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Reflections and Lessons from the Husky Fire

Reflections and Lessons from the Husky Fire

H. Bradford

5/7/18

I learned about the Husky Fire just before 11 am on April 26th when I was about to leave the Women’s Health Center in Duluth.   A co-worker from Superior rushed into the office and announced that just after 10 am there had been an explosion at the Murphy Oil Refinery, that there are evacuations, and multiple deaths.  The director turned on the television in the lobby, which reported 20 casualties.  My initial reaction was horror and anger.  I felt horror because it seemed as though there were many injuries and deaths.  I also felt horror since I was returning home from Superior after working ten hours at Safe Haven (overnight) and three hours at the Women’s Health Center.  I didn’t know what I would be returning home to or if I would be able to return home.  I felt anger because I just wanted to go to sleep!  I had already worked through the night and into the morning.  It was a terribly inconvenient time to have an industrial disaster.   I texted my housemates Adam and Lucas an alarmed text about evacuations and deaths (which later proved to not be entirely true), finished the last 10 minutes of my shift, and headed home to the unknown of Superior.

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(An image that I believe was used in the Duluth News Tribune)


Traffic was normal on the way home.  For a moment, I panicked that the Blatnik Bridge was closed, as there was a caravan of large street cleaning vehicles blocking access to the bridge.  The bridge was not closed.  The vehicles were partaking in the normal activity of cleaning the streets.  Still, things were clearly amiss as I could see a giant, black cloud in the distance- spreading menacingly away from the Husky Refinery (which I had until that morning thought was the Murphy Oil Refinery.  I was not aware that the Alberta based company, Husky Energy, had purchased the facility in August 2017).  Despite the sprawling black cloud, everything in Superior was oddly normal.  I noticed someone outside doing yard work.  A dog was sitting out in the yard.  Young children were playing in a park.  I thought it was bizarre and reminded me of Pripyat after the Chernobyl accident.  People slept in their beds, then awoke, and went about their business as radiation saturated them.  Chernobyl may seem like an unfair comparison, but oddly, the Husky Fire and Chernobyl both happened on April 26th (a collapsed country and thirty two years apart).   In any event, at that point of time, there was not as much concern.  My roommates didn’t seem concerned yet and the earlier alarm about multiple deaths and evacuations was found to be untrue.  (The word casualty does not mean death, but can mean injury- such as casualties of war.  However, since the word is often used to mean someone who has been killed, there was some initial misunderstanding about the media use of the word.  As for evacuations, as of 11:15 ish when I returned home, there was nothing beyond the immediate area of the disaster (to my knowledge).


I settled into bed, unsettled, but trying not to worry too much.  No one else seemed very worried.  Not the kids playing or person carrying on the yard work.  I spent time looking at the news, but everything seemed to be under control.  Before going to bed, I told my roommate Lucas to shut all of the windows, but he laughed at me.  I think he even made a Chernobyl joke, about how I had been there, and was the expert now.  I couldn’t fall asleep.  The window was shut, but I imagined invisible particles entering the house and breathing them as I slept.  I thought about dying in my sleep or just inhaling carcinogenic debris.  I felt angry again.  I felt mad about having worked the night shift and that I was unable to get the rest I needed.  Lack of sleep often invokes anger in me.  Eventually, I did fall asleep…for about an hour… before Lucas knocked on my bedroom door and said that an area 3 miles around the refinery and 10 miles downwind was being evacuated.  There had been more explosions.  He said he was heading to Duluth.  I was crabby and exhausted, so I said I would just stay in bed.  I pulled two more blankets over my head, as if it would give me added protection from the poisonous smoke.  Lucas texted me what seemed a frantic message that the traffic over the bridge was extremely backed up and he was stuck.  I became more concerned as it seemed that the people of Superior had finally mobilized to escape.  The schools had closed.  I think the area of evacuation at that time was as near as UW Superior (which isn’t that far from where I live).  While I think that I was just outside the evacuation area, three miles is not a magical perimeter- outside of which everyone is safe.  Oh, 3.2 miles- that’s cool!  Those particles are 100% gone at exactly the three mile mark.


