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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Remembering Chernobyl

Air Date: Week of

25 years after the world’s worst nuclear disaster, host Bruce Gellerman revisits a story he reported in 1996. He updates that report by looking at efforts to build a new safe confinement for the aging sarcophagus built to cover and contain the destroyed reactor. He also examines the state of the natural environment in the exclusion zone with author Mary Mycio, and hears from photojournalist Michael Forster Rothbart how communities near the reactor are living with radiation exposure.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. 25 years ago - April 26, 1986, at precisely 1:23 in the morning, Ukraine time - the number four reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded.

The graphite core of the Soviet reactor ignited and fuel rods vaporized, sending a plume of radioactivity high into the atmosphere. For nearly two days, Soviet officials denied anything had happened. Then the radiation was detected in Sweden and Russian TV news had this short announcement:

[SFX - Russian news cast…SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN; Voiceover: "An accident has happened at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. One reactor has been damaged. The government has formed a commission of inquiry.”]

GELLERMAN: The Soviet denial delayed the evacuation of the irradiated region around the plant and the city of Pripyat, where Chernobyl workers and their families lived.

[SFX - Announcement in Russian; Voiceover: "Attention, attention. Dear comrades, to ensure your safety and especially the safety of your children, it is necessary to temporarily evacuate the city and surrounding areas in the Kiev region…"]

GELLERMAN: The abandoned city of Pripyat is crumbling - covered in dust like a Soviet Pompeii. It lies in the heart of the Zone of Alienation; it's an area the size of Rhode Island. To this day, the zone is off-limits, a vast radioactive no-man’s land. Now, a quarter of a century after the disaster, we look back on this place and its people. We begin with a story Living on Earth aired 15 years ago, on the 10th anniversary of Chernobyl. I drove into the Zone where the remains of the doomed reactor were entombed in a cement and steel sarcophagus.

A concrete sarcophagus was built in 1986 to seal off the contents of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. (Photo: Pedro Moura Pinheiro)


GELLERMAN: It’s a two-hour drive from Kiev to Chernobyl, along rolling hills and peat bogs. Ukrainians say the soil here is so rich you can eat it - at least that’s what they used to say. Today, a thousand square miles around the plant is off-limits to most people.

[DRIVING; SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN; Translation: “There’s a sign that says it’s impossible to live here constantly…]

GELLERMAN: 18 miles from Chernobyl, we enter the exclusion zone. My driver Pietro is quiet as we pass empty farms, homes, churches, and schools. A week after the disaster, 135,000 people were permanently removed from this area.

[DOORS CLOSING; SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN; Translation: “It is our tragedy. This was a very good place to live. What can we do? This is our fate.”]

GELLERMAN: To visit Chernobyl requires special permission and an official guide. We are joined by a plant technician who will monitor radiation levels. He sees the look in my eyes.


GELLERMAN: He says we’re completely safe - still, I’m given special clothes to wear: a Russian hat, burly coat, cotton socks, gloves, leather boots, and a face mask, just in case.


GELLERMAN: A faded mural on a vacant apartment building welcomes us to Pripyat. The town was once home to 45,000 residents - plant workers and their families. The sign reads: “The Party of Lenin Leads Us to a Communist Victory.” My guide Alexander Shevchenko deadpans an old party slogan: the people of Pripyat really did invite the friendly Atom into their homes. He laughs alone in the silence.


A worker checks radiation levels (Photo: Diana Markosian)

GELLERMAN: But for our Geiger counter, the apartments are ghostly quiet. Plant officials delayed the evacuation of Pripyat for a day and a half. By then, Alexander says, the clouds of radioactive iodine had delivered intense doses to the town’s children.

GELLERMAN: Why did they wait 36 hours before they evacuated?

SHEVCHENKO: They waited for the order from Kremlin. They knew about the danger, but they waited for the instructions. I think it is forever - it shouldn’t be forgotten.


