20 years after...
"Chernobyl's shadow", Kiev, Ukraine May 26, 2006
The 1986 meltdown at Ukraine's Chornobyl* nuclear power plant tragically realized critics' worst fears about use of that technology: many people were killed immediately, many, many more doomed to sickness and early death from radiation. Towns ruined. A vast sweep of land rendered uninhabitable. Population even hundreds of miles downwind affected. My trip there as a photojournalist for the 2006 anniversary of that event only reinforced for me the perils of this dangerous provider of electric energy.
In the United States, we had our own close call with such disaster in the 1979 accident at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island.
Resultant public fears, plus very real concerns about long-term impacts of even unexploded power plants, have thus far blocked further siting of so-called "nukes" in this country. But nuclear energy lobbyists have worked hard to maneuver past that blockade in order to restart their industry. And they've won a powerful ally. The President's last State of the Union address showed that the Bush Administration is firmly on their side.
Even leaving aside meltdown potentials, and terrorists' known interest in attacking nuclear facilities, the Administration's advocacy incredibly ignores the vast, unsolved dangers posed by the storage, transport and disposal of nuclear fuel and waste.
The Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, near where I live, is an all-too-real example. Just 20 miles north of New York City, the plant is leaking radioactive strontium and cesium into the Hudson River. The Entergy Corporation, owner and operator of the plant, claims there is no danger to the riverside population. But they cannot find the cause of the pollution (and let's not mention that the plant is sited on an earthquake fault). Others of the nation's major rivers--the Connecticut and the Columbia, for instance--are at serious risk from radioactive seepage. And everywhere that the technology is employed, or where its byproducts are deposited, large quantities of volatile, acidic nuclear wastes, radioactive for up to 10,000 years, are eating their way through inadequate storage containments toward contamination of groundwater.
As a photojournalist covering environmental issues, I have tracked the deceptive claims of safety by the nuclear power industry from France to New England, from South Carolina to the Black Hills, and the Four Corners area of America's southwest.
But Chornobyl is ground zero in this matter. These photographs show the continuing impact of the breakdown of just one nuclear power plant, fully twenty years after the event.
I spent a week there on a trip sponsored by the Washington think tank NIRS ** (Nuclear Information and Resource Service) among other international non-governmental organizations cooperating in a commemorative conference. Homework** informed me that the local health system had been overwhelmed by an epidemic of cancers, uncommon in the age groups afflicted. A document prepared for the conference - TORCH"(The Other Report On Chornobyl) documented that more than 6,000 thyroid cancers have so far been diagnosed in the immediate region affected (parts of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia), a staggering 2,400% increase in Belarus alone . Other scientific studies such as CCRDF's *** ( Children of Chornobyl Relief and Develop. Fund) are now tying new diseases to the breakdown's impact, including solid cancers (a Swiss study shows 40% increase), cardio-vascular illness (a UNICEF study shows 43% increase), and ophthalmic ailments. The Ukrainian Ministry of Health reports three times the normal amount of mutations in newborn children (e.g., six fingers to one hand).
On the way out from Kiev, none of this horror seemed real. Journalists riding the bus provided by the conference organizers at first saw only a peaceful land of streams and forest. The peacefulness ended, though, when we arrived at the gates of the so-called exclusion zone, an-18-mile radius around the power plant wreckage.
A guard checked our passport, as a special authorization by the Minister of Catastrophes ( !) is required for this trip--yet I learned that this authorization is commonly granted through various travel agencies which advertise it as an "extreme adventure." A statue of the Madonna at the entry was being cleaned up by military men, and seemed to offer her blessing as we were allowed to proceed.
The birch trees along the road began revealing once glorious habitations, now abandoned to nature. Further along we came on a monument to the emergency personnel who died. There were a few lonely tourists taking pictures. Next appeared a large sign depicting a small town so contaminated that it had to be bulldozed under. Then we entered what's left of Chornobyl, inhabited now only by the scientists and technicians who work at the site where the Ministry of Catastrophes hosted us for lunch and a briefing on the accident. Before boarding the bus again though, I escaped the format of the situation, and hurriedly photographed the few remnants of past life here.
After a short trip we arrived at the perimeter of the nuclear power station, where at a distance I was allowed to photograph the remains of what was once the pride of the soviet state's program of energy policy, and its intended expansion: units five and six, unfinished, cranes still standing. Our guide's geiger counter indicated 180 rems of radiation ( typical Xray=10-rems).