I eventually dragged my extremely tired body out of bed.   Tiredness tried hard to battle fear.  But eventually fear won as my boyfriend said he was leaving for work early, but that he thought I should leave the house too.  He said he wanted to know that I was safe.  I am often feel that my needs (such as sleep) don’t matter much to the universe, so it was touching that my safety was concerning.  I told him that I would also go to back to work.  I work at a domestic violence shelter and our employee break room has a futon.  I thought that if I fled Superior, I could go to my job and rest for a while.  It is odd how work can be a place of refuge.  My work is a shelter- so it is equipped to – well, accommodate the needs of people who need a place to stay.  I didn’t rush to go there, but I did call my job to give them a heads up that I would be trying to sleep there.  Once my refuge was secured, I ambled around the house trying to throw a few things together.  My brain wasn’t in evacuation mode.  It was in “What do I need to bring with me to take a nap at work mode?”.   I packed only a few things, such as a toothbrush and some toiletries.  I also took a shower.  Our hot water heater had broken a week prior and had FINALLY been fixed that day.  I went a week with only one shower (which I took at UW-Superior’s fitness center).  So, showering was a priority above escape from the death cloud. Image may contain: sky, tree, cloud, house, plant, outdoor and nature


I snapped a few photos of the cloud on my way out of Superior and then when I arrived in Duluth.  After taking the photos, I was happy to report to work and find that my supervisor had fixed up the employee break room nicely for me.  She gave me new, clean bedding (not the stained, worn bedding the residents end up with) and had turned the futon into a bed.  The shelter had been made aware that CASDA, a domestic violence shelter in Superior, had been evacuated.   Safe Haven was ready to accept people staying at CASDA, but in the end, they went to a hotel.  As for our own residents, they were gathered around the television, watching the news coverage.  The cloud was much larger and darker now.   They asked me questions and seemed happy that I was safe.  That was also very touching.  They are all homeless and have gone through truly awful things.  Still, they had enough emotional reserves left to care about a worker at the shelter (who often make their lives harder by enforcing rules or determining the length of their stay.)  As I settled down and tried to sleep, my mother called.  She did not know about the accident until she drove home and noticed the cloud in the distance.  The cloud from the fire could be seen over fifty miles away in Cromwell.  She offered that I could stay with her.  It was an hour away and I was beyond tired (having obtained about an hour of sleep), so I declined, but said maybe I would depending upon how bad the situation was.

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I really didn’t sleep well.  I checked the news.  There were reports that fire fighters were unable to fight the fire and were just waiting.  It was reported that it could burn for days.  I also read that there were concerns about a tank of hydrogen flouride.  I learned that hydrogen flouride is used at about 50 oil refineries in the US.  I also learned that it becomes hydroflouric acid when it contacts moisture, such as that the moisture of the skin, lungs, eyes, etc.  and causes burns, blindness, fluid in the lungs, and other nasty health effects.  This was the first that I had learned about the tank.  The tank was supposed to be near the fire, but there was no reports of HOW close.  Nor, was there reports that the tank (which was 150-200 feet away from the uncontrollable blaze) was full of a chemical that could kill thousands of people if the tank exploded.   My brain could not turn off.  There was too much information to process and too much lack of information to ponder.  I may have slept an additional 45 min to an hour, but eventually decided to wake up.  Sleep was simply not on the agenda.   Instead, I woke up, gathered myself, and decided to go for a walk.  By then, it was nearly 7pm and there were reports that the fire had been put out and the evacuation would likely be called off later in the evening.  That was encouraging.


Later that night, I joined a few friends for trivia.  I talked to Chris about my concerns about the tank of hydrogen flouride, which she agreed was nasty and would kill/injure thousands of people.  She looked at a google map of the Husky Refinery and we tried to figure out where the tank was in relation to the fire.  This information was not available to the public at that time.  She concluded that it might be one of the smaller tanks by the railroad tracks, as it is unlikely that they would want to transport the chemical that far from the trains that carry it.  This didn’t allay my fears, since these small tanks were not far from the fire (but father away than the ACTUAL tank turned out to be).   Lucas, one of my roommates, decided he was going back to Superior despite the ongoing concern about the tank.  Adam had already been in Superior for several hours, since he needed to take care of his chickens and felt he was safe in the basement.  This made it difficult for me to sustain my concern.  I definitely wanted to go home (since I had slept a sum of two hours in the last day and a half or so).  I hadn’t packed anything.  The evacuation didn’t really come with instructions of what to take or for how long to expect.  Ultimately, I returned to Superior since I didn’t want to be the one roommate out of four who was too chicken to go home.  After all, even the chickens weren’t evacuated.  There is a stigma about being fearful.  It is a sign of weakness.  Personally, I don’t think that I made a rational choice.  I also don’t feel that my house mates were entirely rational about remaining.  But, I think that making smart choices requires information.  I don’t think we had the information required to make smart choices of staying in Superior or not.  The risks of the tank exploding and nature of hydroflouric acid would have been important information.  The suggestion that the evacuation would end as early as 9pm also created false hope and a false sense of security.   Smart choices also require the material support to make a choice.  In my case, in a very real sense I was extremely tired.  By the end of trivia, I could no longer remember my telephone number.  I also could not remember who Anthony Bourdain was (a trivia answer I knew, but could not remember).   I don’t think I had the mental wherewithal to drive a safe distance or make an informed decision.  In a way, I feel that I failed my friends by not being more insistent and concerned for our safety.

 

I returned home sometime after midnight.  I noted that there was a chemical odor in the air, but continued inside to my bed.   The evacuation order was not lifted until 6am.  I was dead tired, but only slept a few hours.  Again, I was obsessed with looking up snippets of news.  But, throughout the night, Facebook and the media were sleeping.   There were no new updates.  By morning, every celebrated how the community came together.  Duluth sent buses to Superior.  Emergency respondents from around the area pitched in.  There were no deaths.  School children were evacuated to the DECC.  People opened their homes to evacuees.  And, the air was said to be normal.  For the most part, life resumed as normal.  Businesses opened.  People went about life as usual.  Despite the air quality being deemed “normal” this seemed impossible, considering that a giant asphalt fire raged on for eight hours creating a plume of black smoke that could be seen 50 miles away.  But, it made me wonder what normal is?  Maybe that amount of pollutants in the air is normal – in places like Los Angelas or Beijing where millions of cars fill the air with exhaust each day.   I considered that perhaps our baseline or our normal is the equivalent of a raging asphalt fire.  What is normal?  Normal does not necessarily equate to healthy….

Lessons:

Conversations: 

The first lesson that I drew from this was that there should be ongoing conversations with friends or loved ones about what to do in the case of disasters.  I feel that we should challenge each other and ask lots of questions.  Where would we evacuate?  Why wouldn’t you want to evacuate? (I have chickens, I like my bed, I feel safe, I don’t like being a guest at someone’s house, etc.)  What would it take to convince you that this is needed?  Where would we take pets?  How would we get somewhere safe?  What are important things  you would want to pack?  I think that these kind of conversations could get everyone on the same page.  There is a social dynamic to evacuating.  People look to each other for cues that a situation is safe or unsafe or if they are too worried or too unconcerned.  I think that conversation could help family groups or friend groups make better decisions in crisis.


 

Expect Disasters:

I feel like a nutty, apocalypse prepared person with a year of food stocked in my fallout shelter.  But really, disasters should be expected.  This is because we live in a profit driven society.   Safety precautions involve increased fixed capital costs to capitalists.  The drive for profits means that there will be short cuts.  I am sure that anyone who has worked anywhere can see this.  Safety is usurped for profits when workers are not properly trained, are given defective equipment, tools or machinery is old or outdated, work days are lengthened, workplaces are understaffed, workers are overly tired, or any of the very ordinary conditions across all sectors of the economy.  Husky Energy has a history of fires and oil spills at other locations and the Superior refinery in particular had a $21,000 fine in 2015 for an OSHA violation related to chemical storage and emergency response.  While the fine was paid and OSHA reported the problem was resolved, the fine is nothing compared to the nearly $10 billion revenue that Husky Energy makes each year.   The drive for profits will always drive the trend towards lack of safety.  Therefore, any work place is a potential source of injury.  However, some work places operate on such a scale or with such dangerous materials that the danger extends from the every day risks faced by particular sets of workers to entire communities.   I remember in 1992, when Duluth and Superior were evacuated due to the benzene spill.  Although I was a child living over 50 miles away, I watched the news as the cloud spread.  I worried that it would come all the way to us.  My father worked in West Duluth (where he had suffered several serious on the job injuries over the years- the individual side of worker safety).  He was among the 80,000 people who evacuated that day.  Thus, I have lived through two disasters of a scale large enough to require evacuation.  Will it be the last?

