Uncovering Chernobyl, Thirty Years On

Photo: Hugh MittonPhoto: Hugh Mitton

“I personally think that Chernobyl contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union,” said Dr. Galia Ackerman, taking a sip of her café allongé. The Franco-Russian journalist and I sat in her living room in Paris on the morning of 28 April, just two days after the 30th anniversary of the catastrophic explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

Her suggestion was not unprecedented. Even Mikhail Gorbachev wrote over a decade earlier that Chernobyl, “even more than [his] launch of perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later.” The thought, nonetheless, remains ever as striking, boldly evincing that there will always be a straw, however unexpected, that breaks the camel’s back, even in a totalitarian state with a seemingly voiceless populace.

“The Soviet state was a very paternalistic and the people were used to having everything decided for them; to show that the Communist Party was unable to overcome [this setback] was a great political risk,” continued Ackerman, who launched her research on Chernobyl in 1998.

“There were several factors – Afghanistan, the general economic system, the low petrol price, nationalist tendencies – but, of course, there was Chernobyl, which demanded an enormous budget for liquidation and which, somehow, undermined the faith that the population had in the administration.”

Ackerman is amongst the world’s modestly-numbered specialists dedicating their time and intellectual resources to studying Chernobyl and other nuclear disasters. She even oversaw a three-year exhibition on the subject at the Centre of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona starting in 2003.

The efforts of such specialists are valiant, not only because these individuals have, either occasionally or for extended periods of time, worked on location in the still uninhabitable, largely-irradiated exclusion zone, but also because of the revelatory and whistle-blowing nature of their research. Not all who choose this path are safe from scrutiny, nor is their liberty always secure, as evidenced by numerous precedents, of which the sentencing of Belarussian scientist and critic Yury Bandazhevsky in 2001 was but one.

It is undeniable that the popular frustration that ensued in the aftermath of this disaster accelerated Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, which led to greater freedom of information and shined a light of hope into dark corners of the Soviet Union. This progressivism, however, as suggested by current propaganda and media censorship in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, was rather short-lived.

The question of Chernobyl itself is clouded by dubiousness; theories of cover-ups and misinformation abound. The Russian Woodpecker, for instance – a 2015 documentary film and winner at the Sundance Film Festival – follows the investigation of Kievan actor Fedor Alexandrovich who argues that the Chernobyl explosion was premeditated to save the career of a single Muscovite deputy at the expense of Ukrainian blood.

Suspicions of covert agendas and sensationalist rhetoric, especially those suggesting that Chernobyl and its various mishaps were calculated acts of ethnic discrimination, should undoubtedly be taken with a grain of salt. But the prevalence of such phenomena provokes important questions, such as why a nuclear power plant was built so close to Kiev and why no equally-as-potentially-unstable structure existed in the immediate shadow of Moscow; whether certain mishaps would have been handled differently had the explosion occurred near the Soviet capital; and, finally, whether Soviet authorities were truly as aloof as Gorbachev has repeatedly insisted. In short, was there any malice involved in the Chernobyl disaster?

The Cambridge Globalist had the privilege of exploring the question of Chernobyl with three leading experts in the weeks following the anniversary. Amongst them were Ackerman, University of South Carolina biology professor Dr. Timothy Mousseau, and University of Maryland, Baltimore County history professor Dr. Kate Brown. Together, they helped us to gain a clearer understanding of the Chernobyl disaster, its consequences, and its resonance 30 years on.

Flashback to a disaster

It is 01:23:44 AM on 26 April 1986. An explosion occurs in the fourth block of the Chernobyl power plant in the Kiev Oblast of Ukraine; its cause – a failed experiment. Within seconds, a second, more potent, explosion follows. With the 1000 ton lid previously capping the now-disintegrated nuclear fuel no longer intact, a 1.5 kilometre column of radioactive fallout is sent into the atmosphere.

