Twenty Years After Chernobyl

Nearly 20 years after the initial events of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of April 26 1986, the story is still unfolding. This month’s National Geographic Magazine tells of the “long shadow of Chernobyl” — grown children of the disaster now fear having their own children while some elderly residents return to their old homes inside the 1,000 square mile, still contaminated “exclusion zone.” The print article seemed to offer hope, noting that even the pines of the “red forest” — so called because they received so much radiation that it bleached the chlorophyl from them, and some say the trees actually glowed — are beginning to grow back now. But the multimedia companion materials tell a somewhat more morose tale.

A note at ibiblio, however, brings to mind how different our world was in 1986:

Chernobyl has become a metaphor not only for the horror of uncontrolled nuclear power but also for the collapsing Soviet system and its reflexive secrecy and deception, disregard for the safety and welfare of workers and their families, and inability to deliver basic services such as health care and transportation, especially in crisis situations. The Chernobyl catastrophe derailed what had been an ambitious nuclear power program and formed a fledgling environmental movement into a potent political force in Russia as well as a rallying point for achieving Ukrainian and Belorussian independence in 1991.

Time Magazine did a ten year retrospective and has an index to coverage, but Wikipedia’s entry is rich with detail and potential lessons.

One of the most interesting lessons may be that the reactor was not designed in ignorance of the instability that eventually caused the Chernobyl disaster, but as a reasoned and calculated approach to the problems of the time (makes me wonder what Henry Petroski would say about it). The reactor was designed to operate using light water and un-enriched natural uranium, a technical marvel so unique that the wikipedia entry on heavy water explains:

Heavy water is used in certain types of nuclear reactors where it acts as a neutron moderator to slow down neutrons so that they can react with the uranium in the reactor. Light water also acts as a moderator but because light water absorbs neutrons, reactors using light water must use enriched uranium rather than natural uranium, otherwise criticality is impossible. In effect to achieve criticality in a reactor, one must enrich either the moderator or the fuel.

Because uranium enrichment and heavy water production are both complex and costly, it’s easy to imagine the engineers proud of their accomplishment and accountants relieved. It’s the sort of scene that looks different in retrospect, but one that we’re quite familiar with.

The biggest lesson may be that the best plans and procedures can never be substituted for well trained, knowledgeable people. In this case, the plant’s operators had no training on the peculiarities of the reactor design, and so had no way of knowing how non-standard operations during the planned test would change the operating characteristics, safety, and stability of the reactor.

It is a sad irony that the reactor actually became less-stable during low-power operations, and sadder still that the operators had neither any knowledge of this, nor any indication of it in the control room.

And all of that was made worse by the fact that in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, operators had no way of knowing that the reactor had been breached, and they were all receiving deadly doses of radiation as high as 20,000 roentgen per hour.

Kerry Cupit’s Chernobyl gallery begins with a photo from that first day following the explosion at 1:23:47 that morning. While the plant operators were doubtful of any radiation risk, the firefighters and later “liquidators” were told nothing of it. The extreme levels of radiation were described by one firefighter as “tasting like metal.” He died soon after.

It wasn’t until the night following the explosion, with two people already dead and fifty-two hospitalized, that officials finally acknowledged the scale of the danger and ordered the the evacuation of Pripyat and the surrounding area.

The evacuation left a ghost town. And despite the disaster, this empty landscape has captured our imaginations. The fictitious story of Elena, the “kidd of speed” who toured the exclusion zone on motorcycle became legend in 2004, thanks largely to the eerie and dramatic photos of abandoned Pripyat.

Architectural photographer Robert Polidori visited in 2001. The resulting book, Zones of Exclusion: Pripyat and Chernobyl, is a study of the haunting desolation and, perhaps, of the serene beauty of these modern ghost towns. Jury Kosin’s Chernobyl album reminds us of the people consumed by the disaster. The photo at the top, of the secondary school south of Chernobyl, comes from Greenpeace.