Nuclear war, not nuclear power, made the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant an accident waiting to happen.
(This article was written after a visit to Chernobyl in April 2006, and the issues of energy policy soon changed, especially regarding fossil fuels and climate change, but challenges of providing energy and avoiding nuclear war remain.)
Right after our bus passed through the deadly Red Forest in Chernobyl and our Geiger counters stopped screaming, our guide pointed out a metal grid 435 feet tall that sparkled above the pine trees. It was an incoming missile early warning radar screen. The Soviet Union expected nuclear warheads from the United States to land on Chernobyl because it secretly hosted nuclear missile silos.
In the end, Chernobyl nuked itself – a disaster that helped end the Cold War, though we still don’t have peace. The next war on the horizon may be more destructive than any previous one. It will be due to the same blind political policies behind Chernobyl’s disaster, but to understand why, you have to understand what caused that disaster.
Our tour group. The Visitor Center is on the right, the power plant in the distance. We wore paper coveralls so guards would recognize us as a controlled tour group and mistake us for freebooting looters. Looting and poaching are still problems in the Exclusion Zone.
I visited Chernobyl on April 17, 2006, almost twenty years to the day after it exploded. At 8 a.m. on a warm, sunny day, I and forty other people got on a battered bus in Kiev, Ukraine, and headed north, some of us armed with Geiger counters. We returned that evening slightly more radioactive and awed by the aftermath of world’s worst nuclear accident.
Anyone can visit Chernobyl for a day, and few thousand people do so every year – but only through licenced tour companies and with official guides, for security reasons. There has been enough looting and poaching. Our guide, Alexander Sirota, had been a third-grader in Pripyat, the city built next to the power plant for workers and their families, when it exploded on April 26, 1986.
Thirty-six hours after the accident, all 50,000 inhabitants were evacuated – for only three days, they were told, though authorities knew better. No one lives there anymore. Sirota, now a young man, was running a tour company through Pripyat.com.
Our trip had been arranged by the organizers of the 2006 European Science Fiction Convention, held in Kiev that year in conjunction with a book fair. The day before the trip, we met Sirota, a slim and relaxed, at the Kiev premier of Radiophobia, a television documentary by Julio Soto. It follows former residents, including Sirota and his mother, as they visit the abandoned city 20 years after they had left. On screen, he cheerfully explores old haunts, but his mother weeps. She had loved Pripyat.
“Radiation fobia” developed as a social disease after the disaster, some of it the product of Slavic humor: giant mutant crocodiles supposedly lurked at Dnieper River bathing beaches. Grim young people assured me that cancer rates have soared due to radiation, though not all epidemiologists agree.
Sirota said his health had been constantly monitored since childhood, and while some of his friends developed thyroid problems, they lived. He was healthy, and his 3-year-old daughter was healthy. “I don’t feel like I’m part of a doomed generation.”
He told the audience at the preview that he wanted Pripyat to be made into a museum, but “it would be like science fiction” to live there again.
The next day, he was patiently herding forty science fiction fans, writers, and editors through the standard package tour of this new tourist attraction. Our bus headed 120 kilometers north, passing busy villages and abandoned collective farms in moist flat farmland, until we got to the Exclusion Zone, the area roughly defined by a 30-kilometer radius around the plant. Everything in it was contaminated by radioactive gas and dust when the plant exploded like an overheated pressure cooker and burned for ten days. Winds blew radioactivity across Europe.
By Ukraine law, no one can live in the Zone for the next 1000 years. More than 300,000 people were evacuated from contaminated areas in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.
We paused to photograph the blue and white concrete sign that said “Welcome to Chernobyl” in Russian, and shortly afterward arrived at an Army checkpoint. A Ukrainian soldier wearing a radiation dosimeter badge checked all our passports.
The next stop was Chernobyl Interinform, the state information agency, where staff member Yuriy Tatarchuk welcomed us in a room filled with maps and charts. He was an square-built young man in hunting clothes, pointing energetically at the maps like a military officer briefing us on a field exercise. He spoke Ukrainian and fairly good English, since he used to be an English teacher. Throughout the day, no matter how fast his pocket Geiger counter clicked, he never stopped smiling.
