In April 1986 I was living in Finland and I remember the panic amongst the Finnish and Swedish authorities when massive levels of radiation started being picked up in the atmosphere… we were advised to stay indoors. The radioactivity wasn’t coming from within Scandinavia, but from the USSR. Visiting Chornobyl, just 80k north of Kyiv, 28 years later felt like a pilgrimage that I had to make, and I’m so glad I did.
On the tour bus, we were shown a film that set the context – the model Soviet new town of Pripyat, built in 1970, and home to 47,000 citizens; the much older settlement of Chornobyl, surrounded by fertile land and forest known for its abundance of mushrooms; and Ukraine’s largest nuclear reactor. We drove through the outer exclusion zone, now home to 3000 workers, and were taken much closer to Reactor Number 4 than I’d imagined we’d go – here we witnessed the teams at work building the new sarcophogus which will roll into place, covering the disintegrating tomb that currently encases the still radioactive core.
The external decontamination operation has been massive and mainly successful – but the death toll was significantly higher than the 31 official deaths of the firefighters. Soldiers, who named themselves bio-robots, ended up doing the most hazardous work when the hastily fabricated clean-up machines failed due to irradiation; helicopter pilots, scientists, and other “liquidators” fighting to control the fate of the reactor, were the main victims at the time. Subsequently, 125,000 deaths have been directly attributed to the accident, and the incidence of thyroid cancer in children from the region numbers around 1 in 10.
In Pripyat, we walked around a ghost town that is being inexorably reclaimed by nature. From the lines of cots in the kindergarten to the empty diving boards of the swimming pool, from the supermarket with its signs for sugar, bread, and tea to the billboards in the Palace of Culture lying ready for the 1986 May Day celebrations, everything is pretty much as it was when the town was evacuated….too late to prevent contamination, finally the entire population was removed in 3 hours, on the understanding that they would return within 3 days. The scale of the Soviet authorities denial/cover up was described as criminal by our young guide, but there was also great heroism shown by the men involved in the clean up. Chornobyl remains the world’s worst nuclear disaster and many people are still living with its consequences.
In the UK, we are considering more investment in nuclear as a clean alternative – clean until something goes wrong, at which point the consequences of playing with nuclear fission are so extraordinarily massive as to convince me that this will be the way humans destroy themselves and the planet. Visiting Chornobyl now is a poignant and unsettling experience which I would recommend to anyone interested in the alternative energy debate.