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Chernobyl...25 years ago this spring
Note: I wrote much of the following five years ago for my “Wall Street History” column but in light of current events in Japan thought I’d resurrect it here. I had been in Kiev, Ukraine, in the spring of 2006 and visited the museum for Chernobyl that they have there. When reading this you’ll notice some parallels to today and Japan’s Fukushima disaster.
On the evening of April 25, 1986, workers were shutting down one of four reactors at the Chornobyl (the correct spelling, but from here on I’ll employ the more commonly used ‘Chernobyl’) nuclear power plant for regular maintenance. But they decided to use the exercise to conduct a safety test; to see if, in the event of a shutdown, enough electricity remained in the grid to power the systems that cooled the reactor core, so they turned off the emergency cooling system, a totally unauthorized action.
For various reasons, including a design flaw in this particular model of reactor, a chain reaction of events was then set in motion and at 1:23 a.m. on April 26, there was a power surge, and then a series of chemical explosions that were so powerful they blew the 1,000 ton cover off the top of the reactor.
A phone call woke Lyudmilla Shashenok in the middle of the night. Her husband had been involved in an accident at Chernobyl. At first she thought it was nothing serious, but when she went to the hospital she realized it was far worse.
“It was not my husband at all, it was a swollen blister,” she told the Associated Press. He was connected to a breathing apparatus and Lyudmilla, a nurse, told her husband, Volodymyr, “This is the end.” He died a few hours later.
Volodymyr and 30 others, 29 of whom were firefighters, died either that day or within two months from radiation poisoning. All were buried in lead-shelled coffins. They were heroes.
You have to picture that the firemen from both the plant and the nearby city of Pripyat were sent into a raging, radiation-filled inferno but somehow put out the main blaze. At the museum in Kiev (70 miles from Chernobyl), they have some of the uniforms worn by those first firefighters and it was truly pitiful; basically nothing more than a poncho and a gas mask.
But then in the first hours and days, few realized just how bad the situation was. More radioactivity spewed into the air than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs combined.
April 26 was a Saturday and while the fire at Unit Four was put out, the people at Pripyat, a model town built to house power station staff and their families and just one mile from the plant, celebrated in the unusually warm spring weather. Sixteen weddings took place.
But the radiation was spreading, unevenly, across much of Ukraine and Belarus, though it wasn’t until early on Monday morning, April 28, that Swedish authorities sounded the alarm, having detected fallout twice the normal levels found in the atmosphere in their own country. When confronted, Soviet authorities refused to admit that anything out of the ordinary had occurred. Swedish diplomats threatened to file an alert with the International Atomic Energy Authority and, finally, at 9 p.m., Moscow issued a terse, five-sentence statement:
“An accident has occurred at Chernobyl nuclear power station. One of the atomic reactors has been damaged. Measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of the accident. Aid is being given to the victims. A government commission has been set up.”
It took two weeks for Soviet officials to begin to really come clean.
“Until now the possibility of a catastrophe really did exist: A great quantity of fuel and graphite of the reactor was in an incandescent state,” said nuclear physicist Yevgeny Velikhov.
Incredibly, it took 36 hours before authorities decided to evacuate Pripyat, while the evacuation of nearby villages took several more days. Meanwhile, in Kiev, five days after the accident citizens went ahead with May Day celebrations.
Outside the Soviet Union, where information was more free-flowing, it was nonetheless difficult separating fact from fiction. On April 30, for example, CBS News anchor Dan Rather spoke of “enhanced eye-in-the-sky views that U.S. intelligence says is a reactor-gone-wild still in progress and a second reactor possibly melting down.” Death tolls of up to 2,000 were being reported by UPI and parroted on the networks.
As it turns out there was little chance of the initial fire spreading after day one, but in the first week of May radiation releases began rising again, and there was a very real fear the molten reactor core “would either burn its way through the base of the reactor, or that the base would collapse, bringing the molten nuclear fuel into explosive contact with a reservoir of water beneath.” [BBC News]
The concern was not just that the second explosion could be worse than the first, but that the water supply for Kiev could be contaminated.