In Moscow, Gorbachev learns of an ‘accident’ in the morning. He creates an emergency delegation composed of the country’s leading experts in nuclear energy; headed by inorganic chemist Valery Legasov, they gather in the atomic city of Pripyat, situated some four kilometres from the plant.

Underestimating the gravity of the situation, members of the scientific delegation and military personnel take no precautions to protect themselves: they work, sleep, and unknowingly consume radionuclide-contaminated food on the premises. Dry rations are brought in nearly 48 hours after the explosion and only after Pripyat’s residents are completely evacuated. There is no precedent for such an accident, so immediate assumptions are expectedly naïve. It is even hoped that the plant will be up and running by summer.

Meanwhile, a cloud of radioactive fallout spreads across Europe, reaching Scandinavia by the morning of 28 April. At Sweden’s Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant, an employee’s shoes are found to be emitting high levels of radiation. Gorbachev receives a telephone call from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regarding a potential incident on Soviet soil. He later claims that he himself was unaware of the breadth of contamination.

It is only on the evening of 28 April that the Soviet populace is informed of the catastrophe through the news programme Vremya. The message is short and strategically sweet so as to stave off panic. “There has been an accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. One of the nuclear reactors was damaged. The effects of the accident are being remedied. Assistance has been provided to any affected people. An investigative commission has been set up.”

Immediate and long-term decontamination efforts

By the evening of 27 April, 150 tons of lead, sand, clay, boron, and dolomite had been thrown over the burning reactor from a height of 110 metres by helicopter crews led by air force commander Nikolai Antoshkin. These efforts proved insufficient to quell the flames. With the level of radioactivity steadily increasing to an overpowering 1,800 roentgens per hour, many pilots fell ill in mid-air. Between 27 April and 2 May, 5,000 total tons of extinguishing compound were dropped down over the course of 4,000 flights. Miners were engaged to fill the area underneath the reactor with concrete so as to prevent the structure from collapsing and leaking radiation into the soil and ground water. Dams and canals were built to divert water and prevent the contamination of the Pripyat River. Between June and November 1986, a steel and concrete confinement called the Sarcophagus was built over the affected reactor.

Though a cloud of radioactive fallout had indeed spread across Europe, the heaviest part of the nuclear fuel had fallen near the plant itself and needed to be eliminated manually. “There were robots, but robots [proved unable to] withstand the radiation. They simply stopped functioning. People partaking in this work called themselves biological robots and many of them died [as a result of exposure], though the effect was not immediate as is the case with mechanical robots,” said Ackerman, who recently published her new book Traverser Tchernobyl (2016) in which she describes her travels through the exclusion zone and relates the destinies of the people she encountered along the way.

Though effective at the time, the Sarcophagus has since begun to fall apart. The New Safe Confinement, which is currently being built in its stead, is expected to have a lifespan of 100 years, over the course of which more sophisticated robots will extract what is left of the nuclear waste and bury it.

Immediate and long-term decontamination efforts at the Chernobyl site were significant, though as Kate Brown recently wrote in a Time article: “No one can ‘liquidate’ or eradicate radioactive isotopes. They can just shunt them from one track to another to wait while the radioactive isotopes take their own time to decay.”

Brown, author of Plutopia: Nuclear Families in Atomic Cities and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (2013), studies ‘plutopias’—industrial communities and cities constructed to sustain atomic plants—and the nuclear mishaps (and the cover-ups) surrounding them. The historian elected to spend the anniversary scouring the archives of Ukraine’s Ministry of Industrial Agriculture and working onsite in Chernobyl.

Nevertheless, if not for the heroic efforts of the 600,000 or so people recognised as Chernobyl liquidators, the consequences of the disaster, both immediate and long-term, would have been far more extensive than they already are. Ackerman’s calculations suggest that up to 1 million people, civil and military, worked in the area of the disaster from April 1986 to August 1991. Many of them became gravely ill as a result of their exposure to radiation.

