Chernobyl -- 20 Years Later: Murderous Atoms

The Geiger counters continued to tick away for days as much as 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles) away from the disaster zone, as air masses contaminated with radiation pushed across Europe. Many fears are justified. The major disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant proved the prophets wrong who underestimated the "residual risk" of nuclear energy. A look back from the archives of DER SPIEGEL.

Editor's note: The following article appeared in the May 5, 1986 issue of DER SPIEGEL, just days after the world became aware of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. During the next few weeks, SPIEGEL ONLINE will publish a series of reports on the worst accident in the history of civilian nuclear energy and how it changed Europe and the world.


The staff at Sweden's Forsmark nuclear power plant, located on the Baltic coast north of Stockholm, was just changing shifts. It was 7:00 a.m. last Monday when workers passing through a routine check in the security sluice at the entrance to the plant's reactor building set off warning signals.

The May 5, 1986 cover of DER SPIEGEL: "Murderous Atom: The Super Meltdown in the Soviet Union."
DER SPIEGEL

The May 5, 1986 cover of DER SPIEGEL: "Murderous Atom: The Super Meltdown in the Soviet Union."

Radiation testing personnel were alerted. Using a piece of equipment that looks like a handheld vacuum cleaner, they scanned the plant employees and took radioactivity readings on the walls, on the plant grounds and in rainwater cisterns. The results were astonishing. The Geiger counters were ticking like crazy -- but outside, not in the reactor buildings.

"It was crazy," says measuring technician Bengt Wellman. According to Wellman, where the normal reading would be four radioactive decay units per second, "we measured 100 per second," even four kilometers (2.5 miles) from the reactor. Plant manager Karl Erik Sehlstedt issued a level 2 alarm, which meant that the local population was notified by radio. At 11:00 a.m., 800 employees left the power plant and gathered on a nearby athletic field, where they were all scanned for radiation and where many had to leave their shoes behind for decontamination and walk home with their feet covered in plastic bags. An hour and a half later, officials were still unable to rule out the possibility that something had gone wrong at Forsmark.

But then similar reports about elevated radioactivity levels began coming in from almost every other Swedish testing station and from neighboring Finland. In some places, the radiation was 10 times as high as natural environmental radioactivity. By then, Swedish experts knew that the invisible radiation and silent danger had blown across the Baltic Sea on a southeasterly air current. Meteorologists simulated the wind patterns of the preceding few days and physicists analyzed the spectrum of radioactive particles. Finally, everything pointed to the presumed source of the heightened radioactivity, a nuclear power plant near Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine.

At this point, the people of Kiev were unaware that a nuclear inferno had erupted two days earlier less than 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of their city. They continued to buy fruit and vegetable in local markets and decorate the city's houses and streets for the annual May Day celebration. Horrified, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff William J. Crowe told US members of Congress that satellite images revealed that only hours after the accident, Soviet authorities had allowed a soccer match to continue in the vicinity of the reactor meltdown. The players and onlookers had no idea of the hazards to which they were being exposed.



It was with this silence, inwardly and outwardly, that the Soviets would have preferred to gloss over what had happened in their reactor No. 4 at one of their biggest nuclear power plant complexes. As it turned out, it was the most serious catastrophe in the history of the peaceful use of nuclear energy, an event experts in both the East and the West had declared practically impossible -- the "super maximum credible accident."

It was only in response to pressure from the global public and because they believed, for some time, that they would need foreign help in containing the reactor fire that the Soviets first admitted that an "accident" had occurred, later upgrading their assessment of the event to a "catastrophe." The government was no longer denying what Soviet news agency Tass called "a certain amount of leakage of radioactive substances" until finally, last Wednesday, Soviet state television even showed a photo of the half-destroyed nuclear power plant, of the ruin of what was once Chernobyl, reduced to little more than charred iron beams and blackened walls -- a monument to technical hubris.

The speculation over the immediate consequences of the catastrophe continued through the end of last week. According to Western intelligence agencies, there were "several hundred dead" and thousands still likely to die as a result of the accident. But the Soviets continued to insist on their numbers: 2 dead, 197 wounded, including 18 with life-threatening injuries. According to Soviet officials, 50 patients had already been released from hospitals.

