I wrote a paper on this disaster within two weeks of it happening in College. I got a A+. I personally knew what sort of disaster we had on our hands. The land around Chernoybl will be radioactive for 10,000 more years. Fukushima is worse.. It was not just one reactor but 4 or maybe all 5.
The Control room
Part of the mystery and terror of the Chernobyl disaster is the invisibility of the threat. The explosion at the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin nuclear power plant released more radiation than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and one might never know they were being poisoned until months, even years later. Veteran photographer Gerd Ludwig’s spent 20 years photographing the area, chronicling the ongoing consequences of the radioactive release.
“You don’t see it, you don’t feel it, you don’t smell it, you don’t taste it, but it’s there,” he says. “It’s around you, and that makes many people oblivious to the danger.”
Ludwig has photographed the benighted reactor and the 18-mile exclusion zone surrounding it nine times in the last two decades. The photo book he’s crowdfunding, The Long Shadow of Chernobyl, gathers the deeply affecting images he took and shows why the disaster, which occurred on April 26, 1986, remains relevant.
“I want to give a voice to those people that suffered this tragedy and still are suffering,” Ludwig says.
The book, which started life on the iPad, is divided into four categories: the compromised reactor; the abandoned town of Pripyat about a mile away; the contaminated villages farther out; and the medical and emotional impact of the disaster in places like Belarus and Ukraine. The photos recount the still-unfolding narrative of the meltdown but remain fixed on the people involved: A man and child hospitalized with cancer, a 93-year-old woman who defied an evacuation order to live out her life at home, the tourists who venture among the ruins.
Beyond the looming threat of radiation, visits present a host of practical and bureaucratic hurdles and usually are limited to a few days at most. Accessing the reactor intensifies the risk, and the hassle, and Ludwig reckons he’s gone deeper into the belly of the beast than any other Western photographer.
He first entered in 1993 on assignment for National Geographic. During another visit in 2005, he took advantage of the administrative confusion caused by the Orange Revolution to extend his stay to nearly two weeks. By the time he visited in 2011 and 2013, he was using Kickstarter and arts grants to help cover his expenses.
“They charged an incredible amount of money for access and transportation, simply because they can,” he says. “There’s no other way of getting entry than through the administration.”
Ludwig’s photos show the chaos the explosion created. Many were sharply limited by exposure to radiation. For example, a ghostly image of a ravaged room, its clock frozen at 1:23, had to be taken within six seconds, and only after pleading with his guides. In many cases, his camera gear was irradiated and needed to be washed or discarded before leaving the area.
“It’s post-apocalyptic, you have this incredible adrenaline surge because you know you’re entering an area that few have ever seen,” Ludwig says. “You’re stumbling along more than you go, along metal walkways that were built in there for easier and faster access, but all is full of radioactive debris and wires, and you have the people with you that push you on. It’s a frantic atmosphere and you’re trying to stay focused and photograph, but they tell you ‘Ok, this was enough to take a picture.’”
Fantastically well written article on Chernobyl in Newsweek
We climb eight flights of stairs. Eight more remain. This is sturdy Soviet concrete, dusty as death, but solid. So I hope, anyway. My guide, Lena, who is in her early 20s, has informed me that the administrators of the Exclusion Zone that encompasses Chernobyl do not want tourists entering the buildings of Pripyat for what appears to be an unimpeachable reason: Some of them could collapse.
But the roof of this apartment building on the edge of Pripyat, the city where Chernobyl’s employees lived until the spring of 1986, will provide what Lena says is the best panorama of this Ukrainian Pompeii and the infamous nuclear power plant, 1.9 miles away, that 28 years ago this week rendered the surrounding landscape uninhabitable for at least the next 20,000 years. So we climb on, higher into the honey-colored vernal light, even as it occurs to me that Lena is not a structural engineer. And that the adjective Soviet is essentially synonymous with collapse.
