Air Date: Week of April 25, 1997
For eleven years, the people of Beylorus and Ukraine have been living with the aftermath of Chernobyl; the greatest disaster in the history of nuclear power. On April 26th, 1986, at one-twenty-three in the morning, Chernobyl's unit four reactor ripped apart in a series of explosions. The core burned for ten days, polluting virtually the entire northern hemisphere with radiation. Last year, reporter Bruce Gellerman went to the reactor site for Living on Earth where he visited the Sarcophagus, the steel and concrete tomb built to contain the radioactive remains of the plant. Gellerman talks with Steve Curwood about developments at the reactor in the past year.
CURWOOD: For 11 years now the people of Belarus and the Ukraine have been living with the aftermath of Chernobyl, the greatest disaster in the history of the nuclear power industry. On April 26, 1986, at 1:23 in the morning, Chernobyl's Unit Number 4 reactor ripped apart in a series of explosions. The core burned for 10 days, polluting virtually the entire northern hemisphere with radiation. Last year, reporter Bruce Gellerman went to the reactor site for Living on Earth. He visited the sarcophagus, the steel and concrete tomb built to contain the radioactive remains of the plant.
MAN: I've been inside the sarcophagus 4 times.
GELLERMAN: What is it like? What does it look like inside?
MAN: Ruins. Wrecks and all over radiation.
CURWOOD: Bruce Gellerman is in the studio with me right now. Bruce, where do things stand today at Chernobyl?
GELLERMAN: Stand is a good word for it, because they're not standing or they're barely standing. That sarcophagus that I stood outside of at Chernobyl that contains the reactor ruins is falling down.
GELLERMAN: Yeah. Yeah, you can see birds flying into the cracks in the roof. When it rains the water drips down, becomes radioactive and goes into the ground. It's a mess, and they're afraid it's going to fall apart.
CURWOOD: So what are they going to do?
GELLERMAN: What they want to do is they want to foam the place.
GELLERMAN: Yeah, foam. Like, you know, the stuff that you can blow into your walls to act as insulation.
GELLERMAN: Well, it's basically the same thing. This company, called Eurotech, it's based in California, has developed this foam. They pump it in and it has 2 features that they're interested in. One is it would shore up the sarcophagus that's now falling down. And second, it would prevent the spread of radioactive dust, and that's the real problem inside the sarcophagus.
CURWOOD: Yeah, but foam. I mean, how long could that last?
GELLERMAN: This foam they hope will last between 200 and 300 years. They're going to test it in a few weeks at the site of Chernobyl. And they believe that it won't burn and that it can absorb an extraordinary amount of radiation before it would start to deteriorate.
CURWOOD: So this is just sort of buying some time.
GELLERMAN: Buying expensive time.
CURWOOD: What about the health of the people who live near the Chernobyl reactor?
GELLERMAN: Boy, that's really a hard question, because the numbers are all over the map, Steve. One of the interesting things about reporting about Chernobyl is there's such a lack of information, hard numbers. You ask the Chernobyl Union, which represents the liquidators, these 800,000 people who helped remediate and clean up the mess, and you get tens of thousands of deaths and 70,000 cases of cancer and a quarter of a million thyroid cancers. And you ask the International Atomic Energy Agency and they say oh no, no, no, it's measured in a couple of hundreds.
CURWOOD: Now, we've heard that Chernobyl led to a lot of thyroid cancers in children in the area.
CURWOOD: What do we know about that today?
GELLERMAN: That is the only single number that people seem to be getting in agreement.
CURWOOD: And that number is?
GELLERMAN: About 1,000 children, now. It's a many, many-fold increase, particularly in Belarus are registered and have been officially validated as having thyroid cancer, which is very rare in children.
CURWOOD: So, Bruce, it seems like the children are the ones who are paying the biggest price from the Chernobyl disaster.
GELLERMAN: Yeah, that's absolutely true. It's very dramatic and very sad. The BBC sent reporters into Belarus, and they found that one orphanage, which had about 200 children, they found 12 had heart disorders, 90 had eye defects, 20 had liver problems, and 30 had thyroid problems. Now, if you ask the Ukrainians or even Belarus officials, they'll tell you that's impossible. Well, according to the BBC, it happened.
CURWOOD: Bruce, what's the lesson to be learned here from the Chernobyl accident to prevent future Chernobyls?
GELLERMAN: Steve, you know, there are 12 Chernobyl-type reactors still out there, so-called RBMK reactors. Exactly the same as Chernobyl. In fact, some of them are even larger than Chernobyl. The one in Ignolina, Lithuania, for example. What they've done is this. They're not shutting them down for the foreseeable future. So they try to figure out ways of making them safer. The operators have been given further instruction. They've enriched the core to make it more stable. They've created procedures which prevent them from doing the same things that led up to the Chernobyl disaster, this ridiculous experiment that they were running at the time. Those should prevent another Chernobyl. But you can't be sure. The West wants these things shut down, and they want them to shut it down yesterday. But the Ukrainians, the Lithuanians, the Russians, they say we either need the electricity for ourselves and our consumption, or we need it to sell. And we're not ready to shut these things down and they're safe, by the way.
CURWOOD: Would it be worth it to the United States and Western Europe simply to write a check to the former Soviet Union to take care of these reactors?
GELLERMAN: Well you know, Steve, it's an interesting question because if there was an explosion at Chernobyl in the ruined reactor, it would only recontaminate the30-mile zone around the reactor, which is basically evacuated now. If there was a Chernobyl-type explosion in Lithuania, existing reactors in Russia, it would be definitely worth it because the final price tag for Chernobyl is going to be measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
CURWOOD: Bruce Gellerman is with member station WBUR in Boston. His last trip to Chernobyl was in 1996. Bruce, thanks for taking this time with us.
GELLERMAN: My pleasure, Steve.
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