Wednesday, April 25, 2007I was eighteen when Chernobyl exploded. In retrospect, I realize it was one of the first times I really followed the news outside my adolescent self-absorption. The reporters' accounts of the poison fire that could not be extinguished for days on end seemed nearly supernatural - what had been unleashed there? Could the fire be extinguished?
This disaster was innocence lost - on both a personal and global scale. The local CBC television news affiliate showed Soviet helicopters futilely dumping payloads of borax and lead, attempting to quell the roaring graphite core to little avail. One copter's rotor blades came too close, and the machine crashed into the power plant, killing its pilot.
It was like fighting Godzilla, but this was no movie.
Eventually, someone proposed a last-ditch attempt to flow liquid nitrogen under the reactor floor to cool the relentless corium flow that threatened to reach bedrock aquifers. If the blazing lava flow of molten reactor fuel, concrete and metal reached it, when the intense heat split groundwater molecules into elemental hydrogen and oxygen a massive explosion far surpassing the original reactor failure would have been the result. Thankfully, the corium eventually cooled.
Researchers were detecting traces of fallout across the Northern U.S. as atmospheric movements spread the reactors' plume: it seeemed no place was truly safe. Later I would realize there was nothing supernatural about the event - it was simply man's hubris, laxity, and lack of healthy respect for the power of nature that allowed Chernobyl to happen.
At 1:23AM on April 26th, 1986:
"My friends were dying under my eyes," said Konstantyn Sokolov, 68, a former Chernobyl worker whose voice was hoarse from throat and lip cancer. "I try not to recollect my memories. They are very terrible." Mykola Malyshev, 66, was working in the control room of Chernobyl's Reactor No. 1 at the time of the explosion. He said the lights flickered and the room shook. The workers were ordered to the destroyed reactor, but when they got there, their co-workers ordered them to flee and save themselves. "They told us, 'We are already dead. Go away,"' Malyshev recalled at the Kiev ceremony.A highly recommended book: Voices From Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich, published last year shortly before the 20th anniversary of the disaster; the work chronicles the experiences of Prip'yat refugees and the horrifying experiences of the "liquidators"' loved ones, who saw first-hand the effects of searing radioactive fire on frail human flesh. Its most haunting quality is the raw pain and hope expressed by the friends and family of these first responders, many of whom suffered unspeakable deaths days, weeks, and months after the tragedy. See Radioactive! The Nuclear Blog for my annual Chernobyl memoriam.
In Slavutych, a town built to house displaced Chernobyl workers, commemorations began an hour earlier to coincide with Moscow time, which was used in the Soviet era. Residents laid flowers and placed candles at a monument as sirens blared. The explosion tore off the plant's roof, spewing radioactive fallout for 10 days over 77,220 square miles of the then-Soviet Union and Europe. At least 31 people died as a direct result of trying to keep the fire from spreading to the plant's three other reactors. One plant worker was killed instantly and his body never recovered.
Twenty-nine rescuers, firefighters and plant workers died later from radiation poisoning and burns, and another person died of an apparent heart attack.
Death tolls connected to the blast remain hotly debated, as do the long-term health effects. [from CBS2 Chicago, April 26, 2006]
As our fossil fuels drain and we restoke our nuclear furnaces to feed our hunger, let us never forget this Promethean lesson. Respect the atom: like fire, it feeds but also kills.