The Millennial's Dilemma: A Young Writer's Search for Our Nuclear Future in Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Phoenix
The Nuclear Question, Part One: Walking Around Chernobyl
After a cold and drizzly morning this past May, the sun is finally out in the Exclusion Zone, the heavily guarded area around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in northern Ukraine.
The circular-shaped zone — which has a radius of 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) — is located about 60 miles north of Kiev, the capital city of Ukraine, and about nine miles south of the border with Belarus. It’s full of tall pine trees and big, open, green fields where wild horses and deer graze. The area is so quiet, so deserted, and so overgrown that it’s hard to imagine it was once home to more than 130,000 people.
It took the Soviets five years to build Chernobyl, and the plant began producing power in 1977. Unlike those constructing power plants in the U.S. and western Europe, though, they didn’t build strong concrete and steel containment buildings around their nuclear reactors. So when a safety test went awry on April 26, 1986, and caused a big explosion inside Reactor No. 4, huge amounts of radiation were released into the atmosphere.
Thirty years later, the area is still officially uninhabitable. Most spots inside the 30-kilometer zone aren’t particularly radioactive, but still, anyone who works there — from the guides to the thousands of nuclear scientists, construction workers, cooks and hotel workers, and military security guards — can only spend a certain number of consecutive days inside the zone and must consent to regular medical examinations. Any tourist wishing to visit the area must be part of a government-approved group.
The Exclusion Zone is eerie and decaying, a hauntingly beautiful time capsule. Nine other tour participants and I walk over broken glass, scattered papers, and things I assume were once clothes or blankets. I explore rooms filled with rusty, antiquated medical equipment in an abandoned hospital, and dozens of classrooms filled with desks — sometimes still lined up in rows and piled high with paperback books. There are children’s drawings and alphabet flashcards all over the desks and floors in one of the classrooms, and a giant pile of child-sized gas masks in the corner of another.
In some buildings, we have to creep along the edges of a room because parts of the floor are rotted out. We walk in a zigzag pattern to avoid the leaking ceilings and puddles in long, windowless hallways.
After a second full day of exploring abandoned and crumbling houses, tall cement apartment buildings, hospitals, schools, grocery stores, and even a children’s summer camp — members of my small tour group, most of whom are European or American and either in their late 20s or middle-age, are standing around, chatting in a parking lot by the “rustic” Soviet-style hotel where we had spent the previous night.
“Did your parents talk about Chernobyl when you were growing up?” I ask Mykhailo “Misha” Teslenko, one of my tour guides. At 27, Teslenko is two years younger than me and has been giving tours in the Exclusion Zone for almost six years.
“Not really,” he says.
“Did your grandparents?”
“Grandparents, yeah. Great-grandparents as well.” Teslenko was born three years after the Chernobyl accident, in the small village of Fabrikivka, on the outskirts of the Exclusion Zone. His grandfather was a “liquidator,” one of the 830,000 young military soldiers the Soviet government sent into the disaster area to clean up the radioactive contamination around the plant.
The liquidators were tasked with all sorts of things. Some shoveled radioactive debris that was to be stored away in a remote area, while others were told to cut down trees or exterminate all wild and domestic animals. By 2005, about 20 percent of the liquidators had died, according to a report from the Chernobyl Foundation.
Most were in their 30s and 40s, like Teslenko’s grandfather, who died from lung cancer at 45.
“I remember they were talking about this catastrophe, that there was not a lot of information,” Teslenko continues. “Three days after [the accident], they found out there was a big fire at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station and that’s it. They were not told anything: what to do, how to react to that, how to act at all. So they were just living their normal life.”
For three days, the Soviets didn’t tell people living near the plant that there was a problem. The only way anyone in the public found out something was wrong was because radiation detectors in Western Europe started registering a big radiation plume blowing in from the east.
When pressed, the Soviets eventually acknowledged there had been an accident. Yet, even after the military began evacuating people near the plant, the government continued to downplay the problem. They told evacuees they’d be gone for three days, and instructed them to pack accordingly.
