Chernobyl's Aftermath The Pompeii of the Nuclear Age

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.

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.

Part II: "We Didn't Make Any Mistakes"

The Soviet Union's former second-in-command denies any suggestion of an official cover-up following the reactor disaster. "What should we have written in the papers back then?" he asks. "The deaths weren't visible. We acted quickly and didn't make any mistakes."

To this day, Ryzhkov is proud of his initial response to the reactor accident, of his traditional Soviet approach of mobilizing massive numbers of people and quantities of material to deal with the tragedy. On the day of the accident, nuclear engineers were sent to Chernobyl from Moscow, followed by 6,000 troops, 40,000 members of the Soviet military's chemical task force and experienced helicopter pilots -- some redeployed from the battlefields of Afghanistan.

By the evening of April 26, 1986, Ryzhkov was still unaware that the amount of radiation released at Chernobyl was 400 times higher than that released by the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and that trillions of Becquerel units of radiation were already drifting around the globe. He didn't know that firemen, young police officers and soldiers with insufficient protective gear were working 90-second shifts above the maw of Reactor Four, above the red-hot lid of the reactor, ruining their lives in an effort to control the flames.

But he did know, instinctively, that it would be a dark day for himself and for the party.

Years of warnings

Scientists had been issuing warnings for years about Chernobyl, where six reactors, with a combined output of 1,000 megawatts, made up what was then the world's most powerful nuclear power plant. On February 21, 1979, when he was still head of the KGB, the former General Secretary of the Communist Party, Yuri Andropov, had warned the party's central committee about potential problems at Chernobyl.

In a report titled "Deficiencies in the Construction of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant," a document marked "top secret," Andropov described violations of construction specifications "that could lead to technical failures and accidents." According to the report, safety procedures at the plant were not being observed, leading to 170 worker accidents within a span of only nine months.

The response to the report was predictable: the ministry responsible formed a commission. Four years later, on December 31, 1983, Victor Bryuchanov, Chernobyl's director and a Communist Party official, certified the on-time completion of the plant's fourth reactor -- despite the fact that the reactor, which would explode three years later, was not yet fully secured. In December 1985, Bryuchanov told an associate: "God forbid that something serious should ever happen to us. I am afraid that not only the Ukraine, but the entire Soviet Union would be unable to handle such an emergency."

The roof structure on the reactor building was made of a highly flammable material. To satisfy the party's demands for speedy completion, shortcuts were taken when it came to the concrete containment walls, evacuation plans, protective gear and Geiger counters. One of the most outspoken among those party officials calling for rapid completion was Ryzhkov, who became prime minister in September 1985.

At the 27th party congress of the Soviet Communist Party, only eight weeks before the reactor disaster, the USSR's energy ministry was denounced for having "failed to achieve, during the 11th five-year plan, the planned increase in the energy production of nuclear power plants." As far as party officials were concerned, it was an unacceptable state of affairs. After all, Gorbachev himself had called for a two and a half-fold increase in electricity production from nuclear sources within five years. The war in Afghanistan, by then in its seventh year, the arms race with the United States and a dramatic plunge in oil prices had brought the USSR to the brink of bankruptcy. The party was adamant in its demands for an increase in nuclear energy to meet domestic consumer needs and free up the country's oil and gas reserves for export -- and hard currency.

A warm Saturday in April

In the hours following the disaster, the 49,000 residents of Prypiat -- located just three kilometers from the reactor -- continued to go about their lives as if nothing had happened. It was a warm Saturday in April, and the streets were filled with people; mothers walking with their children, men drinking beer and kwas -- a local drink favorite -- at roadside stands.

According to a classified eyewitness report that was later sent to party headquarters in Moscow, officials in Prypiat were well aware of the amount of radiation exposure within an hour of the accident. But no one dared alert the local population without orders from Moscow. By noon, the streets were being washed with soap, but only the men who had worked the night shift at the reactor knew why, so that the only other residents of the city with at least some forewarning were their families.

On that same Saturday -- at a time when radiation in downtown Prypiat was already at several thousand times normal levels -- the operations manager at Chernobyl gave a raucous party to celebrate his daughter's wedding. None of his colleagues who were on duty that weekend felt that it was necessary to warn him.

On Saturday evening, Prime Minister Ryzhkov issued the order to evacuate Prypiat within the next few days, and by Sunday evening 1,100 buses had reached the city from Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. Those whose work did not require them to stay behind were told that the party wanted them to pack their bags and leave the city "for two to three days."

The politburo met in Moscow on Monday, and on Tuesday the government newspaper Izvestiya ventured a terse, eight-line report on an "accident" in Chernobyl, saying that "one of the nuclear reactors was damaged" -- nothing more.

