Share |

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Chernobyl Is 22

Academician Valeri Legasov: What we see is the tower of the second leg. To the left is the block…the central hall of Block 4. Turn it on! Hither, higher! That’s it! Keep it right on that spot! Keep it! Keep it where the smoke is, where the smoke is. Keep it just like that, just like that.

Narrator: You’re watching a rare footage. Those are spots of red-hot graphite rods. Their high temperature created a strong upward stream, which lifted radioactive particles off the reactor’s shaft.

On Saturday, April 26, 1986 at 01:23:40 a.m, I was a 6-year old asleep in Kyiv, a mere 80 miles away from the scene of the world’s worst environmental disaster.

I remember those days quite vividly. It was sunny. It was summer-hot. My friends and I would play soccer. As rumors began to spread, my parents would ground me. I remember staring out the firmly sealed window, consumed with jealously, watching my buddies playing out in the field. I stayed in Kyiv until May 8.

When I grew up, I learned that in Prypyat they had five or six weddings on April 26, 1986, with radiation already reaching lethal levels. Evacuation began 30 hours after the accident. The first Soviet news report came a week after the event, in a newspaper article the size of a classified ad in a contact magazine.

Chernobyl exploded the myth of the Soviet system’s humanity and reliability, a revelation that, amid perestroika, accelerated its demise.

According to one report, Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, the communist leader of Soviet Ukraine, pleaded with Mikhail Gorbachev to keep May 1 celebrations to a minimum. Gorby said no, sending thousands of people to bake on the streets of Kyiv.

The UN’s new policy puts Chernobyl as fine for human habitation, despite the fact that most of the radioactive elements there still haven’t reached their half-life. No wonder the UN Secretariat have not rushed to spend their summer vacations in the Chernobyl zone, in what was, prior to the disaster, one of the most popular recreation zones for Kyivites.

YouTube offers a variety of Chernobyl videos, some of them with creepy dance soundtracks. There’s a Greenpeace video with animation that belongs on MTV, as opposed to a documentary on the world's worst technological disaster.

Still, one can find a few decent videos.

Click here for a wealth of photo reports from the ghost town of Prypyat, and here for Russian-language documentaries on Chernobyl. You can also visit an entire site devoted to Prypyat.

By the way, Chernobyl (Чернобыль) is the Russian name. Chornobyl (Чорнобиль) is the Ukrainian one. This is perhaps the only case when I adhere to a Russian-based transliteration of a Ukrainian geographic name. Chernobyl signifies a historical event rather than a mere geographic name. It is a product of the Soviet system, and one of the top Soviet "brands" at that.

May we never forget the sacrifice of people who gave their lives in cleaning up the mess of Chernobyl. May we never forget the suffering of children who died because of Chernobyl.


Olenka said...

Great post! Thanks for bringing memories, although not the happy ones. Almost every year before the accident my parents and family friends used to camp out on the river Pripyat, pick up mushrooms in the woods nearby to the station. I also recall closed windows in our appartment and my disapointment that I could not be outside. Mother changed my clothes twice a day and washed it. Father brought device to measure radiation in our appartment. Surely it was quite high. I still remember those clicking sounds in the headsets. I also recall trucks washing Kiev's roads every day. What hurts is to know that people who were there to clean up that mess if not died from radiation, now are without much support from government.

Taras said...

Thank you, Olenka! Thank you for sharing your memories!

Our memories intertwine.

I remember that Geiger counter which my uncle, a Soviet Army colonel, brought us. I remember my dad walking around our apartment, taking readouts. I remember those cracking sounds as rays of radiation would bombard the device.

Once the exodus began, bus and train tickets became virtually extinct. My dad couldn’t find any until May 8.

Many people were not allowed to leave town under the threat of dismissal. As we left Kyiv, there were highway patrols performing radiation checks.

In documentaries, the cleanup crews who shoveled the radioactive graphite off the reactor’s roof are called biorobots. They did what traditional robots failed to do, unable to withstand the intense radiation.

They all died. Without their sacrifice, many more people would have died of cancer. Many more malformed babies would have been born.

Half a million people went through Chernobyl. Still, one can find to detailed statistics, no cross-country databases. Medical records were falsified, exposure levels were “downgraded” to look more safe.

