Mikhail Gorbachev himself admitted Chernobyl helped hasten the collapse of the Soviet Union. The cleanup alone cost billions, which further weakened an economy bankrupted by the arms race with America. Additionally, the failure of nuclear power, a critical branch of Soviet industry, dealt a painful blow to national pride in a country where factories and power plants were glorified as temples, and industrial progress was celebrated with stamps, songs, and murals.
-Lev Golinkin, "The Lasting Effects of the Post-Chernobyl Parade"
Before the mini bus pulled out of Kiev's KFC parking lot, destination Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Lara gave us each a copy of the tour company's "Chernobyl News" to read on the 3-hour journey. Ignoring the cheesy "reporter" slant and faux parchment paper, it told a riveting tale of what happened that fateful night thirty-plus years ago: "On 26.4.1986 at 1:24 AM Kiev time, 40-60 seconds after commencing experiment, two large explosions took place at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant of V.I. Lenin". The story goes on to explain how the planned systems test, run to determine if the reactor could maintain adequate cooling water circulation after a shut-down, was a disaster from the start. First, a well-known design flaw in the Chernobyl power plant's RBMK-type reactors complicated routine tests like this one. Then, logistical and staffing issues delayed the test time, and following a shift change, new staff was not aware of the reactor becoming unstable ("reactor poisoning") when operated at the low energy outputs deemed necessary for the test. Finally, in preparation for the test, an engineer inserted the control rods too far, unknowingly creating hot spots in the reactor core. When it came time to begin the test at 01:23, staff proceeded, unaware of the disaster unfolding as alarms were disabled for the emergency shutoff system. Immediately after beginning, at 01:23:40, plant operators pressed the emergency stop button in response to an unexpected and severe spike in power output.
This sudden rise in power input -- eleven times the normal rate -- led to a massive increase in steam pressure, and soon a steam explosion propelled the 2,000 ton reactor cover through the roof of the reactor building. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster was underway. Fuel channels ruptured, severing coolant channels and inducing a maniacal jump in thermal power. Three seconds later, devastating explosions tore through the reactor, starting a fire so intense and toxic that it burned for days and released radioactive material that would later fall as rain across Europe.
A few of Pripyat's citizens, hanging out on a nearby bridge, saw the explosion. They were stunned by the fireworks show coming from reactor four and didn't know whether to be scared or impressed by the odd-colored flames and dramatic mushroom cloud. Hours later when the sun rose, they still didn't know what to think and had no idea that the town's radiation levels already exceeded 200,000 times the normal rate; no official statement was made about the incident, no iodine pills distributed to counteract the effects of radiation. USSR military personnel in protective clothing wandered Pripyat's streets that day, discreetly monitoring the situation but not keeping citizens from going about about their daily routines. Citizen were oblivious to the undercurrent of chaos in their community, perhaps suspecting something but not realizing the mere act of breathing the cool, spring air was a health hazard. Things continued like this for another day, when officials finally ordered a complete evacuation by 14:00 on the 27th. Because there were so few buses in the region, or at least not enough for Pripyat's burgeoning population of 50,000, citizens had to wait for buses to come from other parts of the country; once the buses arrived, the 25 kilometer queue further delayed a hasty departure from the disaster site and allowed citizens to absorb that much more radiation. (Video footage from that day is here.) The people of Pripyat boarded the buses with few belongings, expecting to return three days later. Of course, they never did.
Despite the dramatic evacuation, Soviet and power plant officials continued to keep quiet about the enormous scale of the disaster. Apart from a few brief, vague notifications of an incident at Chernobyl, the Soviet Union kept its citizens in the dark about the nuclear calamity that continued to burn out of control. Or at least until scientists in Sweden brought the catastrophic nuclear accident to the world's attention on the 28th when they detected abnormally high levels of radiation following a rainfall near Stockholm. Swedish scientists determined the rain's cloud originated from Chernobyl, and the intensity of the contamination scared the world. The Soviet Union, though, dismissed hysterical responses to Chernobyl and went so far as to continue with planned May day parades across the country. (Later, government officials had photo editors quietly remove them from parade photos.)
Meanwhile, the reactor fire continued burning with temperatures reaching between 120° and 200°. Intense heat combined with radioactive steam should have kept firefighters away, but they didn't and valiantly put their lives in danger to extinguish it. Most of the firefighters who arrived first to the disaster were already dead from radiation exposure and the remainder died that month, so these newer "liquidators" had to be cautious. (Listen to the original dispatch call here.) At first, they were dumping water over the melted reactor via helicopter, but that made things worse so they reverted to dumping sand, boric acid, and lead into the sagging dark hole. (Much of the lead vaporized and was later found in the contaminated bodies of children born to "Chernobylites".) At least 600,000 people, including liquidators, worked to contain and clean up Chernobyl's disaster, either voluntarily or by government mandate. And because the Soviet Union, a government coming apart at the seams by this point, kept the power plant open to continue producing power from the remaining reactors (which makes me sad, that lives were risked so people would have the power to run their appliances without interruption), many liquidators were sent into the site for seconds at a time to contain the contamination. And when the radiation became too intense for them, robots were sent in to control the damage.
After the explosion in 1986, engineers encased melted reactor four in a shell designed to last a few decades, or at least until they could think up a better, safer way to contain the site. Officials say the site won't be habitable for at least another 3,000 years. Recently, a French company designed and constructed a "sarcophagus" to cover the site, rolling it via train tracks over the reactor for another hundred years when -- hopefully -- some genius will come up with an even better solution to deal with the insanely radioactive toxins inside. Despite these measures, though, the world continues to feel the impact of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster thirty-one years later and it's unclear what will become of the site. As Ukrainian photographer Efrem Lukatsky says, "Thirty years after the world's worst nuclear accident, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is surrounded by both a hushed desolation and clangorous activity, the sense of a ruined past and a difficult future".
Visiting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is a bizarre experience, made even more bizarre by the fact that the site was never completely evacuated and sealed off for good. Liquidators continued to work on the site until 1998, swimming in the Azure pool between breaks, and the power plant produced energy until 2000. Many residents continue to live in the town of Chernobyl. With the construction of the new sarcophagus for reactor four and an increase in tourism, the site has sprung back to life in a strange way. Clunky buses, which very well may be from the 1980s, crisscross the urban jungle, emerging from thickets of trees to deliver loads of employees to their morning shift at the power plant. Thousands of workers still commute from nearby Slavutich, a sobering concrete town built for Pripyat's citizens after the disaster. After the Chernobyl incident, tens of thousands of young workers were left with nothing but the power plant to hold on to, so, while I'm surprised that so many people loyally show up for work every day at the site of a nuclear disaster, I understand that's the only option for many if they want to avoid the same fate as Pripyat's buildings.
Grammar school #3
Swimming pool Azure