SHEVCHENKO: How to forget it? How to forget this abandoned city.


GELLERMAN: The radiation readings jump as we pass the remains of a contaminated forest buried in a field. It’s a two-mile ride from Pripyat to the plant. Chernobyl dominates the desolate marshland. It’s a white, windowless monolith - a mile long and nearly a football field high.


GELLERMAN: We’re standing at Ground Zero. Today, what remains of the melted number four reactor is entombed in a massive 24-storey sarcophagus. But even 300,000 tons of steel and concrete can’t contain the intense radiation within.


GELLERMAN: The levels on our Geiger counter double when we pointed at the sarcophagus - it’s the most radioactive building on the planet. The amount of radiation released at Chernobyl was 250 times that of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. After a minute here, Alexander wants to leave this place.

Workers prepare the sight for the sliding, new confinement structure. (Photo: Diana Markosian)


SHEVCHEKOV: We better get to the car.

GELLERMAN: Why’s that?

SHEVCHEKOV: Because it’s rather high. You know, I’ve been inside the sarcophagus four times.

GELLERMAN: What is it like? What does it look like inside?

SHEVCHEKOV: Wrecks. Ruins. Ruins, wrecks, and high levels of radiation. Only two minutes allowed.

[MUSIC: New Flora & Fauna Silence of Doors]

GELLERMAN: The Chernobyl sarcophagus was built in seven months - a Herculean effort by some 850 thousand Soviet soldiers, so-called “liquidators.”


GELLERMAN: Shovelful by shovelful, the liquidators removed the radioactive debris and erected the sarcophagus.

[SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN; Voiceover: “We were like ants. Just as some were finishing their task, others would immediately take their place. And that’s how, together, we were able to fight the radioactivity.”]

GELLERMAN: The sarcophagus was never designed to last 25 years. Only now has work begun to build a new confinement structure. Laurin Dodd is managing director of the project - to make safe what the liquidators built a quarter century ago.

Video about Chernobyl’s “Biorobots”

DODD: What they did was heroic, you know, and I shudder at the thought of anybody ever having to work like that again. Many of these people - and you’ve seen them in the videos - went up on the roof of the Turbine Generator Hall and were basically given instructions to run out into the hall to pick up a piece of fuel or radioactive graphite, carry it 30 or 40 meters, and throw it over the wall. Oftentimes, they were limited to 10 or 15 seconds to do that - once they did that, they basically had taken a lifetime of radiation and they went back home.

GELLERMAN: What’s the condition of the sarcophagus now?

DODD: Well it’s better now than it was two or three years ago. When that was built, it had a design life of ten years. And there were large, large holes throughout the facility where birds and small mammals could enter. Things were kind of stacked together like you might build a house out of a deck of cards.

And we undertook some measures, starting six or seven years ago, to stabilize both some of the internal structure as well as some of the external structures. Today, with that particular work that we did, we think it’s good for the next 15 years. Even having done that, you know, I would be concerned here if we were to have particularly high winds. I would not have a lot of confidence that it could survive even 20 or 30 years of natural events.

GELLERMAN: So now you’re in charge of building this giant…how would you describe it - a hanger?

This computer-generated image shows the New Safe Confinement, commonly known as “The Arc.” (Wikipedia Commons)

DODD: Well we call it a ‘New Safe Confinement,’ but we often refer to it as the ‘arch,’ because in fact it’s an arch shape. It’s being made of steel - it’s being constructed some couple two hundred meters away from the damaged reactor in order to reduce the radiation doses to the people who are building the arch. Once it’s fully constructed, it will be sled from the construction location to its final resting place.

GELLERMAN: I heard that you could fit the Statue of Liberty in it.

DODD: You can fit the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty inside of it. The width of it is close to 900 feet wide, and the length’s almost 500 feet. The New Safe Confinement will actually be slid over the sarcophagus in July of 2015, and then it will be commissioned and it’s expected that commissioning will be completed by the end of 2015.