Even before the details became known, politicians and nuclear power lobbyists in the West embarked on a true campaign of appeasement. At the annual meeting of the "Working Group of Regional Energy Supply Companies" in Munich on Tuesday evening, politicians from were quick to point out that these types of "mishaps cannot occur in Germany." Later on, unofficial sources revealed a more alarming position: that such disasters just happen to be "the price of technological progress."

Officials wanted to avoid a revival of the debate over the purpose and blessings of nuclear power at all costs, to ward off the kinds of public misgivings over nuclear energy that thwarted the construction of nuclear power plants in the German towns of Wyhl and Gorleben and led to violent civil protests over plants at Grohnde and Brokdorf in the 1970s.

But the attempts of nuclear power proponents to quell the growing fears of citizens by containing their arguments failed. Fear of the invisible danger grew as shifting winds blew contaminated air back and forth across the heart of Europe during the course of the week, and as instruments measuring radioactivity levels from Davos to Monaco produced printouts showing sharp peaks.

It was a danger that couldn't be felt, seen or heard. In fact, human beings have no inherent means of perceiving radiation -- which was all the more reason to be concerned about reports on television and the radio. First the Polish stations, and later stations in the German states of Bavaria and Hesse, cautioned citizens to avoid drinking milk from cows that graze outside, and to carefully wash fresh produce.

Radiation doses up to 500 times higher than normal were measured in some parts of Poland, especially in the eastern portion of the Masurian Lakes region. At a press conference, officials said that a "certain number" of cases of thyroid cases could be expected. Medical experts estimate that 10,000 Poles will contract radiation-induced cancer in the next 30 years.

Large numbers of trucks and cars coming from Eastern Europe were checked at border crossings. Whenever Geiger counters registered higher levels of radiation, vehicles had to be decontaminated and, in some cases, air filters had to be removed and were then classified as "low-level radioactive waste."

The German Ministry of Health issued an order imposing special inspections on Polish geese and other food products from Eastern Europe. Non-essential travel to the Soviet Union was cancelled. Western companies ordered their employees to return home. Overly anxious citizens in Germany and Scandinavia bought up the inventories of iodine tablets at pharmacies, and the University of Mainz Hospital reported the first cases of poisoning caused by the ingestion of iodine tablets.

On Friday, the Hamburger Abendblatt ran a cover story titled "Today and Tomorrow: Wind from the East." Suddenly every weather report was focusing on the wind direction and all but ignoring sunshine and rain. Concerned pregnant women overloaded telephone lines at the German Weather Service in Offenbach with questions of where they should go to avoid the risks posed by radiation. Officials recommended giving dry milk to young children, and called for excessively contaminated fresh milk to be processed into cheese.

Officials in the states of Bavaria and Hesse issued ominous-sounding warnings dubbed "preventive measures," advising parents not to allow children to sleep near open windows and to wash children after they had been playing outdoors. Radiation levels measured throughout the southern portion of West Germany, in the far north and in Berlin initially remained within ranges corresponding to normal fluctuations in nature -- including the kinds of peaks vacationers might experience while hiking at higher altitudes in the Black Forest.

West German testing stations did register worrisome peak values at times, including up to 120 times the normal level of radioactive isotope iodine 131 in Berlin and even up to 400 times normal values in the western city of Darmstadt.

Suddenly Germans found themselves facing a wild, confusing rise and fall of test data, of readings denominated in unfamiliar units, such as Becquerel and Curie, Sievert, Millirem and rad. Information on the locations and intensity of radiation in various parts of the country was suddenly as uncertain as the weather.

But at no time did radiation doses measured in Sweden and Germany pose an acute health risk. Nevertheless, the range of particle measurements provided experts with the irrefutable evidence that what happened at Chernobyl was not (as the Russians had claimed) merely an "incident" involving the release of radiation amounts that were completely safe for the Soviet Union's Western neighbors. There was no doubt that what had happened at Chernobyl was the kind of catastrophic case statisticians predicted could only happen once every 10,000 or even 100,000 years, an incident known as a core meltdown.

When this occurs in a power plant such as Chernobyl, up to 180 tons of white-hot uranium, combined with the melted special steel of the fuel sleeves, eats through the reactor's concrete wall. At this point, the radioactive inventory of the reactor core corresponds to that of about 1,500 Hiroshima bombs -- except that in this case the nuclear horror doesn't explode in the air in the form of a bomb, but instead, as a glowing, constantly radioactive lump of material, slowly eats its way through the concrete walls and into the ground.

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