From Living On Earth (portions of Bruce Gellerman’s recollections of his 1996 report on Chernobyl):

* * *

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. 25 years ago – April 26, 1986, at precisely 1:23 in the morning, Ukraine time – the number four reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded.

The graphite core of the Soviet reactor ignited and fuel rods vaporized, sending a plume of radioactivity high into the atmosphere. For nearly two days, Soviet officials denied anything had happened. Then the radiation was detected in Sweden and Russian TV news had this short announcement:

[SFX – Russian news cast…SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN; Voiceover: “An accident has happened at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. One reactor has been damaged. The government has formed a commission of inquiry.”]

* * *

GELLERMAN: A faded mural on a vacant apartment building welcomes us to Pripyat. The town was once home to 45,000 residents – plant workers and their families. The sign reads: “The Party of Lenin Leads Us to a Communist Victory.” My guide Alexander Shevchenko deadpans an old party slogan: the people of Pripyat really did invite the friendly Atom into their homes. He laughs alone in the silence.

 * * *

GELLERMAN: But for our Geiger counter, the apartments are ghostly quiet. Plant officials delayed the evacuation of Pripyat for a day and a half. By then, Alexander says, the clouds of radioactive iodine had delivered intense doses to the town’s children.

GELLERMAN: Why did they wait 36 hours before they evacuated?

SHEVCHENKO: They waited for the order from Kremlin. They knew about the danger, but they waited for the instructions. I think it is forever – it shouldn’t be forgotten.

* * *

GELLERMAN: We’re standing at Ground Zero. Today, what remains of the melted number four reactor is entombed in a massive 24-storey sarcophagus. But even 300,000 tons of steel and concrete can’t contain the intense radiation within.

* * *

GELLERMAN: The levels on our Geiger counter double when we pointed at the sarcophagus – it’s the most radioactive building on the planet. The amount of radiation released at Chernobyl was 250 times that of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. After a minute here, Alexander wants to leave this place.

SHEVCHEKOV: We better get to the car.

GELLERMAN: Why’s that?

SHEVCHEKOV: Because it’s rather high. You know, I’ve been inside the sarcophagus four times.

GELLERMAN: What is it like? What does it look like inside?

SHEVCHEKOV: Wrecks. Ruins. Ruins, wrecks, and high levels of radiation. Only two minutes allowed.

* * *

GELLERMAN: The Chernobyl sarcophagus was built in seven months – a Herculean effort by some 850 thousand Soviet soldiers, so-called “liquidators.”


GELLERMAN: Shovelful by shovelful, the liquidators removed the radioactive debris and erected the sarcophagus.

[SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN; Voiceover: “We were like ants. Just as some were finishing their task, others would immediately take their place. And that’s how, together, we were able to fight the radioactivity.”]

Video about Chernobyl’s “Biorobots”

DODD: What they did was heroic, you know, and I shudder at the thought of anybody ever having to work like that again. Many of these people – and you’ve seen them in the videos – went up on the roof of the Turbine Generator Hall and were basically given instructions to run out into the hall to pick up a piece of fuel or radioactive graphite, carry it 30 or 40 meters, and throw it over the wall. Oftentimes, they were limited to 10 or 15 seconds to do that – once they did that, they basically had taken a lifetime of radiation and they went back home.

* * *

GELLERMAN: But here we are – 25 years out from Chernobyl – and many people have forgotten it, and you don’t have enough money to complete your work, at least right now, and yet we’re betting on future, future, future generations to deal with this.

DODD: That’s right. I mean, this is a consequence of Chernobyl, and certainly for the 100-years lifetime of the New Safe Confinement, there’s going to be…it’s going to employ the children and the grandchildren of some of the current workers of the Chernobyl site.

* * *

GELLERMAN: Laurin Dodd is managing director of the new Chernobyl safe confinement structure. He lives just outside the evacuation zone. Author Mary Mycio has been inside the zone more than 25 times. She’s author of the book “Wormwood Forest – A Natural History of Chernobyl.”

MYCIO: The first time I went there, I was absolutely stunned to find out that it was, first of all, not this big giant dead parking lot that I’d imagined – it was really green. And that – when you get out into the wild, it’s actually…there are parts of it that are very, very beautiful.

You have the wetlands and peat lands. In one single day, I saw a herd of red deer, a herd of about 40 boars, four moose, and wolf. In the absence of human activity, it becomes a very inviting environment for wildlife.