GELLERMAN: So if there were an earthquake and this sarcophagus and the entombed reactor did shift or collapse, this structure would contain that? Is that the idea?

DODD: You know, the New Safe Confinement serves several purposes, and one is that if, in fact, the unstable structures were to collapse prematurely, the New Safe Confinement would confine the dust and any other aerosols that are generated. The second thing is it provides a place and a capability for starting to dismantle those structures that are unstable.

And this New Safe Confinement structure - one of the features is that it has a very, very large overhead crane system in it that will be used to remotely disassemble both the old sarcophagus as well as unstable portions of the reactor. It’ll provide a clean, safe environment for doing that.

GELLERMAN: What about the money - do you have enough money to pay for this?

DODD: Oh, no, we don’t. For the total project, today we’re about 600 million euros short. I’m fairly optimistic that the international community will continue to support this and a good portion of what we need to complete the work will be committed.

GELLERMAN: But here we are - 25 years out from Chernobyl - and many people have forgotten it, and you don’t have enough money to complete your work, at least right now, and yet we’re betting on future, future, future generations to deal with this.

DODD: That’s right. I mean, this is a consequence of Chernobyl, and certainly for the 100-years lifetime of the New Safe Confinement, there’s going to be…it’s going to employ the children and the grandchildren of some of the current workers of the Chernobyl site.

GELLERMAN: Well, Mr. Dodd, thank you so very much, I really appreciate it.

DODD: It was my pleasure.

GELLERMAN: Laurin Dodd is managing director of the new Chernobyl safe confinement structure. He lives just outside the evacuation zone. Author Mary Mycio has been inside the zone more than 25 times. She’s author of the book "Wormwood Forest - A Natural History of Chernobyl."

MYCIO: The first time I went there, I was absolutely stunned to find out that it was, first of all, not this big giant dead parking lot that I’d imagined - it was really green. And that - when you get out into the wild, it’s actually…there are parts of it that are very, very beautiful.

The Pripyat Swamps were some of the largest wetlands in Europe, until they were drained for agriculture by the Soviets. Since the Chernobyl disaster and subsequent evacuation of 135,000 people, the swamps are gradually returning to their original state. (Credit: Mary Mycio)

You have the wetlands and peat lands. In one single day, I saw a herd of red deer, a herd of about 40 boars, four moose, and wolf. In the absence of human activity, it becomes a very inviting environment for wildlife.

GELLERMAN: But it’s radioactive!

MYCIO: Well they can’t tell. Radioactivity’s invisible.

GELLERMAN: But isn’t that the point? You can’t see the radiation, yet there’s been this terrible disaster there. Can’t you tell that radiation has its biological effect?

Mary Mycio standing in the highly radioactive Red Forest. (Photo: Mary Mycio)

MYCIO: Well I guess you could if you did large animal studies and had, you know, random samples or comparative studies, but nobody is doing that. And…I mean, yes, you can study mice because all you would theoretically need is a couple of mouse traps and some cheese and you’ll get your sample of mice.

If you want to study, let’s say, moose, you have to do some big game hunting and it takes awhile - it’s not like they show up on command. So nobody has been providing that kind of funding right now.

GELLERMAN: But we had no gross genetic damage that we can see now. No giant insects and birds…

MYCIO: No, no, nothing like that. If there are mutations being born in the wild, they die - they get eaten by scavengers so nobody actually finds them. Nobody has identified any mutations except for these studies done on swallows where they have some…they had pigmentation damage, like albino spots on their faces.

GELLERMAN: What about the forests and the flora, the trees? Have they been affected? Can you see mutations in them?

In highly radioactive areas, pine trees are susceptible to radiation. This stunted pine tree has been affected by radiomorphism. (Credit: Mary Mycio)

MYCIO: Well there are places where you can see - it’s called radiomorphism, which is radioactivity affecting the orientation that the plant has and the way that it grows. So in very, very radioactive areas, you will have these kind of stunted pine trees that look more like bushes.

GELLERMAN: So now we have this largely abandoned area - when do you think people will be able to come back?

MYCIO: Oh, it depends. There are parts of the zone where people could actually live now because the lines were drawn in a very, very rough way. Other parts - the parts that are closest to the reactor - as a practical matter, never. They won’t be able to come back. Because plutonium - you have plutonium there and that’s got a half-life of 24,000 years. So unless they figure out a way to clean it up, or…I don’t know if there’s an ‘or’ to that. (Laughs). I can’t see how people could come back there in a safe way.

GELLERMAN: When I was in the zone around Chernobyl 15 years ago, I interviewed an old couple who moved back into the zone, and they’re not alone - there are a bunch of people who have moved back. Have we seen any changes in them - any biological effects?

MYCIO: Well the irony is that a lot of the people who went back - they’re doing better than people of their own age who were evacuated because the impact of radiation takes so many decades to show up that if you’re an older person, you’ll die of something else before the radiation will kill you.

(Photo: Mary Mycio)

And the people who were evacuated, let’s say, from these beautiful - really truly beautiful, lush wetlands - into, let’s say, the suburbs of Kiev in a high-rise apartment building…that’s a traumatic thing, and a lot of the older people had a very, very difficult time adjusting. While the people who went back - they were sort of in their old houses and, yes, there’s radiation around, but a lot of them prefer to be home. Though I would also caution that a lot of the people who live in the zone aren’t there because they have happy stories to tell.

GELLERMAN: Mary Mycio is author of “Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl.”

This song is by Danilov Ilya - his father still works at Chernobyl.

[MUSIC: Danilov Ilya, “Our Small Town.”]

GELLERMAN: The song is called “Our Small Town”. Michael Forster Rothbart recorded it. He’s a photojournalist who spent two years in and around the zone, documenting its people.

FORSTER ROTHBART: My commitment to this project started when I discovered how other photojournalists distort Chernobyl. You know, they visit briefly and they expect danger and despair, and so that’s what they photograph - photos of deformed children and abandoned buildings.

Pripyat, Ukraine, was a closed Soviet city built to house workers at the Chernobyl plant one mile away. In the days after the accident, its 49,360, inhabitants were evacuated and told they could return in 3 days. Most never returned. Valuables were stolen long ago, but abandoned dolls remain on a windowsill in the Solntsye kindergarten. (© Michael Forster Rothbart)

And I feel like this sensationalist approach really obscures more complex stories about how these communities adapt and survive. So I really wanted to photograph the suffering that’s there, but also the joy and beauty, the endurance - and really the hope.

GELLERMAN: One of your photographs is of a woman named Tanya, who is a Chernobyl engineer. And she was a winner of the Miss Atomic Beauty Pagent?

FORSTER ROTHBART: Yeah, it’s…I think it’s hilarious. But every year, all the Ukrainian nuclear power plants have this beauty contest for their workers and that year - it was 2009 - she won. And it’s really interesting - she is actually the third generation in her family to work at the Chernobyl plant. And a story I love about her is…I have a picture in my current exhibit in Chicago of her husband Sergey in this liquid waste treatment facility. He’s just walking past all these - this endless row of barrels marked with radiation symbols – and this is the place where Sergey and Tanya fell in love.

Tanya Bokova won the Miss Atom beauty pagent in 2009. She is the third generation in her family to work at the Chernobyl power plant. She told Michael Rothbart, “For me, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is like a little kitten, which demands care and attention. In order not to let it become stray, wild and dangerous." (© Michael Forster Rothbart)

These workers are working at the plant, their lives are all about Chernobyl, and so, of course, they meet, they flirt, they fall in love, they marry, they have kids, and more often than not, the next generation also grows up to work at the Chernobyl plant.

GELLERMAN: I like this picture of Leonid - he was a mailman who was delivering top-secret mail to the military headquarters in Chernobyl.

