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

Karzai's Legacy: Missed Opportunities?

Afghanistan's president leaves behind a much different nation than the one he inherited, yet his legacy from 13 years in power is getting mixed reviews More

US Urges Restraint in Hong Kong Protests

Protesters angered by Beijing's decision to only approve candidates that it sanctions for Hong Kong's leadership elections in 2017 More

Archive of Forgotten UCLA Speeches Offers Snapshot of History

Recordings of prominent voices in social change, politics, science and literature from 1960s, early 1970s now available on YouTube 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.
Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenyai
X
Gabe Joselow
September 29, 2014 6:20 PM
Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Iran's Rouhani Skeptical on Syria Strikes

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed skepticism Friday that U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria could crush Islamic State militants. From New York, VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports the president was also hopeful that questions about Iran’s nuclear program could be resolved soon.
Video

Video US House Speaker: Congress Should Debate Authorization Against IS

As wave after wave of U.S. airstrikes target Islamic State militants, the speaker of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives says he would be willing to call Congress back into session to debate a formal, broad authorization for the use of military force. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington, where legislators left town 10 days ago for a seven-week recess.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Video

Video Ebola Robs Liberians of Chance to Say Good-Bye to Loved Ones

In Liberia, where Ebola has killed more than 1,500 people, authorities have worked hard to convince people to allow specialized burial teams to take away dead bodies. But these safety measures, while necessary, make it hard for people to say good bye to their loved ones. VOA's Anne Look reports on the tragedy from Liberia.
Video

Video Reconstruction? What Reconstruction? Life After War in Gaza

It’s been a month since Israel and the Palestinians agreed to a ceasefire to end 52 days of an air and tank war that left 60,000 homes in Gaza damaged or destroyed and 110,000 homeless. Sharon Behn reports that lack of reconstruction is leading to despair.
Video

Video US, Saudi Arabia and UAE Hit Islamic State's Oil Revenue

The United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have bombed oil facilities operated by Islamic State militants in Syria. It was a truly collaborative effort, with the two Arab countries dropping the majority of the bombs. The 12 refineries targeted were estimated to generate as much as $2 million per day for the terrorist group. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb has the story.
Video

Video Russia's Food Sanctions Raise Price Worries, Hopes for Domestic Production

Russia retaliated against Western sanctions imposed for its actions in Ukraine by halting food imports from the West. The temporary import ban on food from Australia, the European Union, Norway and North America has Russian consumers concerned that they could face a sharp increase in food prices. But in an ironic twist, the restrictions aimed at the Kremlin have made Russia's domestic food producers hopeful this can boost their business. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
Video

Video Washington to Pyongyang: 'Shut This Evil System Down'

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is calling on North Korea to shut down prison camps and other human rights abuses following a United Nations Commission of Inquiry into "widespread and systematic human rights violations." VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid