I can’t say I really knew a lot about what happened 130 km north of Kyiv, now Ukraine’s capital city, in April 1986.
But walking round the museum, seeing the remnants of everyday village life that survived – broken window frames, crucifixes, wall paintings, and then the hundreds of photos of children from the villages – some of whom seemed to be recognised by groups of school children also visiting the museum – it struck home what a human disaster this was.
Photos of the ill-equipped medical staff and rescue workers, helicopter rotors hanging from the ceiling, a cosmonaut style suit, rescue workers wearing just overalls and face masks. A reminder of a disaster which produced individual acts of heroism. And on the way out seeing the names of all the villages which had been evacuated and no longer existed.
In those days the Russians were able to keep it quiet and children continued their preparations for the May Day parade and it wasn’t until radiation was picked up outside the soviet union that the truth came out. Villages were evacuated, 30 high-rise blocks of flats in Pripyat abandoned. Exclusion zones were set up – zone 4, the most contaminated, stretched 30 km from the site and became known as the zone of alienation. A similar zone was established in neighbouring Belarus.
People were forbidden to live or work there unless dealing with the contaminated site when they worked in shifts. Gradually some people moved back in as the rural life was all they knew. Also many people who felt marginalised by society, squatters or self-settlers, moved there. Police had to clamp down on looters who were removing goods from the abandoned flats, ignoring the radiation levels – hot goods indeed.
Lithuania has a sister reactor to Chernobyl at the Ignalina plant in Visaginas, up near the borders with Latvia and Belarus. It was a condition of their entry to the EU that they decommissioned it – something many Lithuanians resented as the Russians who built it told them it was safe. Now Lithuanian is more dependent on buying energy from Russia which is also building a new nuclear facility in its Kaliningrad enclave in the Baltics.
Chernobyl is the worst nuclear accident to date with imprecise numbers of dead and the resultant fatalities. It rates as 7 on a scale of 0 – 7 in terms of how bad a nuclear accident can be. Thirty two years ago the Three Mile Island accident in America was rated as a 5, similar to the rating for the accident in Japan at Fukushima.
This week (13 April 2011) Fukushima accident has been upgraded to a 7. This is the highest level but experts say, because of the early action taken which prevented exposure for the local population and the fact that there was no fire as at Chernobyl, the impact will not be as serious as at Chernobyl.
I heard today that a farmer in Japan had committed suicide because he could see no future now that radiation had contaminated the ground where he and his neighbours grew organic vegetables. Reflecting on what happened at Chernobyl you can perhaps understand why. As if the earthquake and the tsunami had not wreaked enough damage, the nuclear accident will probably have more far-reaching effects.
Greenpeace say that milk and mushrooms are amongst foods still contaminated in Ukraine following the Chernobyl disaster. Ukraine also needs over £500 M to build a new concrete shell over the plant as the existing one is leaking (Reuters 4 April 2011).
News today (20/4/2011) that donors have pledged half a billion euros to help construct a shield to cover the damaged reactor. It will be the biggest moveable structure ever built – over 100m high and 257m long x 164m wide.
Updated 24 May 2011: Ukrainian officials in Chernobyl have opened up the site and the 18 mile exclusion zone to tourists! After the tragedy 50,000 people were evacuated, although some have returned illegally, but there is little left of value after 25 years of scavenging.
Visitors have to follow a specific route and strict guidelines but they can wander around the playground planned for the May Day celebrations and explore the ghost town of Pripyat and some of the tourists take their own geiger counters – just in case.