A thinly wrapped monster
On the 20th birthday of the world’s worst nuclear accident, Keith Lyons
recalls his 10th anniversary visit inside Chernobyl’s ‘dead zone’.
Seeing is believing. Just as seeing the Mona Lisa or the Pyramids makes them more real, getting close-up and personal
made Chernobyl more real to me. Exactly a decade since my visit – and 20 years since the accident – memories of the time
I spent at the site of the world’s worst ecological, engineering and economic catastrophe still linger.
The Ukraine once fed Moscow’s Communist elite along with Siberian prisoners.
That all changed when at 1.24am on the 26th of April 1986 operators at Chernobyl’s number 4 reactor lost control during
a test run. The fireball which blew off the reactor’s heavy steel and concrete lid exploded four tons of fuel into the
atmosphere – likened to 1600 howitzters pointing to the sky – eventually settled in fields, waterways and cities all
over Europe. Today, 20 years on, there are still farms as far away as Wales which cannot sell livestock because of the
I’d been invited to attend a conference on energy issues, though there was no welcome on arrival of Kiev’s airport, just
a slow-moving queue to pay over $100 for an entry visa and a foreign exchange teller touting a US$50 taxi ride into town
with his ‘brother’. I opted for the slower route to my exotic-sounding floating hotel moored on the Dnipro river,
arriving via cable car running along a deep tunnel which doubled as a bomb shelter.
Keen to explore the capital of the former Soviet republic, I set out along the main boulevard where huge imposing
Stalinist buildings dwarfed pedestrians viewing the slim pickings in the shops. The biggest queue was outside the new
Feeling peckish but wary of eating Chernobyl-contaminated food, I bought half a kilo of apricots from a thickset old
crone, figuring the fruit was grown in clean soils away from the Ukraine. Outside the produce market, two women were
dampening down radioactive dust. Despite my smart food choice, that night I got food poisoning, and splattered the walls
of the botel bathroom orange.
While part of the Chernobyl power plant is still operational, military patrol the ‘Zone of Alienation’ and invited
groups are accompanied by officials from the government’s Information and International Co-operation Agency. “You need a
police state for nuclear power,” quipped a Russian writer as our bus was thoroughly checked at the first checkpoint,
before driving past barren fields, silver birch forests, and abandoned villages and hamlets.
At the second stop in our 128km journey from Kiev to the plant, we had to change into radiation suits before we can ‘get
into the zone’. I was expecting high-tech gear, not blue or brown thick denim overalls and the worn rubber Elephant-man
We drove up to the complex, with its chimneys, cranes, machinery, and high voltage pylons. And there is was – No.4
reactor with its 40 tons of radioactive material held in a haphazardly-built crumbling casing that has been described as
a condom past its ‘use by’ date.
One volunteer firefighter vividly recalled the emergency. “We dropped lead, lots of the stuff, but it didn’t stop the
reactor – the lead just evaporated.” He told of his colleagues who would show their bravado by stripping off their
protective gear. Many of them have died from the diseases of the elderly, and half of them are state invalids with
‘Chernobyl AIDS’ affecting their thyroid, lungs, sensory and nervous organs.
There was no pulsating glow from the damaged reactor – ironically it looked harmless enough, but as we stood in front of
the plant in silence all we could hear were the pings and beeps of personal dosimeters measuring the radiation. These
did nothing to dispel our fears that the smiling government official was lying when he said ‘a day in Chernobyl gives
you no more radiation that a trans-Atlantic flight’.
I noticed the Japanese woman who survived Hiroshima wipe her tears as she viewed the plant which released 600 times more
radiation than the bomb. A Russian soldier who was used in chemical warfare experiments souvenired a large misshapen
mushroom growing on the grass. Trying to look for the positive, I was touched by the efforts to spruce up the place –
the curbs had been whitewashed and the lawns mowed.
Back in the hot sealed bus, we visited the nearby town of Prypiat which used to house 50,000 workers. Wandering around
the abandoned streets and buildings we found a fun fair with rusting carnival rides, and shops with faded signs and
broken windows. In the school, a child’s exercise book had its last entry dated 26th April 1986.
Like the former inhabitants, we were forced to put on our masks and leave quickly when the contaminated smoke from a
forest fire drifted towards us. Back on the bus, an official told us that at night you can hear wolves, but he made no
mention of the mutating voles discovered by scientists. “It is like a wildlife sanctuary here,” he said. “There are no
humans, it is no man’s land.”
More than 650,000 people were resettled outside the 30km exclusion zone, though some old people have been allowed to
return to die. While the International Atomic Energy Agency puts the incident down to an old reactor, and nuclear power
supporters say only 31 firefighters died at Chernobyl, others suggest 125,000 people have died as a result, and more
than three million people are still affected by contamination.
During a visit to Kiev’s children’s hospital for Chernobyl victims the director says they don’t have enough money for
equipment, medicine or vitamins. That evening the manager of a youth singing and theatre group told me, “We and future
generations may be cursed, and our bodies may be crippled, but not our souls.”
Towards the end of my week in the Ukraine interpreter Vitaly confided that he was worried his girlfriend won’t be able
to have children or worse still, that the children will be deformed. “When I meet a girl the first thing I ask if where
she is from, so I can get some idea of how much radiation she has been exposed to. Here in Kiev we weren’t told about
the accident at the plant until 40 hours afterwards, and we weren’t given preventative iodine by the authorities. Now I
am still worried about the food we eat.”
Public secrecy and misinformation has only added to the psychological burden. “The exploded reactor has not only meant
radioactivity and death,” said researcher Professor Grushevoi, “It has also meant lies, betrayal and deception, which
kill a human soul, its morale and faith.”
The Ukrainian government has tried to downplay the consequences of Chernobyl for its citizens, while using the tragedy
to blackmail wealthy G7 nations into giving several billion dollars in aid. Meanwhile self-help and ecological movements
have grown, counteracting the apathy and despair. Ironically if the Ukraine had the same energy efficiency as New
Zealand it wouldn’t need its nuclear power plants.
American researcher Bennett Ramberg warns sloppy management and a ‘safety culture deficit’ could cause another
Chernobyl-style accident in the older reactors. “One Ukrainian official said workers wouldn’t even bend down to pick up
an oil-soaked rag from the floor, even though they know that fire is the greatest hazard in nuclear power plants.”
As I headed to the airport with Vitaly in his beat-up Lada, I felt lucky to be able to leave. When he said the Ukraine
has a monster wrapped in thin paper I was not sure if he was talking about Chernobyl or the bottle of vodka that lay
beneath plain brown paper he gave me.
Back in New Zealand, when I unwrapped the present I found a quote from Albert Einstein on the inside of the wrapping
paper: The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking.
Keith Lyons is a New Zealand-based writer and photographer.