“There are various problems still,” he said, and we were about to see them.
We got back on the bus and headed toward the power plant, passing the rusting cranes and beams of nuclear power plants Five and Six in the Chernobyl complex whose construction had been halted overnight. Four had been completed and were operating when Reactor Number Four blew up.
We passed a monument, with fresh flowers at its base, that honored the firefighters and plant operators who struggled to put out the fire after the explosion, but who did not know the true nature of the disaster. Many of them died of radiation poisoning – but if they had not acted, the disaster could have been even worse.
What happened, exactly, in the disaster?
BBC’s Chernobyl episode in its Surviving the Disaster series, aired for the twentieth anniversary, served over-the-top melodrama in its re-enactment of April 26, 1986: after the core explodes, technicians desperately try to control the meltdown. As they study readouts and turn valves, they weep, lamenting their carelessness. Blood drips down their faces, which have been reduced to raw meat by radiation burns.
A history of the disaster published by The London Institute of Physics, Chernobyl Record, by nuclear physicist and cancer statistician R.F. Mould, offers a slightly different story. On the night of April 25, the Chernobyl Unit Four staff prepared to conduct an experiment that international analysts later called unimaginably ill-conceived. Poorly trained technicians carried it out without regard for safety or regulations. They would have received bonus pay for completing the experiment, so they kept pushing the reactor.
After several hours of thoroughly unwise preparation, the experiment began at 1:23:04 a.m. Immediately, it went wrong. Thirty-six seconds into the experiment, the supervisor ordered a full emergency shutdown, a process that would have taken twenty seconds to complete. The plant exploded eight seconds after the shutdown began. The reactor core and the walls and ceilings of the central reactor hall were demolished.
The technicians who survived fled. Some still consider themselves blameless, though they received jail sentences for professional irresponsibility. The first physician on the scene, who himself became ill from radiation within hours, recalled that the workers emerged from the plant with headaches and nausea, exclaiming, “It is horrible!” Their radiation burns developed days or even months later.
The real disaster, classed as a “maximum credible accident” in the jargon of the nuclear power industry, wasn’t exciting enough for television. The real aftermath isn’t exciting enough, either.
Nine days after my visit, I watched television reporters gravely and bravely standing where we had clowned around during a group photo for Yuriy in the parking lot next to the Visitor Center at the reactor. Richard Quest, an anchor for CNN International, called Chernobyl a “wasteland”; correspondent Matthew Chance called it a “dead monument.”
It had been no such thing. Buds were opening on trees, birds sang and gathered twigs for nests, and yellow butterflies fluttered around. Four thousand people work at Chernobyl today.
But not everything was as it seemed. The radiation level measured 120 times normal. We needed no special clothing, but the women planting tulips at the Visitor Center wore face masks to protect them from the soil. Most of the cesium and plutonium has washed into the soil and is pulled back up by the roots of plants. A Geiger counter set on grass yields twice the reading as on asphalt next to it. But if you don’t dig and the forest doesn’t catch fire, you’ll be fine.
In a lecture in the Visitor Center, whose picture window overlooks the power plant (no photos for security reasons, please), we learned about the precarious state of the ruins of Reactor Number Four and the concrete and steel shelter erected over it, the Sarcophagus.
No one yet has complete information about the tons of fuel in the building. The core melted and turned into lava that flowed out of the broken reactor into the rooms below it – probably. Three-quarters of those rooms can’t be entered because the radiation is too high and the building is too damaged. The fuel still reacts, giving off heat.
The Sarcophagus itself, built in less than seven months and with horrific danger for the workers, was meant to last only ten to fifteen years. The beams might fall as the ruins shift. The roof has buckled in several places, with holes so big that birds get inside and build nests. Rain and snow also get inside, and water can – and on one occasion has – made the lava go critical. Rust weakens beams and pipes, and the building could partially collapse anytime, which would spew radioactive dust into the air.
