Standort: / Meldung: "Chernobyl: Thirty Years After the Disaster"

Johnny Bliss

Disorderly artist, journalist, and late night moderator, with a fetish for microphone-based hooliganism.

23. 4. 2016 - 10:59

Chernobyl: Thirty Years After the Disaster

My visit to the 30km Chernobyl Exclusion Zone offered me a fascinating, sobering meditation on what happens when men discover they are not Gods. I came, I saw, I interviewed.

FM4 Reality Check: This week's Reality Check Saturday Special takes a tour inside the 30km Exclusion Zone around Chernobyl. Our tour around the area will become available as a podcast and a "Saturday Special" on today´s Reality Check.

Pssst! Ten years ago, FM4's Chris Cummins also went to Chernobyl, and here is his special report.


Johnny Bliss

Chernobyl Tour Geiger Counter

I should start with an admission: I'm what you call a New Worlder, born and raised in Canada, and therefore may have a slightly shallower relationship to the Chernobyl catastrophe than your average European.

What I mean is, my family and I were far away when it happened.

I don't just mean physically! Living in North America, it's easy to forget about the rest of the world. Until you've travelled overseas, as a North American, your relationship to events happening in the rest of the world is, well - they're all happening on TV.

So that was my relationship to Chernobyl, I'm saying. I knew the accident happened, I knew it was bad, and basically I thought it could be fun to visit the ghost city of Pripyat sometime, if I ever made it to that part of the world.

Post-apocalyptic science fiction, my brain said. Fascinating.

After moving to Austria, I was exposed to some other, rather different perspectives. People told me that family members in Salzburg and Upper Austria got thyroid cancer, and they linked it to the disaster. My friend in Graz was just a little kid at the time, and the cloud of radiation would have passed right over him; he's still afraid it will affect his health later.

I heard these things, and I forgot them. Last month, however, some Austrian friends managed to cajole me into an unexpected trip to the Ukraine. One of our stops, it turned out, would be Kiev, the closest major city to the abandoned nuclear town of Pripyat, and Chernobyl.

I thought to myself, "this would be a good chance to visit Chernobyl!" before I even realized the significance of the date. Once I realized that I, a career travel journalist, would be in the region almost exactly thirty years after the deadly accident, it no longer was a question of if I would go, but how much work was I prepared to do there.

Fast-forward to a little less than two weeks ago, and I found myself sitting in the conference room of an office in the outskirts of Kiev, interviewing a very personable businessman named Slava, who just so happened to have been born and raised in a small city called Pripyat.

"I was eight years old when it happened," he told me that evening, over a cup of tea. "And then, of course, I was evacuated. But as an adult, I was interested to refresh my memories. We decided as a family to come back there, and visit our [home]."

"Of course, everything valuable was stolen and nothing valuable left in the premises, but I found my calendar that I made, and I found these pictures. A lot of old memories became very vivid. I'm very happy that I took this picture, and I will save it all my life."

I wondered if he was suffering from any health problems as a result of the accident, but he was very clear that he wasn't.

"We were measured [for radiation] quite a few times," he told me. "When we left, we got rid of all our clothes. Our neighbours gave us new clothes, new boots, and we changed everything. About health, we were observed every year, but nothing serious was found, no serious changes in our health. As I know, most people who [were] evacuated, they don't have health problems. But guys who were still working in the station, over a long period of time, they have a problem."

Well! This went against the conventional wisdom I'd been hearing over the past couple of weeks. When I'd told people around Ukraine that I was planning to visit Chernobyl, they almost always gave me a gloomy look, and told me fervently not to go.

"Do you have kids yet?" one man asked me point-blank.

"Well, no," I admitted to him.

"Don't go," he said, shaking his head. "It's not safe for your future."

"You're risking your life," another woman told me one evening at a bar in Odessa. "You can't see radiation, but it can kill you."

Even though I'd done my research in advance of the journey, and all science I could find on the topic would seem to contradict this anecdotal evidence, I have to admit I was nevertheless rattled.

So it was nice to meet a survivor of the accident who seemed hearty, fit, and not superstitious in the least.

One interesting thing a lot of people don't seem to know is that there are regular tours running from Kiev to Chernobyl; over 10,000 tourists visit the Zone every year, and there are quite a few highly-rated tour companies helping them do it. I did not visit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone as an accredited journalist. I simply booked a tour like any normal person.

While there are quite a few companies offering day-trips, I chose the one called Chernobyl-Tour, on the pre-condition that I could interview the heck out of them. They were well-rated on TripAdvisor and seemed quite open to accommodating my eccentric requests, and so the rest is history.