I ask Teslenko if he ever worries about the 15 nuclear reactors currently operating in Ukraine. Not really, he responds, adding that most people he knows who oppose nuclear power don’t even really understand it.
An abandoned schoolhouse in the Exclusion Zone.
I assume that given the chance to go anywhere, most people wouldn’t choose to visit the site of the world’s largest nuclear disaster. But I did.
I wanted to walk around the overgrown and crumbling central squares of abandoned cities and villages, and see what a house looks like after a frightened family packs only a small bag of belongings and never returns. I wanted to see Chernobyl, 30 years later.
The week before, I had visited Fukushima Prefecture in Japan, home of the second largest nuclear disaster in history, the 2011 triple meltdown at the Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (prefectures are the Japanese version of states).
In both cases, I wanted to know how a country recovers from a nuclear accident and how its citizens feel about it, because in the last year, I’ve become obsessed with nuclear power and how I should feel about it.
This all began when I moved to Arizona from the East Coast two years ago and realized that I suddenly was living in the fallout zone of the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, the country’s largest nuclear power plant.
Though Palo Verde is in a shrubby valley that feels like the middle of nowhere, it’s actually only 45 miles west of downtown Phoenix, 45 miles north of Gila Bend, and about 20 miles away from Verrado, a gorgeous planned community of luxury homes and golf courses.
The plant itself is in the little town of Tonopah, a few miles off Exit 98 on Interstate 10. If you’ve ever driven to Los Angeles from Phoenix, you’ve passed Palo Verde, though you’d be forgiven for not noticing it, because the plant isn’t easy to see from the highway. But it’s out there, and it provides 35 percent of the electricity generated in the state.
It’s also notable in that it’s the only nuclear power plant in the U.S. that’s not near a large body of water, which arguably makes it even scarier, since such plants are almost always built near water for safety purposes I’ll explain later.
Prior to moving to Arizona, if you had asked me how I felt about nuclear power, I would have told you I opposed it. I knew proponents bragged about its low carbon footprint, but in my mind, the costs greatly outweighed the benefits. Nuclear power was just too scary and too dangerous to be worth it.
And here’s the thing: These sorts of questions really did matter to me. I’m the kind of nerdy person who goes out for drinks and wants to talk about environmental problems. I was the girl whose high school yearbook quote was “give a hoot, don’t pollute,” and I’m the person who, when given the option, reads books or watches Netflix documentaries about climate change.
I spent my sophomore year at Connecticut College living in “Earth House,” the school’s eco-friendly dorm. We only used compact fluorescent light bulbs, ate vegetarian, eschewed bottled water, and showered with buckets on the floor of the tub to collect gray water for flushing toilets and watering plants. (The year I lived there, by the way, we came in second place in the campus-wide holiday dorm-decorating contest after we turned our living room and porch into a winter wonderland constructed entirely out of recycled materials.)
The good news is that I know I’m not alone. Lots of people in my generation — those born between the early 1980s and early 2000s and referred to as millennials — are deeply concerned about the environment.
The exact statistics vary depending on the specific poll or the wording of the question, but my generation consistently reports concerns about rising sea levels, frequent severe storms, drought, famine, and all of the other problems the scientific community has assured us will happen unless we substantially (and quickly) reduce our global carbon emissions.
One recent poll by the McCombs School of Business Energy Management and Innovation Center at the University of Texas found that we’re more likely than older generations to say climate change is a problem, that we need to reduce our carbon emissions, and that we’re interested in taking steps to do so. It makes sense when you think about it, since we grew up at a time when the science of climate change was already well established, and at a time when the world was already experiencing its negative effects.
All of this is to say that, as far as I was concerned, you couldn’t call yourself an environmentalist and be in favor of nuclear power — you might as well also advocate that people throw their trash out of the car window. And looking back, I can’t remember ever being challenged on this assumption.
Until I got to Phoenix, that is. Beyond the surprise of learning I lived so close to Palo Verde, I was shocked to meet people who cared about the environment and supported nuclear power — people, in fact, who supported nuclear power because they cared about the environment.
