Monday, April 25, 2016

30 years since Chernobyl

Tomorrow will mark 30 years since the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.

A piece in today's Chicago Tribune looks at what plans there are for the remaining husk of the reactor, but it was the gallery the paper ran yesterday (which I sadly cannot find a link to) that really got me. It was a showcase of the people who still live with disease.

That's right. Disease, birth defects, and other ailments directly attributed to massive amounts of radiation released in the disaster still plague Ukrainians 30 years on. As Nadiya Makyrevych, a Pripyat resident at the time of the reactor explosion, says in the article:

" "By the time we were evacuated, we had been exposed for 36 hours," Makyrevych said in an interview in Kiev last week, her speech interrupted by a hacking cough. "My entire family has been affected by this. We are all sick. My daughter, my son, my husband and me." "

I remember it all on the news at the time. The Western nations clearly knew something was wrong but the then Soviet Union was typically taciturn, denying all offers of help. Denying, that is, until only after enormous damage had already been done. I will admit to an ugly first reaction to it, what with it being the Cold War and my fear that the Soviets would one day be the ones to launch a first strike. "Ha! Serves the commies right!" my 14 year-old self likely said or some such obscene variation on repulsive jingoism. Looking now at the human toll, both those dealing with disease and those firemen and engineers who gave their lives trying to stop the thing, I'm even more disgusted with myself no matter the ignorance of youth.

Over the years, Pripyat itself has become something of a macabre fascination. The town in what is now the Ukraine is an example of a place left "frozen in time." This is due to the fact that the evacuation required people to drop everything and just leave. The abandoned and decayed buildings still have instances of feeling "lived in." Among the more chilling examples of this that I have seen are children's toys left on a floor as if waiting for their owners to return and pick things up where they left off. Everything remains as it was due to the fact that the area had to be cordoned off for obvious reasons, demarcating the region as an "exclusion zone," or alternatively a "zone of alienation."

I think I like that latter term better. Listen to it: "Zone of Alienation." It sounds like something Camus or Sartre would have thought of. Better yet, it could be the title of book or short story, likely written in the style of William S. Burroughs. Don't leave this creative endeavor to me. I'll probably go the vapid path and just use it as a band name. But I digress...

Despite the levels of radiation, nature has ultimately reclaimed the Pripyat. Trees and shrubs are sprouting and growing through roads and buildings. The Trib link has a whole gallery of mammalian life such as deer and boars that have not only survived there but thrived. Biologists are still crunching the data, but I wouldn't be a bit surprised if there might actually be new forms of life there on the microbial level. Maybe not. I don't know.

Soon, the temporary "sarcophagus" around the infamous ill-fated reactor will at last be sealed within walls resembling a massive hangar. Robots will then go inside and disassemble what's left of the reactor and dispose of the sludge-like waste that is filled with uranium. While the wreckage is removed, the scars remain. So will the lessons, I hope.

Chernobyl needs to be a lesson. It pertains directly to our infrastructure and how it is managed. It speaks volumes as to how both cities and nations should generate the power they need. More than ever we need to invest in power sources that are clean, renewable, and safe. Safe-r, anyway, as I do have the adult understanding that nothing is ever 100% safe.

If only it were.

A book I'll need to check out and I suggest you do the same: Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich. In that text she quotes a survivor:

"The nights are very long here in the winter, We'll sit, sometimes, and count: Who's died?"

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

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