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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Forgetting Chernobyl

Air Date: Week of

To commemorate ten years since the Chernobyl nuclear plant core reactor meltdown and radiation release in the Ukraine, Living on Earth sent producer Bruce Gellerman to the site of the world's most serious nuclear plant disaster. Narrator Gellerman describes the terrain and the fears he enounters as he visits the entombed sarcophagus of the reactor, as well as with school children, hospitals, people who've returned to live out their days in their highly radioactive homes, with alternative energy advocates, and with a Chernobyl disaster museum curator — whose displays of remembering are rarely visited these days.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. At 1:23 AM on April 26, 1986, in the heart of the Ukraine's best farm lands, reactor number 4 at the V.I. Lenin atomic power station at Chernobyl took off out of control, exploded, and burned. The pillar of fire from the reactor core sent a deadly plume of radiation into the atmosphere that rained down over the Ukraine and neighboring Belarus with 250 times more radiation than the atom bombs that had ravaged Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At first the Soviet authorities hid the extent of the disaster. Nearby residents were kept in the dark for as much as 36 hours. And when the accident was finally announced, it was minimized. Valerie Legasof, Senior Chernobyl Investigator, later admitted, "I didn't lie, but I didn't tell the whole truth." On the second anniversary of the disaster, he committed suicide. Chernobyl played a crucial role in bringing down the Soviet system, and from the radioactive ashes a determined and courageous people carry on. As reporter Bruce Gellerman found during a recent trip to the region, the long-term consequences are just emerging.

GELLERMAN: My guidebook to Ukraine says tourists shouldn't worry about the lingering effects of the Chernobyl disaster. By now, it says, the impact of that tragic event is largely past. The book is wrong.

(Laughter echoing)

GELLERMAN: In a market in downtown Kiev, fruit and vegetables are stacked in neat pyramids. Meat hangs by hooks. You can't see any signs of the country's nuclear nightmare, but it's here.

MAN: [Speaking in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: It's everywhere. If you have radiation it's everywhere. It's in all products. It has to be there, in my opinion.

GELLERMAN: Does that not frighten you?

MAN: [Speaking in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: We don't know for sure. I don't walk around with a counter.

GELLERMAN: This man sells dried white mushrooms. [To man]: but I've heard that the mushrooms are not safe.

The man pulls out a slip of crumpled paper stamped with an official seal certifying the mushrooms are clean of radiation. Another seller offers advice.

SELLER: [Speaks in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: Radiation is very afraid of vodka.

GELLERMAN: What else is good against radiation?

(A woman speaks in Russian)

GELLERMAN: An old woman is quick to add that horseradish and garlic also scare away radiation. So does red wine. Today, a decade after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded, contaminated food is the greatest source of radiation, and fear is a fact of life. One of the only facts in a time when truth is hard to come by.

(Traffic sounds)

GELLERMAN: It's a 2-hour drive from Kiev to Chernobyl, along rolling hills and peat bogs. Ukrainians say the soil here is so rich you can eat it; at least that's what they used to say. Today a thousand square miles of land around the plant is off-limits to most people.

PETRO [Speaks in Russian]:
TRANSLATOR: As the sign says, it's impossible to live here constantly.

GELLERMAN: Eighteen miles from Chernobyl we enter the exclusion zone. My driver Petro is quiet as we pass empty farms, homes, churches, and schools. A week after the disaster, 135,000 people were permanently removed from this area.

(A car door opens, then closes)

PETRO [Speaks in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: It is our tragedy. This was a very good place to live. What can we do? This is our fate.

GELLERMAN: Signs warn the infrequent visitor against forest fires. Trees store Chernobyl contamination. A fire here 2 years ago re-released an immense amount of radiation into the air. To visit Chernobyl requires special permission, and an official guide. We are joined by a plant technician who will monitor radiation levels. He sees the look in my eyes.

(The technician speaks in Russian)

GELLERMAN: He says we're completely safe. Still, I'm given special clothes to wear: a Russian hat, burly coat, cotton socks, gloves, leather boots, and a face mask, just in case.


GELLERMAN: A faded mural on a vacant apartment building welcomes us to Pripyat. The town was once home to 45,000 residents, plant workers and their families. The sign reads, "The party of Lenin leads us to a Communist victory." My guide, Alexander Shevchenko deadpans an old party slogan. The people of Pripyat really did invite the friendly atom into their homes. He laughs alone in the silence.

