On the Road: In a Tough Neighborhood

My column at 3QuarksDaily as it ran on Monday:

On The Road: In A Tough Neighborhood

In the middle of the night of March 24, 1992, a pressure seal failed in the number three unit of the Leningradskaya Nuclear Power Plant at Sosnoviy Bor, Russia, releasing radioactive gases. With a friend, I had train tickets from Tallinn, in newly independent Estonia, to St. Petersburg the next day. That would take us within twenty kilometers of the plant. The legacy of Soviet management at Chernobyl a few years before set up a fraught decision whether or not to take the train.

Monitoring stations in Finland detected higher than normal readings. The level of iodine-131 at Lovisa, Finland, just across the gulf, was 1,000 times higher than before the accident, according to the German Institute for Applied Ecology.

Russian authorities reported the accident in the media, and I think they felt self-satisfied for doing it, but Russian credibility had burned down with Chernobyl’s reactor 4. Any more, people thought the Soviets, as Seymour Hersh said about Henry Kissinger, lied like other people breathe. And as usual, solid information was hard to come by.

A news agency in St. Petersburg reported increased radiation, and the Swedish news reported panic in St. Petersburg. A lady in Tallinn that day told me her mother had called from St. Petersburg and they were closing the schools and sending children home to stay indoors. The Finnish Prime Minister fussed that seven hours passed before the Russians told him. It was frightening.

No one believed the plant spokesman when he said on TV, hey (big Soviet smile), no problem. No one trusted the Russians.

•••••

In the same way that provincial Balkan towns had never thought of themselves as national capitals (like Podgorica, which became the capital of Montenegro, and Ljubljana, the completely delightful capital of Slovenia), Tallinn was, had been since Soviet occupation in 1940, an outpost, a modest administrative hub, though far more architecturally charming than Soviet in its medieval center, with round stone guard towers and ancient walls all around.

Back then, in 1992, there just wasn’t that much of it. Tallinn was far smaller than its close neighbor Helsinki, itself only half a million. As usual when Soviet Communism got hold of a place, the difference between Soviet Tallinn and free Helsinki was night and day – in that order – even though they are unidentical twins, only 50 miles apart across the Baltic.

The Finnish-built Viru hotel where I stayed (“Viro” is “Estonia” in Finnish) is the tall building in the background of this photo. It was just about the only place foreigners stayed, and something of a mild Estonian legend. The Viru opened in 1972 and adventurous Finns (whose language is similar enough to Estonian that they can understand one another) crept over to have a look at the Soviet way of life.

Naturally, for the Viru’s first twenty years the KGB spied on guests.

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Europe’s Wildest Country?

Interesting to note an unexpected consequence of the war in eastern Ukraine, according to Politico.eu,

“local residents, soldiers, rangers and environmentalists agree: The area is undergoing an unintended — and unexpected — rewilding.”

The article goes on,

“As recently as 2014, wolves attacking domestic animals in eastern Ukraine were tales told by grandparents. Today, in part because of a hunting ban in the war zone, large, wild predators are flourishing — along with other rare flora and fauna — along the 450-kilometer frontline.

“For hundreds of years populations of big animals were controlled, and now for the first time they are uncontrolled,” said Oleksiy Vasilyuk, an ecologist from the Ukrainian NGO Environment People Law. ‘For us, it’s great news.'”

•••••

Reactor four and the sarcophagus at the Chernobyl power plant, Ukraine.

Meanwhile in the country’s north, the exclusion zone around Chernobyl is Turning Into a Wildlife Preserve for Wolves, says an article posted this month at PopularMechanics.com. As Australia’s SBS points out in How nature reclaimed Chernobyl,

“It seems to indicate – much like the DMZ between North and South Korea that’s become a sanctuary for endangered species – that if we retreat from a region, nature fills the gap.”

The unique and unfortunate recent history of Ukraine may have made it Europe’s wildest place.

See more photos from Chernobyl and Ukraine here at EarthPhotos.com and if you’re interested in learning more about Chernobyl, have a look at my book Visiting Chernobyl here or via Amazon in your country.

How to Make a Modest Author’s Day

I want to share the most uplifting, delightful email that hit my inbox this week:

Hi Bill,

I’m off to Chernobyl in a few weeks and so ordered your book on Amazon. I read it cover to cover over the last couple of days and I wanted to say how great I found it.

You strike a great balance between illustrating what I will see on my visit, whilst sharing the historic and human narrative of the disaster.

Thank you so much

Andrew

Thank you, Andrew, very much. Have a good trip.

30 Years On

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This week marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Three years ago we visited Chernobyl and that visit resulted in my second book, Visiting Chernobyl, A Considered Guide. No doubt we’ll be seeing a bunch of coverage this anniversary week, so for my part, here is an excerpt from the book, and here are some photos from EarthPhotos.com.

Some readers may know that my regular day job is doing voiceovers for radio and television. I have recorded Visiting Chernobyl and it is almost ready as an audiobook, narrated by me. I’m finishing up editing now, and it ought to be up on audible.com in the next couple of weeks.

Here is the beginning of Visiting Chernobyl, A Considered Guide:

1 KINDERGARTEN

The fence fell over itself, a cascade of wooden slats. It was hard to tell with everything covered by snow, but probably the trees between here and the building grew up since the accident. Down the road radiation signs stuck out of long earthen mounds.

This was Kopachi village, not far inside the ten kilometer inner zone around Chernobyl. They buried Kopachi, almost the whole village. Maybe that was a good idea in desperate days, but burying things forced radioactive material toward the water table. So once they thought twice they stopped burying to think things through.

