Commentary: A tour of Chernobyl, 20 years after

By Trish Williams-Mello
May 10, 2006
Climbing into an ancient relic of a bus in front of the hotel in Kiev, Ukraine, I somewhat hesitantly began my trip to the 30 kilometer exclusion zone surrounding the ruins of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
Along with many of my colleagues, there last month for the anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear power plant accident, I felt as if we were traveling through a time warp back to the early 1980s, back to the Cold War, prior to glasnost and perestroika and everything since.
Two hours north of Kiev we arrived at the security gate on the border of the exclusion zone. We began our tour with a briefing at the Chernobylinterinform, a public relations office, after which we continued on into the exclusion zone.
We were able to leave the bus and walk around in only a few areas within the zone, after being strictly warned not to walk on or touch any of the vegetation.
Walking around Pripyat, once an elegant and rather elaborate city built to house Chernobyl’s workers and now a ruin, the only sound that broke the silence was the interminable clicking of my colleagues’ radiation monitors.
It was as though a death-shroud was still spread over the entire region – suffocating what sparse life was left. Where were the wild horses and other wildlife I was told to expect? I could count on one hand the living beings that I saw there – a bird, a bug and one very strange looking dog.
Today there are only 338 of the original 200,000 residents living within the exclusion zone, these few having returned illegally in spite of the contamination. They do not want to leave their homeland despite the unseen dangers of the radiation.
The accident, caused by human errors and poor design, climaxed when an explosion ripped through the Number 4 reactor at Chernobyl at 1:23 a.m. on April 26, 1986. It left its mark on the entire world, most severely on Ukraine and its neighbors Belarus and Russia but also on other European countries, which received more than half of the contaminants released.
Radioactive gases, fuel and debris from the reactor were also hurled into the atmosphere. Over 1,800 tons of carbon within the reactor ignited and burned for nearly 10 days. It has been difficult to determine the actual amounts of contaminants released and number of persons affected because of the secrecy, falsified medical data and inaccurate records.
As I traveled through the region, I became aware that the veil of secrecy surrounding the accident and its aftermath has only partially been lifted, even after twenty years. During the three-day conference that I attended in Kiev later that week there were many discussions about the struggle for truth concerning the Chernobyl disaster. The full human cost is just beginning to be understood.
There have been numerous reports released about Chernobyl with greatly differing predictions of morbidity and mortality. Two recent studies, one commissioned by the European Parliament and one by Greenpeace International, estimate excess cancer deaths as 30,000 to 60,000 and somewhat greater than 90,000, respectively. In contrast, the International Atomic Energy Agency, known to be a supporter of nuclear energy, reports only 4,000.
It is honestly very hard for anyone to put this much devastation and contamination into context unless you have seen it. Standing outside the fence in front of the sarcophagus over the damaged reactor, one imagines a tornado or hurricane having struck this facility, carrying its deadly nuclear guts up into the atmosphere to ride the clouds as an angel of death, spreading deadly hands of disease and deformity over a vast area.
It reminded me of a biblical plague, one that will continue to kill, deform, devastate and contaminate for many generations to come – the people first, but also their homeland.
People making decisions about nuclear power must think how their decisions today could affect the world many generations into the future – as did the American Indians. One mistake, one human error, and all future generations will suffer. Think about it.

Williams-Mello is operations director for the Los Alamos Study Group, a nuclear weapons watchdog group located in Albuquerque.

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