People who survived Chernobyl are now trying to survive on meager disability benefits, suffering from all kinds of diseases, while government officials are living it up.

If we forget the lesson of Chernobyl, we will bring it back.

elmer said...

I think Chernobyl says a lot more about the governmental and administrative and political system of the USSR than anything else.

First, there was a faulty design. Including no containment structure.

Second, who ran the plant? A party apparatchik.

Third, there was faulty construction - the people in charge of building the plant were more interested in getting bonuses for early completion of the plant than in quality and safety. There were, according to some reports, erroneous readings coming from the reactor after the idiot engineers started conducting their experiment, leading to further errors.

Fourth, the engineers in charge were idiotic. They disconnected all backup and safety systems.

Here's a link:


The immediate cause of the Chernobyl accident was a mismanaged electrical-engineering experiment. Engineers with no knowledge of reactor physics were interested to see if they could draw electricity from the turbine generator of the Number 4 reactor unit to run water pumps during an emergency when the turbine was no longer being driven by the reactor but was still spinning inertially. The engineers needed the reactor to wind up the turbine; then they planned to idle it to 2.5 percent power. Unexpected electrical demand on the afternoon of April 29 delayed the experiment until eleven o'clock that night. When the experimenters finally started, they felt pressed to make up for lost time, so they reduced the reactor's power level too rapidly. That mistake caused a rapid buildup of neutron-absorbing fission by products in the reactor core, which poisoned the reaction. To compensate, the operators withdrew a majority of the reactor's control rods, but even with the rods withdrawn, they were unable to increase the power level to more than 30 megawatts, a low level of operation at which the reactor's instability potential is at its worst and that the Chernobyl plant's own safety rules forbade.

At that point, writes Russian nuclear engineer Grigori Medvedev, "there were two options: increasing the power immediately, or waiting twenty-four hours for the poisons to dissipate. [Deputy chief engineer Dyatlov] should have waited...But he [had an experiment to conduct and he] was unwilling to stop...He ordered an immediate increase in the power of the reactor." Reluctantly the operators complied. By 1 a.m. on April 26, they stabilized the reactor at 200 megawatts. It was still poisoned and increasingly difficult to control. More control rods came out. A minimum reserve for an RBMK reactor is supposed to be 30 control rods. At the end, the Number 4 unit was down to only six control rods, with 205 rods withdrawn.

The experimenters allowed this dangerous condition to develop even though they had deliberately bypassed and disconnected every important safety system, including the emergency core-cooling system. They had also disconnected every backup electrical system, down to and including diesel generators, that would have allowed them to operate the reactor controls in the event of an emergency.

elmer said...

What's even worse -

it's actually hideous that the sovok authorities initially denied that anything had happened.

Is there a lesson to be learned from this today?

Hint: responsible, honest, clean, open government

instead of oligarchs and other idiots fighting amongst themselves to see who can steal the most from Ukraine and ship it to Cyprus or Barbados or Israel or Monaco

Satellite photo of Chernobyl at that time at this link:

Taras said...

Thank you for expanding on the issue, Elmer!

Chernobyl was indeed an experiment, much like the rest of the Soviet Union’s existence.

Faulty design. Unsafe location. Disregard for safety. All of this simply reached a critical point, with the results to be felt for many years to come.

The Global Game said...

Thanks very much for the meditation on the Chornobyl anniversary. I have had particular interest in the connections between the disaster and sport in Ukraine, especially football. I have written provisionally on the subject, and I'd be interested in your opinions and memories.

Happy Easter!

Taras said...


Thank you so much for your humanistic perspective on Ukrainian football through the historical prism of Chernobyl!

Not much football was played in Kyiv in 1986. In Prypyat, not much would be played ever since 1986. Still, Dynamo Kyiv went on to win the 1986 Cup Winners’ Cup. In this regard, the year 1986 was a bittersweet one.

Even though I’m not much of a football fan anymore, I remember playing with my friends at my parents’ hometown of Korets, Rivne oblast. We would watch the 1986 FIFA World Cup and then would go outside and play in a state of euphoria. We also watched the 1986 Goodwill Games. I did not return to Kyiv until late fall.

Once again, thank you! Thank you for your avid interest in Ukrainian football and your uniquely context-rich perspective. And thank you for incorporating my memories into your story.

Ukraine needs more voices like yours!