I was skeptical, to say the least. Nuclear is scary, I’d remind myself, recalling images of deformed children and three-eyed fish I’d seen somewhere. But after a particularly heated (yet friendly) debate with a New Times colleague about the issue, I started to wonder if I was wrong.
The first thing I learned upon investigating is that on paper, in terms of actual risk, it’s easy to be in favor of nuclear power, since I’m apparently far more likely to drown in my own bathtub than I am to die as the result of a nuclear accident. But I think we all know that emotions play a big part in how we assess danger and make choices.
So I made a decision: If I was going to change my mind about nuclear power, I needed to see both the good and bad sides of it, and thanks to a Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship grant, I was able to visit Japan and Ukraine.
After I got back, I toured Palo Verde, visited uranium mines near the Grand Canyon, and spent a few hours grilling a very patient team of state and county emergency-response experts on evacuation plans, trying to pinpoint exactly what would happen should something go wrong at Palo Verde.
I met with academic experts in nuclear physics, nuclear safety, uranium mining and milling, and nuclear waste disposal. I talked with two nuclear experts at the Union of Concerned Scientists, another at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a representative of the Ukraine Nuclear Association, and legal experts in environmental policy.
I read books about the history and future of nuclear power, the disasters at Fukushima and Chernobyl, Hiroshima, uranium, and even a sociological assessment about the origins of nuclear fear. I also reviewed government and independent reports about the nuclear industry, post-accident cleanup, and reform efforts, and I watched at least a dozen documentaries and TED talks.
I consulted environmental groups and journalists covering nuclear power in Japan, Ukraine, and the U.S., and I talked to people of various ages and backgrounds during my travels.
And yet, even after all of this, while I’m certainly more comfortable living near a nuclear power plant, and ready to say that I think it’s something we need to embrace if we have any hope of quickly mitigating the effects of climate change, I still have my doubts.
Part of the challenge is that there is just no consensus on so many critical issues. Some experts I talked to explained why nuclear power is safe, and others said the opposite. Some scientists told me it’s unrealistic to think we’ll meet all of our energy needs with renewable sources like solar and wind, while others said we could do it if the political will was there. Some people told me that nuclear waste is a huge, unsolvable problem, and again, others accused the first group of exaggerating.
How do you know who is right when everyone has valid points and good evidence?
“Nothing is going to be perfectly risk-free,” Dr. Keith Holbert, professor of nuclear engineering at Arizona State University, told me.
And he’s right. Bottom line: No form of energy is without its problems.
Coal plants are dirty (and actually release more radioactivity than nuclear plants do on a regular basis).
Wind turbines kill birds.
Solar panels don’t work at night.
Hydroelectric dams wreak havoc on aquatic ecosystems.
Oil rigs can spill or catch fire.
Fracking for natural gas is poisoning drinking water and probably causing earthquakes.
And if you think that dramatically reducing our energy consumption in the developed world will solve the problem, I’m sorry to say it won’t. Even if we were to somehow convince everyone in the U.S. to live off the grid, the change would mean nothing when compared to the coming energy demands of a rapidly growing world population.
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So if we accept that there is no perfect solution to our energy needs, and that everything involves a trade-off, where should we stand on nuclear?
There are currently 447 nuclear reactors in the world, accounting for 11 percent of all electricity used. But with another 160 under construction — including four in the U.S. — along with hundreds of more proposals, that percentage is likely to increase in the near future.
Is nuclear the key to saving the planet, or the most foolish way to generate electricity ever devised by humankind?
Fission is the process of splitting an atom to create energy in the form of heat.
When I began reporting this story, I quickly realized that what I knew about nuclear power was limited to whatever I had managed to retain from my high school chemistry class. Turns out, while the ins and outs of nuclear power generation are incredibly complicated, the basics of it are relatively easy to understand, and have remained unchanged, despite big technological advances in the industry.
