The Ukraine After Chernobyl
Text: Jürgen Fränznick
The black, freshly painted sarcophagus of the reactor lies before me. We are standing in the no-man’s land surrounding Chernobyl, in the middle of the city Pripyat. For ten years now, Pripyat has been a ghost town. During the Soviet era, it was a model settlement of 50,000 people, workers wooed by the state to man the nuclear power plant Chernobyl “W.I. Lenin”. Today the city is as uninhabitable as the moon.
Cautiously I place one foot in front of the other – the deep, white snow is untouched. Yet the Geiger counter reads: get away from here! The eternal remains of the radioactive fallout, two hundred times greater than that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki together, drives the measuring device into the alarm zone.
I pass an abandoned book store in Lenin Street. From behind the storefront window, a campaign poster calls the workers to a demonstration. A nearby Ferris wheel has waited for years in vain for the joyous cries of children on holiday. On May Day in 1986, the demonstration of the workers does not take place – due to the catastrophe and mass evacuations.
The dust behind the snow-covered windows looks harmless. But it contains the radioactive poisons cesium and plutonium. No house cleaning can help here, and the sign on the door of the building punctuates the madness: “Property of Owner” is scrawled in shaky Cyrillic. A declaration of bankruptcy for the discussion on values: socialism or ownership? The international radioactive contamination, the atomic fire in the sarcophagus covering Block IV has no earthly end.
Directly behind the nuclear power station runs a train line. Precisely at the time of the catastrophe, a fully occupied passenger train drove past the exploding Block IV and its deadly radiation. Not all passengers were officially recognized as Chernobyl victims: those riding without a valid ticket were unable to prove their exposure to the radioactivity.
A rickety bus takes me to the Contamination Control Post. I am about to enter the nuclear power station, but first I have to remove the protective clothing: “That is only necessary for the passage through contaminated Pripyat”, I am told, ”in the plant everything is clean.” The dosage of Ukrainian unconcern grows constantly. This carries its own logic: the padded jacket with sleeves far too short and the well-worn fur cap in the style of the erstwhile Red Army could not have provided much of any protection. Shoes, which would have been of greatest use, weren’t even provided.
If the protective clothing I just removed did indeed keep the poisonous nuclides from my body, I am now sitting in my own clothes on the same bus, on the same upholstery that my contaminated jacket just rubbed against. Of the many busts of Lenin, this one here is the most glowing of all: everything in the power plant, named after the found ing father of the Soviet Union, has remained as it was. Blocks I and III are running full speed, as they have done for nearly two decades.
The sarcophagus over Block IV has just been dipped in a fresh black coat – it has to look good for the ten-year anniversary of the greatest accident in the history of civil nuclear power.
Block II, without a doubt – as the PR official Sergei Pavlovski assures me – can go back on line in the summer, after being forced to take a break for roughly five years following a fire in the turbines. ”We have no problems”, Minister Wladimir Choloscha will later repeat to me over and over again in response to my questions at the Chernobyl Ministry in Kiev, established specifically for the disaster.
Back in the control room of Block I. The head engineer smokes one cigarette after the other. I look around: the technology and the appearance of the distributing center are reminiscent in their simplicity of the infamous conveyor belts that once transported passports from control post to control post at the border control points leading in and out of the German Democratic Republic. On the housing of a measurement device, the control button has been replaced by the used cap of a softdrink bottle. Homespun high tech.
In the enormous turbine hall, centimeter- wide cracks run the length of the concrete floor. The turbines are driven by radioactive steam coming directly out of the two active reactors. The reactor provides all the energy for the needs of Kiev, a city of three million. I search for the price of this energy on the display of my beeping Geiger counter: Even the German nuclear power lobby would have qualms about these readings.
The numbers are unfathomable: today 7,000 people work at the nuclear power plant. 7,000 people commute daily in a triangle between the reactor site and Slavutich, a residential town built after the disaster as a substitute for the contaminated Pripyat, and the town of Chernobyl itself which lent the entire thing its name and lies about 15 kilometers from the atomic power station. This is where the personnel are taken care of who all work one week within the exclusion zone followed by two weeks off outside of the 30-kilometer zone.
