This week Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus all held ceremonies to mark the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Relatives of those who died attended candle-lit vigils and graveside services to remember the firemen and other workers who died after fighting the initial blaze, which happened at 1.23 am on April 26 1986. It sent up a radioactive plume which spread over neighbouring Belarus and was detected by countries overseas.
In Chernobyl President Poroshenko said “We honour those who lost their health and require special attention from the government and society. It is with an everlasting pain in our hearts that we remember those who lost their lives to fight nuclear death“. 30 staff and emergency workers died from radiation and burns within 4 months of the accident and there were nearly 7,000 cases of thyroid cancer in under-18s.
The first time I went to Ukraine in 2003 friends took me to the Chernobyl Museum.
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.
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- 115,000 people followed by another 220,000 later – 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. A new town, Slavutych, was built to accommodate the workers removed from the exclusion zone.
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 was considered 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.
In April 2011 the Fukushima accident was 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.
A farmer in Japan 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 needed over £500m to build a new concrete shell over the plant as the existing one, hastily constructed after helicopters had dropped sand and lead on the fire, was leaking (Reuters 4 April 2011).
In April 2011 donors pledged half a billion euros to help construct a shield, the New Safe Confinement, to cover the damaged reactor. It will be the biggest moveable structure ever built – over 100m high and 257m long x 164m wide. 2,500 workers are currently working on it and it should be finished next year. It will have cost £1.7b and is funded by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and others.
In May 2011 Ukrainian officials in Chernobyl opened up the site and the 18 mile exclusion zone to tourists! After the tragedy when thousands of people were evacuated, some 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. Some of the tourists take their own geiger counters – just in case. Here’s what a visitor wrote about it
Update on a post originally posted on Mike the Psych in 2011 : “Chernobyl 25 years later“