Editor’s note: April 26 is the 30th anniversary of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer visited the former Soviet Union 11 months after the catastrophe and was the first American journalist to enter the surviving power plant. He recalls the experience in this article that was originally published in the Los Angeles Times on April 9, 1987.
CHERNOBYL, Soviet Union — On the train to Kiev, the bearded and mirthful Soviet oceanographer Lev Khitrov bursts into his American companions’ sleeping compartment laden with a fresh supply of cabbage rolls, salami, his wife’s lemon cakes and a jar of vodka which, he says, with a twinkle of the eye, is the best way to ward off radiation.
Richard Wilson, Harvard physicist and internationally recognized nuclear power expert, accepts the vodka but denies its medicinal effects. He does, however, claim that the cigarette Khitrov is puffing poses a greater health risk than the radiation likely to be encountered the next day on a rare tour of the site of the world’s greatest nuclear power disaster.
Chernobyl’s story is yet unfolding, and as Sergei Komarov, the plant’s new chief engineer, would put it the next day: “There are still more questions than answers.”
Life Far From Normal
Almost a year has passed since the blast on the morning of April 26, and, as the first American journalist to enter the plant discovered, life in the area is far from normal. Although two of the Chernobyl power station’s reactors continue to generate electricity, a third is being decontaminated and the fourth is permanently sealed in a concrete tomb.
The work force must be bused in from safe sites nearby, and although some of the 135,000 local residents who were evacuated have been permitted to return, the whole area has the feel of a military crisis center.
The two-hour car ride from the Kiev train station to the Chernobyl power station required high-level approval from authorities in Moscow and a local police escort to pass through the various checkpoints that begin just outside the Ukrainian capital’s city limits. The purpose of the security, Soviet officials say, is to keep the roads free for vehicles involved in repair of the plant and to stop people from returning to this pastoral land to fish, hunt, farm or just picnic.
A rabbit or fish taken in the region could be contaminated by the radioactive cesium that is the explosion’s enduring legacy. It’s still there, buried in the ground, stuck in the tar roofs and roads and nestled on the river bottoms.
Cesium-137 has a radioactive half-life of 30 years, and the barbed wire surrounding the remaining hot spots is much in evidence. It is still not possible to inhabit the town of Pripyat, once home to about 45,000 people. And while some life has returned to the countryside, the most common sights are abandoned homes and barns, their open doors swinging in the wind because nobody is left to shut them.
As spring strips the surrounding land of its snow, the radioactive cesium will be exposed. It is only then that the delicate cleanup can be resumed in earnest and decisions made about the safety of farmers turning the soil and returning to the homes they have abandoned.
Wilson, who gives the Soviets high marks for their recovery effort and increased safety measures, agrees with most experts here that the situation is under control and that life can eventually return to normal, even in Pripyat. Cesium can be washed off the walls of houses and tar stripped off the roofs and roads.
Farming is a trickier matter, since no one knows how deeply the cesium has embedded itself in the soil. If it remains near the surface, rich topsoil will have to be replaced.
Even the most optimistic projections provide for closure of some particularly dangerous hot spots for three or four decades.
The spring runoff will pose further risks to the area’s water supply. At the moment, much of the cesium that was carried into the rivers that crisscross this rather pretty rural landscape has settled into the bottom sediment. But swirling spring currents may disturb the river bottoms with alarming consequences.
For that reason, Khitrov the oceanographer is now Khitrov the river expert, and he makes frequent trips to inspect the waterways near the damaged reactor.
Optimistic, For Now
One can imagine this Dostoevskian character bounding through the pine and birch trees to check his radiation monitoring devices in the rivers and streams, his whimsical smile and quizzical expression a shield against a life that seems unnecessarily irrational. If the numbers are wrong, the water supply of millions, including those living downstream in Kiev, will be threatened.
For the moment Khitrov is optimistic: The sediment should stay put and, some day soon, fishing and swimming will be permitted in what was once a much-loved recreational area for the millions who live in this part of the Ukraine.
But just in case it doesn’t, wells have been dug for Kiev and surrounding villages, and an alternative reservoir water supply has been connected to the city’s pipes.
Khitrov, like the other scientists and officials encountered in Chernobyl, pulled few punches about the problem, self-consciously reflecting the Gorbachev era’s new spirit of glasnost , or openness.
Wait, before you go…
All nuclear reactors at Chernobyl were shut down by 2000. A New Safe Confinement structure is expected to be completed in 2017. (Mond / CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
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