Some jobs to stabilize the site involve so much exposure to radioactivity that people can work for only ten minutes a day, the center’s information officer said. As I heard that, I looked out and saw people in white coveralls and pink hard hats working on the roof. In fact there were people busy all over the plant, and no one seemed to be wasting a moment.
At the end of 2006, with money donated by 28 countries, construction began on a “Super Sarcophagus,” a huge arched building that will cover the existing Sarcophagus. We will all be a little safer when it’s finished.
We got back on the bus and went to the city of Pripyat. If the power plant seemed like an ugly factory where no one really wants to work, the visit to the city showed another face of the catastrophe.
Historically, the Exclusion Zone was known as Polissya, “forest land,” and the ancient forest is taking over again. Pripyat, once a manicured model Soviet city with one rose bush planted for every inhabitant, is being swallowed up by trees. We could hardly drive down some streets. The roots are breaking up the pavement and buildings as trees grow taller and taller. When former residents come back to visit their old apartments, they can hardly find them.
Sirota, who visits often, pointed out his apartment building and let us stop to explore the wide plaza in front of the crumbling cultural center, its grand windows now broken. A few rose bushes were still growing amid the weeds, and radioactive moss grew over slabs of broken pavement.
We moved on to the amusement park that had been scheduled to open for May Day celebrations, but no children ever rode its ferris wheel or bumper cars. That corner of the city received the most radiation, and Geiger counter readings were 50 to 100 times normal.
Pussy willows were in bloom. We were visiting the day after Palm Sunday, and with no palm trees in Ukraine, the faithful use willow catkins instead of palm fronds and bring bouquets of them to churches to be blessed. No one had touched these trees.
We continued to Sirota’s former grade school, School Number One. In the documentary, he and a friend visit their old classrooms and laugh at the posters of Lenin and “things we believed back then” about Communism. After the film was made, the building partially collapsed, spilling books, furniture, and students’ possessions across the cracked and mossy sidewalk, but through the broken windows, we could see the dramatic red and black patriotic posters.
Our cameras never stopped clicking. But again, not everything was as it seemed.
The sad juxtaposition of abandoned artifacts in Pripyat seen in so many photos, such as a doll next to a gas mask and a portrait of Lenin, are still-lifes assembled by previous visitors. They aren’t real, in the sense that Pripyat citizens left them like that. The photos from the motorcycle trips posted by “kidofspeed” on a famous web site were taken on a tour just like mine or scanned from coffee table books. Though reports claim that residents left with only a single suitcase and never returned, eventually 20,000 were allowed back to collect more belongings.
We left Pripyat, passing the Red Forest, the most radioactive outdoor site in the world, the expanse of pines next to the power plant and directly under the path of the worst fallout. The radioactivity killed the chlorophyll before dawn. Pine cones and needles turned red like autumn maples. The trees died and later were cut down and buried. Our Geiger counters screeched, and the bus driver floored the accelerator.
Just past the Red Forest, Sirota pointed out a tall metal grid over the trees. It was the early warning radar screen for Chernobyl II. Few people knew about its purpose at the time of the disaster, and few know about it now, but it is, indirectly, key to understanding the political cause and effect of the disaster. The effects of disaster remain so controversial that underlying questions of its cause get ignored.
Far south of the plant, we stopped at an abandoned village — but it wasn’t totally empty. A few hundred people, mostly elderly, have returned to the Exclusion Zone, unable to adjust to resettlement, and they receive monthly medical checkups. As we wandered among collapsing wood cottages, some with moldering sheets on beds and tea kettles on disintegrating stoves, we smelled sweet wood smoke. Someone in the area was cooking dinner. Probably, that person would die of old age before succumbing to radiation-induced illness.
As we left the Zone, we passed through a Ukraine Army checkpoint to test our radioactivity. We all passed. Our irradiation during the seven-hour visit had been slight, equivalent to a ten-hour airplane trip.
In addition to crumbling buildings, we had seen Przewalski wild horses, an endangered species. The Exclusion Zone is now home to wild boar, deer, lynx, fox, beaver, bison, more than one hundred wolves, 250 different kinds of birds, and several endangered species, including black storks and white-tail eagles.
