Chernobyl: Death and Destruction

Part I: Fault

It has become almost a cliché amongst travellers to want to visit Chernobyl. Though it is about as far from a conventional tourist destination as one could ever hope to visit, the lure of something so uniquely bleak, not to mention historically significant, is one that covers all bases for – seemingly – all intrepid travellers. Yet those who wish to venture into this dirty speck of post-industrial carnage in the wilderness north of Ukraine are all aware of the same thing; this isn’t grief tourism. The failed power plant and its neighbouring city Pripyat are a dark draw, sure, but this isn’t Auschwitz; most people heading to Chernobyl will have no intention of actively mourning the 31 deaths that occurred on the night of the accident, nor will they plan to feel deep remorse for a flourishing city – and the hundreds of thousands of lives within it – forever ruined by one mistake. But this doesn’t mean that they won’t.

Nope, they, like me, will head the site of this catastrophic event because they want to see something exclusive to Chernobyl. Across the globe, incidents and accidents, both man-made and natural, have brought to an end the habitability of hundreds of towns and cities. However, they all have one thing in common; in the days, weeks, months and years following the event that caused their abandonment, people have returned to either ransack the place, or to clean up. This applies to the vast majority of these cases, but not to Pripyat and Chernobyl; almost immediately after the all-encompassing evacuation of the area surrounding the power plant, a 30km ‘exclusion zone’ was set up. All citizens within this jagged patch of land were told to leave immediately, and to this day, nobody is allowed into the zone without strict authorisation including background checks, passport checks and a veritable ream of insurance forms. Thus, Chernobyl, Pripyat and the exclusion zone are, in an illustrative sense, still stuck in 1986. Only the invasive encroachment of nature has restructured this landscape in the years since then. Sure, tourists come and go, but nothing can be taken away from the Zone, and nothing was ever really salvaged by those who once populated it. Thus, while evidence of decades of decay – crumbling concrete, shattered glass and rusted metal – are now part of the furniture in Pripyat, there really is no timewarp more effective on the planet. The classrooms, gyms and hotels remain untouched. And, for everyone reading this, it will always be that way. The area is still highly contaminated, and due to the astronomical amount of radiation released into the atmosphere, Ukrainian officials currently estimate the area will not be safe for human habitation for another 20,000 years. It is, for all intents and purposes, dead forever.

Perhaps a little bit of scientific background information wouldn’t go amiss here, even though I’m sure all of you will know of the basics of the Chernobyl disaster. In the early hours of the 26th April 1986, the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station, situated in Chernobyl, Ukraine (around 68 miles north of Kiev), underwent an experiment. During regular operation of a nuclear reactor like the four used at Chernobyl, around 6% of the power of the reactor is harnessed from something called ‘decay heat’ (the residual heat from a nuclear fission reaction), which continues after a fission chain reaction has finished. As a result, after a chain reaction has finished, further cooling may be required to bring the decay heat down and prevent damage to the reactor core. But there were flaws in the design of the reactor, and some were deemed unacceptable by the USSR’s already-lax safety standards.

For instance, should there be a sudden power grid failure (something remarkably common during the Soviet Union’s later years), the fission chain reaction would cease due to a lack of power, and a backup generator would kick in to pump coolant into the reactor to counteract the decay heat. However, the operators at the plant were well aware that their current backup generators, which were primitive and ran on diesel, would take over a minute to provide sufficient power to the cooling system in the event of a power failure; easily enough time for catastrophic core damage to take place. The operators thus turned to the plant’s steam turbines, and theorised that, during a power failure, they would release enough residual steam pressure to power the coolant system for around 45 seconds – enough time for the diesel generators to reach max output and then take over.

However, this was merely a theory, and this switch of electrical supply needed to be tested. In a remarkable lack of foresight, the operators of the plant presumed that such a test would run smoothly and assumed that, while it may show that their theory was incorrect, there was no chance of any damage to the reactor. As a result, the director of the plant (who gave authorisation to go ahead with the experiment), astonishingly chose not to consult their plans with either the scientific manager of the plant, nor the designer of the reactor. In the run-up to the experiment, the operators of Chernobyl paid almost no attention to any regular safety protocols, and, assuming the core would not be damaged, disabled various safety features that may have mitigated the effects of the disaster further down the line. Here it gets a little complicated, so I’ll try to create the most abridged version I can.

