(26 April 1986)
When I think of Chernobyl ...
... I see "liquidators" running with old-fashioned protection suits into a huge pile of rubble and carrying some nuclear fuel parts, graphite or metal parts with their hands from the one side of what has been the roof of a reactor hall to the other side trying to "clean it up". They run for their lives. For a very long 90 seconds. Then the next group is sent into the rubble.
... I see the journalist Lyubov Kovalevskaya entering an evacuation bus in the nuclear workers' city of Pripyat' then. And I hear the thin voice she has as a consequence of her thyroid problems years later.
... I see helicopters throwing sand into a burning hole.
... I see 16-year-old Katya in Kiev, 90 km south of Chernobyl, scared to death by a danger she can't see, she can't sense, getting on a train for Leningrad to escape from radiation. She has never moved back to Kiev. This was the "sudden end of my childhood" as she said years later. Katya is my wife.
... I see black-and-white pictures of smiling "pioneer" children marching on the streets on the May 1st demonstration receiving high levels of radiation - 5 days after the explosion, hardly anyone had been told about what had happened.
... I see black-and-white pictures of the "bicycle race for peace" starting 10 days after the accident from Lenin Square (now Independence Square) in the city centre of Kiev with thousands of spectators along the street.
... I see Gorbachev on a TV screen after a terribly long 18 days of silence explaining to the Soviet and international public what happened at Chernobyl.
... I see water trucks "washing" the streets, soldiers with gas masks and I hear commands over megaphones, voices crying and Geiger counter sounds.
... I see hundreds of thousands of people like war refugees carrying all their valuables in their suitcases and hastily leaving their houses and their pasts behind.
... I see overcrowded Soviet-style hospitals.
... I see old women carrying wooden buckets with "fresh" water from a well to their homes some 15 km away from the reactor, whom I met when I was on a Greenpeace nuclear campaign excursion to Chernobyl in 1996.
... I see thousands of candles at a mourning celebration on Kiev's Independence Square in 1996.
... I see the red face and hear the cynical laugh of Valery Krilkorov from the Union of Chernobyl Victims who I met with in 1995 and who was dead when I contacted his organisation 2 years later.
... I see pale-looking teenagers with worried, big eyes at a child's therapy centre in Kiev queuing up for a health check.
... I see myself being scared when I realised that my Geiger counter didn't work while I was taking samples from the soil in what the liquidators had called the "red forest" 1 km from the "Sarcophagus" in 1998.
... I see the words "Remember Chernobyl" beamed on a wall of the Sarcophagus by Greenpeace Russia and Greenpeace Ukraine.
Tobias is a political analyst for Greenpeace in Germany. He wrote this remembrance on 26 April, 2005, the 19th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster.
Chernobyl: The Aftermath
Chernobyl: 23 Years After the Disaster
Children’s toys and gas masks litter a kindergarten classroom in Pripyat, Ukraine. The abandoned town sits just two miles (three kilometers) from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, which exploded in the predawn hours of April 26, 1986. All 50,000 Pripyat residents were evacuated after the accident, and the town, which was created for Chernobyl employees, has not been repopulated.
A plant reactor exploded during a failed cooling system test, igniting a massive fire that burned for ten days. The accident, which was blamed on design deficiencies and lax operating procedures, released radioactivity equivalent to 400 times that of the Hiroshima bomb.
More than 350,000 people were displaced in the weeks after the explosion, and scientists estimate up to 90,000 square miles (233,000 square kilometers) of land in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia (all part of the Soviet Union at the time) were contaminated with unhealthy levels of radioactive elements.
A worker walks by the remains of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant's reactor number four. In the seven months following the 1986 explosion, Soviet engineers hastily designed and built a massive concrete-and-steel “sarcophagus” to enclose the reactor building and its smoldering core. The shell, however, was only meant to last 20 to 30 years, and it has deteriorated badly.
Work is set to begin soon on a new stadium-size shelter that will confine the entire reactor building and the radioactive material within for at least a hundred years. The project is estimated to cost the equivalent of 950 million U.S. dollars and be completed by 2008.
Eight-year-old Vika Chervinska, a Ukrainian girl diagnosed with cancer, holds an earlier picture of her and her sister (right). Chervinska’s mother blames her daughter’s illness on radioactive contamination from the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe. Their hometown of Kiev is just 62 miles (100 kilometers) from the Chernobyl complex.
Thirty-one workers at the Chernobyl plant died in the explosion and subsequent fire. But the most notable human-health consequence has been the increased rates of thyroid cancer in area residents, particularly among children.
Doctors at a hospital in Kiev, Ukraine, operate on a patient with thyroid cancer. Normally a very rare disease, thyroid cancer rates have reached epidemic proportions in areas contaminated by fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
The thyroid is the gland that concentrates iodine in the body. It is therefore particularly vulnerable to developing tumors when exposed to nuclear radiation that contains high levels of radioactive iodine.
Fortunately thyroid cancer is fairly easily treated, and success rates have been high.
Wild vines creep through the windows of a deserted house near the shuttered Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. After a Chernobyl reactor exploded 20 years ago, Soviet authorities created an “exclusion zone” with a radius of 19 miles (30 kilometers). More than 130,000 people in 76 towns and settlements were forced to leave their homes.
The exclusion zone still exists, and special permission is required to visit. But as many as 800 mostly elderly residents have illegally moved back to their villages there.
Eight-year-old Vedernikova Marija watches her father and a friend prepare a fishing net at their home in the town of Chernobyl. Vedernikova is the only child known to be living within the 19-mile (30-kilometer) exclusion zone around the now closed Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
More than a hundred types of radioactive compound were released when Chernobyl’s reactor number four exploded on April 26, 1986. Most of them have decayed to acceptable levels. But some still persist in dangerous amounts, and the risk of developing cancer, particularly for children, is high.
Chernobyl: A Ghost City