During the first few years after the accident, some plants and animals suffered from the radioactivity, and trees very near the reactor still are stunted or grow a little strangely, but there were almost no mutants, and now the radiation level has diminished. Some isotopes have very short half-lives. Others have sunk deep into the soil.
The animals are radioactive — no hunting or fishing allowed — but the existing radiation is far less damaging to nature than human activities like agriculture and industry. A United Nations report puts it this way:
“Without a permanent residency of humans for 20 years, the ecosystems around the Chernobyl site are now flourishing. The 30-kilometer zone has become a wildlife sanctuary, and it looks like the nature park it has become.”
Another UN report proposes promoting ecotourism at Chernobyl to bring economic activity back to the region. The Zone is twice the size of Luxembourg, 2000 square miles, the largest nature preserve in Europe: lush, alive, and beautiful.
There’s no easy way to think about Chernobyl. Wildlife returned because people left, and some people died. As with any disaster, the number of deaths should put the tragedy in simple perspective, but most deaths have yet to occur from radiation-caused cancers that take decades to develop.
No one kept track of the exact radiation exposure of the “liquidator” soldiers drafted to clean up the site immediately after the disaster, though some tasks involved pointless danger, and the soldiers were provided minimal protection. No one even knows the exact number of liquidators, probably about 600,000.
Wind and rain distributed the fallout very unevenly, so some residents in Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Western Europe got high doses, others low. In the worst-hit places, no one was measuring the fallout. Of the records that were kept, some were falsified.
The UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) initially estimated 4,000 eventual deaths — not much of a disaster compared to the tsunami that killed 230,000 people in the Indian Ocean in December 2004. Greenpeace offers estimates of up to hundreds of thousands, even six million worldwide, and attacks the IAEA as an apologist for nuclear power.
Both reports disagree less than it seems. “The range of estimates of excess mortality resulting from the Chernobyl accident spans an extremely wide range depending upon precisely what is taken into account,” says the Greenpeace report. The IAEA report says, “Moreover, small differences in the assumptions about the risks from exposure to low level radiation doses can lead to large differences in the predictions of the increased cancer burden, and predictions should therefore be treated with great caution.” In other words, they’re both guessing and they know it. We may never have an indisputable number.
The IAEA is concerned about the mental health of survivors. Its scientists worry that “Chernobyl syndrome” will kill more people than Chernobyl itself: people so convinced they’ll die soon anyway that they abuse alcohol and tobacco and practice unsafe sex, even commit suicide. The IAEA wants to reassure them that they are probably well and can get on with normal life. Greenpeace is concerned that “nuclear energy conceals dangers, in some aspects, even greater than atomic weapons” and wants to convince us that nuclear power should be banned.
So we have no single, easy, propaganda-free number to use to lament the tragedy, but other simple means are convenient.
The most pitiful victims are children made ill or born with defects from radiation, and these were put on display for the 20th anniversary by many journalists, especially well by photographer Paul Fusco in a photo essay at Slate.com. His shows us a brutal freak show from a pediatric hospital-residence, offering compassionate but not particularly informed commentary about babies with hideous tumors, children with swollen or missing limbs, and adolescents who can’t walk or feed themselves. Often he doesn’t even give names. They are not individuals, they are symbols — of what? Tragedy. Emotions are easy to convey.
Facts are difficult: dueling reports by hundreds of scientists assembled by respected organizations. (Greenpeace and the IAEA agree that perhaps only half those birth defects are due to Chernobyl.) Simple emotions suggest simple answers, or worse, no answers, since we have no information with which to craft a response. What do we do — what can we do — about the baby born with its brain outside its skull?
I don’t mean to underplay the suffering, and the disaster’s victims, still uncounted, should not be forgotten. The week before my tour, I had visited the Chernobyl Museum in the former fire department building in historic Kiev.
It makes the suffering real without voyeurism. The exhibits show the people who fought to contain the disaster: names, photos, letters to loved ones, uniforms, identification badges, wristwatches, eyeglasses, gas masks, tools, the maps and notes they hastily made to plan their tasks and evaluate the danger, the pocket dosimeters they wore, the medals and commendations they received. Some are marked with black-and-yellow radiation stickers. They died: firefighters, liquidators, military officers with chestfuls of medals in their official portraits, doctors with impressive diplomas who attended the sick though they knew they exposed themselves to deadly doses.
