Chancing it at Chernobyl

(A)nd there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; And the name of the star is called Wormwood…                                                                                                                                                                -Revelations 9 v. 10 & 11 

Some people dream of moving to the big city for opportunity and adventure. Others leave their cozy villages because the nuclear reactor in the next town self-destructed overnight. 

My first stay in Kyiv was six years after reactor number four of the Chernobyl nuclear power station exploded, spewing hundreds of tons of radioactive material into the atmosphere and then around the world. By the time I arrived in Ukraine, the naked and exposed uranium that had burned through the floor of the reactor into the earth had only been contained with a hastily poured coffin of thick concrete, called ‘the Sarcophagus’ by the locals. The health and lives of hundreds of brave men and women from all over the territory of the USSR was the price to cover the reactor, in order to save Ukraine, and the wider world, from further deadly poisoning and contamination. 

As a young foreigner in Kyiv, I did not understand the psychological stress that this catastrophe put on the residents of my neighborhood. I met several families who had been moved there from towns and villages closer to the disaster site, but never spoke with them directly about the events of 1986. It was assumed that everybody knew what had transpired and what the effects would be for the coming millennia. I only came to understand their concerns and behavior twenty-seven years later, after I visited the Chernobyl exclusion zone, and saw what had been left behind–and what hadn’t.

In 1992, Ukraine was in an economic free fall. The national economy had collapsed with the demise of the Soviet Union. The command economy of the time was spurned, but a new model had yet to take hold. The citizens of this newly independent country used the past as a crutch to propel them into an uncertain future, with no real momentum. The economic situation, coupled with the nuclear disaster a few years earlier, lead to almost everything I saw and experienced to seem odd and dysfunctional. I was blinded by the arrogance of my youth. 

I remember the sweet, unassuming woman with thyroid cancer whose husband never went shopping without a Geiger counter. I thought him eccentric for showing us that the apples he offered us for dessert were not contaminated. 

There was also our landlady who would scold us for not peeling potatoes before cooking them. She would hold a clean potato under my nose while shaking her own head. “You can’t smell it! You can’t taste it!” She told me “But it could be unclean! You must always peel the potatoes.” We baked our potatoes with the skins on anyway. 

I was disbelieving when the locals told me of the Bible verses that named the great star which was foretold would fall from heaven, ‘Chernobyl’. I had to read it with my own eyes before I was convinced. 

The Exclusion Zone around Chernobyl extends thirty kilometers in every direction from the disaster site. Within this area there is little to no economic activity, few residents and no plans to build here for centuries to come. The level of contamination of the surrounding area after the accident required the evacuation of whole cities. Fifty-thousand people alone were evacuated from the newly built city of Pripyat, and relocated all over the country. The town had been built specifically to support the planned continued expansion of the reactor site. In one night, tens of thousands of lives were thrown into chaos. 

With the forests and towns filled with radioactive fall-out, villages had to be razed and buried; many were literally removed from maps. Those places could never be inhabited again. The forest closest to the reactor turned red in those first days; the trees and grass were scorched, but did not burn. Today still, along the roadside of the ‘Red Forest’, brightly colored, triangular warning signs signal radioactive hot spots in the ground.

Standing near one of these radioactive sinkholes, makes a Geiger counter chirp like a caged canary. One shouldn’t linger.

Radiation cannot be felt, smelled or tasted. It passes through a human body without being registered by the nervous system. Received in small, short doses, the human body can repair the damage to cells and DNA caused by radiation passing through it. Left exposed too long and too often to a source of high radioactivity, the human body will break down and show signs of radiation poisoning. What must be avoided at all costs is the inhalation or ingestion of microscopic radioactive particles. This is what is called contamination. Once inside the body, it never comes out. This microscopic sliver of radioactivity, once inside, will never stop irradiating the organs and blood around it. The damage becomes irreversible. The comparatively short lifespan of the unfortunate soul who absorbs it, will become even shorter, and very painful. 

Throughout the city and villages that I visited in the Exclusion Zone, there was obvious evidence that the local authorities had not been able to keep people away in the weeks and months after the mass evacuations. Looters, determined to make a profit from the tragedy, found their way in and out, disassembling and smuggling out anything they could hide in their cars or trucks. For what they couldn’t hide, (and I speculate) bribes were paid to the guards to look the other way. What was too heavy to move without equipment, was stripped of all useful parts and left behind. 

In the forest ghost-village of Zalisa, the naked frame of a small red car, a Lada-Zhiguli to be exact, lies on the ground stripped of every removable part. Every hose, cable and bearing, screw and bolt has been taken. 

In homes and other buildings that were not buried, the doors, floorboards and window frames are missing. 

In Pripyat’s deserted supermarket, where vegetables and fruits were once sold, rotting couches, tables and mattresses can be seen still arranged in circles around campfires.

Was this done by those who didn’t leave with the women and children? Or maybe by those who came back to pick the spoils of an abandoned modern city? 

The question begs to be answered: What happened to the materials and parts that were obviously smuggled out of the heavily contaminated Exclusion Zone? Who is handling a contaminated steering wheel of a Lada-Zhiguli in their hands everyday as they commute to work? Whose summer dacha has been built with radioactive floorboards and doors? How many homesteaders returned to their homes to pick apples and berries in the autumn and to harvest the potatoes they had planted in the ground? There are many stories and anecdotes of unsuspecting people in the city falling ill from the materials and foods from the Exclusion Zone, sold through black markets all over the USSR. It was then that I understood that the strange behavior I considered to be paranoid in 1992 were in fact things that I should have been doing to protect myself as well.  

The modern village of Chernobyl is a joyless town, but not for the obvious reasons. It is a well kept, small town in a peaceful rural setting. But it is populated only by workers who are involved with the slow dismantling or guarding of the defunct power station and the empty reservation around it.

There are no children, no playgrounds, no parks, no cinemas, no bakeries, no pets, no weddings, no families. It may very well be the quietest, most peaceful place on earth, yet, one cannot sit on the ground to enjoy a forest picnic in the warm sunshine. The only sign of regular outdoor activity here are the groups of tourists brought in for three hours to experience the sobering, dystopian theme park that is the modern Exclusion Zone. 

I was hesitant to step off the bus when it stopped in the shadow of the new bunker that encases the failed power station. Standing next to the ill fated fourth reactor at the end of the tour, produced in me a surreal feeling of disbelief. While background radiation levels were no higher standing fifty meters from ‘Global Ground Zero’ than in any modern metropolitan city, I felt the flats of my feet tingling through my boots as I considered the destructive force of the raw elements encased in the walls behind me. To stand safely on this spot where only thirty-three years earlier, men and machines fought against all odds to contain and cover the melted reactor core, stirred a sincere emotion of wonder and admiration for those who faced down the heat of the sun, refusing to step back until it had been tamed. 

A star has indeed fallen from heaven…and it will be with us for a very long time.

 

 


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