The nuclear story begins in 1934, when an Italian physicist, Enrico Fermi, successfully split an unstable uranium atom by shooting a neutron at its nucleus. Fermi noted that this process created a tremendous amount of energy, and four years later, two German physicists, Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch, came up with an explanation for why — nuclear fission.
The term nuclear fission sounds complicated, but really all you need to know is that it’s the process of splitting an atom to create energy in the form of heat. When it happens, the atom also shoots off one or two other neutrons, which can then go on to hit other unstable atoms nearby, eventually creating a chain reaction.
As legend has it, Meitner and Frisch were sitting on a bench in a German park talking about fission when they realized that with enough radioactive uranium, it might be possible to start a massive chain reaction and create a very, very powerful energy source — that is, an atomic bomb.
But even with a theoretical design for a bomb in mind — the idea of using nuclear power to generate electricity would come much later — scientists still had a long way to go before they could actually make it work.
One of the first big obstacles was finding a way to purify, or enrich, enough uranium to reach what’s called “critical mass.” Put simply, critical mass just refers to the percentage of really unstable uranium (an isotope called U-235) relative to more stable uranium isotopes that’s necessary to create and sustain the intended chain reaction — in case you’re wondering, as I certainly did, a uranium deposit in the ground doesn’t explode on its own because only 0.72 percent of it is U-235, meaning that the unstable isotopes are just too few and far between to create a chain reaction.
After uranium ore is mined from the ground, scientists use centrifuges and chemicals to isolate U-235 to the necessary proportions. Nuclear power reactors require fuel that’s between 3.5 and 4.5 percent U-235, while weapons need fuel that is at least 80 percent U-235. (Other radioactive elements do work in reactors and bombs, but whether we’re talking about uranium or plutonium or thorium, the basic premise remains the same.)
Once critical mass is achieved, the pile of uranium is shaped into pellets about the size of your fingertip. Those pellets are then stacked inside thin rods and grouped into what are called fuel assemblies. The fuel assemblies, which look like square-shaped bundles of long, thin metal rods, are lowered into a pool of water inside the reactor core along with big rods made from boron.
Something in the chemical property of boron inhibits nuclear fission, so until those rods are removed from the reactor, no reactions occur. (Similarly, in all nuclear reactors, should something go wrong, the boron rods automatically drop back into the reactor to stop the reactions.)
Once the fuel assemblies are in place, the boron rods are slowly removed with a mechanical crane, and the fission gets underway.
At the most basic level, a nuclear power plant uses fission to generate heat. That heat is used to boil water into steam, and that steam is used to drive a turbine that powers an electricity-producing generator. This is actually how coal-fired power plants work, too, except that they burn coal to create heat.
There are two major types of nuclear reactors used in the U.S. — boiling water reactors (BWRs) and pressurized water reactors (PWRs). The underlying mechanism for generating electricity is the same in both, and the main difference has to do with whether the steam is made directly in the reactor or not. In a BWR, the fuel rods in the reactor core heat the water around them. That water boils into steam that drives the turbine generator. In a PWR, by contrast, the water inside the reactor isn’t allowed to boil — remember, increased pressure raises the boiling temperature of water. This super-hot liquid water heats a separate loop of water, which is allowed to boil into steam, and is piped to the turbine to generate electricity.
There are 34 BWRs in the U.S., 23 of which are the same design as the reactors that melted down in Fukushima in 2011. BWR reactors are an older technology, and are generally considered a little less safe than PWR reactors, of which there are 66 in the U.S., including the three at Palo Verde.
A properly functioning nuclear power plant relies on the balance between the water level in the reactor, the temperature of that water, and the pressure of the steam that’s generated.
There are automatic safety systems built into the design of a plant to correct or stop minor issues from becoming dangerous problems. But as critics of nuclear power like to point out, those safety features haven’t always worked properly.
A crumbling house in Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
Start delving into the history of nuclear power, and you’ll quickly find that both people who support and oppose the technology inevitably make a point of mentioning how it all started with nuclear weapons. While telling you this, of course, each side comes to vastly different conclusions about what it means.