However efficient immediate decontamination efforts were, Ackerman suggests that the motives behind them may have been unethical. “There was a rather criminal project [aimed at] restarting the power plant, [namely] the three reactors that had not exploded,” she said. “The nuclear industry was a prestigious and avant-guard; it showed the advantages of the Soviet system. So it was very important for the Kremlin not to show that it had been defeated by ‘the Atom’.” It may be that the Kremlin’s desire to maintain the Soviet Union’s position as a ‘superpower’ took precedence over its desire to ensure the well-being of its own population.

The first and second reactors were already operating by the end of 1986, and the third by autumn 1987. “Ukraine has many power plants and there could have been an alternative [to Chernobyl reopening]. This was a political decision made by the Kremlin,” said Ackerman. The plant stopped working indefinitely only in 2000.

Had the explosion occurred after the dissolution of the Soviet Union but before the Russia-Ukraine conflict in 2014, it is likely that Russia would have played a significant role in liquidation efforts and held a leading position in deciding Ukraine’s future. The disaster would possibly have given the Kremlin an upper hand by reinforcing Ukraine’s vulnerability as a pseudo-sovereign entity struggling to stand on its own two feet and in dire need of finding itself once again under Moscow’s caring wing. Crimea and the Donbass would likely have been voluntarily given to Russia so long as Ukraine was helped by its ‘more experienced’ big brother. And the Chernobyl power plant would, just as it was during the Soviet period, likely have reopened for the sake of legacy.

On the other hand, had the explosion occurred after the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the disaster would likely have been dealt with in a far more transparent manner than it was due to Ukraine’s desire to prove itself in the eyes of the West.

Atomic refugees and illness

On the morning of 26 April, the 49,360 residents of Pripyat, unaware of the disaster that had occurred just several kilometres away, awoke to an ordinary Saturday. Young children were brought to day-care centres, older children to school. Families gathered at the bank of the Pripyat River to sunbathe, mothers pushed their infant children in prams through local playgrounds, and the elderly exchanged gossip on park benches. Hoping to prevent panic, authorities concealed the seriousness of the situation from Pripyat’s residents, though potassium iodine tablets were eventually distributed to help slow the absorption of radiation.

By the afternoon of 26 April, the radiation being emitted by the thyroid glands of Pripyat’s residents measured as much as 5-50 roentgens per hour, suggesting an absorbed radiation dose of 4.8-48 rads (as one roentgen deposits 0.96 rad in soft tissue). Ministry of Health files accessed by Brown in Ukraine’s archives confirm that of Pripyat’s 8,588 evacuated children, 50% had absorbed 30 rads of radioactive iodine in their thyroids; 40.8% – 30 to 200 rads; 5.7% – 200 to 500 rads; and 3.5% – over 500 rads. Four hundred rads bring about acute radiation syndrome in humans.

Evacuation measures were finally taken by early afternoon of 27 April, some 36 hours after the explosion, when a 12-mile-queue of 1,100 buses made its way towards the city. At two o’clock, one bus was parked before each of Priypat’s apartment buildings and residents were given two hours to gather their belongings. Believing that they would be back within three days, most left prized possessions behind.

“When they evacuated people, they did not allow them to take domestic animals and cattle. Fur accumulates radiation, so domestic animals like cats and dogs were all shot by special troops. It was an animal Holocaust,” said Ackerman.

Abandoned cattle were evacuated, but subsequently sent to slaughterhouses. Their contaminated flesh was frozen and distributed amongst the industrial butcheries of the Soviet Union, where it was mixed with non-contaminated meat in a supposedly permissible ratio of 1 to 10 and, eventually, appeared in items such as ground beef and sausages. “It was a productivist state. The ideology was that one does not have to waste good things, [especially in] a period of shortages. This was good meat that was still edible,” said Ackerman.

According to Brown, 50,000 head of cows, sheep, and goats were loaded onto flatbed trucks. Though half of these animals were too contaminated to keep, 25,000 made it to the slaughterhouses.

