A big event happening in Ukraine got relatively little media coverage. The devastated Chernobyl reactor, site of the worst nuclear disaster in Soviet Union times, has been covered with a protective shield.
The project, which blocks the radiation still being emitted by the exploded reactor core, has been in the works since 2004. With its completion at the end of 2016, the so-called “New Safe Confinement” is expected to last 100 years.
The trouble started on April 26, 1986. Engineers were testing shutdown mechanisms of the cooling system when multiple mistakes led to the explosion of one of Chernobyl’s four reactors. The plant was intended to become the largest atomic power production facility in the USSR.
Instead, it spread a cloud of radiation all over the towns of Chernobyl and Pripyat. Besides today’s Ukraine, Belarus and parts of Russia and Scandinavia were heavily impacted by the fallout. Scotland, too, reported radioactive rain following the accident.
Immediately after the explosion, the Soviet leadership was quick to deny there was any danger. Twenty-four hours later, an evacuation began that ended up displacing 350,000 people during the following months.
It’s difficult to establish the casualty count beyond the confirmed death toll of 31 people, mostly firefighters. The long-term effects, such as cancer and newborns with birth defects, are hard to pin on the event with certainty.
Today, Pripyat is still a ghost town, visited by tourists carrying dosimeters (instrument that measure radiation). The guard personnel warn visitors not to step on any soil or grass, because severe contamination remains.
A young Ukrainian woman, Elena Vladimirovna Filatova, carries the most impressive set of images and comments on her website (elenafilatova.com). As a passionate motorcyclist, she spent many weeks cruising through the mostly deserted areas around the town built to accommodate power plant workers.
Her blogs “Ghost Town” and “Land of the Wolves” convey a sense of the eerie reality that is the Chernobyl region today, with abandoned hotels, vehicles, and even a dead theme park reverting slowly to a natural setting. Only a few elderly farmers continue living in the area.
Another view is provided by bestselling author Martin Cruz Smith in the novel “Wolves Eat Dogs.” The book skillfully weaves a fictional murder mystery into the realistic setting of Chernobyl, with Arkady Renko as the hero, well-known from Smith’s “Gorky Park” and other novels.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.