Normal operations in Chernobyl. In the words of Mr. Pavlovski from the Chernobyl PR office it sounds like this: ”We continue to drive our old car and try not to cause an accident. Think of it like the Challenger catastrophe of the Americans: They continue to run flights with it. That’s normal.”
For two hours now I have been travelling from Kiev to Narodichi. Large signs inform me of something important: “Protect the forest – our forest is the well of our health!” The forest is fantastically beautiful, calm and covered in a thick blanket of snow. But a walk between the strong fir trees would be fatal. On the far side of the only navigable route mortal danger exists: the forests in the district of Narodichi will be contaminated with radioactive waste for millennia. A tree nursery of mutations.
Was that what our nuclear power lobby meant with their slogan about “clean energy”? No hideous forest dieback of limp brown foliage. Here the most genetically degenerate young shoots glow bright green. And just as at the reactor site of the accident: I smell nothing, I feel nothing, I taste nothing – I detect no familiar sense of calamity, all my senses remain oblivious!
The district of Narodichi is regarded as a second Chernobyl. The small county seat and many villages and settlements lie in the direct vicinity of the wrecked reactor. Simple, yet beautiful: small wooden houses, often painted in colors and decorated with carved woodwork, a little garden surrounded by a wood fence, a decorative fountain out front – peasant idyll in the countryside. Four of these villages were evacuated in 1986, the year of the accident. Their residents had no choice but to leave behind all of their belongings. The exodus for the inhabitants of twelve additional villages did not come until 1990, and three further districts did not receive the signal to move until last year: Finally additional quarters became available in less contaminated regions of the Ukraine. The church bells of the abandoned villages hang in the park of the county seat Narodichi.
Today, those who live on radioactive ground and soil shrug their shoulders about such details. I am the only one who feels like crying: I sit over a bowl of borsht. Each spoonful is hard to get down. I am surrounded by energetic eating – the days are very rare that the tables in Narodichi are abundantly set. But today they have a visitor – and hospitality mobilizes everything in this land. The entire menu: before there too was tongue and sour bits of potato. I am awaited by stuffed blinis and for dessert a milk dish. A wonderful banquet, lovingly prepared, and presented by the cook with sparkling eyes. Every bite probably contains more becquerel than anything I have ever eaten before. Even the authorities during the Soviet era brought so much reason to bear that they halted farming and ordered provision of uncontaminated food for the population.
The order still exists, the Soviet Union no longer does – thus the pig whose meat we are eating ate from contaminated soil, and the milk in the dessert comes from the cow in the neighbor’s yard; the hay there would later make our Geiger counter shoot to the top of the scale. I turn hot and cold, I careen between well-mannered conventions and wild bio-panic. And to think, at home I boycott the microwave …
Before the disaster, around 30,000 people lived in the district of Narodichi, and until today 17,000 people still have to hold out here. Of the original 7,000 inhabitants of the city of Narodichi, 5,000 still remain, among them 2,050 children. These statistics are related to me by Galina Korinna. Years before, the 32-year-old woman with the lively personality was a teacher. Today she uses her didactic skills as Deputy District Administrator of Narodichi.
We are making our way to the sole remaining secondary school in the city; 220 children are meant to be prepared here for life. Yet the hardest lesson is taught by daily life: They eat contaminated food, they play in radioactive meadows and in radioactive forests. Twice a year they are sent away for recreation to children’s homes in the southern part of the Ukraine and in the Ukrainian Carpathians.
I meet children with leukemia and again and again with thyroid cancer. I know that one can get leukemia anywhere in the world, but no doctor would deny that during the first four years of life the thyroid is particularly susceptible. In the first decade following the disaster, incidence of these diseases increased hundred-fold. Particularly hard hit is the group of today’s ten to fourteen-year-olds. To protect my thyroid, I have been taking iodine pills for days.
The hospital of Narodichi is lacking everything: no medication, almost no working medical equipment – medical care has itself become an emergency. The thought occurs to me again: get away from here! Then Galina tells me: ”My mother was born here, I was born here. This is my home, and I will die here.” Galina’s brother has already completed this career: He died two years ago at age 36. He was an engineer; in 1986 he was deployed in the immediate vicinity of the exploded reactor.
Life goes on. I see Alyosha sitting on his mother’s lap. His tiny right arm stops at the elbow – and from the stump something grows feebly that was meant to be a hand.