It’s pejorative to the anti-nuclear camp, a demonstration of nuclear power’s inherent danger. To the pro-nuclear camp, however, it’s just the opposite. They see commercial nuclear power as a testament to how far society has come, and to our ability to find a positive application for a weapon of mass destruction.
“It’s difficult to separate nuclear weapons from nuclear power, and for some people, no matter what, they are one and the same thing,” Keith Holbert, the ASU nuclear physicist, says. “There was a lot of secrecy after World War II, and we know that secrecy only begets distrust.”
As journalist Tom Zoellner describes in his 2009 book Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock that Shaped the World, in 1939, when scientists seemed on the brink of controlling fission and obtaining a large-scale nuclear chain reaction, the famous physicist Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt warning him that once achieved, “this new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of … extremely powerful bombs.”
Einstein told the president that other countries, specifically Nazi Germany, were quickly buying up uranium and working to make such an atomic bomb. The U.S. needed to start stockpiling it and fund a nuclear research program, too, he added, so as not to be left behind or allow our enemies to get the technology first.
The idea didn’t catch on immediately in the White House, but in December 1941, coincidentally one day before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt authorized the notorious Manhattan Engineer District, or S-1 Project — code-named the Manhattan Project.
One of the first orders of business was building a facility to enrich huge quantities of uranium, which project engineers did in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in 1942. Next, they built the world’s first nuclear reactor, at the University of Chicago, to produce plutonium. (Plutonium is one of the byproducts of a uranium-powered reactor, and was in high demand at the time because it doesn’t occur naturally and is even more fissile than uranium.)
Just because you can make something doesn’t mean you should use it, of course, and in June 1945, the first antinuclear activists, a group of concerned scientists, urged President Harry S. Truman not to use the atomic bomb.
“The development of nuclear power not only constitutes an important addition to the technological and military power of the United States, but also creates grave political and economic problems for the future of this country,” they wrote in a document referred to as the Franck Report.
Truman and his advisors didn’t heed this warning, and on August 6, 1945 — after spending the equivalent of $26 billion in today’s dollars — the U.S. dropped a uranium bomb over Hiroshima, Japan, that instantly killed between 80,000 and 140,000 people and injured at least 100,000 more. (Three days later, another 79,000 people died when the U.S. dropped a plutonium bomb over the city of Nagasaki.)
“In physical terms, an atomic bombing might equal a night’s work with incendiary bombs, but the psychological impact would be another matter,” writes Spencer R. Weart, director emeritus of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics in Maryland, in his 2012 book, The Rise of Nuclear Fear.
“Images from Hiroshima became emblems of nuclear energy, and at the same time, emblems of murder, warfare … and of death itself.”
The end of WWII was also the start of the Cold War era ominously referred to as the Nuclear or Atomic Age. After the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb in August 1949, people in cities and towns across the U.S. memorized the locations of fallout shelters. Some families even prepared backyard, underground shelters stocked with food, water, and other survival provisions.
Overall, it was a time of collective paranoia and anxiety. Children practiced “ducking and covering” in schools, and when polled, many adults said they were convinced World War III was just around the corner.
Not quite coincidentally, government leaders began changing the way they spoke about nuclear power. No longer was it to be a scary wartime technology used exclusively by the military, they asserted. No, from this point on, nuclear power would be recognized as a peaceful source of commercial energy for civilians.
This tone change was exemplified in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s December 1953 “Atoms for Peace” speech to the United Nations General Assembly.
“The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future. That capability, already proved, is here — now — today,” Eisenhower said, going on to pledge that the U.S. would “devote its entire heart and mind to find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.”
The following year, construction began on the country’s first commercial nuclear power plant. It was located about 25 miles from Pittsburgh in the town of Shippingport, Pennsylvania. It took three years and $72.5 million to complete. Other plants soon followed, and by 1978, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had approved more than 100 reactors in 30 states — including the three reactors at Palo Verde just west of metro Phoenix.
