and the long term effects of the radiation fallout are still unclear (“Chernobyl”). Whatever these effects, the psychological effects

1988: a deformed child in a special school for abandoned children in Belarus. The photo appeared n the local Belarus press and the boy nicknamed 'the Chernobyl Child'. It was became a world-famous image. The child was eventually adopted by a British family (Photograph: Igor Kostin/Corbis)

give credit to this fear of genetic defects; for example, many women believe that they will have unhealthy babies because of Chernobyl. Others, feeling that they could die at any moment, live a “devil-may-care lifestyle” because they believe they have nothing to lose. Chernobyl continues to take lives, mainly those of the scientists from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, who work in the sarcophagus and monitor the reactor to ensure that it does not destabilize. Several dozen names are listed near the entrance, those who have died trying to keep the rest of the region safe (Stone, “Inside Chernobyl”). Yet, after 25 years, many outsiders do not think about the effects of radiation exposure, of wondering if you will die from cancer or other diseases, or if your children will have genetic defects; instead, they are curious about everything – about what exactly occurred in Reactor Four, about what Pripyat looks like now, and about how things have changed since 26 April, 1986.

The Ukrainian government began allowing tourists to visit the sealed zone around the reactor, as well as Pripyat and other areas in the Zone of Alienation in 2011 (“Chernobyl”). Government-sanctioned tours leave from Kiev multiple times a week, taking tourists into the zone on daylong trips filled with several sites, as well as several spot radiation checks. People want a peek into this world, where time stopped as the people of Pripyat fled, never to return to their homes. Some tourists even try to take back small items as souvenirs of their trip, much like taking shells from a beach, but this would destroy the impact that the Zone has on tourists – if there are no items left behind, it is hard to imagine the city as once being full of people, people who had to drop everything to save themselves (McGinnis). Such disregard for the memories of a horrible disaster go to show how removed the world has become from what actually occurred at Chernobyl.

Popular culture also invokes the disaster; Pripyat is the setting for videogames S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat, and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfar, as well as settings in novels such as James Rollins The Last Oracle and Martin Cruz Smith’s Wolves Eat Dogs. Even a horror movie, Chernobyl Diaries, takes place in Pripyat (“Pripyat”). Essentially, Pripyat, Chernobyl, and the Zone of Alienation have become mythicized in the minds of the public, and the actual disaster itself is downplayed. It is a ghostly setting where mysterious and evil things happen, not the remnants of a devastating event.

While popular culture treats Chernobyl as something that has passed, the power plant is still dangerous, especially as the concrete sarcophagus surrounding Reactor Number Four crumbles away every year, threatening to expose large amounts of radiation,

People walk in front of the sarcophagus-covered 4th block of Chernobyl's nuclear power plant on April 4, 2011. A project to build a new sarcophagus in is place lacks some 600 million euros of the 1.5 billion needed. The concrete sarcophagus capping the reactor has developed cracks over the past 25 years and is not considered failsafe (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

perhaps leading to another large fallout cloud. This sarcophagus was hastily built between May and November 1986 to try and contain the radioactive materials left in that reactor, and the structure has become unstable. It was never intended to be the permanent containing structure for Chernobyl either; constant upgrades were performed to repair the damage that both radiation and the environment have had on the sarcophagus. A new structure, the New Safe Confinement, is currently being constructed to cover Reactor Number Four and “re-contain” the reactor. While originally planned to be finished in 2005, the New Safe Confinement is scheduled to be completed in 2015. However, even this new sarcophagus will not last forever; instead, it is designed to last for the next 100 years, assuming other factors both within and outside of the reactor remain stable. The scale of the project and the dangers of the area require that much of the structure be constructed elsewhere. This also comes at a great expense, costing around 1.54 billion euros, part of which is provided by Ukraine, and the rest is being funded through donations and aid from around the globe; the world is still paying the price of the disaster (Wiki New Safe Confinement).

The incident at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was a wakeup call to the world about what could happen if a nuclear power plant were to suffer a catastrophic failure. A level 7 event like Chernobyl does not only affect the immediate surrounding area, but the entire world because radioactive fallout is difficult to fully contain, especially when a hole is blown through the roof of the reactor. Chernobyl needs to be seen as a lesson on how not to handle a nuclear power plant crisis; the public must be warned and evacuated immediately, and the international community must also be warned so countries can take the necessary precautions to protect their own citizens. Just because a quarter century has passed does not make these lessons any less important. If anything, it should make

A child's sandal and stuffed bear at a kindergarten in the ghost town of Pripyat, April 4, 2011 (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

the lessons more important, for the effects of such a disaster persist not only for decades, but for millennia. And, while people should learn about what happened at Chernobyl, about the stories of the people who experienced it and the lessons that can be taken from it, we cannot allow it to become a mythical part of popular culture or a semi-controlled tourist destination. We cannot allow ourselves to downplay what occurred on 26 April 1986 in Reactor Four at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station.  Galleries of photographs of the Chernobyl disaster can be found here and here.

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Works Cited

  • Wikipedia, “(“Chernobyl After the Disaster”.” Last modified March 25, 2012. Accessed April 08, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_after_the_disaster.
  • Wikipedia, “Chernobyl Disaster.” Last modified April 05, 2012. Accessed April 08, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_disaster.
  • Paul McGinnis, “Frozen In Time: Chernobyl — 25 Years Later,” Huffington Post,  Last modified June 27, 2011. Accessed April 11, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/patrick-mcginnis/frozen-in-time-chernobyl-_b_885558.html
  • Wikipedia, “New Safe Confinement.” Last modified March 04, 2012. Accessed April 09, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Safe_Confinement.
  • Wikipedia, “Pripyat.” Last modified April 01, 2012. Accessed April 06, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prypiat.
  • Robert Stone, “Inside Chernobyl.” National Geographic, April 2006. ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2006/04/inside-chernobyl/stone-text.html (accessed April 07, 2012).

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