GELLERMAN: But it’s radioactive!

MYCIO: Well they can’t tell. Radioactivity’s invisible.

GELLERMAN: But isn’t that the point? You can’t see the radiation, yet there’s been this terrible disaster there. Can’t you tell that radiation has its biological effect?

MYCIO: Well I guess you could if you did large animal studies and had, you know, random samples or comparative studies, but nobody is doing that. And…I mean, yes, you can study mice because all you would theoretically need is a couple of mouse traps and some cheese and you’ll get your sample of mice.

If you want to study, let’s say, moose, you have to do some big game hunting and it takes awhile – it’s not like they show up on command. So nobody has been providing that kind of funding right now.

GELLERMAN: But we had no gross genetic damage that we can see now. No giant insects and birds…

MYCIO: No, no, nothing like that. If there are mutations being born in the wild, they die – they get eaten by scavengers so nobody actually finds them. Nobody has identified any mutations except for these studies done on swallows where they have some…they had pigmentation damage, like albino spots on their faces.

GELLERMAN: What about the forests and the flora, the trees? Have they been affected? Can you see mutations in them?

MYCIO: Well there are places where you can see – it’s called radiomorphism, which is radioactivity affecting the orientation that the plant has and the way that it grows. So in very, very radioactive areas, you will have these kind of stunted pine trees that look more like bushes.

GELLERMAN: So now we have this largely abandoned area – when do you think people will be able to come back?

MYCIO: Oh, it depends. There are parts of the zone where people could actually live now because the lines were drawn in a very, very rough way. Other parts – the parts that are closest to the reactor – as a practical matter, never. They won’t be able to come back. Because plutonium – you have plutonium there and that’s got a half-life of 24,000 years. So unless they figure out a way to clean it up, or…I don’t know if there’s an ‘or’ to that. (Laughs). I can’t see how people could come back there in a safe way.

GELLERMAN: When I was in the zone around Chernobyl 15 years ago, I interviewed an old couple who moved back into the zone, and they’re not alone – there are a bunch of people who have moved back. Have we seen any changes in them – any biological effects?

MYCIO: Well the irony is that a lot of the people who went back – they’re doing better than people of their own age who were evacuated because the impact of radiation takes so many decades to show up that if you’re an older person, you’ll die of something else before the radiation will kill you.

And the people who were evacuated, let’s say, from these beautiful – really truly beautiful, lush wetlands – into, let’s say, the suburbs of Kiev in a high-rise apartment building…that’s a traumatic thing, and a lot of the older people had a very, very difficult time adjusting. While the people who went back – they were sort of in their old houses and, yes, there’s radiation around, but a lot of them prefer to be home. Though I would also caution that a lot of the people who live in the zone aren’t there because they have happy stories to tell.

GELLERMAN: Mary Mycio is author of “Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl.”

* * *

GELLERMAN: One of the, if not the saddest photo I think you’ve taken and the one that kind of has burned an image in my mind, is the one of a farmer and he’s got a tattoo of his wife on his shoulder.

ROTHBART: So his full name is Vassily Olessandrovich. I was walking through the town of Ivankiv and I heard him half-drunk, crying in his front yard, and I peeked over his fence and I thought, ‘he’s never going to let me photograph him.’ But I screwed up my courage to knock on the door and ask, and he let me in and talked to me, and we just talked for a few minutes.

And he has this tattoo of a woman – I asked him about it. And he told me that his wife had died the previous year from cancer – she died of liver cancer after a long illness. And so after she died, he tattooed her picture on his shoulder as a personal memorial. And while I was working on this new exhibit, I had my assistant Kiev do some fact-checking and she found out that Vassily has now also died. He died last year of stomach cancer, and he was 57.

GELLERMAN: You photographed a Chernobyl engineer who had worked at the plant for 24 years – I’m looking at the picture of Viktor.

ROTHBART: Yeah, Viktor Gaidak was an engineer at the plant and he continued to work for almost a decade after the 1986 accident. And then in 2004, he had colon cancer and had surgery. And one thing he told me…he told me that when he was sick with cancer, he said, ‘we sold our car to pay for the surgery,’ he said, ‘we sold our TV, our refrigerator, jewelry, everything we could.’ And then he pointed to his wife Lydia next to him and said, ‘well now my wife Lydia has cancer and there’s nothing left for us to sell.’

* * *