Apocalypse Today: Visiting Chernobyl, 25 Years Later

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Vladimir Repik / AP

A May 1986 aerial photo of the damaged reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant

The 30-km radius around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is known officially as the "zone of alienation." Here, abandoned cars, tractors, buildings and homes are slowly being devoured by trees and shrubs. A classroom bulletin board not far from Lenin Street, in the center of town, where the plant workers used to live reads, "No return. Farewell, Pripyat, April 28, 1986."

This eerie landscape, about 80 km from Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, is the product of the frenzied evacuation 25 years ago after reactor No. 4 exploded, sending a radioactive plume across the northern hemisphere in history's worst nuclear accident. It also presents a stark vision of the possible future thousands of miles away in Japan's Fukushima prefecture, where emergency workers are in the seventh week of a battle to cool several partially melted reactor cores.

Even now, the effort to contain the Chernobyl accident is far from over: workers in white suits and respirator masks show up for work every day, constructing a new concrete shield to replace a massive sarcophagus built in 1986 that contains the still-radioactive core. The sarcophagus is starting to crumble and could collapse, which could release another radioactive cloud into the air.

Chernobyl offers many lessons about what Princeton University engineering professor Robert Socolow calls the "afterheat" of a nuclear disaster, but it's the generational lesson that's most important. Because some of the isotopes released during a nuclear accident remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years, cleanup is the work not just of first responders but also of their descendants and their descendants' descendants. Asked when the reactor site would again become inhabitable, Ihor Gramotkin, director of the Chernobyl power plant, replies, "At least 20,000 years."

That timescale makes things more than simply frustrating. How can safety measures be tracked over the course of millennia? Already, the financing of cleanup and maintenance operations is proving difficult. On April 19 the Ukrainian government hosted an international donor conference in Kiev to raise money for the new $1.1 billion concrete shelter. The collection fell some $300 million short of that goal, and Kiev is holding out for further pledges. It's sobering to think that the gigantic concrete shield — 110 m high and weighing 29,000 tons — has a woefully brief life when measured in radiological time: it will need to be replaced in a century unless the extremely radio-active core inside can be safely removed and stored somewhere else — itself an expensive and difficult operation. "Neither Ukraine nor the world community has the right to turn its back" on Chernobyl, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych said at the end of the conference. "The accident left a deep wound that we will have to cope with for many years."

Everything to do with radiation moves at an insidiously slow pace. Exposure to radioactive particles increases the risk of cancer, but the level of the danger depends on the dose and the age and health of the affected population. When radiation does kill, it can still take years. Around Chernobyl, no accurate dosage estimates for the most heavily affected population were made until after the breakup of the Soviet Union; as a result, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine all use different techniques for measuring exposure. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has estimated 16,000 cancer deaths in Europe through 2065 that would not have happened but for Chernobyl. Because radiation spread beyond Europe to other areas in the northern hemisphere — Asia, Africa and the Americas — the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit watchdog, puts the global death toll closer to 27,000.

So far, health experts have been paradoxically more concerned about the millions of people who will not die from the dose of radiation they received but instead live with the torment of not knowing for sure what will happen to them. For them, the toll is psychological. Some 300,000 residents near the power plant were forced to leave, often on short notice. The dual stress of dislocation and uncertainty has, according to several international studies, led to anxiety levels twice as high in exposed populations as in control groups. Such populations are also more likely to report multiple unexplained physical symptoms and subjective poor health, even though most medical experts attribute these symptoms not to radiation but to poverty, alcoholism and stress.

Millions of people in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus who live in areas most affected by fallout receive some form of compensation for the Chernobyl accident, whether they show any symptoms or not. But that may only be making matters worse. A 2005 report by the World Health Organization (WHO) says such compensation schemes have created a culture of dependency and victimhood. In Ukraine, for instance, recipients of benefits are designated poterpily — literally, sufferers. The report says, "The designation of the affected population as victims rather than 'survivors' has led them to perceive themselves as helpless, weak and lacking control over their future."

Two years ago, WHO launched a $2.5 million education program to spread the message that affected populations have little to fear from radiation. "We need to demystify the situation by passing on the message that [affected citizens] can live a normal life," says Dr. Maria Neira, the director of WHO's department of public health and environment. "If you support this population but you don't put the mechanisms in place for their recovery, you create a population that feels assisted, and you block their initiative and ability to move on."

That's an important lesson for Fukushima too, where the plant operator and government have already begun discussing compensation schemes. Preventing a culture of dependency from taking hold there, however, will be easier than reversing the one that's been in place for a quarter-century in Ukraine, Belarus and parts of Russia. On April 17, several hundred of the 500,000 or so "liquidators," who were exposed to high radiation doses during efforts to clean up the Chernobyl site in the weeks following the accident, gathered in central Kiev to protest proposed cuts to benefits. "With our own hands, we protected Ukraine and half of Europe, and now we are suffering," says Yuriy Danilov, 66, a former army officer who took part in the Chernobyl cleanup. In the face of similar protests, past efforts to reform the benefits program have stalled.

Whatever the final tally of the dead, health officials say the effects of Chernobyl pale in comparison with those caused by the economic and social turmoil following the collapse of the Soviet Union. But around Chernobyl, the two cataclysms remain linked, with the environmental devastation preventing the region from benefiting from the relative economic rebound in other parts of the former Soviet Union. Dzvinka Kachur of the U.N.'s Chernobyl Recovery and Development Program says the zoning of radioactive areas around Chernobyl restricts investment from businesses, which simply increases the locals' dependency on benefits.

In the years following Chernobyl, the nuclear industry claimed such an accident could never happen again. As of today, about 80,000 residents near Fukushima have been evacuated from their homes and may never be allowed to return. The afterlife of the Chernobyl accident offers a sobering reminder that the effects of radiation linger for generations. Radiation is, in the words of Princeton engineering professor Socolow, "a fire that cannot be put out."