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

James Brooke

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.

You May Like

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

1855 Slave Brochure Starkly Details Sale of Black Americans

Document lists entire families that were up for sale in New Orleans, offering graphic insight into the slavery trade More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries 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.
Survivor Video Testimonies Recount Horrors of Guatemalan Genocidei
X
Elizabeth Lee
August 31, 2015 8:23 PM
Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the end of the civil war in Guatemala. During the conflict that spanned more than three decades, tens of thousands of indigenous Mayans were killed in what is known as the Guatemalan genocide. Researchers are now collecting video testimonies of the survivors to preserve the memories of what happened to prevent future genocides. Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Survivor Video Testimonies Recount Horrors of Guatemalan Genocide

Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the end of the civil war in Guatemala. During the conflict that spanned more than three decades, tens of thousands of indigenous Mayans were killed in what is known as the Guatemalan genocide. Researchers are now collecting video testimonies of the survivors to preserve the memories of what happened to prevent future genocides. Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs