Letter from Chernobyl

By Bruce Dodds | 1989-06-01 12:00:00

The town of Chernobyl is a pleasant 90-minute drive from Kiev, capital of Ukraine and third largest city of the USSR. A two-lane highway winds north past flat, broad fields and stands of trees. Villages hug the road, their pretty wooden cottages surrounded by high plank fences. Beyond view to the east, the river Dniepr delays its lengthy journey to the Black Sea and swells for a time to become the Sea of Kiev. Chernobyl lies at the mouth of its tributary, the Pripyat.

Twenty kilometers upstream the Lenin Atomic Power Plant, source of Chernobyl's fame, rises from flatlands south of the Pripyat. Since 1986 the plant, together with Chernobyl and the surrounding area, have comprised a thirty- kilometer radius zone operated by a "Combinat" of the Ministry of Atomic Energy of the USSR. The Combinat coordinates all activity inside. Entry is by pass only, at military checkpoints.

Approaching the zone, we take our place in a procession of military vehicles. At the checkpoint, queues of troop trucks full of soldiers line the roadside in both directions. Other soldiers wearing gauze dust masks check papers and direct traffic. Inside the zone a steady stream of green oncoming traffic buzzes past. Small tanker trucks spray water on the pavement surface.

In Chernobyl we arrive at Combinat headquarters, a low temporary building set among evacuated houses and apartments. The Director of Information, a bluff, handsome man named Pavel Pokutny, takes us up to lunch in the cafeteria, where he provides a briefing and answers questions.

The accident at the Lenin Plant occurred in the early hours of April 26, 1986 when Reactor Number Four exploded while being taken temporarily out of service. Fire enveloped the reactor and its control room. Two workers died immediately, 29 others later of radiation sickness. The explosion blew radioactive debris high into the atmosphere, where prevailing winds blew contaminants across northern Europe and around the world. Only with the greatest difficulty was the damaged reactor brought under control.

In October 1986, when further disaster had been averted, the Combinat was formed. It controls the power plant, zone traffic, communication, and security; it monitors radiation levels and supervises the decontamination effort.

The Combinat's mandate includes workplace safety for its 8,000 zone employees. All personnel must wear special devices called "accumulators," which record radiation exposure, monitored twice monthly. Initially, levels of radiation were so high that recognized norms were quickly exceeded. In 1987, the maximum permissible annual radiation dose was 25 rems. Later this figure was reduced to 10 rems and now it is 5, in keeping with international standards. Exposure at the power plant is now about 2.5 rems annually.

Most vulnerable are the Civil Defence Forces engaged in the monitoring and decontamination of soil and vegetation. Only reservists over the age of thirty are employed in this work over a six-month duty period. Their water trucks limit the radioactive dust in the air.

At the Lenin Plant itself, the three reactors built before the ill-fated Number Four have all resumed normal operation. Some power production was restored within two weeks of the accident. Staff, who were evacuated to Kiev from the early days of the cleanup, commuted to the plant, observing a work regimen of 15 days on and 15 days off. For this they received three to five times their usual wage. More recently the staff has been housed some 50 kilometers away in the "clean" zone, while a new town called Slavootich was constructed for them. By last fall the first 2500 workers' families had moved into their new homes, an hour's train ride from the plant. In time all personnel will move to Slavootich.

All of the zone's 100,000 residents were evacuated and no one unassociated with the zone's work remains, with one exception. In the south there is a barely-polluted rural area. Twelve hundred people, mostly retirees, were allowed to return home there. "It is difficult to communicate with them," Director Pokutny sighs. "They survived the Nazis and they fear nothing." Indeed, it seems so. A recent clip on Canadian television revealed several of these fearless babushkas berating Mr. Pokutny for their hardships in front of visiting journalists.

Much of the zone remains contaminated - some indefinitely uninhabitable - but background radiation has been reduced to four to eight times normal. To date, 500,000 cubic meters of topsoil have been removed and buried in special vaults. Because plants are easily penetrated by radiation, trees and bush have been cleared. Grassy areas have been cut and re-cut. Re-planting is problematic, since new vegetation must be more resistant to radioactivity.

Damage to human beings is harder to assess. Two hundred and seventy people survive, having suffered various degrees of radiation sickness. Two of these have given birth to apparently normal children since the accident. At present, the incidence of cancer in this group is stable. In all, some 600,000 people absorbed the radioactive isotope iodine 131 into their thyroid glands and require regular monitoring. These people face a considerable risk of cancer.

Not surprisingly, the Chernobyl experience has shaken public faith in atomic power. Public concern has been expressed in Armenia and Lithuania about existing plants. A proposed plant was rejected by the Byelorussian government. There has been talk of a new facility in the Crimea.

Construction of reactors like Chernobyl Number Four has been halted and completion of reactors Number Five and Number Six at the Lenin Plant ruled out. Safety considerations and efficiency are being emphasized. Rethinking, however, is not retreat, and all of the officials with whom we spoke felt that nuclear power is essential to the country.

Promised improvements in material well-being are central to the legitimacy of the current political process. The Soviet economy is expanding vastly, requiring a corresponding expansion of the energy sector. The current Five Year Plan calls for doubling the number of nuclear power plants.

I recall our conversation with Yuri Keplin, Deputy Chairman of the Kiev District Soviet, who worked in Chernobyl in the aftermath of the accident. His thinking is typical.