Ever since the nuclear bomb was used in Japan, some portion of the public has been opposed to nuclear power of any sort. Fears about radiation poisoning, nuclear waste, and reactors exploding like nuclear bombs — something that’s not possible, by the way — were exploited in Hollywood horror movies. As Weart describes in his book, films like Godzilla in 1954, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb in 1964, and Planet of the Apes in 1968 helped make nuclear energy seem like a monstrosity.
And then on March 16, 1979, the movie The China Syndrome hit theaters. Staring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and Michael Douglas, the film is about a television news team that discovers a big cover-up at the local nuclear power plant. It was an instant blockbuster that coincidently came out 12 days before the event that would forever change the American attitude toward nuclear power: the accident at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Middletown, Pennsylvania.
The Hotel Polissya in Pripyat, a city in the Exclusion Zone.
I don’t remember when I first heard the term “Three Mile Island,” but it’s one of those historical events that I imagine holds collective meaning for just about everyone in the country, even those in my generation who didn’t live through it. Three Mile Island is one of those things we hear so much about that we know what happened, right?
At least, I thought I did. Before this project, I was fairly positive that Three Mile Island was the scene of a big nuclear accident that resulted in an evacuation and caused all sorts of health problems. Total nuclear meltdown, radioactive plumes, radiation sickness — these are all things I certainly associated with Three Mile Island. Turns out, I was wrong.
Though a small amount of radiation escaped from the plant, it wasn’t enough to cause any adverse health or environmental effects. (The psychological impact is a different story.)
Still, like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island is synonymous with nuclear disaster, making it the kind of event a lot of people talk about without really knowing many, if any, details.
Here’s what did happen. At 4 a.m. on Wednesday, March 28, 1979, a mechanical or electrical failure disrupted a pump in the cooling system of Reactor No. 2 and caused it to shut down. But even though the chain reactions were no longer taking place inside the fuel rods, the fuel still had lots of residual heat capable of boiling the water in the reactor. As that water around the fuel rods boiled into steam, pressure within the reactor mounted.
The plant design included a relief valve, or vent, to reduce pressure in situations like this, but unbeknownst to the plant operators, it got stuck open. With steam pouring out of the vent, the water level inside the reactor began rapidly dropping.
By the time the plant manager declared a general emergency around 7 a.m., the fuel rods were exposed to air and already melting.
Media swarmed into the area, desperate to figure out what was happening. Problem was, there was very little information. Initial news reports, coupled with meager assurances from the nuclear experts, made the public panic. The confusion and fear continued to build for two days, and finally, on March 30, the governor advised that any pregnant women and young children within a five-mile radius of the plant evacuate immediately. (It was only an advisory, never an order.)
While some still argue that the recommendation to evacuate was unnecessary, one thing everyone agrees on is that it definitely served to amplify public confusion and anxiety. It is estimated that about 150,000 people in the area — men and non-pregnant women included — left town.
Three Mile Island is often remembered as this huge catastrophe, when, in fact, it wasn’t. There was a partial meltdown inside one of the reactors, but the thick containment structure worked to keep lethal amounts of radiation from getting out. The average person is said to have received less radiation than if they got a typical dental X-ray. (The 1986 Chernobyl disaster, by contrast, was so severe because the Soviets didn’t build containment structures around their reactors.)
“I covered the Three Mile Island accident for the Philadelphia Inquirer and saw firsthand what a disaster like that does to a community, and the level of fear that it produced,” says journalist Susan Stranahan, who was part of the news team at the Inquirer that won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the event. “Were things overblown? In hindsight, yes. But it was America’s first glimpse at what could go wrong with this magic technology of nuclear.”
An abandoned classroom in the Exclusion Zone.
During my trip to Ukraine, when I wasn’t in the Exclusion Zone, I was 60 miles south in Kiev, staying with a friend’s parents, Helen and Leon. (Living in Ukraine, they worry about government retaliation and asked that I only use their first names for this story.)