None of this contaminated meat was sent to Moscow. After all, the Soviet capital and its ‘selected’ population was to be kept safe. It may be for this very reason that there were no atomic power plants built in the direct shadow of Moscow, a rule that was not abided by when it came to the capitals of other Soviet republics, as evidenced by the construction of the Chernobyl plant within 30 kilometres of Kiev.

The Chernobyl disaster is widely considered to be the unrecognised culprit behind hundreds of thousands of illnesses, including various cancers, amongst exposed individuals and their descendants. Heavily irradiated individuals generally died within several days to three weeks of acute radiation syndrome. Other exposed individuals, though taken to hospitals and treated, fell victim to the backward Soviet health system, said Ackerman. “Very often, the connection between irradiation and sickness was not made. It was formally forbidden for doctors to establish the link between the radiation doses and the various pathologies which were developed, [because the administration] wanted to minimise costs and [avoid paying] compensations.”

Mobile brigades of young doctors and medical students travelled the countryside and carried out exams on people living in the pale of the Chernobyl fallout, said Brown. According to notes sent by Ukraine’s doctors to the country’s Health Ministry, a quarter of the children exposed to radiation began exhibiting unusual symptoms by the summer of 1986, including “nervous tremors, flushed faces and throats, the slowing of motor skills, [and] weight gain.

“In most of these rural regions, with little industry, traffic, or pesticide use, cancer rates before the accident were well below the national average,” said the historian. These rates, however, rose noticeably from 1986. “People [began to suffer] from rare cancers of the lips, oral cavities, oesophagus, and stomach, as well as from leukaemia and cancers of the thyroid and lungs.” Other people suddenly began to suffer from non-cancerous illnesses such as chronic tonsillitis, chronic upper respiratory illnesses, digestive tract disorders, dry mouths, tooth decay, endocrine system disorders, and anaemia.

Pregnant women were affected, as well, said the historian, and many of those exposed to radiation were denied stamps on the obligatory ‘birth permission’ form that granted women the right to proceed to delivery. Some women had prophylactic abortions, whilst others fell victim to spontaneous abortions, haemorrhaging, and premature deliveries. Birth complications also arose, with new-borns likely to be born more ill, smaller, and lighter than what would be considered normal.

By 2006, nearly 5,000 cases of thyroid cancer were diagnosed in individuals who were children aged up to 18 years at the time of the explosion and living in the pale of Chernobyl in Ukraine, Belarus, or Russia, according to a World Health Organisation report. “It is expected that the increased incidence of thyroid cancer from Chernobyl will continue for many years, although the long-term magnitude of the risk is difficult to quantify,” the document stated.

The reason that the mortality and casualty toll from the Chernobyl accident remain to be determined, said Brown, is that there has been no thorough epidemiological study of the 4.5 million people exposed most directly to radioactive fallout. “The question [should not be ‘what is the toll?’], but ‘why is it that we have no idea what the impact of the world’s largest technological disaster was?’.  Look at the multiple calls from 1987-2016 by the World Health Organisation, United Nations agencies, and international scientists to carry out such a study. Why has one not been done? Why are no politicians willing to figure this out and why are they asking the same questions again after Fukushima?” asked the historian.

The consequences of the Chernobyl disaster go beyond physiology, with evidence of neurological and even psychological effects on human and fauna populations. A number of studies on humans, said Mousseau, have show increased rates of neural tube defects, smaller brains and heads, cognitive disorders, and compromised brain structure in those individuals who received in utero exposure to Chernobyl-derived radiation. “Studies of high school performance and cognitive abilities amongst children from contaminated areas in Scandinavia that were in utero during the Chernobyl disaster show reductions in high school attendance, lower exam results, and reduced IQ scores compared to control groups,” said the scientist, who has been studying the ecological and evolutionary consequences of radionuclide exposure in the fauna and flora of Chernobyl since 1999. Mousseau works alongside Dr. Anders Pape Møller of University of Paris-Sud in collaboration with several other institutions as part of the Chernobyl + Fukushima Research Initiative.

