The shadow of Chernobyl

As Ukraine looks to nuclear power to fuel its increasing energy needs, critics have warned that the lessons of the 1986 Chernobyl reactor meltdown may have gone unheeded.

Hundreds of contaminated trucks remain abandoned
Hundreds of contaminated trucks remain abandoned

Ukraine’s dispute with Russia over gas supplies in early January caused panic in Europe – and even the eventual defeat of the government in Kiev.

With high oil prices and increased demand continuing to dominate international markets, interest in nuclear power has resurged as securing energy sources becomes a key issue for many European countries.

Ukraine is planning to boost its nuclear sector, and Viktor Yushchenko, the president, has even floated the idea of using the old Chernobyl site as a new dump for nuclear waste

Paulius Kuncinas, a Kiev-based energy analyst, says: “In 2004, Ukraine commissioned two large new reactors.

“The government plans to build up to 11 new reactors by 2030. The rationale is that it is a cheap way to replace gas. Ukraine also has large uranium deposits.”

But the move towards nuclear energy may be lingering in Chernobyl’s shadow.

Fatal meltdown

The result of an experiment that went horribly wrong, the Chernobyl nuclear plant’s reactor number four exploded on 26 April 1986, releasing large amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere. A radioactive cloud affected people as far away as Scotland.

The nuclear sector in Europe took a plunge in the wake of the disaster.

Reactor number 4 

Reactor number 4 

Many countries moved to decommission existing nuclear power stations and – except in France and Finland – cancelled plans for new ones. Low oil prices and fears over nuclear safety were key factors in this loss of public trust.

Today, the reactor sits at the heart of a 30km exclusion zone, an area still dangerous for visitors.

“It’s something of a wildlife sanctuary,” says Maxime Orel of the Ukrainian Ministry of the Catastrophe, a special government unit set up to manage and monitor disaster relief at the site.

“The reason is that hunting is banned, because the animals are laced with Strontium 90, a deadly radioactive isotope. They get it from eating the plants, which are also radioactive.”

Nobody knows how many people died in the disaster, particularly as effects such as cancers may not appear for years. Official estimates, which are widely disputed, from the three former Soviet countries affected – Ukraine, Belarus and Russia – say about 25,000 had died by the year 2005.

“At the time, no one wanted to believe this disaster had happened,” explains Orel. The Soviet authorities covered up much of what had happened.

Ghost towns

We are walking in the abandoned city of Pripyat, 1km from the reactor and once a home to more than 40,000 people.

“The residents of Pripyat say they heard only a small noise when the reactor blew – a hand clap, nothing else – at about 2am,” continues Orel. “The following morning, people, mothers with children, went about their daily business. No one told them what had happened, but the radiation level was already extremely high. There was radioactive dust in the air and it covered all the buildings and streets.”

The town of Pripyat was home to 40,000 people. It lies deserted

The town of Pripyat was home to
40,000 people. It lies deserted

The entire town was evacuated some days later. Because residents were told they would return in three days, they left clothes, furniture and pets behind.

“When they came back, all the pets were dead,” Orel told

Now the town stands deserted, its miles of apartment blocks, shopping centres, wide boulevards and amusement parks too radioactive to be lived in again. With the wind and snow, followed by spring rains and summer heat, the concrete buildings will likely have long since cracked and eroded away before the radiation levels become safe.

Yet this natural process of decay is also a growing cause for alarm.

Growing alarm

“Chernobyl is one of the most complex sites, geologically, of any nuclear power station,” says Jan Vande Putte, the nuclear campaigns coordinator for environmental activists Greenpeace International.

“Several million cubic metres of radioactive waste were dumped around the reactor in ditches, most of it in the 12 months after the disaster and in an emergency situation. They did this next to a river which regularly floods.”

“Chernobyl is one of the most complex sites, geologically, of any nuclear power station”

Jan Vande Putte, nuclear campaigns coordinator,
Greenpeace International

The fear is that radioactive material could get into the water table and seep down river into the Kiev Reservoir, which lies north of Ukraine’s capital. Kiev lies two hours’ drive downstream from Chernobyl.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1986 explosion, thousands of soldiers, firemen and rescue workers – known as liquidators – also rushed to the site to pour thousands of tons of lead and sand around the reactor. Many of them died or received severe radiation burns in the process, but eventually they contained the reactor in what has since become known as “the sarcophagus”.

Yet this structure too is now causing alarm.

“Inside the sarcophagus, in one second you can take a fatal dose of radiation,” says Orel. “Yet its north wall is unstable. Ground water is undermining the cement and sand dropped by the helicopters during the emergency, it’s a mess. Highly polluted and very unstable.”

Containment hopes

French company Framatom is working fast onsite to build a new sarcophagus to contain the old one. Orel hopes it will be completed as soon as possible.

A supermarket remains abandoned in Pripyat

A supermarket remains
abandoned in Pripyat

Nuclear sector companies have been busy recently elsewhere in Ukraine too. Reactor number four was just one of several at Chernobyl, yet all these have been closed since 2000.

To compensate for the loss, the Ukrainian government commissioned two new Russian designed reactors, Khmelnitsky 2 and Rivne 4, and received financial backing from a string of European, US and Russian authorities.

“There is pressure on the Ukrainian government to find new energy resources,” Kuncinas told

“Coal-fired power plants and nuclear plants are the two options being considered. Coal is not very popular as it enjoys little support outside Ukraine.”

Cheap energy production

Tony Blair, the British prime minister, announced late last year that his government would be reviewing “the development of a new generation of nuclear power stations”.

Elsewhere, countries from Lithuania to China have also announced nuclear plans.

Advocates argue that it is a way of producing cheap energy that does not harm the environment by producing greenhouse gases.

A return to nuclear power has also been welcomed by Western business groups. They fear that uncertainty over energy supplies – such as that recently shown in Russia’s spat with Ukraine – coupled with rising gas and oil prices will have a major impact on their future competitiveness.

Yet back in the snows of Pripyat, such considerations seem a long way away.

“Once, they thought of this as a paradise,” says Orel. “The people who lived and worked here at the reactor were all young – the average age was 25. They were paid much more than normal Soviet citizens and had everything they wanted. Now who knows how many are still alive.”

All photographs: Jody Sabral

Source : Al Jazeera

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