Helen and Leon were in their late 20s when the Chernobyl accident happened, and 30 years later, though they don’t always seem to want to talk about the accident, it’s clear that they remember the panic and uncertainty that gripped Kiev.
Instead of talking about their experiences 30 years ago, we talk a lot about the U.S., particularly New York City, which is Helen’s favorite place in the world — she teaches fashion courses at a university in Kiev.
We also joke about my trip to the Exclusion Zone. In their thick Russian accents, they tease me about how I might grow a third arm and start glowing after going near Chernobyl. Should they let me back into the apartment? Burn all of the clothes I wore there?
That said, there are moments — very subtle ones — particularly with Helen, when the tone of her voice changes, or she gets that distinct “concerned mother” look in her eyes, and I can tell she is actually really worried about my trip. Worried and baffled.
Doctors here told women to get abortions after the accident, Helen tells me the night before I go to Chernobyl. When she gave birth to her daughter a few years later, she, like all of her friends in Kiev, was too scared to breastfeed.
“Why would you want to go there?” she asks again and again. Everyone she introduces me to asks the same question.
Helen gives private English lessons on the side, and one night, she takes me out to dinner with one of her students, Lena (she also asked that I just use her first name). They bring me to a dark and very hip restaurant — the only place in Kiev worth eating oysters at, they say — and we sit at their usual table in the quieter back room.
“It’s so scary, it’s so scary,” Lena keeps saying, pronouncing it skah-rie. She shows me her arm and picks at the blond hairs growing on it. As a teenager in Kiev at the time of the accident, she says, it was the exposure to radiation that made her start growing thick arm hair. No other women in her family have arm hair, she insists.
Both she and Helen go on to talk about the health problems people they knew had after the accident. They describe headaches, fatigue, and all other sorts of minor ailments — the sorts of symptoms that are also often associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression.
Multiple studies and agencies, including the World Health Organization, say some of the biggest health impacts of the Chernobyl accident — and similarly, the Three Mile Island and Fukushima accidents — are related to mental health. In both countries, people report not trusting the government to give them accurate information, and it’s this sense of mistrust, coupled with fear and a strong sense of stigma against those most affected, that can help explain the reaction from Lena and Helen, and so many people in Japan and Ukraine that I met.
“They are going to feed you bullshit at Chernobyl — tell her, Lena,” Helen says, nodding to her friend.
“It’s so scary, it’s so scary. You should not go there.”
The fireman's clothes are one of the most radioactive things you'll see on a tour of the Exclusion Zone.
I’m in the foyer of a crumbling hospital, poking around rusted metal chairs and oversized planters filled with dirt and big dead trees, when Sergey and Misha Teslenko, the two Ukrainian brothers guiding my trip to Chernobyl, call the 10 of us on the tour to come see something. We huddle around the brothers in the corner of the room as they point to a large metal cabinet covered with dust and a pile of rags. We are looking at the famous “fireman’s clothes,” they say.
Sergey takes a yellow Geiger counter out of the pocket of his black leather jacket, and holds it a few inches above the rags. It starts beeping like crazy and the number on the screen, which measures radiation, steadily climbs. In one photograph I have of this, the screen reads 110.5 millisieverts.
Sieverts are a radiation measurement that reflects how much harm a given dose will cause a person in a given time period. People who work at a nuclear power plant, for instance, are allowed a maximum dose of 50 millisieverts per year. To put that in perspective, a single dose of 400 millisieverts can give you radiation poisoning, whereas 4,000 millisieverts — or four sieverts — will give you such severe radiation poisoning that it, if not immediately treated, will be lethal. A dose of 8,000 millisieverts is definitely fatal.
After the big explosion at Chernobyl’s Reactor No. 4, and the subsequent graphite fire it caused, dozens of firemen were dispatched to the plant. None of them had any idea that they were walking into a nuclear disaster zone. It’s estimated that each received a lethal dose of radiation within a few minutes.