Another section deals with the families who were evacuated, children who fell ill, the lives and villages they left behind, and the new lives they have had to create with help from around the world. In the stairway a series of signs names the towns that were evacuated, now disappearing into the new forest as the little wood houses rot.
It’s achingly sad, but neither the museum nor the Exclusion Zone meet popular expectations. Science fiction, especially movies, has taught us to think melodramatically about radiation: the barren landscapes of Mad Max, the extravagant mutants of Total Recall or, better yet, Godzilla, breathing blue atomic flames. Since science fiction supposedly predicts the future, the worst nuclear accident in history ought to have been something like that, right?
Consider the first-person shooter videogame released in early 2007, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. In the game — made by Ukrainians — you venture into the Exclusion Zone to search for treasure amid horrible mutants and an invisible force that tears living beings apart, but the setup departs extravagantly from reality. According to the official website:
“The background story for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is built as a hypothesis of real events to have taken place in the 1980s. Back in Chernobyl there functioned an immense antenna, which, as acknowledged by many specialists, radiated psychoactive waves. […] According to the unverified rumours, the emission was directed onto Western Europe — as a part of a long-term military experiment on psychotropic influence on humans.”
Verified rumors tell a more believable but more terrifying story. According to Mould, in his book Chernobyl Record:
“An American satellite had passed over the Chernobyl area only 28 seconds after the accident on Saturday 26 April 1986. This was pure chance. The reason for such a monitoring orbit was to take in a nuclear missile site. An early warning radar screen 132 meters high by 96 meters wide can still be seen on the road to Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
“America’s initial assessment was that a nuclear missile had been fired, then when the image remained stationary, opinion changed to a missile had blown up in its silo. It was only when a map of the area was consulted that it was realized that it was the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
“There are various confirmations of this story, one of the most interesting being that of an International Atomic Energy Agency official in Vienna who was attending a British Embassy reception on the Sunday evening being asked about the nuclear accident which had just occurred. ‘What nuclear accident?’ ‘You don’t know? Well, go and check at the agency.’”
Everyone who was in the know knew about Chernobyl II, the missile site. The Cold War, that decades-long standoff, was still going strong when Chernobyl exploded like a big dirty bomb. The Communists had nuked themselves.
“It opened my eyes like no other thing could have done,” wrote Mikhail Gorbachev, president of the Soviet Union in 1986, for the 20th anniversary of the accident. “Now one can imagine much more clearly what would have happened if a nuclear bomb had exploded. According to scientific experts, one SS-18 missile could contain one hundred Chernobyls.”
He knew where the Soviet Union kept its bombs and why, and no doubt knew everything about U.S. bombs. Thus he pushed for arms reduction, and President Ronald Reagan more or less agreed, all the while trumpeting triumph for having won the Cold War.
Things have gone downhill since. Russia and the United States have begun a new arms race, including nuclear weapons. In 2007, Gorbachev told a press conference in Moscow: “The Americans want so much to be winners. The fact that they are sick with this illness, this winners’ complex, is the main reason why everything in the world is so confused and so complicated.”
A restaurant in Pripyat.
But exactly why did Chernobyl blow up? In the United States, the Three Mile Island Nuclear Reactor suffered a core meltdown but didn’t explode.
A clue lies in the real name of the power plant. Chernobyl is the name of the town where it’s located, the Russian word for mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris. (Not wormwood, the ingredient in absinthe, as sometimes claimed.) The real name is the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant, and it included four reactors, with two more on the way, to produce a lot of electrical power. Lenin’s bronze bust still tarnishes in front of a Chernobyl administrative building.
As Lenin once said, “Russia is Communism and electrification.” The Soviets took over a backwards country without electricity and desperately wanted to supply power — cheap power — not to benefit its people but because cheap power would create rapid industrial growth. In a twentieth-century war to the death with the United States, industrial power would mean victory or defeat.