The day before my tour was due to leave, I stopped by the office and met one of their guides, a woman named Vita Polyakova. We sat down in one of the offices, and I picked her brains for information on, well, everything.

First, I thought of asking her if she'd herself been affected by the disaster. After all, it seems like half the people I know in Europe were!

Vita nodded solemnly. Shortly after the accident, her uncle had worked for two minutes as a 'roof cat', cleaning away radioactive debris. “He was okay for about twenty years after the accident," she told me, "but then very quickly something happened, as if something broke inside. He was, like we say here in Ukraine, 'burnt out'. Lots of people say that only decades later you see the aftermath of the radiation."

But wouldn't that make you apprehensive about working in the Zone?

"To be honest, yes," she said with a laugh, "I did have apprehensions. When I started, I was a shift worker in Chernobyl, so I worked fifteen days on, fifteen days off. The first time I came to my room in my dormitory in Chernobyl town, the dust was RED. I was shocked! I thought, oh my God, I can't touch anything! But then I started reading a lot, and talking to my experienced colleagues, and lots of pre-conceptions were broken."

I ask Vita if it's safe to eat mushrooms in Kiev

So you've lived part-time in the Chernobyl area. But there are people living here full-time, too.

"Well, Chernobyl is just one small town, but there are about one hundred and fifty villages around. Everybody was evacuated back in 1986, but then about 1200 people chose to come back, regardless of the prohibitions. So they still live in their private houses that they used to own before the accident. They're senior citizens, so some of them die out naturally, but now there are about one hundred and twelve of them."

Seems like a rather large number have died. Is it just old age, from your perspective, or did quite a few of them die from effects of radiation?

"You know, it's really hard to say what affected them most, the radiation or just the very strenuous life physically. I mean, lots of them lived through so many social breakdowns, from the Second World War to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. People who live in the villages, they start working at a very early age, and it's not just paper shuffling, they work at the ground with their hands, from early morning to late evening. So that's really hard. Definitely they can die because of this as well."

But one thing I still don't understand is the whole radiation danger. We all have this idea that radiation can be really lethal, and one would think Chernobyl would be Ground Zero for that.

"Well, it's already gotten safer, a little bit, just because of the half-life periods of some radioactive elements which are present there. There are three kinds of radiation: alpha, beta, gamma. So gamma is all-penetrating, you find it everywhere. So the half-life period of cesium, which is the main source of gamma radiation, is thirty years. As for strontium, the source of beta radiation, again, it's a thirty year half-life period."

And it has been exactly thirty years!

"Yeah, but then there is the source of alpha particles, which is plutonium, and its half-life period in the ground is 24,000 years."

But then there are all the wild animals, and they live on the land, no?

"Some species have died, but as the biologists say, who work at the eco-centre, the majority of species just got used to new conditions. You know, it's adaptation. Let's say, the generations of rodents living in the fields, they change generations much quicker than we human beings do. That's why they have already gotten used to it! However, for people, it doesn't take so little time. That's why lots of orphanages in Ukraine and Belarus were filled with children who were physically or mentally challenged, just after the accident. So the impact [remains] visible. But looking back at the wildlife, the wild horses, the wolves, the foxes, and so on, they look normal."

* his name is also Johnny!

The next morning I had to get up bright and early, because it was the day I was scheduled to join a tour of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Sleepily, I made my way to the bus station, where I met our guide*, and soon our tour got underway.

As we hit the road, I started feeling increasingly excited because I'd heard we were going to visit one of these villages, to potentially meet some of the elderly locals who still lived there and tended their own farms.

Unfortunately, as I was soon to learn, the last of the locals at this particular village had passed on just in January of this year. Apparently she'd been over ninety years old. A good long life!

We also went to visit a structure Vita had told me about the previous day - something called the "Russian Woodpecker" or the Duga Radar.

"That's an impressive structure," Vita had told me. "It's a big radar, which was designed to detect ballistic American missiles in the years of the cold war, so that the Soviet Union could counter attack those missiles. It worked from the late 1970s until 1986 when the accident happened, and it's still located in the Zone. It's called the Russian Woodpecker because the signal from the antennae were so powerful that western Europe would detect its signal, and they would know there was something powerful coming from the east, from Russia or the Soviet Union, and the signal was like this - " and she started banging on the table, lightly, rhythmically, " - so what I'm trying to do is to imitate the woodpecker, but you can actually go to wikipedia and listen to this signal that it produced."

For more stories from the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and those who have lived near it, tune in at 12 o'clock midday for an FM4 Reality Check Special, or check back here after the program for the podcast!

FM4 Reality Check

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