Basically, the test protocol states that thermal output of the reactor should have been no lower than 700 MW (a low power level for a nuclear reactor) at the start of such an experiment, yet due to the hurried nature of the plant’s preparations, the reactor didn’t respond accordingly to controller input, and dropped to near-total shutdown levels of 30 MW by accident, 5% of the necessary power for the test to go ahead. After workers at the plant took a series of highly unsafe decisions (most of which are not understood due to the deaths of numerous operators), the test started, with the thermal output levels at well below the recommended number. Due to questionable actions taken to counteract the dropping output of the reactor pre-test, once the test began, power skyrocketed, generating ten times the reactor’s normal output. At this point, little could be done to avert disaster, and a steam explosion blew a giant hole through the roof of the building, exposing the reactor to the outside air. Three seconds later, a larger explosion obliterated the reactor’s containment vessel, and sent huge quantities of the reactor core’s mass hurtling into the atmosphere. And the rest is history.

* * * *

Part II: Shame

Perhaps part of what makes Chernobyl so fascinating, and so fit for a gloomy narrative, is how almost no good can be salvaged from its story of catastrophe. It was an unprecedented disaster. It permanently ruined over a thousand square miles of pristine forest, rendered vast quantities of surrounding natural life totally sterile, and caused pain and suffering to thousands and thousands of people, both physical and psychological. When the reactor exploded, to the average man and woman living in Ukraine and Belarus, the science didn’t matter, and due to the USSR’s shameful cover-up operations, they would likely never have known anyway. The following night, as an assortment of government scientists attempted to assess the damage and effects, many of them inadvertently exposing themselves to lethal doses of radiation, buses arrived in darkness to ship the 49,000 residents of Pripyat away from the reactor. While most would have been killed within days had they stayed, the government still refused to tell its subjects what was happening. Instead, citizens within the zone were given two hours’ notice to pack up their belongings and get in a bus to somewhere. Nobody knew where.

And this is maybe where my infatuation with Chernobyl as a monument to post-industrial abandonment morphed into something a little more melancholy. As you stand in these people’s abandoned apartments, as you stand in their now-empty swimming pools and walk through their overgrown parks, it’s easy to get a sense of the panic that hung over the city during evacuation. In photos, it looks like a decrepit mess; a mountain of useless shit left behind by people reluctantly moving into another phase of their lives. But when you’re there, stood amongst the toys, furniture and books left behind by these people, it’s an altogether different feeling. It’s decrepit, sure – it’s been sitting there, exposed to the harsh Ukrainian elements for thirty years. But at the time, it wasn’t useless, nor was it unwanted; after the accident, the Soviet government, in a shallow attempt to mitigate panic amongst its subjects, told these people that they would be allowed to return to their homes within a few days or weeks, and resume their lives amongst their friends and families. The USSR’s behaviour on all levels in the wake of the disaster was nothing short of a disaster in itself. From the diplomatic to the personal, their arrogance and lies led to far more suffering and death than was necessary. By withholding vital scientific information from the west, scientists who would have been able to help stop the spread of radioactive material were instead left in the dark to speculate on the nature and scale of the disaster. And by telling innocent citizens they would be able to return to the lives they once knew, before shipping them away forever and obstructing their return, meant tens of thousands of people, from that point onwards, would no longer be able to appreciate their own homes as something tangible or attainable, but as a series of distant memories.

It’s difficult to fully appreciate the scale of the disaster until you’re at the epicentre of it. The explosion killed 31 people, and over 4,000 people have been diagnosed with cancers thought to be linked to the fallout. But to many, including myself, its always been a kind of joke at the expense of the Soviet Union – a kind of ‘look how much these idiots messed up!’ rhetoric aimed at the USSR which, in hindsight, is just about the easiest target going. At that time a failing state with fast-depleting funds fighting a pointless and costly war against Afghanistan, they made a little foray into nuclear energy and ended up poisoning their own people. No matter how fascinating one finds it, for a distance it has always been unnervingly easy to detach yourself from the disaster and either see it as a just a game of numbers, or, depending on your level of jingoism, a sort of dark justice for their atrocities. To many, including myself, it was less a human event than a political event; the cleanup operation practically single-handedly destroyed what was left of the Soviet economy and was a pivotal cause of the collapse of the USSR entirely. But realistically, nobody suffered more than the people, and that is why a tour of the area is so vital.

