"Madame, bear in mind That princes govern all things--save the wind." -Victor Hugo, The Infanta's Rose

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

"To those who saved the world"

Try to imagine the following scenario:

Tonight, you and your family go to bed at the usual time, and at around 2 AM you are fast asleep when the sound of a distant rumble wakes you. At first you try to ignore it and go back to sleep but soon there is another louder "boom" and you know with certainty that something is not right. The wail of far-away sirens filters through your bedroom window, and as you look outside from your front porch you see an eerie yet strangely beautiful pinkish-blue glow on the horizon. You try to call the authorities to get some information about what is going on, but no one seems to know, or be willing to tell you, anything. Meanwhile, the sirens grow louder, and closer.

Anxious hours pass with no word until just before dawn, when a man in a military uniform appears at your doorway. He tells you that you and your family must evacuate immediately. He will not explain why. The only thing you will be allowed to bring with you is one suitcase containing whatever important papers you have: deeds, bank notes, birth certificates, etc. You can bring nothing else: no food, clothing or other possessions. Even your beloved pets must stay behind. You are given only 10 minutes to gather your papers, and you leave your home without even the slightest idea of where you are going or when you will be back.

You will never return.

This may sound like the plot of a bad science-fiction "alien invasion" movie, but this would have been the reality of your life exactly 21 years ago tonight if you were one of the 50,000 residents of Prypiat, in the Ukraine area of the former Soviet Union. And the single word that was the source of your calamity that night has since become synonymous with the dark side of "the peaceful atom" the world over: Chernobyl.

Today, Prypiat is a ghost town, a slice of mid-80's Soviet life frozen in time; in some places, laundry still hangs on frayed lines. Prypiat was a modern city at the time of the 1986 disaster, built in high style by the government to house plant workers. If you have Google Earth, you can "visit" it and roam its deserted streets; just set the coordinates to 51 24 20N, 30 03 25E in the input box, and you'll be plopped right in the city center. (Tip: simply copy and paste the coordinate string from this post, or if you already have Google Earth installed, just click here to open the site automatically.) The nuclear power plant itself is located just two miles to the southeast, and if you zoom in, you can clearly see with considerable detail the sarcophagus of the doomed reactor #4. The hastily-built structure has not aged well, and is leaky and unstable. A massive construction project to replace it with the world's largest dome, called the Shelter Implementation Plan, has been envisioned for years, but government red tape and difficulty funding the enormous cost of the project (estimates range from $750 million up to $2.5 billion USD) have resulted in numerous delays. However, the present contractor, the German firm GRS, claims that the sarcophagus will be enclosed and the site made "ecologically safe" by the end of 2008. It remains to be seen if this goal will be met.

Even in the virtual world of Google Earth, it is a strange feeling to look around and imagine the scene of disaster: the panic, fear, and also the bravery that occurred that night and in the days that followed. If you really want a close-up look, it's possible to actually go there; the government issues tightly-controlled permits to visit the site for about $150 per person, although much paperwork (including, one would assume, multiple waivers of liability for any future physical effects) and a portable dosimeter is required for entry. If this interests you at all, click here for details; frankly, for my money Google Earth is a lot cheaper, and safer too.

Another fascinating web site that lets you explore the area on the back of a motorcycle is called Kidd Of Speed. It is the story of Elena Filatova, a native resident whose father is a nuclear physicist researching the accident, and her journeys through and around Chernobyl on her big-ass Kawasaki Ninja motor bike. Her pictures and narrative will let you see the site through her eyes, and give you goose bumps.

Another slide show of photos can be found here.

The twenty-first anniversary of the disaster is being commemorated in various ways today; many are remembering those who died, particularly the workers and firefighters at the plant who raced into the shattered reactor trying to contain the damage, knowing full well that such action meant their certain death. A memorial to those men (right) is erected not far from the site, funded and built by their comrades. An inscription on it reads, "To those who saved the world."

Area dignitaries have also marked the occasion by visiting the site, and some, including Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, have even talked about re-developing the 20-mile circle around the plant known as the "zone of exclusion". While visiting a school near Kiev today, Mr. Yushchenko told reporters, "I am convinced that the Chernobyl zone is coming alive, and step by step, we will begin to develop the possibilities of this territory." Even though the city will not officially be suitable for human habitation for another 300 to 600 years, a few people still live not far away (roughly 10 km), and other parts of the zone where radiation contamination has not been as great may be safe for farming certain types of crops (such as those for bio-fuels), or forestry. Projects also being considered include a nature preserve that would take advantage of a wildlife resurgence in the area (mainly due to the absence of human impact), and a proposal to build an international science center at the site to study the lingering effects of the accident.

In addition to the memorial services, many activists are marking this day, as they have every other anniversary of the disaster, by calling attention to the dangers of nuclear power. A large demonstration in Washington, DC, today led to the arrest of at least 24 individuals who put ashes and red liquid on the steps of the Pentagon; other anti-nuke protest rallies were held in cities worldwide.

Moreover, a growing chorus of concern is being heard from those who draw a dark parallel between the development of nuclear technology to produce energy and the development of nuclear weapons. Dr. Joan Russow of Canada's Global Compliance Research Project, writes:
"It is clear that nuclear energy with its continued risk of accidents, with its unresolved waste disposal problem, is not a solution to the issue of climate change ... The designation of "peaceful use" has eclipsed the inextricable link between civil nuclear energy and the development of nuclear arms. Uranium mining states such as Canada have used the "peaceful use" clause [in the Global Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty] to justify the continued export of uranium to India and Pakistan in the 1960s, and to nuclear arms states with the proviso that Canadian uranium must only be used for peaceful purpose [however,] there is a little bit of Canadian uranium throughout the US nuclear arsenal."
In her book "Nuclear Madness", Helen Caldicott sounds a similar warning about the hazardous byproducts of nuclear development for "peaceful" use:
"As a physician, I contend that nuclear technology threatens life on our planet with extinction. If present trends continue, the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink will soon be contaminated with enough radioactive pollutants to pose a potential health hazard far greater than any plague humanity has ever experienced."
With the world in general, and the USA in particular, continuing to demand cheap, reliable energy, there will be no easy answers. Is nuclear power our friend, a clean and reasonably safe way to reduce our dependency on imported oil? Or is it the unseen monster, hiding in our bedroom closets until we fall asleep, waiting to wake us up to a radioactive nightmare?

I think I know what the residents of Prypiat would have thought on this night, exactly twenty-one years ago.

But it couldn't happen here.

Could it?

by Mr. Toast. Photos © Waclaw Gudowski


  • At 4/26/2007 06:43:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I personally visited the Chernobyl area for two days in June 2006 with a friend and former resident of Pripyat. We toured the Chernobyl Plant (including the Reactor 4 control room), several of the abandoned villages, and Pripyat. I have posted a photo journal of my trip at:

    My Journey to Chernobyl: 20 Years After the Disaster

  • At 4/26/2007 01:13:00 PM, Blogger Mr. Toast said…

    Thank you very much for visiting, and for posting this link to your site. As an electronics engineer, I have been interested in the events surrounding Chernobyl for years, and was fascinated by your account.

  • At 4/26/2007 07:32:00 PM, Blogger Sphincter said…

    There was an awesome article in National Geographic about Chernobyl recently, and how there is a new push toward nuclear power again. Some people are extolling its "green properties." I'm thinking that the (former)residents of that area would disagree.

  • At 4/28/2007 03:56:00 PM, Blogger Chandira said…

    Wow, your description of that night gave me such huge cills. Spooky as hell.
    I think I would rather die than leave my cat behind..


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