30 years after the world's worst nuclear disaster, the concrete sarcophagus hurriedly put in to place over the fractured reactor #4 is crumbling and a new containment plan is underway. Ukrainian-born writer Vitali Vitaliev recalls his impressions of Chernobyl.
Where were you when the Chernobyl reactor exploded?
Yes, it was one of those latter-day history-shaping moments, alongside JFK’s assassination, the death of Princess Diana and the 9/11 attacks in New York, which most of our contemporaries should be able to recall with minute precision. Only with Chernobyl it was different, for the world learned about the tragedy a whole week after the event.
I remember spending a weekend with my family in the country outside Moscow, where I then lived, in the end of April, 1986. It was there that vague rumours of some kind of explosion in my native Ukraine reached me for the first time. No one knew exactly what happened. The official Soviet media stayed mum, while people in Moscow streets and down the Metro kept talking about Kiev party apparatchiks leaving the Ukrainian capital in droves with their families. We could see them arriving at Moscow’s Kiev Railway Terminal – dishevelled, pale-faced, yet stubbornly taciturn.
That silence was interrupted days later when Soviet radio news mentioned a “minor accident” at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station near Kiev which “was being dealt with by local emergency services”. That was all.
In fact, as it later transpired, the official cover up - instigated by Gorbachev himself - had to come to an end only after a sharp increase in background radiation levels was registered by Western monitoring stations, first in Sweden and then in Wales. Had it not been for those, the Soviet people might have been kept in the dark for much longer.
With the genie out of the bottle, some truly horrible and disgraceful details of the disaster began seeping through the secrecy veil. The Ukrainian communist party bosses, privy to the news, had kept making official announcements to the effect that there was nothing to worry about. They even OK-ed the First of May propaganda parade in Kiev and elsewhere, during which thousands of people got contaminated with the radiation from the exploded 4th reactor at Chernobyl.
The tragic aftermaths of the disaster are very well known now, so I won’t get into details here. One thing I can say is that Chernobyl was the last nail in the coffin of the rotten communist system which – just like the faulty 4th reactor itself – imploded and collapsed five years after the accident.
Having defected to the West in 1990, I felt a moral duty to visit the site of the disaster. My father, a nuclear physicist, who worked on Europe’s largest particle accelerator, died prematurely, aged 56, from the long-term effects of radiation to which he had been exposed throughout his career.
Another reason for feeling a need to go there was my encounter with the so-called “Chernobyl kids”- children who had witnessed the catastrophe or were affected by it - in Australia in 1991. They were brought down under, where I then worked as a journalist, for a short holiday by local charity organisations and I was both shocked and moved by the expression of an unchildish horror that could be still be seen in their eyes.
I travelled to Chernobyl with a Channel 4 TV crew in August 1994, a trip I later documented for E&T magazine in 2008. We spent one full day next to the still leaking reactor, then visited the dead town of Pripyat. We saw the lifeless and leafless brown forest marking the sinister route of the radioactive cloud; we were bitten by clouds of huge mutant mosquitos; we wandered through the abandoned and deserted squares and streets of Prypiat.
We came across a bunch of dead-drunk reactor shift workers, falling out of their bus at the contaminated zone checkpoint. They had been plied with alcohol in the mistaken and naïve belief that it helped fend off radiation.
For that one long day of the shoot my crew stayed uninsured: not a single insurance company in the world was prepared to give us cover for filming in “one of the world’s most dangerous places”. I hated the whole experience, which made me feel as if I had been trudging through the ruins of my own Ukrainian childhood, and vouched never to come back.
Yet, at the end of 2015, I was momentarily tempted, if “tempted” is the right word here. Perusing a Ukrainian stand at the World Travel Market in London, I picked up an eye-catching flier advertising “Chornobyl Tour. Safe and Sound Trips” (yes, “Chornobyl”, spelled with “o”, not “e” in the first syllable, in line with the formerly forbidden and now politically as well as grammatically correct spelling of Ukrainian toponyms). Having read the flier, I came to the conclusion that the new way of spelling “Chernobyl” was probably the only real change that occurred since 1994, for the tone for the leaflet was as hefty, pompous and misleading as that of its Soviet propaganda precursors.
It tactlessly referred to Chernobyl as “the most famous and mysterious place in Ukraine”, venue for the “events which changed the history of human civilisation”, where the visitor (who bought the tour, no doubt) would be “overwhelmed by the power and wisdom of nature”, as if it were some kind of a nature reserve or a great war memorial. It also spoke of “the absolute radiation safety” of the place and asserted – rather cheekily – that the radiation to which a would-be visitor was likely to be exposed was “160 times smaller than the dose of an X-Ray chest examination”. In other words, welcome to the new adventure land of Chernobyl (or “Chornobyl”, if you wish)!
During my 1994 visit, a young dosimetrist, assigned to our crew, was routinely registering background radiation tens of thousands times higher than the accepted levels. Where has it all gone, one may ask, when during all 22 years that have elapsed, the ruined reactor kept leaking? All suggested designs of an effective “sarcophagus” over the structure have been proved too costly, or ineffective, or both.
The latest developments at Chernobyl in 2016, as reported by E&T news, are that soon “robotic machinery inside the structure will begin dismantling the (latest) faulty sarcophagus and the reactor itself to transport the remains to “a nearby storage facility” (would that “facility” require a sarcophagus too, I wonder?).
This will be done under a new “Safe Confinement “ arch, made of corrugated metal, a two-billion euro structure funded by international charities and banks. If all goes well (and there are not a lot of things in the war-torn and corruption-ridden Ukraine that do go well at the moment), the final dismantling and entombing of the radioactive monster should begin in 2017.
I sincerely hope, however, that this latest venture will be successful. Maybe, at some point in the future, it will indeed be “absolutely safe” to take a Chernobyl/Chornobyl tour to admire the “power and wisdom” not just of “nature” but of humankind, too. This is unlikely to happen in my life-time, I presume.
As it is, Chernobyl remains not a monument but rather a reminder of the havoc modern technology can create in a society that values its international prestige higher than lives of its own citizens.