A day out at Chernobyl (2009)
I was standing with a group of journalists from Israel, Palestine, Syria and Egypt (don’t ask). Oksana, the lady from the Chernobyl International Relations Department piped out, ‘Please, I remind you, it is strrrrictly forbidden to take photographs of the Shelter Object ’. A number of my colleagues sheepishly turned their cameras towards the Chief Engineer at the site, to whom we were being introduced. ‘At about 01.23 Moscow time’ he told us, ‘on 26th April 1986, a meltdown in reactor no. 4 caused a huge explosion, lifting the roof of the pile, which weighed 3,000 tons, some tens of metres into the air and releasing into the atmosphere massive doses of radiation. At that time forty people were in or near building no. 4. Of one of them, no trace was ever found; it is assumed he was instantly incinerated. Of the others, 38 died in the next days and weeks of radiation poisoning. One alone survived 17 years, dying in 2003’.
‘And what did he die of?’ asked a Syrian journalist. ‘Delayed shock’ suggested the Israeli cameraman on my right, under his breath.
In 1999 I paid a visit to the Chernobyl Museum in Kyiv. It set out extensively the terrible damage that had occurred — loss of life, mass evacuation, children’s illnesses, devastation of the environment though radiation, and so forth — but there was not the slightest attempt at analysis or explanation — why and how did the disaster happen? why was the reactor built at Pripyat (actually about 10 miles from Chernobyl, and now an extensive ghost town), what implications might the disaster have for the nuclear policy of Ukraine and its neighbours (which still rely extensively on atomic power for electricity generation)? It simply slotted nicely into the Russo-Ukrainian tradition of passively recounting woes loudly and at great length (and to some extent revelling in them). This sometimes seems to me something embedded in the Slav soul. When I first visited Russia in 1991 I was astonished to find in the precincts of monasteries and holy places old women begging for alms and wailing elaborately in the tradition which I had learnt of in 19th-century Russian novels. This practice of wailing had obviously been suppressed throughout the Communist era — but now it had sprung back, perfectly formed, having somehow survived underground. Misery must run in the blood.
Another embedded trait is to profit from such folk-emotions. Ilf and Petrov’s wonderful 1930s satire ‘Golden Calf’ features a band of con-men who form a ‘League of Nephews of Lieutenant Schmidt’ (a hero of the Revolution after whom a bridge in St. Petersburg is named), and divide up the territory of the Soviet Union so that only one in each area can claim alms on the basis of having this notable uncle. This tradition still lives on; apparently a number of people have made or still make a living claiming to have been one of the ‘liquidators’ who cleared the Pripyat reactor site. In fact around 750,000 people from the present Ukraine, Russia and Belarus were employed to carry out this task; of these genuine liquidators, maybe 50% or more are now dead or disabled.
Now in 2009 I was visiting the place itself. Two hours drive out of Kyiv takes you to the outer checkpoint of the exclusion zone. Up to there the countryside seems perfectly green and bounteous by Ukrainian standards; as it does on the further side, with the qualification that there, there are no people. A further thirty minutes or so takes you to a broad canal with a perspective of industrial buildings in various states of deconstruction and a few more recent edifices. These are what is left of the four reactors of Chernobyl power plant, plus the buildings being constructed by international programmes to deal with aspects of the long aftermath of the explosion. Most striking is a large block of hunchback appearance with a tall chimney surrounded by scaffolding. This is the Shelter Object.
About the middle of May 1986 work began to enclose building no. 4 in an attempt to contain the radiation which it was still emitting in vast quantities. This enclosure, the result of which is now known as the Shelter Object, or more colloquially the Sarcophagus, took until November 1986. About 90,000 ‘volunteers’ took part in this phase, being exposed, especially in the first weeks, to exceptional doses of radiation, with the consequences which you would expect. It remains unclear exactly what they were told about the risks they were running. In the succeeding months, many hundreds of thousands of people worked at the site either in remedial work or simply in running the other three reactors, which (because Ukraine depended on them for its electricity) were not shut down until 1991 (nos. 1 and 2) and December 2000 (no. 3).
The west wall of no. 4, through which most radiation was coming, was hemmed in by massive blocks of reinforced concrete, which give the Object its lop-sided profile. Other parts of the building were also filled in or closed off by concrete. The design of the Object operations made no allowance for monitoring or fire systems. The consequence is that today almost half of the Object is inaccessible and no-one has any idea what is going on, in detail, inside it. A cutaway model in the exhibition room, where we were meeting the Engineer, gave a best estimate of the present state of affairs. It is known that water is rusting the steel of much of the reinforced concrete, so the building itself may be highly unstable and is at the risk of collapse. The Object remains full of radioactive and contaminated materials, so there is further risk of fire and/or a chain reaction. And it is estimated that the Object contains about four tons of radioactive dust which can leak through remaining air-conditioning structures, necessitating complex dust control procedures.
Now the only staff working at Chernobyl are associated with the international programme to contain and clean up the site. In this process dealing the Shelter Object itself is a major objective. It is to be enclosed yet again in a massive arch structure which, we were told then, was to be completed by 2012 at a cost of $1.2bn. ‘Of course’, the Chief Engineer told us, ‘this cost and date are only indicative, since we have no way of finding the exact situation until we begin work…..’ The Arch is designed to have a life of 100 years — the half-life of much of the radioactive materials it will enclose is over 500 years. So we hope over the next century someone will come up with some good ideas. So far from it being completed by 2012, work on the Arch is now scheduled to commence in 2017.