Struggle is the Only Buffer Against Excesses of Capitalism:

I think this is an important moment for people in Duluth and Superior, since it is an opportunity fight for more safety.  There are plenty of concerned people who want more information and more testing of air and soil.  Many want an end to the use of hydrogen flouride at Husky Energy.  Some want an end to the refinery altogether or have used this as an opportunity to not only critique Husky, but Embridge, which also uses the facility.  The crisis has revealed many gaps in how disasters are handled, how environments are monitored, and how safety is ensured.  If this anger congeals into struggle, we can hopefully curtail some of the worst excesses of capitalism in our community and lessen the risk of future disasters.  The small measures of safety and environmental protection that we enjoy were won by struggle and will only be defended by the struggles of workers, but also social movements like environmental movements.   I have seen some cynicism about the effectiveness of protest, but I think that this is the perfect time for protest, petitions, public hearings, or the number of other methods of resistance which are being planned or discussed.

Challenge Complacency:

Honestly, it is hard to care about everything all of the time.  I have felt fatigued by activism and am often impressed by the amount of emotional energy that others can put into continuing to inform members of our community about this disaster.  I lack that energy.  I care…but I am tired.  Like the day that I didn’t get enough sleep, I just want to pull my blankets over my head and hide from the world.   I commend their efforts.  It is very easy to be complacent.  Should I plant a garden this year?  Should I care?  Everything I eat and drink is inundated with plastics and toxins of some kind.  The air I breathe is full of pollutants from the everyday functioning of our fossil fuel based economy.  At some point in my life, like almost everyone else, I am going to get cancer.  There are thousands of terrible things that happen every moment of every day.  That doesn’t even include the ordinary challenges of simply living.  Everything is terrible all of the time.   The only way to make it better is to fight for a better world  But, that suuuuure is tiresome.   Somehow, we must work together to challenge complacency.   I don’t have an good answer about how to care- but I think it helps to hold on to and grow that kernel of anger.  Anger is frowned upon, especially for women- but I care when I remember something that made me angry.  I am angry that I wasn’t well informed.  I am angry that many people in the world live in the shadow of the next catastrophe.  I am angry that life on our planet is going extinct and that we altering our planet in terrifying, irreversible ways.  I am angry that every day living for workers means potential injury from fast food deep fryers to nuclear reactors.   Yep, there we go.  Anger.  Gotta love it.  It is as refreshing as a hot shower after a week without a hot water heater.

Knowledge is Power:

This is a super cliche conclusion, but really, it is helpful to know things!  I didn’t even know the NAME of the refinery, much less what it does or how it functions.  I still don’t know much about the Husky Energy Refinery.   I am thankful that there are many people in the community who are asking questions and sharing resources to learn more.


I am sure I could draw other conclusions, but that’s all I’ve got for now.  There are other local activists who are far more informed and whose opinions have congealed into more meaningful reflection.   While I have been a lazy activist lately, I am committed to being a part of the struggle in the months ahead.  On Wednesday of this week there will be a protest against the liability waivers that Husky is having injured people sign so that they are not liable for future health problems.   We will all have long memories of the evacuation day.  With time, memories often vanish into novelty.  So, I hope it is not a memory of an isolated event but an ongoing struggle and conversation.