By that time, more than three days had passed since the reactor accident. Officials were already aware of the scope of the catastrophe. The most seriously affected of the rescue workers had long since been admitted to Moscow's Clinic 6, their flaking skin burned a dark brown from the radiation and their hair falling out. But most citizens were still being kept in the dark. "We were concerned that a panic could break out -- and that in major cities like Kiev and Minsk," Gorbachev later said. Ironically, as recently as that year's March party congress, Gorbachev, quoting Lenin, had called for "the truth, always and under all circumstances."

The results of studies conducted by Minsk physician Yevgeny Demidchik now show that hundreds of cases of thyroid cancer in Belarusian children who were either not yet born or had just been born at the time of the disaster were caused by contamination with iodine 131 during the first few days following the Chernobyl explosion.

In a resolution dated May 8, 1986, the politburo ordered allowable radiation doses increased by factors ranging from 10 to 50. In a document titled "Secret Attachment to Item 10" of the minutes, party officials ordered radioactively contaminated meat turned into sausage, using a 1:10 ratio, throughout the territory of most republics within the USSR, including Russia, but "excluding Moscow."

Suppression and falsification

Under official order number U-2617 C, issued on June 27, 1986, all data relating to Chernobyl, to the treatment of the victims and to the nature and scope of their radiation exposure was classified. Though signed by Yevgeny Shulshenko, a minor official in the USSR's Ministry of Health, the document was sanctioned by senior party officials and smoothed the way for the subsequent suppression, falsification and destruction of evidence.

It wasn't until 1989 that Pravda published a map of the contaminated regions, which showed that 70 percent of the fallout from Chernobyl descended upon Belarus, with the remainder falling onto the Ukraine and southern Russia. This meant that 5 million people living in thousands of villages and a few larger cities in the Soviet Union spent three years living in areas exposed to high levels of radiation while oblivious to the risks involved. Many continued to eat home-grown vegetables and the berries and mushrooms they normally gathered in the forests.

Central Committee internal report number 20-34 on the Chernobyl disaster, dated July 10, 1986 and labelled "top secret," concedes that the Chernobyl case was "one of the worst accidents in the history of nuclear energy." According to the report, there were 26 dead, 135,000 evacuees and 800,000 people who required medical treatment.

Part III: A Dramatic Increase in Birth Defects

Svetlana wasn't even born yet when the fuel rods in Reactor Four at the Lenin plant in Chernobyl exploded. Her parents lived in Kiev, at least until the day when her father was sent to work at the stricken reactor. In the days, months and years following the disaster, 600,000 to 800,000 so-called liquidators from throughout the Soviet Union were sent to Chernobyl to help out in the cleanup project. Svetlana's father survived the mission, but he returned home traumatized and exposed to high doses of radiation.

Svetlana herself, born a year after the reactor disaster, is 19 today and lives in a home for disabled children and adolescents in the town of Snamyanka near Kirovgrad. She was born with a brain tumor and the right side of her face was so deformed that she can only see with one eye. Today, several operations later, Svetlana is still so disfigured that she shuns contact with the outside world, preferring to express herself with her hands.

She paints, writes poetry and cares for younger inmates at the home. Despite the severity of Svetlana's case, others in the home are even worse off. Grisha, for example, who was born just a few months after Chernobyl and is now almost 20, has deformed legs and the appearance of a three-year-old.

Deformed limbs, missing ears

Doctors speculate that Grisha and other children with similar symptoms are the victims of a growth disorder caused by a genetic malfunction of the pituitary gland. Cases of this type of genetic disorder were occasionally reported in the region before the nuclear disaster.

But according to the foundation "Children for Chernobyl," in the past decade doctors have seen a dramatic increase in deformities among young patients from parts of Belarus and the Ukraine that were exposed to high levels of radiation -- including deformed limbs, missing ears, harelips and feet with up to eight toes. To draw conclusions on the possible causes of these defects, doctors must review the children's medical histories to determine where and when they were born.

Geneticist Hava Weinberg, for example, examined 100 children of Chernobyl rescue workers who had emigrated to Israel. The rate of genetic mutations among those born after the accident was 700 percent higher than among those born before 1986. In a government-funded, long-term study headed by Volodimir Vertelecki, chief geneticist at the University of Southern Alabama, an average of 14,000 newborns are examined each year in the Ukrainian provinces of Volyn and Rovno. According to one of the results of the study, there has been an almost 20-fold increase in the number of infants born with "spina bifida" (cleft vertebra).

These children with genetic defects are the second generation of Chernobyl victims. And they have fuelled a revival of the debate between scientists and doctors in rival camps -- between the IAEA and its opponents.

