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THE CHERNOBYL SYNDROME
by Olivia Ward
Ten Years After the World’s Worst Nuclear Accident, the
Ukrainian Plant Is Still Generating a Lot of Heat
CHERNOBYL–Sometimes, on a good day, Victor Ivanov forgets
the moment that exploded his life. The heat, the
metallic-tasting smoke, the jolting shock of realization:
Something has gone wrong. Something has blown up. Something that
will burn itself forever into the mind and the body.
That was April 26, 1986, the day a computer program of the
Chernobyl number four reactor ran amok during an experiment and
caused a blast that spewed radiation over Ukraine, Belarus and
Russia, and millions of people worldwide.
The Earth’s biggest nuclear disaster, releasing 200 times
the radioactivity of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs
But now the 51-year-old Ivanov is back at Chernobyl–the
new cyber-age Chernobyl that presents a smooth and successful
face to the world.
Like 12,000 others, he is drawing a daily living from the
surviving part of the plant that has brought anxiety, sickness
or death to unaccounted numbers of people.
“Why do I stay here?” says the soft-spoken nuclear
technician who lost his home, some of his neighbors and his
health in the catastrophe. “It’s very simple. I like the work–
and I have nowhere else to go.”
Ivanov and his fellow workers are part of Chernobyl’s
weirdest paradox: The plant that hit Ukraine with billions of
dollars in social and safety costs since 1986 is now the
country’s leading industrial moneymaker.
That’s the reason why, in spite of multi-billion-dollar
pledges made at this month’s G-7 meeting of industrial nations,
the ailing plant may never be closed down.
“Things are much safer these days,” says Ivanov with a wan
smile. “It used to take 16 seconds to respond to an urgent
situation. Now it takes only two.”
The directors recite this like a litany. Everyone at the
plant wants to believe what their directors say. Chernobyl is
not only safe now, they insist, but one of the world’s 20 most
secure power stations.
“Security is our first priority,” says Vladislav Gavrilin,
the plant’s deputy director. “Last year, we were able to lower
emission levels twice. And we’re still lowering them.”
These assurances are at odds with the conclusions of
several international organizations that have studied
Chernobyl’s two remaining operating reactors and the leaking
sarcophagus covering number four.
Last year, the United States energy department reported,
“today conditions at the Chernobyl nuclear plant are in many
ways worse than those that existed prior to the disastrous
accident. Serious problems abound in nearly every facet of the
operation, raising the spectre of another accident.”
Plant officials speak optimistically about improving safety
by reducing human error. But according to most experts, the root
causes of the continuing danger at Chernobyl are basic
The RBMK-design reactors–15 of them still functioning in
East Europe and the former Soviet Union–have no containment
system for radiation in case of an accident.
Because they’re built around an unstable graphite core,
they are difficult to control in emergency situations,
dangerously susceptible to fires and in need of elaborate
control systems to prevent them from heating up and exploding.
Furthermore, the damaged reactor number four is covered by
a “sarcophagus” that is badly cracked and oozing radiation,
despite a patch-and-paint job undertaken by the plant.
Scientists fear that movement of nuclear fuel left in the
base of the reactor could touch off another thermal blast.
At least 50 feet away from the reactor, Geiger counters
begin to beep frantically. Instead of registering a normal 0.14
units of radiation, they jump to more than 5.0, a level that
should not be tolerated for more than a couple of minutes.
But, says the Ukrainian environment ministry’s nuclear
adviser Konstantin Rudy, the most immediate problem is spreading
“Our main worry is water. The plains around the River
Pripyat (near Chernobyl) are contaminated. We expected flooding
this year, and if the Pripyat pours radiation into the Dnieper,
more than 20 million people will have polluted drinking water.”
A week after the interview, water levels rose and health
authorities were making evacuation plans for areas around the
Ukrainians and their neighbors are not the only ones
troubled by the Chernobyl nuclear monster.
The West has pledged $2.3 billion in aid to close the plant
by the year 2000, including the development of two new reactors
to replace Chernobyl’s operating ones. That move infuriates
Ukraine’s Greenpeace campaigners who say the only solution is to
tap new sources of energy such as wind, water and solar power.
But, plant officials say, although Chernobyl produces less
than 6 per cent of Ukraine’s total electrical power, it’s
unlikely that the disaster site will close down any time soon.
“International experts tell us it would take five years of
planning before any technical work begins,” argued chief
engineer Vladimir Chuganov. “The five-year period hasn’t even
begun and there’s no plan. But the main thing is, we’re
operating and producing something valuable. If you shut us down
you’re taking money out of the national budget.”
Less than 5 per cent of the Ukrainian budget is spent on
repairing the effects of Chernobyl, but only because the
struggling country cannot afford to pay the far larger share
that the damage demands. Plant officials say that as long as the
reactors are operating, they’re making sure that small sum
doesn’t become even slighter.
Employees of Chernobyl, even those who worry about their
health and security, would only agree.
In a country where unemployment and underemployment are
growing daily, and those with jobs are lucky to see a paycheque,
the hulking stability of the Chernobyl reactors is their only
hope for staying alive.
For the workers this is survival at its most basic–a
short-term solution that may rob them of a future they have
decided they cannot afford; a brand of resignation that harks
back to a primitive age when labor was exchanged for life and
health, and considered a fair bargain.
About 50 kilometres away in the dormitory town of Slavutich
are people who live even closer to the knife’s edge than Victor
Ivanov. Chernobyl gave birth to the town. And the residents
depend completely on the plant for their food and shelter.
At the bleak railway station, a group of workers gather in
driving snow. The smell of vodka hangs in the mist.
“You want to know how we live?” chuckles Nikolai Kalita.
A stocky dark-haired construction worker in his 40s, Kalita
recently finished painting the radioactive sarcophagus covering
reactor number four–a job that allows a maximum exposure of 15
minutes a day, though he admits to working twice that time
Although his reward was supposed to be $100 a month, he was
more often paid in coupons that could be exchanged for food at a
handful of stores.
The Chernobyl plant earns $233 million a year on paper. But
in reality it only collects 20 per cent of the fees its
consumers are billed, and earlier this year officials threatened
to shut down one reactor because money for fuel was running
Plant managers say that the workers are paid in spite of
the cash flow problem. But Kalita and others shake their heads
with wry smiles.
“We don’t know why we don’t get paid,” he says. “But we
wouldn’t start a protest or join a union, because we’d lose our
Kalita and his friends spend more than an hour a day
commuting to and from work on the Chernobyl electric railway.
Afterward, they hang around the station in miserably cold
weather because it’s better than going home.
Home, for Kalita and his 26-year-old wife Dalina, is a one-
room communal flat in barracks-like buildings surrounded by a
smell of bad drains. Their bed-sitting room is spotlessly clean
but crammed with the memorabilia of lives that have never quite
They share their toilet and kitchen with the next-door
neighbors–one room fills both purposes. And their most
important possession, a television set, takes pride of place
near their bed.
But difficult though their lives are, they are still doing
better than some plant workers who have lost their jobs, a hint
of what would happen if the Chernobyl complex closed.
“I’m supposed to be a builder,” said 37-year-old Leonid
Berevinok, lighting a cigarette with burn-scarred and yellowed
hands. “Now I don’t know what I am.”
To get by, Berevinok is doing a temporary job with a
private company that works the radioactive land around
Chernobyl. Berevinok cuts down contaminated trees for lumber, he
says, and receives $50 a month in return. Where the lumber goes
is of no more interest to him than why his boss registers his
salary at twice the amount he actually gets.
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