Tag Archives: Radiation-laced Water

5/1/2011 Boston Globe: A nuclear cautionary tale turns 25

A nuclear cautionary tale turns 25. By Katharine Whittemore Globe Correspondent / May 1, 2011 “They’re safer than samovars!” Soviet propagandists once crowed about the country’s nuclear power plants. “We could build one on Red Square.” That’s how things rolled before Chernobyl, recalls Arkady Filin. And as one of 600,000 “liquidators,” or cleanup workers, sent in after the April 26, 1986, disaster — who dropped, from helicopters, tons of sand and lead atop the molten core, then built a concrete sarcophagus over the reactor and plowed under countless acres of radioactive topsoil, all the while soaking up immense doses themselves — he’s realistic (Chekhovian?) about what happened.  “People who weren’t there are always curious,” says Filin, who appears in a gut-punching oral history called “Voices from Chernobyl’’ by Svetlana Alexievich (Dalkey Archive, 1997). But “it’s impossible to live constantly in fear,” he adds. “[A] person can’t do it, so a little time goes by and normal human life resumes.” A little time has gone by, but lately normal life feels not so normal. We are thinking hard about nuclear power again, in rising panic about radiation contamination. It’s all a terrible coincidence, isn’t it? This spring marks the 25th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe — just as the severity of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant gets rated at the highest level. The level, that is, of Chernobyl.

Many (including President Obama) still plug for nuclear power amid our falling stores of fossil fuels, but trust me, it’s hard to go there after you read about the event that brought Ukraine and Belarus to its knees. Then again, the genie’s out of the bottle; the European Nuclear Society currently lists 442 power plants in 30 countries. Five are operating right here in New England. Are they all safe as samovars? As long as there is human error (see: Chernobyl, Three Mile Island), you have to say no. As long as there are natural disasters (see: earthquakes, Japan), no again.

So let’s brave the Chernobyl literature, and see what it really means to live with a calamity. I chose to focus on titles published after 1991, when the Soviet Union fell. That’s because later authors had access to declassified material and could craft a fuller story. The best of these is 1993’s “Ablaze: The Story of the Heroes and Victims of Chernobyl’’ by Piers Paul Read (Random House). Read, the author of “Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors,’’ is a robust narrator who provides unblinking, abundant context from the Soviet archives and his own interviews. His chronicle of the dying victims in Hospital No. 6 in Moscow left me utterly shaken.

Read also parses the factors of the accident and stresses that the fault must be spread broadly. Workers were paid bonuses to finish the reactor ahead of schedule, and thus took shortcuts. Equipment and materials were often substandard. The Communist Party, broke and on its last legs, forced the men to also build hay storage facilities, distracting them from their first priority. It’s the tragic trifecta: hubris, error, scarcity.

“Chernobyl is the catastrophe of the Russian mind-set,” explains historian Aleksandr Revalskiy in “Voices from Chernobyl.’’ Maybe, but you must honor the sacrificial heroics of those same Russians. If the workers and liquidators hadn’t sacrificed their health and their lives by shoveling burning graphite into pits and fixing valves in radiation-laced water, the scourge might have spread to all of Europe. “Voices’’ teems with piteous details: how thousands of the 200,000 residents, just before evacuation, wrote their names on fences, houses, asphalt. How one of the hunters hired to shoot radiation-exposed dogs and cats (the fear was they’d stray outside the contaminated zone) says, “[I]t’s better to kill from far away so your eyes don’t meet.”

There may be few dogs or cats left in what has become Europe’s largest de facto nature sanctuary. But in the 30-kilometer Chernobyl Zone of Alienation around the plant, there are eagles, bears, moose, lynx, storks, wild boars, and more. Surprisingly, it turns out that humans are a greater threat to animals than cesium and strontium. With us gone, nature thrives, as you learn from Mary Mycio’s eerily gripping “Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl’’ (Joseph Henry, 2005).

But aren’t there six-eyed mutants or something? Actually, no, though animal reproduction rates are lower. And pine trees grow out like bushes, rather than up. Mycio, a Ukrainian-American biologist, also tells us about the 3,000-plus workers (all part-time, it’s the law) who maintain the zone. They’re able to be here because much of the radiation-contaminated material has since been buried. In fact, shockingly, tourists can now visit certain areas. And in 300 years, your descendants can move back to the inner 30-kilometer region. As for The Ten, as the 10-kilometer hot spot by the reactor is called, people can live there one day too. In 24,110 years.

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore@comcast.net.
© Copyright 2011 Globe Newspaper Company.