Finally we reached the gates of Unit 4--the sarcophagus--a mass of gray concrete wreckage. Explosion-blasted sculptures of strange shapes, like mushrooms, stand in lonely guard at the entrance. The Geiger counter here measured 659 rems, definitely an argument against protracting the stay.
A short drive again got us to the town of pripyat, its once-bustling past evidenced by the many abandoned buildings, left now to ghosts. One sensed the past lives. Sadness filled me.
Then onto the bus again toward Illincy, a small village a few minutes away, where the elders expected us, 38 of them who decided illegally to return to their ancestral homes to live and die. We hear tales of the military's takeover, of the sickness. An old woman (Kateryna Kycherenko) invited me to her house for lunch, eager to talk. Ashamedly, I declined, as the guide was searching for me, eager to get going.
Next stop was the "cemetery," the dump of highly radioactive material compiled during the cleanup of unit 4: trucks, buses, helicopters, other amazing stuff. Do not touch, I am told, although by now I need no warning. The vehicle's hoods were up and the engines gone, all salvageable parts missing. Where are they now?
It has been a long day and we are driven back out of the perimeter, passing through detectors certifying us safe of contamination. On the way, the old Ikarus bus broke down three times. The driver, working by flashlight, was able to fix it.
That night my sneakers took a long shower, and so did I.
The next three days were spent at Chornobyl +20 the International Conference taking place in the "House of the Teachers," a historical building in downtown Kiev, where international speakers laid out the state of the nuclear industry and brought solutions forward. At a nearby official conference on the matter, headlined "Rebirth, Renewal and Human Development," I learned that Ukraine has four new nuclear power stations on order.
I decided to find out more about the medical realities, the consequences of the 1986 accident. At the Amosov National Institute of cardio-vascular diseases in Kiev, I learned about "Chornobyl heart"(multiple defects) from Prof.Lazoryshynets , director of the Institute. I photographed a young child who has had open heart surgery -possibly one of too many untraditional cases-. But what was obvious during this visit was the decrepit state of the facilities, peeling paint, cigarette smoke in the air, a surgery room where anyone could walk in from the street,. Two bed stations in surgery and a lack of modern equipment. Here the surgeon did not drive a porsche-- instead he wore shoes of old broken leather. Yet interestingly I was shown numbers that set the hospital's mortality rate under 5%, way below the US standard.... ( possibly 20%....)
I decided then to go to Rivne on the Belarus border in Northwest Ukraine, the most affected region outside the exclusion zone (it's 60 miles west of Chornobyl). Accompanied by translator Maryana Voranovich, I traveled more than four hours through a naturally beautiful region of farmlands, lakes and ponds, seemingly welcoming to eco-tourists. But I later learned that radiation is concentrated in sediments at the bottom of the glistening waters, and that no safe fishing is possible here. The local government actively works at reclaiming farmland and monitors all harvests. A recent warning was issued by local veterinarians that almost two-thirds of the dairy cows in the region are suffering from bovine leukemia caused by radioactive elements, and that none of their milk should be consumed.
In the dairy business, cows whose milk is no longer valued are sent for slaughter. Can we assume that the cattle I have photographed here will be safe to eat? As also the berries and mushrooms, specialties of the region featured in a guide that the local authorities proudly present to me?
Because of the increasing cancer rates, some here live in fear. Others choose to ignore the dangers, citing, for instance, a Rivne-area family with eleven seemingly healthy children as proof for their hope. And indeed, large families are common tradition in this area adding a skewing factor to the statistics showing that the region's rate of childhood diseases is one of the highest in the nation.
Whichever way the numbers fall, the hospitals I visited provide the grim reality of Rivne's ordeal. And the patients I interviewed make the point that many of their ailments almost certainly are a consequence of the accident. At the Polyclinic in Rivne I am told that 30% of the children treated for cardiovascular diseases come from the districts most contaminated by the Chornobyl breakdown. *** And as might be expected, the local health facilities continue to be overwhelmed by the continuing effects of the meltdown. It is amazing that the overworked staff is able to keep these sparse facilities as clean and comforting as they are.
Advocates of nuclear power argue that outside of the deadly impact radius, there is no way to know for certain exactly how much of the documented upsurge in mortality and disease downwind from Chornobyl can actually be blamed on the effects of radiation. They assert that with improved engineering and controls, another such incident is unlikely.
How unlikely? The rest of us only have the overwhelmed hospitals, the gravestones and the ruined towns with which to measure that probability.
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