Cold and desolate in the dead zone

The only sign of life in Pripyat is a powdery yellow butterfly flitting across a dirt path. The small Ukrainian town, two kilometres from the Chernobyl nuclear power station, was once a bustling community of just under 50 000 people, many of whom worked at the station.

Today the buildings are almost completely hidden by bushes and weeds. The big wheel and bumper cars at the theme park are abandoned and rusted, squeaking in the chilly breeze.
In the old school banners and posters displaying Soviet propaganda turn yellow on the walls and in the classrooms, desks lie overturned and open books mix with gas masks strewn across the floor. Moss and greenery grow out of the grey stone ground and the trees are an odd shade of dark red.

On April 26 1986 life changed forever for the people of Pripyat. Just before 1.30am on a beautiful, still spring night, while residents took a rest from their preparations for the coming May Day celebrations, things were going awry at Chernobyl.

What was intended to be a contingency experiment sent reactor number four out of control. The subsequent explosion led to a leak of radiation that forced the people of Pripyat—with 350 000 others within a 30km radius of the power station—out of their homes forever. Twenty-five years later radiation levels are still too high for anyone to live in what is now called “the dead zone”.

April 26 2011 marked the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster which saw hundreds of thousands of inhabitants evacuated from the worst hit areas in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. It is considered the worst nuclear accident to have ever occurred.
In 2009 the area was reopened to visitors, with tours costing a hefty $160. Run by Ukrainian travel agencies, the tours offer a guide for the day and advertise on Kiev radio stations. Local and international tourists line up to see the ghost towns around the plant and the cement sarcophagus covering reactor number four—and have lunch in the plant canteen.

Last month the world watched helplessly as an earthquake and tsunami led to a radiation leak from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station in Japan, where hundreds of thousands of people have been evacuated.

In the wake of the disaster South Africa’s Cabinet approved the Integrated Resources Plan, or IRP2010, which aims to expand nuclear power capacity so that it contributes 23% of the country’s energy by 2030, up from the 6% that Koeberg currently generates. To do this the government is planning to build six new nuclear power stations, each with a capacity of 16 00MW.

Nuclear experts are chuffed: they argue that nuclear energy, rather than coal or renewable, is the way to go, since renewable energy will never generate the same output as nuclear in the next 10 years. Some say that to produce the same amount of energy that comes out of Koeberg engineers would have to cover the entire Western Cape coastline in wind farms.

They add that nuclear is more expensive than coal, but cheaper than renewables. And they argue that at Chernobyl fewer than 50 people died in the months following the disaster and that in the Three Mile Island incident in 1979, and more recently, at Fukushima, no one died from the immediate effects of radiation. But antinuclear activists say such claims are dangerous at best—and a slap in the face for those living in the vicinity of the three accidents.

“It’s dangerous, as we can see from the nuclear disaster in Japan, but also produces dangerous radioactive waste, for which there is no solution yet anywhere in the world,” says Rianne Teule, energy campaigner for Greenpeace Africa, who accuses the government of being irresponsible in approving plans for nuclear expansion. “And nuclear power is expensive. Money spent on energy efficiency and clean energy sources will result in more CO²emissions reductions.” Besides, says Teule, there are no guarantees that an accident like Chernobyl won’t happen here.

“The nuclear industry has told us for 60 years that all is under control and there will never be accidents like this,” she says. “They were, and still are, wrong.”

Teule says South Africa is ill-equipped to handle nuclear power generation. “We have a very weak nuclear regulator, little nuclear expertise in the country and a dependency on foreign nuclear expertise and technology,” she says.

It’s not a risk, say activists, that South Africans should take—and a walk through the Chernobyl dead zone tends to bear them out. Twenty-five years after the disaster those living near the station are still feeling the effects on their bodies, finances and livelihoods.

Dr Igor Bogdanets works at the Rokytnivska Central Hospital in Rokytne, a town with a population of 53 000 near the border with Belarus, 300km from Chernobyl.

“We’re still seeing a build-up of Caesium-137 in the muscles, kidneys, liver and blood plasma,” he says, referring to the radioactive isotope that causes cancer. “Since the accident there was a major increase in thyroid cancer, especially in people who were children or teenagers in 1986. “The children in the town have suppressed immune systems. Two-thirds of the population has problems relating to contamination.”

Since the explosion
German nuclear physicist and expert Tobias Muenchmeyer, who has studied the disaster in depth, says that since the explosion 93 000 have died from radiation-linked cancer in the Ukraine, Belarus and Russia; hundreds of thousands of cancers have been diagnosed; and there have been major effects on children, then unborn and now in their 20s. Negative health effects have been observed more than 500km away.

Maria and Ivan Ivanovich, in their 70s, live in Bareshev, a village 20km from Chernobyl. They were forced to leave their homes in 1986, but returned a few years ago.

Of the hundreds of families that used to live in the village, just nine people remain. “We were so homesick and nostalgic,” says Maria. Their children live in Kiev and the couple are kept company by their chickens, all with names, four kittens and a piglet called Vasya, Ukrainian for Basil. “This is our life,” says Ivan. “I was born in this village; this is where I’ll die.”

Maria and Ivan are simple people; they eat vegetables, apples, pears and grapes that they grow in their back garden. Most of the people living around Chernobyl are poor and unemployed and subsist on their crops—but these crops are still contaminated by radionuclides and radioactive isotopes.

Ukrainian Irina Lubinska, senior scientist at the University of Exeter, who has studied the effects of radiation on food around Chernobyl, says wild mushrooms, milk and berries are the worst affected. In villages around Chernobyl the radiation in milk is still far above permissible levels.

“The government is responsible in the Ukrainian constitution for what people affected by resettlement call ‘funeral money’,” says Lubinska, referring to the funds intended for the purchase of essentials such as food. “Often they wait months to receive small amounts of compensation.”

In Rokytne people are given two hryvnias, equal to R2 a day, to buy clean food. Doctors say that the state can afford to send only five of every 15 children to school outside the contaminated area. It also pays for the medication of residents in contaminated areas and gives vouchers to people so they can stay away from their homes for 18 days at a time, to avoid overdosing on radiation.

The government is also treating the soil in the contaminated areas, adding potassium to prevent the transfer of radionuclides into plants. And it is spending $1,2billion from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development on a new sarcophagus—the block of cement and steel almost 100m high that covers the plant—to stop further radiation leaks.

At the time of the accident Natalya Renshev, a translator, was pregnant in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, about 150km south of Chernobyl. Her memories of the area are of a beautiful forest with wildlife and lakes where people would spend Sundays with their families.

Now Chernobyl is cold and desolate, with a heavy military presence. A passport is needed to enter the zone and in the vicinity of the sarcophagus police check to see that visitors don’t come too close.

In Japan the effects of the accident at Fukushima are already being seen. It took more than a month for officials at the plant to announce that they had managed to plug the leak from the station that was sending tonnes of water containing highly radioactive caesium isotopes into the sea. Even in villages outside the 30km exclusion zone tests on vegetables have revealed radiation levels far higher than those allowed.

Ilham Rawoot’s visit to Chernobyl was sponsored by Greenpeace

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