And what do I know? Nothing. I am just a curious ethnic hyphenate, Russian-born and largely American-raised. In 1986 we lived in Leningrad, about 700 miles north of the radioactive sore that burst on what should have been an ordinary spring night less than a week before the annual May Day celebration. Considering that Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev wasn’t told for many hours what, exactly, had transpired at Chernobyl (“Not a word about an explosion,” he said later), you can safely extrapolate to what the Soviet populace learned on April 26: absolutely nothing. But a couple of days after the disaster, a family friend from Kiev called and said we had better cancel our planned vacation in the Ukrainian countryside.
Then details started falling into place, as workers at a Swedish nuclear power plant detected radiation, eventually determining that it came from the Soviet Union. That forced the ever-defensive Kremlin’s hand, which admitted on April 28 that an accident had happened at Chernobyl. “A government commission has been set up,” a statement from Moscow assured. My father, a nervous physicist himself, was not mollified. I remember, as clearly as I remember anything of my Soviet youth, his telling me to stay out of the rain.
The narrative of Chernobyl has been told so many times, there is no point in regurgitating all of it here. Very briefly: a shoddy Soviet reactor, moderated by graphite instead of water; a turbine generator coastdown test that senselessly called for the disabling of all emergency systems; the reactor’s fall into an “iodine valley” and the consequent poisoning of the reactor by xenon-135; the incompetence and impatience of the plant’s managers, especially of Anatoly Dyatlov, a supervising engineer who stubbornly drove the test forward and would later serve prison time for his role in the night’s events; the indefensible lifting of all but six of the 211 control rods; the reactor going prompt supercritical; the inability to fully reinsert the control rods, leading to steam explosions and graphite fires; a biblical pillar of radioactive flame surging into the sky.
Through it all, two off-the-clock workers fished in a nearby coolant pond. They continued to fish until the morning, receiving enormous doses of radiation yet somehow surviving. Theirs may be the only feel-good story of the night.
The toxic cloud that enveloped much of Europe that spring has intrigued me ever since. I can name all of the radionuclides it contained: cesium-137, iodine-131, zirconium-95 strontium-90, ruthenium-103…. But I longed to know its origins, the way a naturalist might yearn to see the source of a river somewhere high in the mountains, simply to fulfill the human need to discover beginnings and pay homage to them.
I also happen to be a journalist and now find myself in Ukraine when it is at the center of world events, as opposed to the periphery where most former Soviet states languish (when was the last time CNN did a gripping live remote from Uzbekistan?). Except I am about 90 miles north of Kiev, the site of the Maidan uprising, the epicenter of a conflict that has Russian President Vladimir Putin sharpening his swords again. Everyone else is reporting on Crimea, possible NATO retributions, a new Cold War…and here I am, in the midst of this “weirdish wild space” (h/t Dr. Seuss).
Lena is right. Not only do the stairs hold, but the view from the roof, 16 floors above Pripyat, is spectacular. Winter singes the air; nothing yet blooms. There is a severe beauty that is particularly Slavic, the earth at once fecund and stark. The white quadrangles of Pripyat seem to have risen up between the trees that grow thickly right up into Belarus, encompassing a forbidden zone of a thousand square miles. The V.I. Lenin Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station (the official name of what the world knows as Chernobyl) is visible in the distance as a squat collection of shapes, emitting equal parts radioactivity and mystery.
That apartment building was part of my two-day excursion into Chernobyl, one that quickly dispelled any notions that this swath of Eastern Europe is a radioactive wasteland. Or, rather, only a radioactive wasteland. I can’t quite believe that I am saying this, but tourism to Chernobyl is booming. There were 870 visitors in 2004, two years after the Ukrainian government allowed (some) access to the Exclusion Zone. Today, the Kiev-based tour company SoloEast says it takes 12,000 tourists to Chernobyl a year, which accounts for 70 percent of the pleasure-visitors heading there (including myself). I even stayed at a luxury hotel of sorts, a neo-rustic cottage that featured towel warmers and a sign that said, “Please keep your radioactive shoes outside.”
For the most part, the defunct station of reactors (the first went live in 1977; the last, the one that blew, in 1983) looks like a tidy industrial park in central Ohio: shorn green lawns, a smattering of abstract art, half-empty parking lots, a canal rife with fish. Nothing indicates that this is the site of the worst nuclear disaster in human history.