Resettlement, regeneration, and research

Though the Kremlin did toy with the idea of reintroducing people, including children and pregnant woman, into the zone less than a month after the disaster, this endeavour was never brought to fruition. Instead, people returned entirely of their own accord. “People were attached to their homes and farms. Farmers in the region lived off the land and had trouble figuring out other ways to make a living … because so much of their livelihood depended on knowledge of their immediate surroundings,” said Brown.

By 1987, 1097 people were living in the zone on the Ukrainian side, 17 of them children. In 1991, a law was passed allowing people aged over 50 to resettle in the zone. Though it is forbidden for children to reside there, documentary evidence proves that this interdiction is not always respected in practice.

The highly heterogeneous nature of radionuclide deposition inside the exclusion zone has resulted in a wide spectrum of radiation levels within short geographical distances, from relatively ‘clean’, uncontaminated habitats, to highly irradiated ones. This heterogeneity makes it possible for individuals to live in very specific areas of the exclusion zone in relative safety, said Mousseau. Ackerman estimates that there are currently 8 million people living in the area (dispersed amongst 14,000 localities), many of whose jobs are directly tied with containing the spread of radionuclides into non-contaminated areas.

Whilst the plutonium-contaminated city of Pripyat remains off-limits, as plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,110 years, more feebly-contaminated areas with deposits of caesium and strontium might be inhabitable, as there is no radiation in the air. However, Ackerman warns against cultivating plants in these parts, as flora is known to mistakenly absorb the isotopes in the soil as nutrition. One of the most contaminated specimens of flora in Chernobyl remain mushrooms, which have a remarkable capacity to accumulate caesium-137, though mushrooms, just as berries, are still gathered and eaten by humans, especially those who are poor and, therefore, less likely to afford to bring in foodstuff from outside of the contaminated area.

Mousseau’s research suggests that DNA repair ability may be an important component of an individual’s vulnerability to radiation. “In our studies, species that have historically shown high mutation rates are amongst the most likely to show population decline in Chernobyl,” said Mousseau. Conversely, those species that have a greater capacity for DNA repair are less likely to be thus affected. Furthermore, in low to no contamination areas of the exclusion zone, organisms appear to be relatively normal and live in abundance. Certain animals have also benefitted from living in an area with decreased human predation.

Nevertheless, whilst some studies show that wildlife is flourishing in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, others suggest that both fauna and flora have been slower to recover than previously thought. It is the latter studies that are most important, insisted the biologist, whose research suggests that the overwhelming impact of Chernobyl radiation has been negative, with a significant decrease in the abundance of many organisms.

Animals immediately exposed to high levels of radiation in Chernobyl suffered fates similar to those suffered by humans. Many died of acute radiation syndrome and many of those who survived developed cataracts in their eyes at an early age, just as many of the people exposed to atomic bombs in Japan at the end of the Second World War, said Mousseau. Animals have also shown increased tumour rates and neurological complications, such as smaller brains.

Though the Exclusion Zone will be associated with the nuclear disaster for centuries and possibly even millennia to come, some researchers are choosing to focus on the traditions that this land had to offer before it was forsaken. Amongst them are ethnographers who, despite the contamination, travel across the old wasteland in search of relics, seeking to preserve the final vestiges of the unique peasant culture that was left behind in what they call Ukrainian Atlantis.

Misunderstanding or intentional disinformation?

The March 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan brought about important changes in the manner in which Chernobyl is discussed today. “Before Fukushima, we had a tendency to accuse the Soviet direction of [various] wrongdoings [in relation to the Chernobyl disaster]. But, today, I am less categorical,” said Ackerman. “We should just say to ourselves that a nuclear accident might occur anywhere and that there might be different reasons for it, some of them even highly improbable. We had one type of accident in Chernobyl, we had quite a different type in Fukushima, tomorrow we might have a terrorist attack, so it is difficult to speak concretely of moral responsibility. We should simply acknowledge that we are dealing with dangerous technology.”

