Troubling truths in the tracks of Chernobyl

By Robin McKiere

Guided tours of Chernobyl allow outsiders to explore the plant. Photo / AP
Guided tours of Chernobyl allow outsiders to explore the plant. Photo / AP

Yuri Tatarchuk has a disconcerting way of showing Chernobyl's grim radioactive legacy.

The guide at the wrecked nuclear power plant waves his radiation counter at a group of abandoned Soviet army vehicles used to clean up after the reactor explosion in 1986.

"Some of these trucks are quite clean, but some of them not," he said. A sweep of his counter reveals only a few clicks from doors and roofs. Then he passes the device over one vehicle's tracks. A sudden angry chatter reveals significant levels of radiation.

"Wheels and tracks pick up contamination from the soil.

"There is still plenty of radioactive isotopes - caesium, strontium, even some plutonium - in the ground and we cannot get rid of them."

Chernobyl achieved global notoriety in 1986 when technicians carried out an experiment aimed at testing backup electrical supplies to one of the plant's four reactors.

The flow of water - used as a coolant to carry away the mighty heat of the reactor core - was raised and lowered. But after a few minutes, the core was blown apart by a huge explosion.

Without a containment vessel, the reactor's deadly radioactive contents were borne high into the air by the heat of the core's burning graphite and spread over much of Europe, triggering an international panic.

In the immediate aftermath, 31 plant operators and firemen died while thousands more people, living in land that is now Ukraine and Belarus, received doses that undoubtedly shortened their lives, although scientists still dispute the death toll. The World Health Organisation puts it at 4000; Greenpeace says 200,000.

The Chernobyl explosion was the world's worst nuclear accident and is the only one rated Level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale. Next month will mark the 25th anniversary of the blast, a birthday that has acquired a dramatic resonance after the Fukushima reactor fires in Japan which measured 5 on the scale.

Chernobyl has much to tell us about the dangers of nuclear power. Hence the recent soaring interest in the plant which, bizarrely, has become a popular tourist destination for visitors to Ukraine. Radiation counters were handed out on our sold-out tour and if these started to chatter too quickly we were told to make a detour. It was startlingly casual and highly unsettling.

"Kopachi was very badly contaminated and so it was decided to bury it, house by house," said Tatarchuk. "It seemed a good idea at the time, but it wasn't. The digging only pushed radioactive material deeper into the soil and closer to the water table, so that contamination spread even further."

The only building left is the primary school. Its windows have rotted and the front door hangs on a single hinge. Schoolbooks, notepads, sheets of music and road safety leaflets litter the hall floor and a cracked doll lies on a cot inside one classroom.

Equally disturbing is the vast artificial lake built near the main plant, which was used to provide water coolant for its four reactors. After the explosion, the lake was showered with radioactive debris. Today water has to be pumped constantly from the nearby river Pripyat to stop the lake evaporating in summer and exposing its toxic sediments, which would be spread by the wind.

However, it is Pripyat that proves the most disturbing. The city was built to house the families of workers who manned the vast reactor complex at Chernobyl. Fifty thousand people had homes here.

Reactor No 4 blew up in the early hours of April 26, but no one told the people of Pripyat. Children were allowed to play outside, despite the plume of radioactive material from the reactor a few kilometres away.

It was 36 hours later that buses arrived to ship people off to camps and resettlement centres. They were told they would be allowed back within three days but in the end they were never allowed to return.

Tatarchuk's anger about the fate of the people of Pripyat becomes all too clear: "People were told that they had received a radiation dose of no more than 25 rems, enough to cause only minor illness. But that just was not true. They must have got hundreds of rems, fatal doses.

"It was criminal. People should have been given proper diagnoses and proper treatment. They got nothing. At least 5000 people were badly affected at the time, while women who were pregnant were simply told to have abortions. It was a cruel time."

Today workers are allowed to live in the village of Chernobyl, but for no more than four days at a time. They are helping to decontaminate the land and decommission the plant's first three undamaged reactors. The concrete sarcophagus that hides the wrecked, exposed, radioactive core of reactor 4 is now crumbling and work has started on a replacement - although Ukraine has made it clear it will need international help to do it.

On Fukushima, Tatarchuk is emphatic: "It is not as bad in Japan as it was here, not by a long way. But there are lots of similarities. Basically, we had high radiation and no information in 1986, and that seems to be going on once more. That is the pattern when these things happen."

Eleven reactors still in use

The Chernobyl reactor was a class of atomic plant known as an RBMK. Of the 17 operating in 1986, only 11 - all in parts of the former Soviet Union - are still in use and there is international pressure for those to close.

Four hundred times more radioactive material was released at Chernobyl than at Hiroshima. The cloud of fallout spread over most of Europe, with the exception of Spain and Portugal.

The cost of the disaster has crippled the national budgets of Ukraine and Belarus.

Dozens of farms in Britain, mainly in the Lake District and North Wales, are still restricted in the way they can use land because of radioactive fallout.

Scientists say radiation will affect the Chernobyl area for 48,000 years although humans can begin repopulating the area in about 600 years.

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