Leonid Budkovskiy, a mailman from Ivankiv, Ukraine, delivered top-secret correspondence to the military HQ in Chernobyl town. His legs slowly stopped working, and by 1996 he was confined to a wheelchair. His grandson Slava helps him move around. (© Michael Forster Rothbart)

FORSTER ROTHBART: Yeah, Leonid Skripkobski was reassigned from his job as a mailman to deliver this top-secret mail. And - he’s now in a wheelchair - he told me that in Chernobyl… here’s what he said, he said, ‘in Chernobyl, no one knew how serious it was; we wore no special clothes…’ He said, ‘I’m 55 years old and no one needs me.’ He feels like there’s not much left for him to do in this life.

And I heard that sentiment often. There were actually 850,000 liquidators, people who worked in the cleanup after the accident. And this was a moment of crisis when they were pushed to their limit and they did everything they could for their country or for the world, and after that, you know, their lives never seemed the same.

After his wife Natasha died in January 2007, Vasily tattooed her face on his shoulder as a personal memorial. She died from cancer after a long illness, a few days after her 46th birthday. He told Michael Rothbart, "I was born here and I'll die here. I already want to die. Forgive me, I'm drunk. I drink a lot now. We only have what God gives us, our health, our place, our friends." (© Michael Forster Rothbart)

GELLERMAN: One of the, if not the saddest photo I think you’ve taken and the one that kind of has burned an image in my mind, is the one of a farmer and he’s got a tattoo of his wife on his shoulder.

FORSTER ROTHBART: So his full name is Vassily Olessandrovich. I was walking through the town of Ivankiv and I heard him half-drunk, crying in his front yard, and I peeked over his fence and I thought, ‘he’s never going to let me photograph him.’ But I screwed up my courage to knock on the door and ask, and he let me in and talked to me, and we just talked for a few minutes.

And he has this tattoo of a woman - I asked him about it. And he told me that his wife had died the previous year from cancer - she died of liver cancer after a long illness. And so after she died, he tattooed her picture on his shoulder as a personal memorial. And while I was working on this new exhibit, I had my assistant Kiev do some fact-checking and she found out that Vassily has now also died. He died last year of stomach cancer, and he was 57.

GELLERMAN: You photographed a Chernobyl engineer who had worked at the plant for 24 years - I’m looking at the picture of Viktor.

Viktor Gaidak shows his scar after surgery for colon cancer. Like the Gaidaks, nearly half the evacuees from Pripyat live in Troeshchina, a new neighborhood at the edge of Kyiv, Ukraine, where they face health problems, unemployment, crowded apartments and insufficient government support. (© Michael Forster Rothbart)

FORSTER ROTHBART: Yeah, Viktor Gaidak was an engineer at the plant and he continued to work for almost a decade after the 1986 accident. And then in 2004, he had colon cancer and had surgery. And one thing he told me…he told me that when he was sick with cancer, he said, ‘we sold our car to pay for the surgery,’ he said, ‘we sold our TV, our refrigerator, jewelry, everything we could.’ And then he pointed to his wife Lydia next to him and said, ‘well now my wife Lydia has cancer and there's nothing left for us to sell.’

[MUSIC: [Slavutych A Cappella Choir “Inspiration”, Choir of Chernobyl workers ]

GELLERMAN: Photojournalist Michael Forster Rothbart. He recorded this choir of Chernobyl workers who call their group “Inspiration.” To see some of Michael Forster Rothbart’s Chernobyl photos and for links to his touring exhibits, go to our web site, L-O-E dot O-R-G.



Michael Forster Rothbart’s home page

Read Mary Mycio’s Blog

Learn more about Chernobyl and get updates about Fukushima and other issues from Mary Mycio on Facebook

See a photoessay by Mary Mycio about Chernobyl

Click here to hear Bruce Gellerman's original 1996 story from Chernobyl

Michael Forster Rothbart's website After Chernobyl


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