Yet as tourists Instagram away at Pripyat’s ruins, Chernobyl is undergoing one of the most challenging engineering feats in the world, as a French consortium called Novarka tries to replace the aging sarcophagus that contains the reactor, a concrete shell hastily and heroically built in the direct aftermath of the meltdown. The place remains a half-opened tinderbox of potential nuclear horrors, and just because much of the world has forgotten about Chernobyl doesn’t mean catastrophe won’t visit here again.
It is amazing how accurate my paper was at the time. I have always been interesting in anything I can read concerning the accident.
MIT scientists announce tsunami and earthquake proof reactor
A group of MIT scientists want to revive the nuclear industry in the post-Fukushima era by moving it offshore.
In a paper to be presented at a conference this week, the MIT researchers argue that the way to make nuclear power plants impervious to earthquakes and tsunamis is to build them in shipyards and then tow the structures five to nine miles out to sea to the deep ocean.
These Offshore Small Modular Reactors (OSMR) would just generate 300 megawatts of electricity or less but would eliminate “the possibility of land contamination and public exposure from severe accidents, and reducing the risk from terrorist threats,” wrote the paper’s lead author Jacopo Buongiorno, an associate professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT.
An Atlantic Special Report
(The impact of an uncontained core meltdown on dolphins, whales and other marine life is another matter.)
When the seaborne nuke plants reach the end of their lives they can be simply towed ashore and decommissioned, note the authors, who include a University of Wisconsin, Madison, researcher and representatives from Chicago Bridge & Iron, which despite it’s 19th century-sounding name is a nuclear power plant and offshore platform builder.
Defending these “nuclear islands” from possible terrorist assault – by attack ships and submarines – though would require some James Bond-like like machinations:
In addressing these scenarios, the guiding principles are as follows: first, use of automatic remote early detection systems and wide-area surveillance technologies to see and identify threats from a distance; second, increase the time for response to threats by introduction of delays to access to vital areas through the use of physical barriers and designing plant layout to minimize intrusion pathways (e.g., the deck is designed so that access to board from a small boat is extremely difficult); third, minimize security threats by reducing structures and systems needing essential protection, i.e., simplify safety systems and operational systems to concentrate points that must be defended; and fourth, improve threat response capabilities by providing physical deterrents (including use of automatic weaponry to the extent possible).
Floating nuclear power plants are not a new idea – one is under construction in Russia, for instance. But none have been built outside tsunami zones or have deployed two technologies that make the OSMR possible – small nuclear reactors and offshore platforms like those developed for deep-ocean oil drilling. What could go wrong?
The OSMR would look more or less like a nuclear power plant plopped on top of an oil-drilling platform, except the reactor would be submerged.
Southeast Asia is an ideal region for nukes-on-the-sea, note the authors, not just due to its propensity for earthquakes and tsunamis but because it has limited energy resources and populations concentrated on coasts and thus relatively close to transmission lines that would be run from offshore.
Floating nuclear power plants, conclude the authors, “would broaden the number of suitable sites for nuclear plants, thus potentially opening vast new markets in East and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, South America, Africa, small island countries, large mining operations, and [military] bases.”
LINK to Papers presented
At the door… big brother
This is very scary information… The reach of the federal government into our lives remains unprecedented and frankly illegal in many ways.
A leading privacy watchdog has warned that the FBI plans to have up to a third of all Americans on a facial recognition database by next year.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation notes in a communique that some 52 million Americans could be on the Next Generation Identification (NGI) biometric database by 2015, regardless of whether they have ever committed a crime or been arrested.
The group managed to obtain information pertaining to the program via a freedom of information request.
The database will also hold fingerprints, of which the FBI has around 100 million records, as well as retina scans and palm prints. Profiles on the system will contain other personal details such as name, address, age and race.
The system will be capable of searching through millions of facial records obtained not only via mugshots, but also via so called “civil images”, the origin of which is vague at best.
“[T]he FBI does not define either the ‘Special Population Cognizant’ database or the ‘new repositories’ category.” The EFF writes. “This is a problem because we do not know what rules govern these categories, where the data comes from, how the images are gathered, who has access to them, and whose privacy is impacted.”