CHERNOBYL, Ukraine -- This corner of Ukraine was ‘a wonderful place to live’ until April 26th, 1986, when a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl exploded. Twenty-five years later, the devastating effects are still felt.
I heard a huge bang and saw black smoke and then white steam rising from the plant,” says Sergei Parykvash, looking over his shoulder at the dead hulk of Chernobyl’s nuclear power station. “The day of the blast, April 26th, was my day off. But I came to work here the next day, just as planned.”
Parykvash was in the vanguard of Soviet efforts to control the meltdown of reactor number four when, 25 years ago this week, an experiment with its cooling system went dramatically wrong and caused the worst nuclear accident in history.
The massive explosion tore the reactor apart, spewing radioactivity across a swathe of the Soviet Union and high into the atmosphere, from whence it was carried across northern Europe and came down in rain, contaminating land as far away as Ireland.
Today, the reactor sits inside an eerie 30km (19 miles) “dead zone” of mostly abandoned towns and villages, and millions of people in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus continue to live with the poisonous legacy of a catastrophe that demonstrated the dangers of nuclear power.
Those dangers were starkly highlighted again last month, when an earthquake and tsunami triggered an emergency at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant, raising fresh doubts about the future of atomic energy and throwing attention back onto this poisoned corner of Ukraine, where officials are struggling to raise money to ensure the long-term safety of the site.
“No one here understood the scale of what had occurred, and officials didn’t tell us anything,” recalls Parykvash, as he looks at the crude concrete and steel sarcophagus – which is now riddled with cracks – that was thrown up around reactor number four after the explosion.
“When we finally realised, and when we heard that the accident was a danger to the whole world . . . well,” says Parykvash, “then it became clear that something really terrible had happened.”
AT 1:23AM on April 26th, 1986, technicians at the VI Lenin nuclear power station began a test on the cooling systems of reactor number four, which had been operational for only three years.
As they gradually shut down the reactor and launched the experiment, they committed a series of errors that compounded fundamental design flaws in the plant, and a massive power surge sent temperatures in the core spiralling to critical levels.
Within seconds, two explosions ripped through the reactor with enough force to hurl a 2,000-tonne safety plate off the top of the building. All cooling systems were destroyed and the fuel rods were shattered. Fire took hold of the graphite inside the collapsing core of the reactor.
It was this fire that sent a radioactive plume across Europe, and glowed menacingly beneath helicopters that dropped thousands of tonnes of quenching sand, lead, clay and boron onto the burning core.
On the ground, fire fighters and other workers helped tackle the blaze and clear away highly toxic debris from the reactor. The flimsy suits, goggles and masks worn by the men – who were dubbed “bio-robots” – offered little protection against radiation.
“Robots could not go in because the inside was completely destroyed and pathways were blocked. It had to be people. The chances of coming back were slim. We had already said goodbye to the world,” says Anatoly Tkachuk, an engineer who entered the crippled reactor block and has written a book about it.
“There were wave-like movements in the air – the air was even moving by itself. It was awful. We immediately felt pain in the throat – the first sign of a high radiation dose – and headaches, pressure in the head, very painful joints, especially the knees.
“People knew it was dangerous but didn’t really know what they were doing. At the beginning, people were moving radioactive material around with their hands.”
While the first teams of liquidators fought desperately to stabilise the plant, Soviet officials under Mikhail Gorbachev – who was later praised for his policy of glasnost or “openness” – said nothing about the accident.
The world began to fear a nuclear emergency only when scientists in Sweden detected raised levels of radioactivity on April 28th, when Soviet media first revealed there were problems at Chernobyl.
The traditional communist May 1st parades and celebrations in Kiev were allowed to go ahead as normal, however, even though the wind was blowing towards the city from the direction of the stricken power plant less than 150km (93 miles) away.
May Day had been eagerly anticipated by the 50,000 residents of Pripyat, a town just three kilometres (1.9 miles) from Chernobyl. That was the day a fairground was due to open in the Soviet Union’s ninth “atomic town”.
Here, the average age was just 26, wages and amenities were good and the unspoiled forests and streams all around offered excellent fishing, hunting and delicious wild berries and mushrooms.
The yellow big wheel is still there, alongside a listing red carousel and multicoloured dodgems that sit rusting on the moss-covered floor of a ruined funhouse.
The fairground sits at the heart of the world’s largest ghost town, where the blank windows of apartments blocks, schools and offices stare out at empty squares and boulevards.
Propaganda posters and placards, once as bright as the official vision of the Soviet future, lie rotting in the tall grass.
Furniture, books and toys wait in gently crumbling rooms for owners who left home 25 years ago and never returned.
“They ordered our families to evacuate on the afternoon of April 27th. They told them to take just their documents and a few essentials because they would only be gone for a few days.
No one told us it was the end,” remembers Parykvash, as he talks with another former Pripyat resident, Valera Zabiyaka, in front of the echoing Hotel Pollisya and Pripyat’s once-proud Palace of Culture.
“My wife worked there,” says Zabiyaka, pointing to a two-storey building whose red “restaurant” sign is still intact above the trees that are growing up in the surrounding streets.
“This was a wonderful place to live – a young town full of energy and life. This is where our first children were born, where we had our first apartment. It was impossible to think we were leaving here forever.
“And then I remember later, when the only people here were workers in special suits with radiation detectors, and the terrible silence.”
Natalya Oleinichenko, who still works at the Chernobyl plant, remembers Pripyat as “a town with such potential”.
“They were building a fifth reactor block at the power station, and there were plans to bring another 25,000 people to the town. We had a good rail connection to Kiev, and in summer a fast boat took you straight to the city,” she says sadly. “Have you seen the pier on the river?” she asks with a fading smile. “The future was bright then. It really was.”