(A beeper among the footfalls, voices speaking)

GELLERMAN: But for our Geiger counter, the apartments are ghostly quiet. Plant officials delayed the evacuation of Pripyat for a day and a half. By then, Alexander says, the clouds of radioactive iodine had delivered intense doses to the town's children. [Asks Shevchenko]: Why did they wait 36 hours before they evaluated them?

SHEVCHENKO: They waited for the order from Kremlin. They knew about the danger, but they waited for the instructions.

GELLERMAN: So now 10 years after the accident --

SHEVCHENKO: They want to celebrate, make this 10th anniversary and then forget, as if nothing happened. I think it is forever; it shouldn't be forgotten.

(A creaking door opens)

SHEVCHENKO: Hard to forget it. Hard to forget this abandoned city.

(Another creaking door opens. Then, back on the road, someone speaking in Russian)

GELLERMAN: The radiation readings jump as we pass the remains of a contaminated forest buried in a field. It's a 2-mile ride from Pripyat to the plant. Chernobyl dominates the desolate marshland. It's a white, windowless monolith, a mile long and nearly a football field high. Giant power lines hum with current. Two of Chernobyl's 4 reactors are still on line, generating electricity. Improvements have been made, but they have the same fatal design flaw that doomed unit 4.

(Car doors open, close)

GELLERMAN: We're standing at ground zero. Today, what remains of the melted number 4 reactor is entombed in a massive 24-story Sarcophogus. But even 300,000 tons of steel and concrete can't contain the intense radiation within.

MAN [Speaks in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: four point five milirems per hour.

GELLERMAN: The levels on our Geiger counter double when we point it at the Sarcophogus. It's the most radioactive building on the planet. Like a shroud, the Sarcophogus is painted black. To stand here, see it, and know what happened is frightening. An ill-conceived safety experiment in the middle of the night; inexperienced and incompetent operators deliberately disregarding safety rules, disarming half a dozen emergency systems. Failing to understand the fatal flaw in the reactor's design. A collision of catastrophic mistakes creating an uncontrollable chain reaction. Imagine the horror the reactor operators must have felt when they realized what they had done, when they hit the panic button, knowing it was too late. The core erupted into a nuclear volcano. It burned for 10 days. Eight tons of radioactive material: iodine, cesium, strontium, and plutonium, rained down on Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. The amount of radiation released at Chernobyl was 250 times that of atomic bombs dumped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. After a minute here, Alexander wants to leave this place.

SHEVCHENKO: [After speaking in Russian] To the car.

GELLERMAN: Why is that?

SHEVCHENKO: Because it's rather high. The regulation is like this, 5 rem is the limit.

GELLERMAN: Five rem. The limit and you're out.


GELLERMAN: Now you've been working here how many years?


GELLERMAN: How many rem do you have?

SHEVCHENKO: I don't know. (Laughs) And I'm not interested in.

GELLERMAN: Why aren't you interested in learning?

SHEVCHENKO: Because it is easier to live. I've been inside the sarcophagus 4 times.

GELLERMAN: What is it like? What does it look like inside?

SHEVCHENKO: Wrecks. Ruins. Ruins, wrecks, and high level radiation. Only 2 minutes allowed.

GELLERMAN: The Sarcophogus was supposed to isolate the doomed reactor for at least 30 years, but the hastily built tomb leaks. Alexander says thousands of gallons of water now cover the melted reactor core. Studies indicate sediment downstream, in Kiev's reservoirs in the Black Sea, is contaminated with radioactivity. The senior scientist in charge of the Sarcophogus thinks it may collapse within 10 years, recontaminating the local area. Exposing workers and the few hundred people who have made the forbidden zone something of a refuge.

(A man speaks in Russian, then says, :Oy, oy, oy, oy, oy, oy, oy.")

GELLERMAN: Sixty-six year old Ivan calls his cat Moosha, and affectionately pats his gigantic cow. They stand in the mud next to the barn Ivan recently built. Ivan and his wife Oolyana live in the ghost town of Ohpacheechee. Oolyana remembers the day officials ordered them to leave. She said it was like a devil stole everyone's soul.

OOLYANA [Speaks in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: The next day, in the morning, one of my friend's Motya came from the bus stop and said there was an explosion at the atomic station. We were laughing, saying, okay. We didn't know what it was. But then we were forced to move. We shouted, yelled, and screamed.