At first they’d bury villages whole, especially across the border in Belarus. They’d dig pits, push entire houses in and cover them up. Special trucks, who knows where they came from, sprayed water up and down the streets all the time, because all the dust that burying kicked up was radioactive.

Belarus buried more than a hundred villages. Conscripts sent down here by Minsk did it. They filled up all the wells they could find with concrete trying to protect ground water.

It’s only ten miles (16 kilometers) from reactor 4 to Belarus, and on April 26th, 1986 the wind blew straight to the border. That meant between half and two thirds of all the radiation fell on

Belarusian farmers who lived on whatever produce they coaxed from the soil, and on the family livestock.

Authorities moved over a hundred thousand Belarusians in a hurry, to places with no housing and little employment. Twenty per cent of Belarus’s agricultural land was rendered useless.

Ten years on, farmers could breed horses and cattle for beef but not for milk, and 32,000 square miles, the area of South Carolina, remained too radioactive to use. That’s nearly a quarter of the country.

•••••

They commissioned studies and they anguished and eventually they worked out how to bury things more safely. They’d dig a pit and before they pushed anything in they’d line the bottom and sides with four feet of clay. Then they’d bury the bad stuff, seal up the top with clay and add soil and grass.

It was better than that mad bulldozing they did at first. One thing though, still today they have to keep trees off the mounds. Roots make the crypts leak.

They left two buildings in Kopachi, I don’t know why. Ice lurked up under the snow, you knew it, so you crept along step by step. Bum place to slip and get hauled out to Kyiv in the militia’s ambulance up at the checkpoint.

You had to bat away tree branches to get up the walk to the kindergarten. Nobody here to chop them down. Rose bushes intruded as prickly hazards up the walk. There were no foot prints, so nobody had been here since the newly fallen snow, a day or two. Icicles hung from the window frames. No glass.

Igor held his dosimeter to the ground. 6.04 microSieverts per hour.

The kindergarten in Kopachi was a solid old thing, a brick building with four columns, fading blue paint around the wood of the windows. All over the floor papers were scattered about, workbooks with activities, kid stuff like coloring and matching similar objects.

Somebody had brought a little metal tricycle with a metal seat inside, its rubber tires gone. A spoon sat on a low table and a green poster board, I think a science project, was propped up against the wall behind it. You had to skirt a charred spot in the floor where somebody once set a fire.

A cabinet, a tea cup, a grown-up’s coffee mug. A stuffed bear leaned back, propped against a chalkboard on the little tray where the chalk would be.

Three narrow wooden doors hung crooked, kind of defiant, open and upright. Cabinets listed down at the end of the hall. Somebody had spilled their insides out all over the floor, a pretty pointless thing to do. A bottle of glue sat alone on a shelf. A tree poked right through the window.

Down the corridor bunk beds filled up a whole room, cloth safety nets around the top bunks. The original 1986 covers and pillows. They must have been. Who’d smuggle in soiled blankets?

Paint peeled in palm-of-your-hand sized slices. A children’s book was titled Barvinok. In Ukrainian that’s ‘periwinkle.’

Two girl dolls, one in long johns, the other barefoot in a pinafore, lay on one bed’s lower frame. Snow piled up on the trees. One window still had glass.

People had posed things for pictures: a book opened to a particular page on a window sill, gas masks on the floor. After 27 years this wasn’t April 1986. People had been here. Workers brought in for the clean-up effort for example (they called them ‘liquidators’), took whatever they needed wherever they found it. Families came back now and again to salvage what they could of their own things. And Kyiv let contracts to salvage scrap metal, resulting in ripped out window frames and pipes.

And the looting. Igor lamented “bad people,” and he was so innocent, such a wide eyed academic, that you thought along with him, “Yeah, those bad, bad people.” Igor had no guile. He always called it “OUR government” like a boy scout. He was utterly unaffected and you had to love him.

The government cracked down hard on the looting. You didn’t want radioactive teddy bears finding their way to Kyiv after all, or hot batteries driving around in cars.

The kindergarten wasn’t exactly a freeze frame of April 26th, 1986, but little girls’ dolls, 80s style tricycles and rusted cribs in the school? They’ll still get to you, 27 years on.

•••••

The Fire at Chernobyl Is a Real Danger Right Now

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Articles with titles like Ukraine Fire Near Chernobyl Disaster Site Brought Under Control create an incorrect impression. They probably mean to reassure by suggesting that the sarcophagus that contains the ruined reactor four is not under threat.

But as I’ve been tweeting this afternoon, it’s not that simple. The forests around the Chernobyl nuclear facility have been irradiated since the event itself in April of 1986, and the forests are still toxic. A study has shown that radioactive cesium 137, for example, with a half life of 30 years, “isn’t disappearing from the environment as quickly as predicted.”

Ukrainian authorities established the exclusion zone in the first place to keep people away from dangerous materials like cesium 137, strontium 90 and others. Visitors to the exclusion zone are made to sign an agreement not to wander into the woods and disturb the ground. We were instructed not even to rest a camera bag on the ground while changing batteries.

Fire needn’t reach the reactor proper to cause the dispersal of cancer causing material. It can be lifted from the forest floor into the air in clouds of smoke from the fire. People in Kyiv, Minsk and rural areas of Ukraine and Belarus must be careful not to breathe smoke from this fire.

Chernobyl Film Using Drones

About a year ago I authored the short book Visiting Chernobyl, based on a visit and my research. Having seen the subject of this short video in person, I can recommend it as looking just as I saw it in March, 2013.

It’s from a British freelance filmmaker named Danny Cooke who used a drone and camera to capture aerial footage of Pripyat, the town in the center of the exclusion zone made up of scientists and engineers dedicated to keeping the reactors running. Read more in this article at the Smithsonian magazine website.