Pripyat also exists in a paradigm that makes it difficult to fully gauge. On the one hand, it’s a city long-dead; left to fend for itself against time without the maintenance or fondness that comes with human occupation. But on the other hand, it’s only 30 years ago that this town was rendered sterile. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not a long time at all. When you look back at the great disasters – or indeed, atrocities – of history, most of them seem so alien or foreign, simply due to the time that has passed since they occurred. As an obvious example, nobody is left to remember the First World War, and we’re running out of people who remember the Second. So the wounds of Chernobyl are relatively fresh. On your way into the Exclusion Zone, you excitedly look forward to standing in cavernous empty swimming pools, and walking down the aisles of dead supermarkets, glimpsing into the past or merely immersing yourself in the alluring, chaotic horrors of what humanity can do to itself, perhaps even salvaging a perceived beauty from the wreckage. But on your way out of Chernobyl, after you’ve trampled through apartment blocks and addressed empty concert halls, you are played a video – silent save for a musical backing – that shows those very same places as they were 30 years ago.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to say they seemed ‘full of happiness’ or anything that contrived, but it was oddly disheartening to see them functioning so routinely. It wasn’t some picture-perfect postcard town beset upon by a caricatured evil; it was just a normal city full of ordinary people that was accidentally destroyed. The citizens may have begrudgingly moved on with their lives in other places, but within the confines of the city limits, nothing was gained and everything was lost. Soon after the video, we moved onto a documentary about the disaster. There was footage of soldiers bravely charging toward the reactor, unaware it would lead to their deaths, and clips of the hollow void in the roof of the reactor building. But no moment summed up Pripyat’s hardships more soberingly than a clip of a former resident, stood silently at a window overlooking the deceased city, before blankly stating ‘this has marked my life forever’.

* * * *

Part III: Liquidator

I couldn’t let this post drift into the dark without talking about one last thing. Perhaps the most essential and noteworthy thing one can know about the disaster – one that is sadly often forgotten by history – and that is the importance of the Liquidators. In the days following the explosion, and before the Soviet Government had fully assessed the scale of the disaster, almost 500,000 young men – mostly firefighters, soldiers, pilots and engineers – were drafted in to help wage war against the radiation at Chernobyl. These men were known as the Liquidators.

For days, they toiled in vain to put out the fire raging in the reactor, which would stem the release of further radiation into the atmosphere. Yet the government’s callousness and contempt for its own people meant that these men were sent into what was, for them, the unknown – a minefield of radioactive hotspots that could kill a human in days or even hours. They were given almost no protection, and were lied to repeatedly when they questioned the safety of the job. But even once the gravity of the situation became apparent (they were forced to work for only two minutes at a time before switching with another Liquidator), any response would have been futile. Even as their ever-weakening colleagues were shipped off to die agonising deaths in Kiev hospitals, they were forced to stay and slowly kill themselves, under threat of labour camp detention.

Yet this doesn’t reduce what these men gave to the cause. In the context of war or genocide, we mourn those who were killed through forceful means, and so too should we mourn those who were forced to kill themselves through such means. And though the Liquidators were almost certainly sent in by the Soviet government in a heavy-handed and shallow attempt to salvage some pride in a failing state, what they ended up doing for the rest of the world was more remarkable than a hollow face-saving gesture.