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Travel and My Fears

 

Travel and My Fears

H. Bradford

5/21/17

I am getting ready for another trip and I feel a little afraid.  This time, I am traveling to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan for three weeks.  Like always, I will go alone, though I will meet up with a group of strangers after a few days in Ashgabat.  From there, we will embark on an overland camping trip through the stans.  When I first fantasized about the trip, I imagined the wonder of seeing the dehydrated remains of the Aral Sea.  I imagined myself following the Silk Road through ancient, exotic cities.  I would traverse the rugged formerly Soviet states, admiring mosques, monuments, and a few remaining statues of Lenin.  It seemed very intrepid.  All winter, the trip was abstract.  I read books about the history of the region.  But, now that the trip is less than two weeks away, a new reality is setting in.  I am going to have to bush camp in the desert with scorpions, cobras, and several days without a shower.  I am going to have to navigate Ashgabat alone as a solo female American traveler.  Turkmenistan gets a fraction of the tourists that North Korea gets each year (about 9,000 compared to 35,000).  I am also moderately terrified of contracting dysentery, typhus, or any number of food or waterborne diseases.  (I do have some antibiotics from last year’s trip and was vaccinated last year against a variety of illnesses).   Also, ATM use in those countries is unreliable, so, I will have to carry a lot of cash and hope it is enough for the duration of my trip…and that I don’t lose it or have it stolen.  Internet is somewhat patchy in those countries and my cellphone does not work out of the country.  I have faced that same dilemmas before and fared alright, but, it does make me a little worried.

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The Darvaza gas crater in the Karakum desert- one of the places where I will be “bush camping” in just over two weeks from now.


Fear is not new.  I’ve always been afraid of travel.  Usually, there is this brave person inside of me, who is full of fantasy and confidence.  That person decides on some adventure, which looks great as a portrait in my imagination, but is not as fun as a lived reality.  Let’s call that person “Brave H.” For instance, when I was 19 years old, I decided that I would go to London and Paris alone.  I came from a town of 250 people and had never been on an airplane or road in a taxi.  Go big or go home, Brave H. says…until I am actually trying to figure out how airports work, on my first plane ride, and going across the ocean.  In retrospect, it is really no big deal.  That sort of travel seems easy.  But, to 19 year old me, that was a pretty big deal.  Over fifty countries later, I am still afraid, but the fear changes with new challenges.


Last year, I went to Southern Africa for an overland camping trip in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe.  As the plane took off, I was pretty terrified.  I was terrified before then.  I had never actually gone camping, but somehow Brave H. signed me up for three weeks of it…in Africa.  I was afraid of being alone.  I was afraid of being the victim of crime- sexual assault in particular.  I was afraid of becoming very ill.  I was afraid that I was not up to the challenge of camping or the long days on bumpy roads.  I was a little afraid of insects, snakes, and animals.  Somehow, it wasn’t as bad as I feared. In fact, it was wonderful, fun, and even much easier than I imagined.  It took a few days of camping to come to the conclusion that I was going to make it.  Any small hardship was more than compensated for in the form of astonishing landscapes and animals.

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(A view of Victoria Falls from a helicopter.  I had a lot of anxiety as I had never been in a helicopter before.  But, overcoming fear and anxiety does have its rewards).

I was afraid the year before when Brave H. decided it was a good idea to visit Belarus and Ukraine, entirely alone.  After all, Brave H. wanted to see Chernobyl.  Brave H. wanted to visit a nature reserve outside of Minsk and partake in the weird splendor of the Cold War remnant.  So, that is where I went.  I don’t regret it.  Kiev was really beautiful and there was so much to see.  Minsk was not really pretty at all, but unique.  Neither place was teeming with tourists, adding a sense of bravery to my adventure.  I only spent a few days in each place.  I think that traveling often has waves of fear.  For instance, there is the anxiety of getting from the airport to the hotel without being ripped off or taken advantage of by a taxi driver.  Upon arriving at the hotel, there is elation after overcoming the first challenge.  After that, there are anxieties around finding a currency exchange, navigating the metro system, walking alone in the park, the other individuals staying in the hostel, the mysterious military parade, getting turned around, trying to find the monument to Baba Yar, etc.  It is like this on every adventure.  The ups and downs of figuring things out and staying safe in unfamiliar places.

