Early in the morning of 26th April 1986, an explosion and fire at the number four reactor at Chernobyl resulted in the most devastating nuclear accident in history. The town of Pripyat was evacuated, large areas of Ukraine and Belarus were rendered uninhabitable and many villages were abandoned within a 2,600 square kilometre exclusion zone. Had the wind been in an another direction, the cities of Kiev and Minsk would also have been evacuated. A secondary explosion, which would have made much of Europe uninhabitable, was averted due to the actions of those who responded to the disaster. Some knew the consequences of their involvement would be radiation poisoning and death, other acted out of duty or ignorance; but we are in their debt.
More than once – and this is something to think about – I have heard people say that the behaviour of the firemen extinguishing the fire at the power station on the first night, and the behaviour of the clean-up workers later, resembled suicide. Collective suicide. The clean-up workers often did the job without protective clothing, unquestioningly heading into places where even the robots were malfunctioning. The truth about the high doses they were receiving was concealed from them, yet they were compliant, and later even delighted with the government certificates and medals awarded to them just before they died. Many did not survive that long. So what are they: heroes or suicides? Victims of Soviet ideology and upbringing? For some reason, as the years go by, it is being forgotten that they saved their country. They saved Europe. Just imagine for a moment the scene if the other three reactors had exploded …
For years afterwards, and still today, radiation from the accident continues to devastate lives.
We were expecting our first baby. My husband wanted a boy and I wanted a girl. The doctors urged me to have an abortion. ‘Your husband was in Chernobyl for a long time.’ He’s a truck driver, and he was called up to go there in the early days. He was transporting sand and concrete. I wouldn’t believe them. I didn’t want to. I had read in books that love conquers all. Even death. My little baby was stillborn, and lacking two fingers. A girl. I cried. ‘If she could at least have had all her pretty little fingers. She was a girl after all.’
We got home. I took everything off, all the stuff I’d been wearing there, and threw the lot down the rubbish chute. I gave the cap to my little son as a present. He kept asking for it. He wore it non-stop. Two years later, he was diagnosed with a brain tumour.
My visit to the exclusion zone was an opportunity to spend time with my son in a unique location and take many photos; and this was a delight; but it was also a sad and sobering experience. Experiencing the devastation that can be caused by carelessly wielding our nuclear knowledge brings into focus the insanity of proliferating nuclear weapons.
If we have nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them? – Donald Trump
The dairy factories were fulfilling their Plans. We tested what they were producing. It was not milk, it was radioactive waste.
We spent three days in the zone, visiting places that the day trippers from Kiev never see. The inside of an extensive Russian military complex, a partially collapsed school, a still highly contaminated hospital, a village two hours up a broken road. We even bribed our way inside a one of the remaining nuclear reactors, visiting the control room and reactor floor.
Our eyes, ears and fingers were no longer any help, they could serve no purpose, because radiation is invisible, with no smell or sound. It is incorporeal. All our lives, we had been at war or preparing for war, we were so knowledgeable about it – and then suddenly this! The image of the adversary had changed. We’d acquired a new enemy. Or rather enemies. Now we could be killed by cut grass, a caught fish or game bird. By an apple. The world around us, once pliant and friendly, now instilled fear. Elderly evacuees, who had not yet understood they were leaving forever, looked up at the sky: ‘The sun is shining. There’s no smoke or gas, nobody is shooting. It doesn’t look like war, but we have to flee like refugees.’ A world strange yet familiar.
It has been an extraordinary experience; one which I will try and share via photos over time.
Quotes (other than Trump) are from : Alexievich, Svetlana. Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future