We very nearly didn’t get to eat at the Chernobyl plant, having spent so long dawdling at the Shelter Object and then at the newest building in the complex, presented by the European Union, the function of which is (or, to be more accurate, would be, as it was scheduled to start actual operation the next year [maybe]), the processing of contaminated materials from the site. But, operative or not, it was formally opened in April 2009 so we were amongst its first visitors. We all immediately commented on the striking signing on the building, which was perhaps not entirely diplomatic in its effect. Inside was a nightmare of winding corridors and staircases taking us to the upper levels where people will be working. The materials — both elements of the closed reactors and other contaminated objects — are to be brought into the plant using systems which minimise human handling. They will then be placed by robots into concrete cylinders, which will themselves then be filled with concrete and stored in underground pits on the site which will then be topped up with further levels of concrete. By the time the 500-year half-life is over I imagine the European Union will no longer be around so that if the solution turns out to have brought with it more problems — as many of the ‘solutions’ to the Chernobyl disaster have done to date — there will be no one around to blame.
At least this facility has one useful button which seems to have been lacking at reactor no. 4. Our erratic progress brought about a crisis in logistics, and we were sternly informed by Oksana that we had time for lunch, or to see the Dead City, but not both. Emergency negotiations brought about the compromise that we could eat as long as we took no more than 25 minutes.
I must say that in many ways the Chernobyl Site Staff Canteen can be commended to the passing wayfarer, save that the reservation of tables by outsiders is exceedingly hard to obtain unless you have Oksana onside. Of course there is the drawback that, as elsewhere on the site, radiation levels are substantially higher than outside the exclusion zone; I don’t know to exactly what extent, as the radiation control necklaces issued to us by Oksana when we arrived at the site were collected from us at the end of the visit without our being told how many roentgens we had absorbed.
But anyway, the taste of the food served up did not seem adversely affected. Indeed the meal — fresh salad accompanied by roulade of cream cheese and red pepper, borscht, chicken and roast potatoes, followed by a sort of sticky bun — was all extremely fresh, and was accompanied superbly by the only beverage on offer, bottled mineral water. The premises seem spotless. I read with interest the detailed sports fixtures of the Chernobyl site teams — for volleyball, soccer, swimming and chess — this necessitated me going down to the far end of the hall, away from the eating area; I couldn’t help noticing that Oksana got up to follow me to the noticeboard, in case I got lost, I suppose — very thoughtful of her. Service was very brisk — as my grandmother used to say, ‘like a yiddisher wedding’, with your plate swept up as you lifted the last forkful to your mouth. And the waitresses were remarkably good looking — a nice bonus for the regulars. An attractive feature of the canteen is the walk-in radiation monitor you can step into on your way out — when I tried it out (to Oksana’s evident disapproval) the light flashed up ‘chisto’ (clean) which was reassuring.
Pripyat is just a few miles from the reactor site, in an inner zone cut off by yet a further checkpoint.
‘38,000 people lived here’, Oksana told us, ‘it was built as a new town for the workers at the reactor. In the afternoon after the explosion, a thousand coaches came here. People were told to take just a few things they needed, they were being evacuated for only three days, then they would return. They were never returned. Some of them were settled in Kyiv, some in Moscow, some in Minsk, all different towns of the Soviet Union. Now of course these are all different countries, we don’t have records of what happened to them all eventually.
‘Now it is illegal to live here, or anywhere in the exclusion zone. The city is empty. We will drive along what was Lenin Prospekt — you know all towns had Lenin Prospekt as their main street in those days — to the central square. You will get out to look around. Do not go into any of the buildings, they are unsafe. Do not walk on the grass, it is unsafe, keep to the pavements and the roadways. Do not go far from the coach. You will have only fifteen minutes.’
We drove down the Prospekt, which was slowly turning into a temperate jungle,shrubs, trees and grass invading the roadway, the pavements, the blocks of flats. On some of the roofs were still to be seen hammer-and-sickle signs, the last left in Ukraine, too dangerous to demount.
‘So there is really no-one here?’ came the question.
Oksana paused. ‘It is against the law for anyone to live here. Still, some people came back. They were born here, they didn’t want to live anywhere else. They came in illegally. They lived off the berries and the mushrooms in the woods. Although it was forbidden. Now eventually the government decided they were here anyway, they allow in some supplies for them, food, medical supplies, some social help. They are all elderly now, pensioners. But actually it is forbidden.’
When we reached the square we found another small bus there, with its tourist passengers huddled around it taking photos. ‘Actually it is not allowed to have more than one bus in one place, so we will take you to another part of the town.’ Thus we were fortunate to visit a far less frequented corner of the dead city, ulitsa Kosygin.
There followed a dreamlike and profoundly disturbing few minutes as we wandered up and down the road, venturing into some of the side streets — taking photographs of –what? Absences? Empty windows, children’s toys still lying in the undergrowth, a lush greenery we knew to be contaminated by radioactivity……
This was the catastrophe I had grown up through the ’50s to the ’80s fearing, along with all my contemporaries, the world when the Cold War had grown hot, human constructs without any humans after an atomic holocaust. Now here was a snapshot, secretly cordoned away in the Ukrainian countryside, that preserved that horrid, familiar nightmare……….