"For the near future, we must rely on atomic power because other sources of energy are limited. But future atomic plants must be built in areas of low population. Building this plant so close to Kiev was silly. Moscow provided the design but it was Kiev who adopted the project. Our Academy of Sciences had rejected it. If Kiev had turned it down, there would have been no plant.

"Thermonuclear power, the fusion of hydrogen, is our future. It will be safer and cleaner. We are getting closer to this. Within ten years, we will have the problems solved and fusion plants in place."

After lunch we make the twenty-minute drive to the power plant. The environs of the complex are bleak. The ground is scarred from massive excavation and shorn of much of its ground cover.

We pass an area called the "red forest" because the tree leaves had turned color in the days after the accident. Now there are only ridges of churned-up earth. Wildlife abounds in the remaining forest, though deformed births of livestock have been reported.

The Lenin Plant presents itself like a squadron of gigantic, concrete ships at anchor on the flatlands. A man-made water channel diverted from the Pripyat flows past the plant. Two of the giant concrete forms are the cancelled Reactors Five and Six. Reactor Five was 85 percent complete. At the main building, long rows of buses are waiting for staff. The lawns and flower beds have been dug up and paved. Everywhere the asphalt is wet. The radiation level is 0.3 millirems per hour - eleven times normal.

Inside the plant we go to the medical clinic. Dr. Vitaly Vozhmirkov, a 44-year-old gynecologist, is responsible for all medical services within the zone. He has a staff of 400.

Dr. Vozhmirkov recalls the morning of the accident. "I was awakened at 4:30 a.m. My immediate responsibility was to see to the distribution of iodine prophylactics throughout the territory. At first we were unaware of the enormity of the accident and after the second day, when it was decided to evacuate, there was no time to be frightened. Our job became the organization of new medical centres.

"Different Soviet republics and foreign countries contributed medical aid," Dr. Vozhmirkov points out. "The Finns gave an entire outpatient clinic with the highest technology."

We are shown through the clinic. It provides general physical care, including rehabilitation therapy, massage, and acupuncture. There is also a counselling centre for the workers requiring psychological help.

Reactor Four is a short drive from the main building. We see a stark monument, long and low against the sky. A huge black bubble rises from its middle, the visible portion of the "sarcophagus," the metal and concrete casket in which the reactor is entombed. We step down from our bus. From April 26th to May 6th , 1986 radioactivity readings here were in the thousands of millirems per hour. This afternoon Director Pokutny's meter reads 2.4.

When Number Four exploded, chain reaction within the reactor core ceased, averting a meltdown. Nonetheless, the superheated reactor threatened to burn through the floor, contaminating the water table and risking further explosion.

Mr. Pokutny explains, "Beneath the reactor, miners and subway engineers dug a tunnel and pumped in concrete. In all, 300,000 cubic meters of cement and 10,000 tons of metal were used to construct the sarcophagus. Sensors were installed in the sarcophagus to indicate temperature and neutron flow. The reactor cooled naturally and there is no longer any reaction. The other working reactors now emit ten times more radiation than the sarcophagus.

"Concrete had to be poured around the burial sites to prevent contamination of the water table. Also, 150 dams were built to contain surface runoff. Given the prolonged emissions, the condition of the Pripyat is not that bad. On the bottom of the station stream there is contamination, but its concrete has been strengthened."

Our last stop is the small city of Pripyat, an eerie place five kilometers from the plant. Pripyat's 50,000 residents were evacuated 36 hours after the accident. Built less than 20 years ago, it is now a ghost town. We pass through deserted streets. The only sound is a distant chain saw - reservists removing radioactive trees. All of the former residents' personal effects and furniture had to be destroyed. Compensation equivalent to $20,000 to $30,000 Canadian was paid to each displaced family. The city may be re-inhabited in the near future.

Darkness begins to fall. We make our way back to Kiev through the gathering gloom. I ask Director Pokutny's assistant, Yevgeny Protsenko, who has joined us for the drive, what will be done with the most contaminated areas.

"Our problems have become a laboratory for scientists to learn about radioactivity. For instance, a centre has been established to study the decommission of reactors when they reach the end of their thirty-year life expectancy."

I ask how long it will be before these areas are safe again. Yevgeny is silent for a minute. "Three or four generations?" I ask. "Not as long as that, we hope," he replies.

Yevgeny outlines the staggering cost of the disaster. Nine billion roubles (one rouble equals $2 Canadian) have been paid in compensation to the victims. Another 560 million roubles were raised privately by volunteer subscription throughout the USSR to assist the disaster victims. Direct losses from the accident to housing stock, enterprises, and infrastructure, exceed 4 billion roubles. Indirect losses in foregone industrial and agricultural production total 8 billion roubles. Yevgeny's 20 billion rouble tally does not include the cost of the ongoing cleanup effort, nor does it reflect the impact on neighboring European countries.

In truth, final reckoning of losses from the Chernobyl disaster is impossible. It will be many years before the extent of the accident's impact on health and the overall environment is fully understood. But even if the consequences were fully appreciable in the present, we lack the means to assign value to the loss or impairment of much of what has been damaged. How do you quantify the damage when communities are dispersed? What is a city or a river or a district really worth? These are the real questions of Chernobyl.

Bruce Dodds is an Associate Editor of PEACE.

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1989

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1989, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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