Parykvash is one of several thousand people who keep Chernobyl secure and monitor the state of the sarcophagus and the tonnes of nuclear fuel and highly radioactive wreckage inside.
Only a few of them are on-site at any one time, and the once-bustling industrial complex is now almost deserted. Reactor four sits encased in its crude concrete tomb, three other reactors are silent and cranes stand idle around the unfinished reactor five.
A broad canal takes water through the complex and out into the surrounding forests, where some ecologists claim nature is thriving in the absence of people. Others say radiation has badly affected wildlife numbers and diversity.
“We have reinforced the shelter and extended its life by repairing cracks to reduce the chance of collapse and of rainwater getting in and toxic dust getting out,” said Yulia Marusich of Chernobyl’s information centre, where detectors show radioactivity near the reactor to be 300 times higher than in Kiev.
“The nuclear fuel-containing masses inside the reactor still represent a risk. There are no conditions for a spontaneous chain reaction at the moment, but we cannot just leave the reactor.”
Ukraine has employed a French consortium to create a new shelter for Chernobyl by 2015. It is now being built close to the reactor, and will be slid into place over the top of the existing sarcophagus when it is ready.
Marusich says the “technological complex” will be the largest moveable construction in the world, and as well as protecting the reactor for a century, will contain the cranes and other machinery workers need to dismantle the highly hazardous wreckage inside the sarcophagus.
A conference of international donors in Kiev this week pledged €550 million ($801 million) to the project, well short of the €740 million ($1.08 billion) Ukraine had hoped for. Several countries, including Ireland, said their own economic woes prevented them from committing funds.
Officials are confident that the money will be found however, especially given the renewed focus that the Fukushima emergency has placed on questions of nuclear safety.
At the final checkpoint on the edge of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, visitors step into antiquated radiation detectors and wait for the all-clear, while a man in camouflage runs a Geiger counter over their vehicle.
Then they drive on into the tranquil Ukrainian countryside, past farms where people and animals still live and through villages that are not abandoned.
Chernobyl has also left a deep scar here, and is believed to have affected some eight million people across a broad swathe of Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia.
The accident is officially blamed for the death of 31 plant workers and liquidators, and for more than 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer in subsequent years.
Many locals and medical experts attribute a rise in other physical and mental problems to the disaster, but the United Nations and other major international agencies refuse to acknowledge a direct link.
Medical groups working with people in the Chernobyl fallout zone also cite the long-term psychological damage caused by the persistent fear of radiation-related illness and the stigma of living in an area that is infamous the world over.
A recent poll showed that about 60 per cent of Ukrainians think nuclear power is dangerous, a feeling held most strongly by those who were in their 20s and 30s in 1986.
The disaster did little to deter the most badly affected countries from exploiting nuclear energy, however.
Ukraine shut down the last block at Chernobyl only in 2000, and still relies on atomic energy for almost half of its electricity. Russia still operates dozens of reactors and is building several more in a bid to almost double capacity by 2020.
Belarus is planning to construct its first nuclear power plant, despite safety objections from neighbouring Lithuania. The Baltic state closed its last reactor, which was similar in design to Chernobyl, at the request of the EU in 2009.
Many activists say the reliance of a host of countries on atomic power, and the influence and financial clout of the nuclear lobby has led governments and institutions such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to play down the health impact of Chernobyl.
Greenpeace has accused the IAEA, which is part of the United Nations, of “whitewashing” the effects of the accident “in a deliberate attempt to minimise the risks of nuclear power in order to free the way for new reactor construction”.
“I feel terrible for the Japanese for what happened ,” sighs Vasily Berezhnoi, an ultrasound technician who examines people for thyroid problems as part of a Red Cross mobile screening programme in Ukraine.
“It’s a tragic coincidence that it took place on the eve of our anniversary.”
Taking a break from his work, he stands in the sun and looks out towards the forest where villagers regularly gather mushrooms and berries, ignoring warnings that they are still contaminated by nuclear fallout.
Behind him, a queue of schoolchildren – all of whom were born well after 1986 – wait nervously for their scans.
“It’s clear that we can never have full control of the atom,” says Berezhnoi. “There could be another nuclear catastrophe anywhere, anytime.”
Health effects - The controversy over numbers
Thirty-one people died in the immediate aftermath of the Chernobyl accident as a result of the explosion and a clean-up operation that exposed them to extremely high levels of radiation.
Controversy surrounds the question of how many people have subsequently died or suffered serious illness due what is still classed as the world’s worst nuclear accident.
The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) says that “many” of more than 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer found in people who were children or adolescents at the time of the disaster were probably caused by the disaster.
Children were particularly vulnerable to thyroid problems because their growing glands quickly absorbed radioactive iodine after the accident, and they were major consumers of contaminated dairy products.
Soviet authorities failed to distribute safe potassium iodide to saturate their thyroids and hamper uptake of the radioactive substance.
The UNSCEAR report angered many people by insisting that “apart from this increase, there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure”.
Many of the hundreds of thousands of “liquidators” who took part in the clean-up operation at Chernobyl complain of major health problems due to radiation exposure, and some researchers have reported a sharp rise in birth defects after the accident.
Greenpeace has predicted that some 270,000 cancer cases may ultimately be attributable to the disaster, more than 90,000 of which could prove fatal, while the New York Academy of Sciences has claimed that almost one million people worldwide may have died to due radiation from Chernobyl.
“State structures have for the last 25 years done everything to cover up the information for the sake of the nuclear energy lobby, which is the most powerful lobby in the world and dictates the conditions today,” alleges Belarussian nuclear expert Yury Bandazhevsky.