News / Europe

Chernobyl: A Nuclear Accident With No End?

Outside the 25-year-old containment shell for the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, workers start construction of a new $2 billion cover that is to seal 200 tons of radioactive material for another century.
Outside the 25-year-old containment shell for the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, workers start construction of a new $2 billion cover that is to seal 200 tons of radioactive material for another century.

Multimedia

TEXT SIZE - +

As nuclear workers in Japan struggle to contain radiation from the Fukushima reactor, world attention is turning back to Chernobyl, Ukraine. There, people prepare to mark the 25th anniversary of the explosion that blew the roof off Reactor Number 4.

Soviet planners designed Chernobyl in the 1960s to become the largest nuclear power station in Europe.

Instead, Chernobyl is remembered today as the site of the largest nuclear disaster in the world.

Late on the night of April 25, 1986, Yuri Andreyev left his shift as an engineer at Nuclear Reactor No. 4. Ninety minutes later, a safety experiment went awry. The fuel rods melted down, an explosion blew the roof off, and a raspberry-colored light spewed into the night sky.

When Andreyev returned to work, he saw a scene of devastation. After stepping over the discarded boots, jacket and helmets of fire fighters, he stood in the ruined computer control room and looking up saw blue sky.

Twenty-five years later, Andreyev runs Chernobyl Forum, a political lobby for Ukraine’s 100,000 surviving "liquidators" or clean-up men and women. After weeks of heroic work, the liquidators had succeeded in sealing the plant in an improvised steel and cement "sarcophagus."

But that was not before Chernobyl leaked 10 times the radiation of the Hiroshima atom bomb into the environment.

Authorities mapped out the area of the highest contamination - and closed it to human habitation. About 350,000 were forcibly evacuated from a largely rural area slightly larger than the American state of Rhode Island. Still living in this area are sprinkled about 300 largely elderly holdouts, now called ‘forest people.’

After a quarter century, biologists call this zone "Europe’s largest wildlife refuge." With the presence of humans gone, the new colonists are thriving populations of gray wolves, brown bear, elk and wild boar.

In January, Ukraine opened the area to short, controlled visits by tourist buses.

Twenty five years ago, a convoy of 1,000 buses evacuated the entire population of Pripyat. A bedroom community for nuclear power workers, it had once been a Soviet model city - home to 50,000 people.

On a recent afternoon, a lone tour bus made the reverse commute, moving slowly down a deserted Lenin Avenue. A recording of the original evacuation order played to a bus filled with Russian and Ukrainian tourists.

Dense forest covered what once were neatly tended playgrounds. Sturdy trees grew up between rusting swing sets. Bushes and trees made driving down side streets impossible. Through the branches, visitors could make out fading communist slogans - hailing the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Soviet Union and calling for ‘Atoms for Peace.’

Alexander Sirota lived in Pripyat, until he was 10. Now, as a 35-year-old tour guide equipped with a walkie-talkie and digital Geiger counter, he shows tourists - some wearing face masks - his old apartment.

Surrounded by peeling paint, sagging strips of wall paper and light fixtures dissolving in rust, he said he is happy to visit his old home, a place where he spent "the happiest days of my childhood."

Boots crunching over broken glass, Sirota later takes tourists to the gutted cafeteria where he and his mother used to go for breakfast. Then, we go to his elementary school. There, 25 summers and 25 winters have taken their toll, causing a front wall to collapse, exposing old Soviet classroom murals.

For these tourists turned archeologists, the walk takes us below a rusting hammer and sickle sign atop the old administration building and then on to a frozen Ferris wheel - the centerpiece of an amusement park built for May Day festivities that never came.

Maxim, a young man from Donetsk, drops his face mask long enough to say Chernobyl tourism is ‘cool.' But he admits that none of his friends would join him. They said he was crazy to come here: "Insane. They are afraid. Afraid of radiation."

The tour bus rolls on to Chernobyl nuclear power station, stopping 200 yards from Reactor Number 4. Due to high levels of ambient radiation, we have only 20 minutes to pose for souvenir pictures in front of the old sarcophagus of decaying cement and rusting steel.

Laurin Dodd, an American engineer, has come to the site to talk to VOA. He is directing an American-led project to build a new, modern sarcophagus.

"The structure itself is almost a house of cards," says Dodd. "It was built with some robotics and under extreme conditions. And there are large gaping holes. If you go inside, you will see holes the size of picture windows with small mammals going in and out, birds flying in and out."

As scaffolding props up the old ventilation stack, Dodd races to keep the nuclear genie in the bottle.

"There is almost 200 tons of radioactive material still inside the old sarcophagus," said Dodd, who has worked here off and on since 1995. "And the existing sarcophagus was built in six months in 1986 under, I should say, fairly heroic conditions and it had a design life of 10 years  - that’s almost 25 years ago."

Built on rails and rising high enough to cover the Statue of Liberty, the new containment structure is to be the largest moveable structure in the world. On April 19, Ukraine officials will hold a donor conference in Kyiv to raise $1 billion to build a structure designed to contain Chernobyl’s nuclear mess for another century.

As authorities in Japan may soon discover, big nuclear accidents have a defined beginning. It is unclear when they ever end.


James Brooke

A foreign correspondent who has reported from five continents, Brooke, known universally as Jim, is the Voice of America bureau chief for Russia and former Soviet Union countries. From his base in Moscow, Jim roams Russia and Russia’s southern neighbors.

You May Like

Multimedia Relatives of South Korean Ferry Victims Fire at Authorities

46 people are confirmed dead, but some 250 remain trapped inside sunken ferry More

War Legacy Haunts Vietnam, US Relations

$84 million project aims to clean up soil contaminated by Agent Orange More

Wikipedia Proves Useful for Tracking Flu

Technique gave better results than Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Google’s Flu Trends More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politicsi
X
Michael Eckels
April 19, 2014
There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politics

There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Face of American Farmer is Changing

The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Donetsk Governor: Ukraine Military Assault 'Delicate But Necessary'

Around a dozen state buildings in eastern Ukraine remain in the hands of pro-Russian protesters who are demanding a referendum on self-rule. The governor of the whole Donetsk region is among those forced out by the protesters. He spoke to VOA's Henry Ridgwell from his temporary new office in Donetsk city.
Video

Video Drones May Soon Send Data From High Seas

Drones are usually associated with unmanned flying vehicles, but autonomous watercraft are also becoming useful tools for jobs ranging from scientific exploration to law enforcement to searching for a missing airliner in the Indian Ocean. VOA’s George Putic reports on sea-faring drones.
Video

Video New Earth-Size Planet Found

Not too big, not too small. Not too hot, not too cold. A newly discovered planet looks just right for life as we know it, according to an international group of astronomers. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Copts in Diaspora Worry About Future in Egypt

Around 10 percent of Egypt’s population belong to the Coptic faith, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they have become targets of violence since the revolution three years ago. With elections scheduled for May and the struggle between the Egyptian military and Islamists continuing, many Copts abroad are deeply worried about the future of their ancient church. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky visited a Coptic church outside Washington DC.
Video

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

During the two months of deadly anti-government protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation of Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition of trying to initiate a coup. Though a small number of military officers have been arrested for allegedly plotting against the government, VOA’s Brian Padden reports the leadership of the armed forces continues to support the president, at least for now.
Video

Video More Millenials Unplug to Embrace Board Games

A big new trend in the U.S. toy industry has more consumers switching off their high-tech gadgets to play with classic toys, like board games. This is especially true among the so-called millenial generation - those born in the 1980's and 90's. Elizabeth Lee has more from an unusual café in Los Angeles, where the new trend is popular and business is booming.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
AppleAndroid