GELLERMAN: But within 2 years Ivan and Oolyana secretly moved back to their farm. In the decade since the explosion, 700 elderly residents have come back to the forbidden zone to die in the place they've always lived.

IVAN [Speaks in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: I built my house and I am tied to this place, and I want to be here and not to live in a house where the ceiling can fall on my head.

GELLERMAN: Ivan rolls a cigarette out of newspaper and drinks homemade vodka. Oolyana prepares sweet dumplings in cream. Every bite they take, every breath is radioactive. [To Ivan and Ulyana]: They told you it was dangerous. Isn't this a dangerous place to live?

IVAN: Nyet. No, no, no.

GELLERMAN: It's not dangerous, says Ivan, and Oolyana agrees. Their grandchildren visit them during the summer.

(A piano plays and children sing)

GELLERMAN: The 10-year-old children in Miss Valintina Vassiliyevna's third grade class in Kiev practice a spring song in preparation for this year's May Day celebration. A decade ago, 5 days after Chernobyl exploded, Communist officials in Kiev ordered students and their parents to march in the annual May Day parade, but many party officials had already evacuated their own families to the south. Doctors believe children like these, born around the time the reactor exploded, face the greatest health risk. [To the children]: I'm going to do a story about Chernobyl, okay? Who knows about Chernobyl, what happened?

BOY 1 [Speaks in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: Officials didn't say anything about Chernobyl, only afterwards. They didn't say anything that day. They didn't want people to panic.

BOY 2 [Speaks in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: I can definitely say when there was no Chernobyl people were healthier. There was no radiation. I can definitely say when they close Chernobyl there will be much less radiation.

GELLERMAN: Miss Vassiliyevna looks on approvingly, sadly.

GELLERMAN: How are these kids? Are they as good as 10-year-olds any place in the world?

VASSILIYEVNA [Speaks in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: I wouldn't say so. They are a bit weaker than children 10 years ago. Sometimes they get nosebleeds and they are sick more often. Still we love our life; we are happy about our life.

GELLERMAN: Recently, 23 seniors from this school were given Army physicals. All 23 failed the health exam; they were too sick. Researchers estimate 1.2 million children were exposed to heavy doses of Chernobyl radiation. Hardest hit was Belaurs. In the city of Gomel, the levels of radiation were 130,000 times normal. Today in the most contaminated areas, 70% of the children suffer from one or more chronic diseases. The most serious and dangerous so far is childhood thyroid cancer. Before Chernobyl, thyroid cancer was extremely rare in children. Now the number of cases has exploded: a 30-fold increase in Ukraine, a 100-fold increase in Belarus, and researchers are now predicting the rate of childhood radiation-induced leukemia will soon begin doubling.

(A loud thud; a door shuts)

GELLERMAN: The paint is peeling, the electric outlets exposed and the furniture is broken at a hospital in Ivankovo, just beyond the dead zone. Dr. Felix Konstantinovich recalls that in the first months after Chernobyl exploded, the hospital received plenty of medical supplies. Now there is almost none, yet he has more patients to treat.

CONSTANTINOVICH [Speaks in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: There are lots of problems from Chernobyl. There are blood diseases, lots of children with enlarged thyroids. And I've seen one case of cancer. Stress is certainly a problem, but the main cause is radiation. How do I know? We didn't have this before Chernobyl.

GELLERMAN: Since Chernobyl, reports of blood, respiratory, and nervous disorders have skyrocketed throughout the region, especially in Belarus where immune disorders and gastrointestinal problems are widespread. But it's difficult to link these cases directly to Chernobyl, and many researchers are skeptical. Dr. Uri Antipken of the Ukrainian Institute of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Pediatrics in Kiev, has studied 2,500 women who were pregnant at the time of the disaster.

ANTIPKEN [Speaks in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: Our researchers show there have been structural changes in the placenta of a woman exposed, and researchers in Bristol, England, have collected radionuclides in the placenta itself.