There are certain areas of the Exclusion Zone that are considered off-limits, and the reactor is one of them. You can only view it from a distance — there are security cameras all around the plant — but if you were to somehow get inside the reactor, where a blob of very radioactive melted fuel still covers the ground, it’s estimated that even today you’d receive 50 sieverts, or 50,000 millisieverts, of radiation in about 10 minutes.
Two of the firemen died later that first day from radiation exposure after spending hours trying to put out flames coming from the reactor. Another 26 men died within a week. With the exception of the reactor itself, this pile of clothes is one of the “hottest” (most radioactive) things in the Exclusion Zone.
From what I can tell, no one knows exactly which fireman these radioactive clothes belonged to, or why they weren’t destroyed with the rest of the clothes and gear, but standing there watching the number on the Geiger counter rise, it’s hard not to wonder.
“Do you think that most people in Kiev and in Ukraine, and maybe all around the world, have a false understanding of how dangerous this place is?” I ask the Teslenko brothers at separate points in the day.
“Yeah. Exactly. This is the main reason why a lot of my friends refuse to come here. They are just chickens and they are afraid of the word ‘Chernobyl,’” Misha replies. “They are mocking me every single day almost that, ‘one day your hair will start to fall off, your nails will start to fall off,’ and such kind of crazy stupid things. But they are just chickens; they don’t want to come here. I invited them a lot of times just to come to the Exclusion Zone, even for free, I can arrange that for them, for my friends. But they are afraid. They are just afraid of the word ‘Chernobyl,’ and they don’t realize that the situation here, it’s not [as] bad as it was 30 years ago right after the accident.”
“Most people living in Ukraine think that if you come here for one day, you could die. They don’t know how radiation really works,” Sergey says. “I understand what it is, how it works, and that to harm my body I would have to go to some really contaminated areas.”
To be sure, there are areas of the Exclusion Zone that aren’t safe, but that’s why no one is allowed inside the zone without certified guides.
“People play a lot of zombie video games and watch scary movies about radiation or problems with nuclear,” Sergey says. “We make fun of that, but some people really believe that.”
After the explosion in Reactor No. 4, the Soviets built a patchwork metal structure ("the sarcophagus") around it to help keep some of the radiation from escaping.
To this day, Chernobyl remains the worst nuclear accident in history. The official death toll is less than 50, though almost everyone believes the true number is much higher. No one really knows how many people got cancer from Chernobyl or how many people were born with genetic mutations as a result.
Some estimate that in total, about 4,000 people will ultimately die from radiation-related complications, while others say the number of victims is probably closer to 10,000, and may be even higher — whatever the true number, there’s good reason to believe a lot of evidence and facts have been covered up or distorted by the Soviets.
Though the Chernobyl power plant is in Ukraine, it’s actually about nine miles away from the present day Ukraine-Belarus border. By far, the worst impacts from the accident were felt — and continue to be felt — in Belarus, where at least 70 percent of the radiation landed. An estimated 7 million people received some radiation, and at least 2,000 villages and cities had to be evacuated. They remain uninhabited 30 years later.
“Belarus also has a 10-kilometer and 30-kilometer Exclusion Zone,” Gulliver Cragg, a young British journalist who has reported on nuclear issues there, tells me. “They had the same sort of liquidation cleanup and buried loads of villages [in the process].”
Over lunch in a popular café in Kiev, we talk about how Belarus bore the brunt of the accident, and the struggle we, and so many others, have had to wrap our minds around the effects of a nuclear accident when they’re impossible to quantify, and when there is so much contradictory information.
Some studies say X, some studies say Y. Some people say the accident was exaggerated, others say the impact has been severely covered up, he says.
What’s more, Cragg adds, “Some people will really deny they’re affected by radiation, while others say of course they are. But we’re not scientists; how do I know who is right?”
“The impact of certain doses of radiation is still a subject of debate,” says Azby Brown of Safecast, a citizen science group based in Tokyo that produces an open-source map showing radiation levels all over the world. But it’s scary because “it lodges in your body and starts killing you without you knowing.”
And, Brown adds, “We’ve all seen pictures of deformed children.”
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