Chernobyl: A Living Disaster

Tuesday , April 25, 2006

Dana Lewis

Twenty miles out and 20 years later, you pass the first thinly staffed police checkpoint. Not everyone can get into Chernobyl. You have to register with government authorities and written permission to enter the dead zone.

For miles, it's the same foreboding empty streets and boarded up homes of an all but deserted Chernobyl, Ukraine.

And as you get closer and closer to the infamous nuclear Reactor No. 4, radiation detectors, (an essential tool in your journey) begin to beep incessantly.

Is Chernobyl still dangerous today? You bet. Radiation levels around the 25-story high concrete 'sarcophagus' that contain it are 80 to 1,000 times the norm. Imagine what it was like on April 26, 1986.

The low power test of the reactor was supposed to be routine. But the old Soviet reactor, notoriously unstable at low power settings, went out of control. A violent explosion blew off the roof of the 2,000-ton reactor. And for 10 days emergency crews used shovels and water, and then lead and sand and finally nitrogen to kill the fire.

For days the Soviet government in Moscow lied to the world and to their own people.

In his Kiev apartment, 53-year-old Anatoly Zakharov displays his medals and his scars from Chernobyl. He was a firefighter 20 years ago, unfortunate enough to be based on the Chernobyl grounds. He heard the blast as the reactor was torn apart. As radiation spewed from the building he fought the fire and knew he was where no one should be.

"There was graphite lying all over," Zakharov said. "Several tons of uranium lying around. There was fear inside us all as we knew we were dying there. A metal taste in my mouth and it felt like someone was touching my body all over from inside, muscles, bones, everything."

As the Soviets delayed in telling the real story, and as a radioactive cloud spread across Europe and as far away as Japan, Zakharov left his hospital bed where he was being treated for radiation and burns. He went to Pripyat, a town of 50,000 people ten minutes away, to tell his family the truth and get them out.

"They didn't want to panic us by telling us what really happened. But they should have," he said. "Because then people would have gotten out in hours instead of in days."

Pripyat is still abandoned today. A children's amusement park that was due to open a few days after the explosion still stands. The bumper cars, the swing ride, creek in the wind that potentially blows radioactive dust before it.

The kindergarten is like it was 20 years ago. Children's toys intermingled with gas masks littering the ground. Apparently the gas masks were in emergency storage and removed after the children had long since been moved away. Kids and parents in the town were all told it was just a fire, and they would be back in days. They would never be back and their pets, cats and dogs they were ordered to leave behind, were later shot in a cleanup operation.

As many as 600,000 so called "liquidators" were moved in to the area to cleanse what radioactive material they could. Most of them were young Soviet soldiers, some of them ordered to what was left of the reactor roof to work in shifts of 25 seconds to a minute to shovel radioactive waste.

"Look at the soldier's faces, young, 18 to 20, every minute they spent there was fatal and it took their health and their life away," a tour guide at the Chernobyl museum in Kiev tells a group of high school students.

No one can agree on how many people will die from Chernobyl. Some experts say no more than 4,000. Others say tens of thousands because cancer creeps slowly and only in the next 20 years will we see the real consequences from the reactor meltdown.

But what's incredible is that Chernobyl is still a living disaster.

Yulia Marusich calls herself the voice of Chernobyl. She works just a thousand feet away from reactor number four in an office with a high-tech model of what it now looks like inside. It shows twisted, tangled metal. Most of the reactor rooms are still inaccessible.

She says the sarcophagus was only supposed to be temporary. Today it has more than 15,000 square feet of holes in it. More than four tons of radioactive dust inside is now exposed to rain water and wind.

The U.S. was the largest donor pledging $200 million to build a new shelter that was supposed to be in place by 2008. But construction hasn't even started. And the existing sarcophagus could collapse at any time.

"There is the threat of collapse," said a concerned Marusich, who takes some solace in the fact that, "if it were to collapse you wouldn't have a radiation release as big as 1986."

Francis O'Sullivan is the main United Nations representative in Kiev. "It boggles the mind that in 20 years this has not been satisfactorily addressed. How do you explain to a generation that is growing up in this country today, let alone across Europe that a nuclear catastrophe happened and we haven't finished the cleanup operation?" he said.

And there's more. Originally there were four reactors at Chernobyl. After Reactor No. 4 blew up, the other three were eventually shut down. Today they are still full of nuclear fuel. And no one has a plan yet to decommission them.

Environmental groups use Chernobyl as an argument against nuclear power. But even those in favor of nuclear power generation admit that not one nuclear power station around the world has been decommissioned successfully. It's costly and technically challenging because experts say there is no way to fully decontaminate the site from nuclear waste.

Nearby there is a graveyard of vehicles used in the Chernobyl catastrophe: 2,000 helicopters and fire trucks and even the buses that evacuated and relocated some 200 thousand people.

The first thing you notice in that graveyard is all the hoods are open. Look closer and the engines are gone. The security guard says there have been a lot of looters, but the local administration has also been selling off the contaminated engines. Where are they now? No one knows.

Firefighter Anatoly Zakharov's truck is likely there in that field. Of the 28 firefighters first on the scene with him that morning in 1986, 12 of them are dead.

Today Zakharov shows us scars on his leg from radiation burns, his knee where a cancerous tumor was recently removed and says he spends up to a month in hospital every year getting blood transfusions and bone marrow transplants.

"Just before my friends died, they all said the same thing: their bones hurt and it hurt just to move." Zakharov said. "That's how I feel now."

Twenty years after Chernobyl. For the land and the lives it's touched, Chernobyl is a living disaster.

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