The first round of the debate centered on thyroid cancer. Beginning in 1990, Fred Mettler, a radiologist at the University of New Mexico and a man with years of experience on the pro-nuclear side of radiation damage assessment, began researching the consequences of the Chernobyl reactor accident for the IAEA. In a study he published in 1991, Mettler claimed that there were none, not even children with radiation-induced thyroid cancer.

"Those people from the atomic energy agency"

The next year, the British scientific journal Nature published studies showing a dramatic rise in the incidence of thyroid cancer in contaminated regions not far from Chernobyl, and it was revealed that Mettler also had access to the same data from Belarus and the Ukraine. It was clearly an embarrassing revelation for Mettler and the IAEA, but not embarrassing enough to put an end to their relationship.

In its most recent report dated September 2005, submitted to the United Nations as part of the "Chernobyl Forum," the IAEA has this to say about the issue of genetic defects: "No evidence was found whatsoever for genetic anomalies that could be attributed to radiation exposure." One of the authors of the report was none other than Fred Mettler.

Kiev Professor Igor Komissarenko can only shake his head when he talks about "those people from the atomic energy agency." "They met with us, of course, but they're not interested in new information. All they say is that it doesn't resemble the evidence from Hiroshima."

Professor Komissarenko, the doyen of Ukrainian endocrinology, is a short, energetic gentleman in his sixties. He is neither for nor against nuclear power, but he does object to thyroid cancer, and he's an expert on the issue. "Just look at the numbers," he says, pointing to a hand-drawn diagram on his office wall. "Thyroid cancer in children increased tenfold between 1986 and 1990, and is only now beginning to decline. But it's a different story with adults: 38 cases in 1990, 308 today."

Iodine 131, which causes thyroid cancer, is one of the more short-lived of the isotopes released in the Chernobyl reactor accident. Cesium 137, on the other hand, has a half-life of 30 years, while plutonium's is much longer still. According to medical experts, illnesses triggered or promoted by radiation could remain dormant for decades.

Death by radiation is quiet, odorless and invisible. The firemen, medical orderlies and helicopter pilots who helped clear the debris from the reactor building knew little of the dangers. The bodies of the first 28 of these men, who died of acute radiation poisoning, have been buried under heavy lead plates in Moscow's Mitino cemetery for the past two decades.

Demands for compensation

Some of those still alive today received radiation doses of up to eight Sievert units -- more than 16,000 percent higher than the allowable maximum yearly dose of radiation -- within extremely short time spans. But according to Ukrainian radiation expert Vladimir Usatenko, many of the documents that could serve as evidence of the suffering these men have experienced were either falsified in response to party pressure or, in the summer of 1986, stolen from a safe in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

These victims have found little support for their efforts to uncover the truth. The countries charged with their welfare -- mainly Belarus and Ukraine -- are already heavily burdened with the consequences of the accident they have shouldered, unassisted, since the collapse of the Soviet Union. More than 300,000 of the disaster's most serious victims have demanded compensation.

In Darniza, a Kiev neighborhood of high-rise apartment buildings where many Chernobyl evacuees were resettled, residents in their mid-fifties are now dying by the dozens. But the causes of death listed on their death certificates are unlikely to make any impact on the IAEA's victim statistics. "Ninety percent of the people here are completely healthy when they die," survivors say derisively. Those still alive complain of chronic fatigue, headaches and the metallic taste on their tongues that radiation exposure leaves behind as a lasting souvenir.

One man who lives in the neighborhood, a former head of engineering in Reactor One at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant who was on duty on the night of the accident, remains optimistic. In October, doctors amputated both of his legs from the thighs down, but their diagnosis -- "arteriosclerosis" -- makes no mention whatsoever of Chernobyl. Now he is learning to walk again, using a walker built for him by former metal workers from the power plant. His prosthetic limbs were intended for invalids wounded in the war in Afghanistan.

Sergei Parashin was working the night shift when the fuel rods exploded in Reactor Four. He was the senior party secretary for operations at Chernobyl -- an extension of the party in the Soviet Union's laboratory of the future.

Following the explosion, the area around the reactor erupted into chaos. The director of the power plant, who arrived an hour late, refused to believe radiation readings that were already indicating radiation levels of up to two Sieverts outside the reactor. He refused to comply with the civil safety regulations that would have required him to issue a catastrophe alert.

"No cause for concern"

The plant's desperate engineers hurried to see party secretary Parashin: "Sergei Konstantinovich, the director seems mentally confused. You must speak with him!" But Parashin refused to comply, saying: "Why should I speak with him? After all, I'm no radiation expert."