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I have felt at least a little afraid during each of my trips.  I don’t particularly like being afraid, but I do like the feeling of accomplishment from figuring something out or successfully completing a task or adventure.  I suppose it makes me feel stronger and braver.  Of course, this only serves to inspire Brave H.to dream up bigger adventures and greater challenges.  I am not a robust, energetic, extroverted adventurer.  I am cowardly.  I like books and birds.  I enjoy museums and botanical gardens. I don’t really care for being dirty, lonely, terrified, tired, or sick.  Brave H. won’t stand for that.  Nope.  Life is too short.  I want to see interesting things and test myself.  Granted, there are people who test themselves far more.  For instance, there was a woman in her 60s on my last trip who went scuba diving with alligators in the Zambezi river.  Brave H. wants to be her.   Normal, nerdy, cowardly H. does not like water or all the pressure from being under water.  The same woman climbed mountains and scuba dived all over the world.  She also traveled to the “Stans” for an overland trip.  I will never be one of those amazing adventurers that I meet when I am out traveling.  The ones who inspire Brave H. to concoct an adventure or dream of new challenges.  I will always be afraid.  As I test myself, the boundaries of the fear extends to the next horizon.  I hope that horizon takes me to interesting places.  Maybe I will trek up mountains (at least smaller ones that don’t require actual climbing gear).  Maybe I will learn to scuba dive.  Maybe I will never do those things.  Maybe there is a limit to how far the boundary can be pushed.  It may be limited by experiencing disease or a discomfort so great that it pushes me back into my comfort zone.  Whatever happens, it is my hope that I can one day be that old lady who inspires others with her fearlessness and zeal for life.

dscf4256Brave H. thinks she is a bad ass.   Well, maybe someday it will be true.

Book Review: Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

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Book Review: Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

By Svetlana Alexeivich


This past April was the thirtieth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Last August, I traveled to Chernobyl as part of a larger trip to Belarus, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, and Sweden. While I don’t remember Chernobyl when it happened, I remember learning about it in elementary school and high school. Even at that young age, it captured my imagination. Really, it is hard to imagine it. As a child, I imagined some glittery cloud of poison spreading across Europe. As an adult, having been there, my imagination is even more stilted. It is warped by adventure, bragging rights, and voyeurism. With that said, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, was a necessary dose of lived experience. The book is a collection of interviews from survivors of Chernobyl. It is awesome in the traditional sense of the word. I am in awe of the immensity of the human suffering caused by this event.


The problem with being a tourist is that it experienced as an outsider and consumer. Experiences are packaged and devoured. While I certainly felt the gravity and horror of the Chernobyl disaster as an outsider and drew some lessons from the experience, I could only experience Chernobyl safely (relatively), for a short time, years later, and with the freedom and privilege of a traveler. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster provided me with more material for deeper reflection and understanding. To the people who contributed to the book’s narrative, Chernobyl was hellish. It deformed their babies. It ruined their relationships. It killed loved ones. It poisoned food. It killed painfully, often slowly and gruesomely. It destroyed beloved pets and livestock. It vacated villages and emptied lives. I knew all of this, but I really didn’t FEEL all of this. The book helped me to feel the suffering and desolation of the hundreds of thousands of people impacted by the disaster.

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(Years later, it doesn't seem real.  It is a decaying world of lost things.)

There are a few themes that struck me or made me think a little more deeply. One very common theme was the sense that Chernobyl felt like war. This was because of the military’s role in evacuating villages, the use of military material, a sense of duty in cleaning or fighting the disaster, the mass dislocation of people, a lack of personal choice, leaving things behind, the and destruction of forests, animals, and villages. This made me think about how military or authoritative responses to disasters impact the psyche of a people. Even when natural disasters happen in the United States, it is not uncommon that the National Guard would be dispatched. But, this pairing of disasters with the military must have some psychological impact on people. Perhaps we like to think of this as a benign role for the military, but it is still a display of military power, imagery, and authority. What does it mean to be at war with a disaster? At war with nature? Can governments muster a less militant response? To what degree is authority necessary for public safety?


