My Chernobyl Reaction
The highlight of my recent trip to Europe was a visit to Chernobyl. I was attracted by the idea of going there out of an interest in history, science, and tragedy. The idea of entering an “exclusion zone” something so dangerous and exclusive also had a certain appeal. Before going, I did my best to research the safety and weigh the risks of radiation exposure. The information on this matter is variable. However, my impression is that scientific measures of radiation at the sites are variable. Thus, exposure can be variable. While some areas, such as the amusement park in Pripyat may average 5 microsieverts of radiation per hour, a particular patch of moss or an individual tree may register as more. Any amount of radiation increases cancer risks, but since the average exposure (considering that particularly irradiated parts of the environment are avoided) was less than an international flight, I figured it was safe enough to venture there for a day trip. As such, the journey began with a two hour van ride to Kiev. Outside of the city, the landscape becomes a collection of villages. Mismatched homes with corrugated metal roofs are squeezed close to each other, set amidst fields of hay, sunflowers, and wheat. These villages and fields punctuate an otherwise forested environment of tall pines and thick birches. This forest was thick and ancient looking. The villages themselves seemed frozen in time, with little economy but farms and perhaps timber. Yet, they were connected to Kiev by bus stations.
As we neared Chernobyl, the sense that things were frozen in time only deepened. (I traveled to Chernobyl through Solo East as a day trip.) At the 30 km exclusion zone, we were met by a military check point. The soldiers at the check point checked the tours paperwork and our passports, then we were allowed to continue. Actually, about 6,000 people work within the exclusion zone. One elderly woman lives within the exclusion zone, cut off from electricity, buses, and society-though the rest of the workers commute or stay at a hotel in Chernobyl. With that said, the exclusion zone isn’t exactly a ghost town as soldiers continue to work there. The reactors that did not melt down continued to operate through the 1990s with the last one closing in 2006. In any event, we continued towards the 10 km exclusion zone, making a stop at a military base once used for missile detection and an abandoned kindergarten. There was a second check point at the 10 km exclusion zone, where once again paperwork was checked. I looked for signs of a sickened earth, but aside from the abandoned and rusted remnants of humanity, the forests seemed healthy and thick. There was a tranquility as schools, bus stops, and a base slowly disappeared into a voracious forest. The forest gave way to a field. The road curved and suddenly I saw lakes (cooling ponds) and several reactors. A 5th reactor was nearly operational at the time of the disaster and a 6th one was being constructed. Like everything else, the reactors were frozen in time (or in a state of decay). Among them was reactor 4, entombed in a silvery gray cement sarcophagus. This was breath taking.
Tens of thousands of workers were deployed to stop the spread of radiation. 10,000 miners were extracted from all over the Soviet Union, put to work digging a tunnel under reactor 4. The fear was that molten radioactive material would cause a second explosion as it seeped into the ground (potentially meeting water trapped under the reactor). Lead was dumped onto the reactor and robots could not withstand the radiation from irradiated graphite rods. Soldiers had to do the work that robots could not so that the reactor could be sealed. The sarcophagus had to be built offsite and assembled like a puzzle, fitting together perfectly. This assembly consisted of 30 min shifts, as any longer would result in deadly doses of radiation. Thus, the containment of the disaster cost human lives, labor, and health on a scale that is impossible to imagine. I stood outside of reactor 4, in awe of the horror, labor, and history of containment. The sarcophagus will soon be replaced. The next one will have to be replaced in another 100 years. Like this, humanity will have to attend to containment for generations. The radiation reading on a Geiger counter was 6 micro Sieverts. The highest reading during the trip was a nearby forest (the red forest). The red forest has since been bulldozed and buried (with growth of a new forest). Still, the new forest registered 16 microsieverts (with only a minute or two of exposure).
Near the reactors were cooling ponds. The ponds were once used to raise catfish, as these fish could withstand the higher temperature water. This seemed resourceful. The fish have since been abandoned and now flourish in the pools. Some are as large as children.
Beyond the reactors and forest was Pripyat. It was a model town built in the 1970s for reactor workers. It seemed like a place of hope and relative prosperity, with such luxuries as a super market, swimming pool, stadium, hotel, coffee shop, and tree lined streets. Trees have overtaken much of the city. The crumbling remains of the community are hidden in a forest. A soccer field has turned entirely into a forest. An amusement park set to open on May Day rusts to ruin. The city is empty. The evacuated populace can return once a year. As a tourist, I was very privileged, as I could pay to spend the day there…given special rights over those who once lived there. I entered apartments and a school and stepped over cracked sidewalks. Weather, time, and trees have damaged most of the structures. The city was liquidated five times (given new pavement, cleaned, radioactive dust removed). There was an early hope that people could return, but the despite the efforts it is not habitable and likely won’t be for 20,000 years.
Reaction: I love travel that challenges me and makes me think. Chernobyl raises many questions. The first is of course the question of nuclear energy. I think standing in the center of catastrophe you can see very clearly the danger of when something goes amiss. When things go wrong with nuclear energy- they go very wrong- and for a very long time. Despite the failings of the Soviet Union in reporting this disaster, great effort went into containing it. This raises another question. What should be done when disaster strikes? The people of Pripyat were not given a choice. They were lied to and made to leave. This made the evacuation fairly swift (busing people out in a day or so). Authoritarian power was used to move people and to have people clean up the mess. How would the U.S have done things differently? Would poor and elderly people be left behind? Would poor people and people of color be made to clean up the mess because of the choiceless choices of capitalism? Would there be more transparency and choice? When terrible things happen, how can governments act quickly and efficiently without coercion? Then there is the question of tourism and myself. What are the ethics of traveling to such places? It is a place that is closed to former residents, but not tourists. I was brought there by curiosity and adventure, certainly hedonistic consumption of experiences. I find it meaningful and interesting, but how can one visit such a place and still respect as more than just a tourist attraction? It is hardship and tragedy. Anyway, more than my other travels this year it raised many important questions.