PRIPYAT, Ukraine – This year has brought some sobering anniversaries. Everyone likes a round number and 2016 has handed down a straight flush of elegiac reports on disasters past: the 30-year marker of the Chernobyl explosion of April 26, 1986, and last month, the five-year remembrance of the meltdowns in Fukushima Japan.
Rather than offer any comforting capstones to these events, however, reports from the areas of these calamities continue to tick off fresh, unforeseen consequences of the irresponsible, or just plain naïve, uses of nuclear power.
In short, these disasters – unlike many other industrial and environmental catastrophes of our time – seem to have no real endpoint. While Fukushima grapples with another dump of radioactive water into the sea, Chernobyl is still, three decades on, having trouble securing radiation within the sarcophagus of cement dumped over the No 4 reactor to squelch radioactive releases.
Bellona’s executive director and nuclear physicist Nils Bøhmer has taken his camera to the exclusion zone to document the freeze-frame of history to find much of the industry-scape virtually unchanged since the days following the catastrophe (published below this article).
“Disaster overwhelms all reactions that were normal in a society before it takes place,” Sergei Mirnyi, who was 27 at the time Chernobyl exploded and who worked as a liquidator after the disaster, told Bellona in an interview. “The actual disaster starts after the CNN moment, and the camera crews pack up and go – then the people are left alone and alienated.”
For now, more than 200 tons of uranium remains inside Chernobyl’s No 4 reactor, which exploded at 1:23 am that April morning during a safety test.
In the terror of the ensuing 10 days, the nuclear fuel continued to burn, issuing clouds of poisonous radiation and contaminating as much as three quarters of the European continent, hitting northern Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, especially hard. Farmers in the area still till radioactive soil.
More than 600,000 liquidators – a loose term enveloping, police, fire fighters, military, like Minrnyi, and state employees – were rushed to the site with minmal protective gear and hardly any plan to try to extinguish the carcinogenic blaze.
Still no word came from the Kremlin as to what had happened. Afraid of besmirching their image, Soviet authorities kept a stone silence as the radiation crawled north.
On the hush-hush, they did evacuate 48,000 residents of the city of Pripyat, 3 kilometers from the site of the explosion, but this wasn’t ordered until the afternoon of April 27, a whole day later. Children’s toys, family keepsakes, curtains eerily swishing through windows that are no longer there testify to the panicked exodus.
It wasn’t until two weeks later that Sweden, noticing mysterious and growing spikes in their own radiation monitors, sounded an alarm – the beginning of a long tradition of Scandinavia alerting the world to Russian nuclear calamity.
Communist Party Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev, only two years on the job, finally went live and admitted to the disaster on May 14, two weeks and four days after it happened, something many of the shadowy figures behind him opposed.
But Gorbachev forced the magnitude of what happened into the open – his first serious foray into the Glasnost that would five years later bring down an empire
Soviet authorities responded by relocating 116,000 people from the 30-kilometer exclusion zone surrounding the destroyed reactor. In following years, the number of evacuees swelled to 230,000. All the same, 5 million Belarusians, Ukrainians and Russia’s still live in areas tainted by persistently high radiation levels.
Chernobyl’s remaining three reactors, incredibly, continued producing electricity until 2000, when pressure from the West finally shut the last of them down.
The ultimate solution to trapping the radiation came in the form of erecting an enormous cement sarcophagus over the remains of reactor No 4, something many senior engineers foresaw as a mistake. Liquidator Leonid Lvov of St. Petersburg, who was tasked with designing a containment structure, told Bellona the sarcophagus decision was a “fiasco.”
“They wouldn’t listen to those of us who wanted something more permanent – they wanted to show something big had been done even if it probably wouldn’t work,” he said in an interview. “It was only a matter of time before the cement heated, cracked and suffered collapses – and by 2005 it did.”
What impact that radiation had on those affected by the disaster remains a source of bitter debate.
The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) reported in 2005 that about 4,000 long-term cancer deaths would result among those who received the highest radiation doses.
In 2006, Greenpeace challenged that data, and based on Belarus national cancer statistics, which forecast 93,000 cancer deaths in Belarus and 60,000 in Russia, and estimated the combined death toll for Belarus and Ukraine would reach 140,000.
A 2008 report from UNSCEAR again stirred roaring controversy when it reported only 30 of the 600,000 liquidators sent to the site in the disaster’s immediate aftermath were killed.
Because of the massive resettlement, however, many experts say a clear death toll may never emerge, as those who left may have been exposed and already died.
In 2010, construction of a moveable 30,000 ton steel barrier – called the New Safe Confinement – to cover the No. 4 reactor began with the goal of trapping radiation within for the next 100 years. The €1.5 billion structure was financed by donations from more than 40 governments managed by the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development. Its scheduled completion is 2017.
But a funding shortfall of $100 million leaves many nervous about how the reactor’s spend fuel will be stored. And it’s still in question as to who will pay for the barriers continued operations once installed.
Even when the new shelter is in place, the surrounding exclusion zone of around 2,600 square kilometers will remain uninhabitable – and it will take another 20,000 years before people can live near the plant again.
Meanwhile, wildlife has flourished in the absence of humans. Those who’ve made the 30-year-anniversary trek to the site report that elk, deer, wild boar, horses, foxes, and wolves now rule the streets of the abandoned towns. How the radiation is affecting them is still unclear.
All photos by Nils Bøhmer. Click to expand to full size.