After days of an all-encompassing and vaguely-directed cleanup operation, the direct consequences of the disaster became vastly more serious and urgent. For instance, once the top of the reactor had been hastily sealed by the Liquidators, the heat trapped within the building led to the molten core beginning to melt through the floor, toward two large pools of water which were designed to be used as an emergency cooling system. If the core made contact with the pools, the resulting conversion of the water into steam would have led to an explosion many times greater than the one that had caused the original disaster. Once this problem was discovered, the Soviet government hurriedly requested three volunteers to enter the pools and drain the water before the core reached them. In the end, two engineers – Alexei Ananenko and Valeri Bezpalov – accompanied by a third man – Boris Baranov – successfully drained the pools, but due to the proximity of the reactor, it was discovered afterwards that the three men had been aware that they were volunteering for a suicide mission. All three fell ill and died shortly after.

There were hundreds of cases like this during the clean-up. Scores of men perished in an attempt to rectify a mistake that was no fault of their own. And due to the Soviet Union’s unparalleled drilling of nationalism and the importance of honour into its people, it’s easy to remain cynical about these sorts of events. Maybe these men unwaveringly marching towards their own deaths was a result of blind patriotism. Maybe, at a personal level, the idea of dying for one’s country was seen as a glorious exit from this Earth, rather than this being a case of selfless men dying for a cause greater than themselves. And of course we can point to the fact that these men were under threat of being sent to GULAGs if they didn’t comply. But it would be insulting to pin it all on such empty accusations.

I know I personally would have taken time in a labour camp over an inevitable and agonisingly excruciating death. But that’s what makes the story of the Liquidators so moving. Whether it was through force, through sheer will of wanting to honour their country, or through genuine compassion, every shovel-load of granite tumbling off the roof of Reactor 4 might have meant one more life spared, even if it meant that their own would be cut short. They knew it themselves; in the words of one firefighter, Alexander Fedotov, ‘Somebody had to do it’, and who knows what would have happened if they hadn’t.

As mentioned earlier, it’s easy to doubt the claims of the Soviet government. They claimed that, had the reactor reached the cooling pools, the resulting explosion would have destroyed half of Europe, and while this has been disputed by western sources, it leaves a particularly sour taste in the story of the Liquidators. Maybe the explosion would have been massive, maybe it would have been tiny. All we know is that people sacrificed themselves to prevent further damage to the Earth. And this doesn’t merely apply to those who climbed into the tanks, but to all the workers at Chernobyl. The size of the catastrophe they were preventing or cleaning up didn’t matter; they could only take on what was put in front of them by their superiors, and all faced the challenge with a bravery that most could never come close to matching. And for that, every one of them will forever deserve our admiration.

At the end of the tour, as the sun set through the trees on the dead straight, pothole-strewn road out of the Exclusion Zone, our bus slowed to an unexpected stop. By the side of the road was a grey, concrete statue. Our tour guide, who had been rather stoic and unemotional throughout the day, stood in front of the statue and addressed us in a tone tinged with a noticeable and uncharacteristic sadness. Everything she had described throughout the Exclusion Zone had been very matter-of-fact. This was a shop that sold electronics. This was a theatre that opened in 1972. But here at the side of the road, she broke character and let a tiny bit of emotion in, as she told us that the Liquidators, those who had given so much, had received so little back. While the Soviet government had given each of them a medal, that was all they had to show for it. Promises of bonuses were proven false, and any notion that they may be regarded as Soviet heroes was soon forgotten as the disaster’s consequences continued to dominate headlines. The neglected memory of the Liquidators was never even so much as etched onto a plaque.

Many years down the line, once the dust had settled and the Soviet Union had drawn its last breath, a group of Ukrainian emergency service workers and soldiers began an independent funding campaign to create an official memorial to all of the Soviet Liquidators, whether they had died or not. It was funded, designed and built by the emergency service workers and soldiers who would have been Liquidators had they been there ten years earlier. The tour guide handed us this caveat to lessen her criticism of the design. And she was right, it’s not the prettiest memorial. It’s rather crude, a little disproportioned and the colour is not particularly pleasing to the eye. But never has a memorial been more apt – built by ordinary people, independent of the state within which it was designed, just as those who were killed should be remembered independently of the appalling regime under which they died. Because they weren’t sacrificing themselves for their deceptive superiors, they were doing it because it needed to be done. And although it may be just a tiny plaque on a small roadside memorial, after years of being overlooked, the Liquidators finally have their memory etched in gold: ‘… To those who saved the world.’

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Gabe

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