GELLERMAN: So far, though, Dr. Antipken says he hasn't seen any problems in the children of these women. But the World Health Organization says mental retardation, behavioral problems, and nervous disorders have increased among kids born in contaminated areas. Meanwhile, Japanese researchers report a doubling of birth defects in Belarus, and today in Ukraine nearly 1 child in 5 dies before or soon after birth. Many couples can't conceive at all. Research conducted by the Ukrainian Institute of Reproductive Medicine shows that young Ukrainian men have the lowest sperm counts and the highest infertility rate in the world. Scientists admit they still know very little about the effects of chronic exposure to low levels of radiation, like those persisting in the wake of Chernobyl. And much of the Chernobyl research done so far is shoddy, often producing contradictory findings. One of the most harshly criticized reports was released by the International Atomic Energy Agency 5 years ago. IAEA researchers acknowledge they lack the time, money, and data to do a proper survey. Nevertheless, Agency officials concluded no health disorders could be attributed directly to radiation exposure. They attribute widespread stress and anxiety to radiophobia, an unfounded fear of the effects of radiation. But whether or not people's fears are justified, the consequences are very real, especially for those who received the highest doses. Eight hundred thousand workers cleaned up after the Chernobyl disaster. Some got a lifetime exposure to radiation in just 90 seconds. Today thousands of these so-called liquidators are invalids, their prospects often bleak. [Asks a worker]: Did you work as a liquidator?

(The man answers in Russian)

GELLERMAN: Vasily Federov received 4 times what's considered a safe lifetime dose of radiation. He has a heart condition. I met him in a Kiev hospital where clean-up workers are treated. He says some of his fellow liquidators can no longer cope.

FEDEROV [Speaks in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: During the last half year I know 3 men who committed suicide. Maybe they didn't have strong characters. Maybe they were depressed.

GELLERMAN: Today suicide is the number one cause of death among liquidators according to a psychiatrist who works with them. The despair is evident.

FEDEROV [Speaks in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: We have no medicine, but I need it. So I asked my wife to find it. I said do anything you can to get it.

GELLERMAN: The day I met Federov, the government had shut off the heat to the liquidator's hospital. It hadn't paid its bill in 3 years. The hospital, like Ukraine itself, is broke.

(Rock music plays loudly)

GELLERMAN: In the Kiev office of Greenpeace, activists preview a video they've made to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Chernobyl.

(Rock music continues)

GELLERMAN: Chernobyl has crippled Ukraine's future; at its peak spending on the disaster ate up more than 15% of the country's budget. Now the government has no choice but to cut back drastically. Still, Greenpeace's Chernobyl coordinator, Olexei Kaduka, says the effects of the catastrophe will continue to drain the nation far into the future.

KADUKA: It consumes huge amounts of money still. In order to deal with the consequences, to decontaminate the area, to keep Sarcophogus in place, I cannot say that it is safe but at least they are spending a lot of money on that.

GELLERMAN: Ukraine is asking the West for $2.3 billion in aid to stabilize the Sarcophogus and to help shut down the 2 remaining Chernobyl reactors by the year 2000. Some of the money would also be used to complete 2 new nuclear power plants. Olexei Kaduka of Greenpeace says that's the ultimate irony: that after all it's been through, Ukraine continues to bet the few chips it still has on more nuclear power.

KADUKA: As the official policy now in Ukraine is to develop the nuclear industry, and 10 years after, well, it was a problem but now it's not any more. So we should develop our nuclear industry. There's a really strong wish to forget about the catastrophe.

GELLERMAN: Just 10 years after a disaster that will affect them for centuries, Ukrainians are already weary.

(A heavy door shuts)

GELLERMAN: It's quiet on the third floor of the Kiev Museum of History, where historian Anna Poldolskaya oversees the Chernobyl exhibit. She began documenting the history of Chernobyl soon after the explosion. But Soviet authorities banned the exhibit until 1991. Today her collection includes letters, photos, top secret documents, and eyewitness accounts.

(Poldolskaya speaks in Russian)

GELLERMAN: This handwritten testimony describes the signs of acute radiation poisoning in the doomed victims. A metallic taste. Vomiting. Ringing in the ears. Thirst. When the Chernobyl exhibit first opened, people crowded into these 2 small rooms. Today, Anna Poldolskaya says only a few people come to this place filled with lies and secrets, portraits of heroes who fought the radioactive blaze, and stories of heartbreaking sadness. [To Poldolskaya] Do you think people have forgotten Chernobyl?

POLDOLSKAYA [Speaks in Russian]
TRANSLATOR: No, I don't think so. We just got used to that. We didn't forget, it's just that in such an economic situation people don't go anywhere. Museums, anywhere, ever. People are just tired of this life.

GELLERMAN: Historian Anna Poldolskaya says it's the task of the future to write the whole truth about Chernobyl. She now has a personal as well as professional reason to search out the facts and consequences. Recently she says her 17-year-old son began showing symptoms of leukemia. For Living on Earth, this is Bruce Gellerman.



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