In terms of conspiracy theories concerning the manner in which Chernobyl was dealt with, especially those that support a narrative of anti-Ukrainianism, Ackerman believes that the disaster would not have been handled differently had it occurred in Russia. It did, however, according to the journalist, weaken the Soviet system by sowing seeds of distrust and stirring the waters of nationalist and ethnic equality. “The disaster prompted the rapid growth of different ecological movements which, together with different waves of nationalism, were very powerful … Moscow was seen as a polluting power undermining the health [of citizens] in non-Russian republics.”

Such sentiments were and continue to be supported by rumours that Chernobyl’s fallout was strategically distributed away from Moscow through weather modification. In a 2007 BBC2 documentary film Science of Superstorms, former pilot Aleksey Grushin claimed that the Soviet air force had used artillery shells filled with silver iodide to create rain clouds above Chernobyl and Belarus to prevent radioactive particles from drifting east. “More than 4,000 square miles of Belarus were sacrificed to save the Russian capital from the toxic radioactive material,” read a Telegraph article published around the time of the release of the film. Nevertheless, even here the perpetration would have been more an act of prioritising Muscovite lives over the lives of the citizens of other republics than an act of discrimination on the basis of ethnicity.

In terms of the legacy of disinformation surrounding the accident, Ackerman believes that it was not as significant as often believed. “Of course, it was the Soviet tradition to always cover by secret whatever concerns the nuclear, whether civil or military, but in Chernobyl’s case it was probably partly a misunderstanding of what happened from the beginning. There was little misinformation.”

Brown, on the other hand, believes that the breadth of cover-up was considerable, but maintains that a lack of transparency in the face of nuclear disaster is not a tactic that was unique to Soviet authorities. “I do not know of any major nuclear event that has not been covered up by responsible officials,” said the historian. “US officials denied the effects of radiation after Hiroshima, as well as after testing in Nevada and the Marshall Islands, and after the Lucky Dragon event. British officials denied radiation leaks after the Windscale accident. Soviet officials failed to inform the public of a major nuclear explosion in 1957 in Kyshtym [in the Ural Mountains]. US officials covered up the daily dumping of radioactive waste and the resultant health problems around the Hanford and Oak Ridge nuclear weapons plants, as did Soviet officials in charge of Soviet bomb plants. Japanese leaders took two months to admit to the melt down of three reactors in March 2011 in Fukushima. In 1986, Soviet officials were trying to stave off ‘panic’, as had leaders before and after them around the globe. Their response was ‘business as usual’ and they were soundly backed up by IAEA assessments in 1987 and 1990-1991 and by the WHO in 1989, which asserted that there was and would be no health effects from Chernobyl.”

Regardless of the decisions that were made at the time of the accident, Chernobyl continues to play an important role in collective memory and is of enormous symbolic importance, said Ackerman. “Chernobyl is important because it changed our perception of time and space: time, because, if there is a war or a natural catastrophe people, bury their dead, rebuild, and life continues. In the case of Chernobyl, you cannot rehabilitate and you cannot rebuild a big part of this forbidden zone, because it is contaminated by plutonium. That contamination, [will require] a quarter of a million years to be cleaned completely. That is totally incompatible with our human lifespan [and] is very striking for the imagination. The same thing with space. The tsunami that occurred in Southeast Asia and we [elsewhere in the world] did not feel it, but the cloud of radioactive fallout [from Chernobyl] went around the earth and affected people in areas like Florida and India. So, symbolically, it is something that is of a totally different nature.”

Unlike many other disasters of this type, Chernobyl was also politically-charged and the Soviet government’s decision to soften the extent of the damage to salvage its image in relation to the West may have come at the expense of its citizens. The greater culprit, remained, however general naivety as to the severity of the situation.