Another theme from the book was the reproductive consequences of radiation. One woman was told it was a sin to reproduce. Another had a child who was born with no vaginal, anal, urethral opening and other health issues. This required enormous care, endless surgeries, frustration, and hopelessness. I believe I read that Chernobyl resulted in 200,000 abortions in Belarus. Many women had children with severe disabilities. Some women had miscarriages as their fetus took on radiation. All of this amounts to tremendous suffering. Those who chose to have children often had enormous challenges, disappointments, and death. Many women could not have children. Others chose not to. But these are all choiceless choices wherein no one has the agency to make the “right” choice. There is no right choice. There is endless, demoralizing, sickness and suffering. Men were also impacted by the disaster, as they were mobilized as soldiers, pilots, liquidators, and firefighters. I learned in the book that one of the effects of radiation is erectile dysfunction. Discussing this was highly stigmatized, but impacted the relationship prospects of these men. Finally, children who survived or were born after grew up in an environment of death and sickness.

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Another theme was gender roles themselves. The men who were interviewed were stoic and dutiful, if not somewhat fatalistic and nihilistic. Men played an important role in containing the disaster and evacuating villages. If men were not bound by duty and suppressed emotions, they would not be so easily mobilized into self-sacrificing heroics. The men saw themselves as robots. They were like robots, as they literally replaced the malfunctioning robots who failed to remove graphite rods from the roof of the reactor.   Certainly this was an important task, but it was a sentence to a painful, miserable, grotesque death. We make men into robots so they can fight wars, shoot “criminals,” guard prisons, break strikes, and do all of the other violent dirty work that society requires. Sometimes these robots malfunction and strike the women, children, and animals that society deems that they should not. Yet, society does not care of this violence is unleashed against foreigners and “bad guys” (often Muslims and African Americans).


Animals were often discussed. After the disaster, soldiers killed every animal in the exclusion zone, from cows to cats to foxes. Those who were evacuated and some who remained told stories of beloved cats and dogs that they left behind. The soldiers who killed the animals viewed it as a job, but unpleasant none the less. The animals were feared to be radioactive and thus capable of spreading radiation. So, they were killed. In a way, killing pets and livestock represented killing the remnants of civilization. Some animals escaped and became feral, but even the feral animals represented the human life and activity that once was. It was a connection to the former humanity the land. In the absence of humans, wild animals returned. To those who stayed behind, the wild animals seemed a bit fiercer. This might be imagined, but in this vision, the violence and destruction of nature made the animals mean.


Hopelessness was another theme. There is no justice. There is no one to blame. The Soviet Union is gone. The Soviet Union could be blamed for responding slowly, for secrecy, for lying to people, for building less safe reactors, and for instilling in people faith in nuclear energy. But, what happened cannot be undone. People live with the consequences. The magnitude of the problem would have been daunting to any country. Any country would have had to sacrifice human beings in the heroics of stopping the disaster. Again, the wiggle room for choices is small. The faith in nuclear energy and the naivety of people is the most tragic. In the first day after the disaster, children played and people marveled at a nuclear fire! Fisherman experienced an atomic tan, none the wiser that they were killing themselves. The juggernaut of ignorance resulted in a lot of cancer. Then, I think of the greatest disaster we face today: CLIMATE CHANGE! Like radiation, it is hard to see climate change. At ground zero of melting ice caps, not so much. But for most of us, we don’t see it or don’t want to see it. So, there is this disaster of global proportions. A disaster greater than Chernobyl. Yet, governments are just as slow to respond. Worse, society propagates the naïve belief that it can be stopped by green consumerism and within the framework of capitalism. In the face of grand human suffering, the destruction of nations, the extinction of life…we are fisherman with a nuclear tan. This is not to blame people themselves. But, I think that the same mechanisms that resulted in a slow response to Chernobyl operate quite well in the face of many disasters. Why? Responses are hard. They are scary. They require resources and restructuring. They require vulnerability. They require informed people. They require things that undermine the power of those in power. It is easier to ignore, minimize, hope for the best, or hope no one notices. At least that it what I thought when considering this aspect of the Soviet response.


A good book is a book that makes me think.   It is rare for a nonfiction book to make me both think and feel. With that said, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, was a great read. It adds to my understanding of Chernobyl and has given me a lot to consider.

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.

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