Unlike many of his colleagues, the party's man on the ground at Chernobyl survived that night unharmed. He was subsequently named director of the nuclear power plant, whose remaining three reactors were kept running for another 14 years. In the end, he became director of the State Office for Resettlement and Evacuation Issues -- the unchallenged ruler of the 30-kilometer death zone.

In this position, Parashin continues to this day to represent Ukraine at international conferences. Accompanied by Volodimir Holosha, his former deputy Communist Party secretary and today a deputy minister in the country's disaster ministry, Parashin was present on Sept. 6, 2005 when the IAEA released a 600-plus-page report on the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster two decades after the fact. The report was issued by the UN's Chernobyl Forum, a group led by the IAEA and including representatives of World Health Organization, five other UN organizations, the World Bank and the governments of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.

In addition to arriving at the seemingly favorable conclusion that the disaster has claimed all of 56 lives to date, the expert panel also issues a broader all-clear when it comes to nuclear mishaps. WHO representative Michael Repacholi expresses the group's message in a way that even the uninitiated can understand: "The Chernobyl Forum's main message is this: no cause for concern." The East-West partnership, nourished over the decades, between the elite of the Soviet nuclear research community and their counterparts in the West has apparently borne fruit.

Building a new Chernobyl coffin

Hans Blix served as a willing figurehead for this conference of the like-minded from the very beginning. The Swedish career diplomat with the academic demeanor was named head of the IAEA in 1981. On May 8, 1986, Blix was the first Western eyewitness to fly over the remains of the Chernobyl reactor. The words he used to express his impressions earned him the Soviet leadership's lasting appreciation. Blix's message to the world was benign: "We were able to see people working in the fields, livestock in the pastures and cars driving in the streets." He said that the area surrounding the reactor didn't look nearly that bad: "The Russians are confident that they will be able to clean up the area. It will be available for agriculture once again." To this day, the Kiev Institute of Radiation Medicine displays a plaque with which the government of the Soviet Union paid tribute to Hans Blix for his role in managing the catastrophe of Chernobyl.

Although Blix resigned as IAEA director in 1997, he remains connected to Chernobyl. He now heads the group of donor countries that, under the leadership of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, plans to raise €1 billion to build a new coffin for the Chernobyl reactor.

Germany, with direct and EU-channelled contributions amounting to €127 million, is the group's largest contributor. Despite adequate funding though, the project advanced little during the past eight years. The delay is not due to the individual studies submitted to the group that conclude that a new, expensive protective shell is unnecessary because hardly any radioactive material remains within the reactor.

Instead, the construction project's tortuous progress can be more accurately attributed to behind-the-scenes claims by former Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Tomenko. In April 2005, he denounced the consulting and expert fees paid to Ukrainian government officials and representatives of international organizations as the misuse of "incredibly large sums of money." In fact, the Ukrainian people have a term for the business of turning a profit from Chernobyl. They call it "Chernobyliski bisnes."

It's a business that reflects taxpayers' fears of radioactive waste, and there are two parties fighting over the spoils.

Profiting from disaster

On the one hand, major corporations in donor countries are hoping to garner contracts for the contaminated 30-kilometer zone: Germany's RWE-Nukem Group, French construction firms Bouygues and Vinci and, at the head of the pack, US firm CH2M Hill.

On the other hand are the parties representing the interests of Ukraine. The problems involved with Chernobyl's nuclear waste guarantee thousands of jobs at the reactor site, along with healthy profits for consultants. And international nuclear power corporations' construction projects promise long-term employment for the region.

Under the leadership of Orange revolutionary Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine has placed its bets on nuclear power to accelerate its path into the future. The Ukrainian president has announced that the country plans to build eleven new nuclear power plants. The government's potentially profitable plan to import spent nuclear fuel from abroad for final storage in the Chernobyl death zone was temporarily put on ice in the face of massive popular protests against the idea.

And the 30-kilometer restricted zone around the defunct reactor? As far as nuclear energy experts and scientists are concerned, the government's supreme overseer of the zone, former party secretary Parashin, is in charge of nothing short of a gem -- the ideal site for genetic experiments, botanical field tests and research projects on radiation safety.

Plans are underway for a giant open-air laboratory within a 10-kilometer perimeter of the disaster site. An "International Test Site for Radiation Safety Research," shielded from the outside world, is already in development.

There are even plans to develop a tourist attraction in the space between the research site and the checkpoint where police officers with automatic pistols and Geiger counters still block access to the zone. The plans include a national park, complete with wild animals and rare plants.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

Mehr lesen über

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.
Speichern Sie Ihre Lieblingsartikel in der persönlichen Merkliste, um sie später zu lesen und einfach wiederzufinden.
Jetzt anmelden
Sie haben noch kein SPIEGEL-Konto? Jetzt registrieren