Chernobyl's Aftermath: The Pompeii of the Nuclear Age

By Walter Mayr

Chernobyl has become synonymous with the worst technological disaster in the history of human kind. But how bad was it really? Two decades after the calamity, the search for answers continues.

The death zone is still off-limits today. Police officers armed with automatic weapons and Geiger counters man the checkpoint blocking the road to the Chernobyl reactor, and only those able to produce special permits are waved through.

The forest grows wild on both sides of the asphalt road. Windowless ruins of single-level houses are visible through a thicket of birch, pine and poplar trees. Meter by meter, nature is taking back the land once claimed by the residents of Chernobyl.

"Preserve the environment for your descendants," reads a rusted sign that has remained intact in the midst of a wilderness now devoid of human presence, a grotesque imperative from a lost era. But for the descendants of the Hassidic Jews who had settled in the region around Chernobyl for centuries, and for the children of Soviet workers who came to Chernobyl after 1970 to work at its nuclear power plant, no future of any kind exists any longer.

The few remaining elderly inhabitants who refused to leave and still live in the forests within the 30-kilometer (about 18 miles) restricted zone around Chernobyl complain about wolves that have become so bold that they follow them into their gardens and eat their guard dogs. Wild boars roam the streets of Prypiat, now a ghost town, past abandoned Communist Party buildings in which the open doors of file cabinets creak in the wind. The city's "Energetik" cultural center sits abandoned.

A deathly silence prevails in this Pompeii of the nuclear age, where time stopped at 1:24 a.m. on April 26, 1986.

A melange of radioactive debris

It was on that date when the fuel rods exploded inside Reactor Four at the Lenin Nuclear Power Plant, forcing open the reactor core's massive lids and ejecting radioactive dust high into the atmosphere. Since then, the surrounding soil has been contaminated with cesium, plutonium and strontium, and the name Chernobyl has become synonymous with the biggest technological disaster in the history of mankind.

Today the exploded reactor, lined with steel plates and dwarfed by a towering smokestack, resembles a heavily armored steamship in dry dock. During the months following the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, workers installed a protective mantle over the reactor consisting of 300,000 tons of concrete and 7,000 tons of steel. To this day, the mantle conceals a mélange of radioactive debris, including collapsed concrete girders, tons of radioactive dust and cone-shaped piles of reddish-brown radioactive lava.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), only 3 to 4 percent of the nuclear fuel used in the reactor escaped in the Chernobyl explosion. The G7 countries are calling for a new "sarcophagus" for the radioactive site, at a price tag of more than $1 billion, a project for which Western corporations are bidding.

Chernobyl now lies near Ukraine's border with Belarus.
SPIEGEL ONLINE

Chernobyl now lies near Ukraine's border with Belarus.

But Ukrainian radiation expert Viktor Poyarkov believes that up to "50 percent of the fuel" managed to escape into the atmosphere in 1986. Indeed, after investigating the reactor site, scientists at the Moscow's renowned Kurchatov Institute now believe that almost all of Chernobyl's radioactive material was released in the accident 20 years ago.

The whereabouts of 180 tons of radioactive material isn't the only controversy swirling around the Chernobyl accident. Also at issue is the number of victims, both past and future. The "body count" is of critical importance in addressing whether the Maximum Credible Accident, or MCA, at Chernobyl presents a valid argument against investing billions into nuclear power projects in the future.

Fifty-six dead or 50,000?

The IAEA's nuclear experts say that Chernobyl has claimed 56 lives to date -- 47 workers at the disaster site and nine children who have since died of thyroid cancer. In contrast, the Ukrainian National Council on Radiation Protection claims to have documented 34,499 deaths among rescue workers. The United Nations' World Health Organization (WHO) estimated the number of Chernobyl workers who died from radiation exposure or committed suicide at 50,000 -- six years ago.

Like hardly any other incident with global consequences, the tragedy at the Lenin Nuclear Power Plant continues to drive a steady debate between scientists and politicians to this day. For many years, Chernobyl was used as fodder to support practically any world view -- because of a lack of reliable data on the causes and, more importantly, consequences of the accident, and because the Soviet leadership under former premier Mikhail Gorbachev either remained stubbornly silent on the issue or lied about it. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, additional traces and medical files on the victims, as well as evidence against culpable bureaucrats simply disappeared in the newly independent republics.

But now, 20 years after the reactor accident, sufficient evidence and documentation exists to arrive at a reasonably accurate assessment of what really happened at Chernobyl. The evidence is scattered throughout Moscow's Communist Party archives and in the medical files of Belarusian pediatricians, in the minutes of the meetings of international nuclear power corporations and their lobbyists, and in the tales of suffering told by nuclear workers who were resettled after the accident.

As much as they are snapshots taken from different points of view, when combined they paint a surprisingly consistent picture of the tragedy.

When the fuel rods exploded in Reactor Four at the Chernobyl nuclear plant Soviet government head Nikolai Ryzhkov was still asleep in his country house outside Moscow. Three and a half hours passed before his official telephone rang for the first time. The call came from the Minister of Energy, who reported that that there had been an "accident" in Chernobyl, and that local officials were talking about an "explosion."

"There are victims"

Ryzhkov asked to be provided with a detailed report at 9 a.m. and had his driver take him to the Kremlin. Shortly after arriving in his office, Ryzhkov received the first call: "It was the reactor, comrade. There are victims, radiation victims."

Ryzhkov reacted immediately -- exactly the way he had been taught. He formed a commission and placed himself at its head. For the time being, he chose not to notify the country's most powerful man, Mikhail Gorbachev, who had been General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party for the previous 13 months, nor did he inform the Russian people.

Ryzhkov is a man who sticks to his convictions -- even today, 20 years and hundreds of thousands of radiation victims later. Now 76, he is a member of the upper house of the Russian parliament and a man who, judging by his appearance, seems to bridge the worlds of then and now. Peering out through Soviet-style glasses, he wields a tiny, black-and-silver mobile phone in his left hand.

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