Yevgeny Velikhov told Pravda on May 13, “The reactor is damaged. Its heart is the white hot core. It is as though in suspension down below, in a special reservoir, there might be water.
“How would the white-hot core of the reactor behave? Would we manage to keep it intact or would it go down into the earth? No one in the world has ever been in such a complex position.”
But despite all the heroic measures taken on the ground, including the fighting of the fire and the erecting of a vast concrete and steel sarcophagus above the reactor that summer, a danger still exists to this day and a new sarcophagus is being built to cover the damaged reactor. At least that was to be the case until they ran out of money, if I remember correctly. In addition, an 18-mile exclusion zone is still in place and Chernobyl remains one of the most radioactive spots on Earth.
Mikhail Gorbachev had been in power for only about a year when Chernobyl was struck by disaster. It took two weeks before he came before the Soviet people and the world.
“Good evening, comrades. All of you know that there has been an incredible misfortune – the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. It has painfully affected the Soviet people, and shocked the international community. For the first time, we confront the real force of nuclear energy, out of control.”
In 2006, to mark the 20-year anniversary, Gorbachev wrote an opinion piece that I first saw in the Daily Star. Following are a few excerpts.
“The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later. Indeed, the Chernobyl catastrophe was an historic turning point: there was the era before the disaster, and there is the very different era that has followed.
“The morning of the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear station on April 26, 1986, the Politburo met to discuss the situation, and then organized a government commission to deal with the consequences. The commission was to control the situation, and to ensure that serious measures were taken, particularly in regard to people’s health in the disaster zone. Moreover, the Academy of Science established a group of leading scientists, who were immediately dispatched to the Chernobyl region.
“The Politburo did not immediately have appropriate information that accurately reflected the situation after the explosion. Nevertheless, it was the general consensus of the Politburo that we should openly deliver the information upon receiving it. This would be in the spirit of the glasnost policy that was by then already established in the Soviet Union.
“Thus, claims that the Politburo engaged in concealment of information about the disaster is far from the truth.
“In fact, nobody knew the truth, and that is why all our attempts to receive full information about the extent of the catastrophe were in vain. We initially believed that the main impact of the explosion would be in Ukraine, but Belarus, to the northwest, was hit even worse, and then Poland and Sweden suffered the consequences.
“Of course, the world first learned of the Chernobyl disaster from Swedish scientists, creating the impression that we were hiding something. But in truth we had nothing to hide, as we simply had no information for a day and a half. Only a few days later, we learned that what happened was not a simple accident, but a genuine nuclear catastrophe – an explosion of Chernobyl’s fourth reactor.
“Although the first report on Chernobyl appeared in Pravda on April 28, the situation was far from clear. For example, when the reactor blew up, the fire was immediately put out with water, which only worsened the situation as nuclear particles began spreading through the atmosphere.
“(Chernobyl) opened my eyes like nothing else: it showed the horrible consequences of nuclear power, even when it is used for non-military purposes. One could now imagine much more clearly what might happen if a nuclear bomb exploded. According to scientific experts, one SS-18 rocket could contain a hundred Chernobyls.”
Now some of the above is a bit disingenuous on the part of Mr. Gorbachev and part damage control as well as legacy building. The Soviet Union handled the situation miserably, but at least Gorbachev began to see the light.
As for Chernobyl’s lasting impact, coupled with Three Mile Island it has certainly been far-lasting on the nuclear power industry, particularly in the United States. Proponents of this power source are paying the price for incredible incompetence and, in the case of Chernobyl, a poorly designed model of which about 11 still exist in Eastern Europe today.
The human toll is less certain. Estimates on deaths directly related to April 26, 1986, vary from 4,000 to up to 90,000. The former is probably closer to the truth when one looks at the prevalence of thyroid cancer in the contaminated areas. The estimate of the economic cost ranges into the $hundreds of millions.