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5.27.16 Issue

Richard Fellman

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster which took place in Ukraine 30 years ago on April 26 captured media attention because that explosion resulted in the world’s greatest radiation exposure since atom bombs were dropped on Japan at the end of World War II.

At least 9,000 persons, maybe as many as 90,000, suffered direct injuries from the Chernobyl fallout.

Untold millions of survivors, their children and grandchildren, carry within them the possibility of future deformity, illness and death.

My wife and I spent a day visiting Chernobyl when we lived for a half year in Ukraine seven years ago.

I was there on a Fulbright Fellowship teaching American Government at Uzzhorod National University in the town of Uzzhorod located on the far western border of Ukraine just off the western slope of the Carpathian mountains and near the borders of Hungary and Slovakia.

The Fulbright office, a subdivision of the U.S. State Department, arranged the trip. This gave both Bev and me some assurance of the safety of the trip. Before we were registered for the Chernobyl visit we had to submit our passports for approval. Our passports were further checked by local authorities a number of additional times.

A rusted chair outside the Maternity Ward of the hospital.

A rusted chair outside the Maternity Ward of the hospital.

Our guide was an English speaking former Soviet Army Chemical Corps officer who was himself a trained scientist with advanced academic degrees in chemistry and nuclear physics.

Chernobyl is a small city directly north of Kiev, the capitol city, which divides the country in almost equal parts, east and west.

The Dnieper river runs from the north of Ukraine near Chernobyl and south to Kiev terminating in the Black Sea. It was an off-shoot of this river that ran next to the nuclear plant that Soviet engineers used to cool the reactor.

The Soviets built a “model” city, Pripyat, just a few kilometers away from the reactor to house 35,000 to 50,000 engineers, scientists, factory workers and their families. Bev and I walked through Pribyat.

Everything is now gone, totally destroyed.

Ringing Pripyat is a forest of birch trees, today called the Red Forest but not in honor of the former Soviet Union. The name today reflects the color of the tree trunks — red, not white.

The city contained many five-story apartment buildings, but now only steel shells remain. Bev and I climbed up inside one of them and looked at the once thriving city.

Below us we saw what once was the hospital.

Standing near the main entrance to the Maternity Ward was the rusted and bent steel frame of the chair used by pregnant mothers and their doctors during the delivery of a baby.

In another direction we could see the remnants of an amusement park, now a steel skeleton. A merry-go-round and a ferris wheel stood out among the wreckage. Bumper cars — piled as trash in a cluttered corner.

Bev going though the radiation machine

Bev going though the radiation machine

The once festive dining hall, looking much like what one sees today in an American country club, opened to a beautiful terrace with gentle steps leading down to the banks of the river. The flagstone walkway was overgrown with weeds, small trees and piled with debris.

But in the midst of the trash were large colored photographs of Soviet leaders, many who appeared to be high ranking military officers, in full dress uniforms with rows of medals across their chests.

Before entering Pripyat we were given small handheld radiation measuring meters and told to measure our level of radiation while still on the bus. The usual measurement on the scale for most of us was a “two.”

Once in the city, our guide suggested we place the meter face down on the ground and again take a measurement. We all measured “100.”

He assured us that when we left Pripyat it would return to normal for all of us, and that the amount of radiation we each received was about the same as what we would encounter on a trans-Atlantic flight.

“Not to worry,” we were told, but upon leaving the controlled area each of our party individually went through a radiation measurement machine to check our individual reading.

We then went to a small dining room for supper, starting with a round of vodka, some excellent bread and a modest supper, and finishing with another vodka, this time with a toast.

In Pripyat there were no signs of human life. But we saw wild boars, small foxes, squirrels and many birds. When we were walking, we waded through thick undergrowths of weeds. Extreme overgrowth abounded. Desolation conquered this once model city.

The reactor is encased in a huge cover. The cover now leaks. An even larger cover is today being built over what we saw. The engineers hope the new structure will seal the reactor’s nuclear waste and allow the dangerous materials to be safely removed and properly disposed.

Some argue the causes of the disaster were engineering mistakes. Some disagree.

Today everyone admits the biggest failure was the refusal of Soviet authorities to warn the world of the disaster.