The goal was fast, cheap energy, so the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant reactors were hastily built on a poor design to save money. Three Mile Island and most other plants have sort of a steel bottle around the reactor to contain an accident, an expense the Soviets deliberately eliminated.
The United States had the same economic goal — rapid economic growth based on cheap energy — but it could draw on massive coal deposits to generate electricity, and still does. The United States also needed rivers of petroleum, but until oil-producing countries became organized, the whole world enjoyed cheap oil.
In the end, the Soviet Union went bankrupt trying to match the military spending of the United States, especially after the added expense of the Chernobyl disaster. The Soviets collapsed. So why isn’t there world peace?
On the morning I was to go to Chernobyl, I watched a Ukrainian all-news televison channel as I dressed in my hotel room. I understood few words, but I recognized the president of Iran and guessed that the conflict was continuing over his nuclear aspirations. Another segment described rising oil prices. There was mayhem in Iraq. Ukraine’s political factions were trying to form a government after indecisive elections. And huge tornadoes smashed cars and buildings in America’s Midwest.
Several countries besides Iran aspire to nuclear power and, with it, the possibility of nuclear weapons. Due north of Ukraine, in Belarus, where one-fifth of the land was contaminated by Chernobyl, President Alexandr Lukashenka wants to develop nuclear power so the world “would treat us differently.”
In North Korea, President Kim Jong Il wanted not just nuclear power but nuclear weapons. Brazil also wants to expand its nuclear capacity, and India, Pakistan, and Israel already have bombs. French President Nicolas Sarkozy calls nuclear weapons “life insurance for France.” Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are said to be seeking nuclear weapons. The nuclear club keeps growing.
Meanwhile, energy equals political might. Russia’s state-controlled natural gas company, Gazprom, supplies the gas that keeps much of Europe from freezing in the winter. “Europe’s ability to compete depends on access to energy resources,” says Alexandr Mendvedev, general director of Gazprom Export, a truth reflected in European policies accommodating Russia.
Oil revenues have made Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez a world figure, and he’s spending lots on conventional weapons. Worldwide, military spending has increased 37 percent in the last decade. The United States accounts for almost half the increase. It and Western Europe sell almost all the world’s weapons, and the world thinks it needs more weapons than ever.
China has been able to grow economically by burning its none-too-clean coal in bulk, but China, like India, is also thirsty for petroleum, which it must buy, since it has few fields of its own. Natural gas and petroleum produce sixty percent of the world’s electrical energy and almost all of its transportation energy. Economies worldwide rely almost totally on fossil fuels, whose prices have climbed dramatically since 2006.
The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the world demand for energy will double by 2050. Where will that energy come from? Some people talk about green energy, others want to claim the North Pole’s supposed seabed riches. But neither seems likely to provide massive amounts of energy fast. A crisis could come soon, and it will be no surprise.
During the reporting on the 20th anniversary of the disaster, CNN reporter Matthew Chance described Chernobyl as “the monster of 20th century science gone wrong,” and when I saw him say that, I began shouting at my television.
Posters on the wall of Sirota’s school celebrate the Communist victory in the Great War.
The accident wasn’t caused by bad science but by bad energy politics — politics that ignored science and traded future risks for immediate success. In its day Chernobyl represented the glorious patriotic triumph still visible in the Soviet realist posters peeling off the walls of the ruins of Grade School Number One in Pripyat. Chernobyl illustrates both the consequences of those political decisions and the potential horrors of the next political clash, a global energy crisis that could easily lead to war.
Chernobyl’s accident fueled protests against nuclear energy, and it is still used as an argument against nuclear power. But the real nukes in question were bombs. The real issue behind Chernobyl was war. The question is not whether nuclear power plants can be safe but whether war is safe. Chernobyl was a “friendly fire” casualty of the Cold War.
Even a single dirty bomb will create massive devastation. Political decisions will determine not only whether our electric lights go on whenever we flip a switch but whether we survive. Pripyat authorities turned off the electricity to convince people to leave the city. Eventually, the power went off forever, and the city began to collapse into ruins in a new wilderness.
But the energy needs that created that catastrophe have not changed.