Thursday 20 June 2019

The truth about Chernobyl? I saw it with my own eyes…

Kim Willsher reported on the world’s worst nuclear disaster from the Soviet Union. HBO’s TV version only scratches the surface, she says

There is a line in the television series Chernobyl that comes as no surprise to those of us who reported on the 1986 nuclear disaster in what was the Soviet Union – but that still has the power to shock:

“The official position of the state is that global nuclear catastrophe is not possible in the Soviet Union.”

It was not possible, so in the days and months after the world’s worst such accident, on 26 April, the Kremlin kept up its pretence. It dissembled, deceived and lied. I began investigating Chernobyl in the late 1980s after Ukrainian friends insisted authorities in the USSR were covering up the extent of the human tragedy of those – many of them children – contaminated by radiation when the nuclear plant’s Reactor 4 exploded, blasting a cloud of poisonous fallout across the USSR and a large swathe of Europe.
 The remains of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant after the explosion. Photograph: AP
When photographer John Downing and I first visited, the Soviet Union, then on its last political legs, was still in denial about what happened despite president Mikhail Gorbachev’s new era of glasnost.

The Chernobyl miniseries is a compelling account of how the disaster unfolded, based largely on the testimony of those present, most of whom died soon afterwards. It rings true but only scratches the surface of another, more cruel reality– that, in their desperation to save face, the Soviets were willing to sacrifice any number of men, women and children. Even as radiation spewed out of the plant from the burning reactor core, local people told John and me how they had seen Communist apparatchiks in the area spirit their families to safety in Moscow while the residents were being urged to carry on as if nothing had happened. In Pripyat, the satellite city built for Chernobyl workers, windows were left open, children played outside, and gardeners dug their allotments.

The plume of deadly radioactive dust was just a harmless steam discharge, residents were told. It was 36 hours before the city was evacuated, by which time some were already showing signs of radiation sickness.

On the TV news on 29 April – more than three days after the catastrophe, with the reactor fire still burning – Chernobyl was the sixth item. “There has been an accident” the female presenter stated. “Two people have died”. Schoolchildren in Byelorussia and Ukraine – the worst hit by fallout – were instructed to continue with their May Day celebrations and parades, even as the rain brought radioactive particles down on them.

Today, Chernobyl is a tourist attraction. Thousands of visitors traipse around the ghost city of Pripyat, taking snaps of the crumbling housing blocks, parched swimming pool, schoolrooms, abandoned funfair and overgrown streets. The first time we visited, it seemed post-apocalyptic. We found homes still furnished, with personal belongings lying around. People had been told to take only what they needed for two or three days. It looked as if they had just vanished into thin air. Outside, the public-address system was still playing maudlin music and the funfair, with its bumper cars and brightly-coloured ferris wheel, was beginning to rust.

Visitors walk in the ghost city of Pripyat during a tour in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Photograph: Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images
As we drove through the 30km exclusion zone, where, in 1990, 20,000 people still lived and worked, into the “dead zone” – a 10km circle around the plant – we stopped at checkpoints to be scanned for radioactive particles. Every time the scanner either failed to work and was given a good kicking – and still didn’t work – or it would wail alarmingly and be swiftly unplugged. There were no explanations except for: “It’s safe”.

If John or I put a toe off the designated path, the scientist accompanying us would drop the “it’s safe” line and scream “no, no, no … not there. There’s not safe.” Scientists estimate the contaminated area will not be safe for 24,000 years, give or take a thousand.

At the entrance to Reactor 3, next to the concrete sarcophagus hastily thrown over Reactor 4, the scanners were equally silent as we pressed our hands into the vertical pads. (An executive from the UK company that supplied the machines later called me to claim the Soviets had turned up the dose levels to avoid triggering an alert.)

At the Chernobyl Research Centre, a short distance from the power plant, scientists showed us pine saplings grown from seeds from the nearby “red forest” where the trees glowed after absorbing radiation and had to be dug up and buried. The saplings were all bizarre mutations, some with needles growing backwards. There was no sign of wildlife, not even birds. The researchers spoke of mice with six toes and deformed teeth.

 John Downing photographing children from Chernobyl in a nearby hospital. Photograph: Kim Willsher
The Soviets were not the only ones who lied. France’s authorities hid information about the radioactive cloud over its territory, and Hans Blix, then director general of the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA)– still accused of minimising the dangers following the catastrophe– released a statement that settlements around Chernobyl would “be safe for residents” before long. Dissident scientist Andrei Sakharov was also deceived. “To my shame, I at first pretended that nothing much had happened,” he said.

Many doctors insisted there had been a spike in the number of cancers and leukemias. Children had been born with rare deformities including “frogs’ legs”, their hips twisted outwards. Others had heart defects, and thyroid cancers thought to have been caused by radioactive iodine.

Yet officials insisted that all this was “poor food and poverty” and unrelated to Chernobyl.

In bare, prison-like hospitals, parents would thrust children at us and beg us to take them to the UK or plead for medicines or money for medicines. Oncologists told us they were so short of chemotherapy drugs they would give one sick child half a protocol and another the other half, condemning both. Yet officials would say it was “anecdotal evidence” and nothing to do with Chernobyl. We were welcomed by dozens of desperate families, good Soviet citizens who had little but would put what little they had on the table to show us hospitality, and who could not understand why their leaders could not explain why their children were dying of radiation-linked diseases except to say “it’s not Chernobyl”.

For me, one particular girl, Oksana, and her family, encapsulated the human tragedy. On 1 May 1986, the teenager and her school friends were ordered out on to the streets of the Ukrainian capital Kiev to take part in traditional parades. Oksana’s father, a singer, was told it was his “patriotic duty” to go with his male voice choir to Chernobyl to sing to the “clean-up” workers. He told us he had been more scared of the still raging reactor fire than the silent, invisible killer he was breathing in and out.

Oksana’s parents pressed cakes, local “champagne”, brandy and vodka on us and talked about their only child’s unexplained “sickness”. In the next room, Oksana lay dying, a skeletal figure staring blindly at the ceiling, who bore no resemblance to the smiling blond girl in a photograph on the mantlepiece. She did not speak and did not appear to respond to anything or to move, except to blink slowly every few minutes.

Oksana is held by a family member. Photograph: John Downing/Daily Express
Oksana died, as did many others –but because no data was kept from before the disaster, nothing can be proven. Today, as the TV series points out, the official number of directly attributable victims of Chernobyl is 31. Other, “unscientific”, estimates vary from 4,000 to 93,000.

John and I returned several times to Chernobyl. When I went back for the 30th anniversary three years ago, and interviewed Pripyat residents evacuated to the town of Slavutych, all told of friends and relatives who had died prematurely after the disaster: more “anecdotal evidence” of the ongoing Chernobyl tragedy.

Now my photographer friend John Downing has terminal lung cancer. “I often wonder if Chernobyl had anything to do with it,” he told me. Like many others, he will never know. John reminded me of a scientist we met in Moscow. The man had spent some time in Chernobyl. “I’ll never forget. He took a notebook out of his desk and ran a Geiger counter over it, which started crackling like mad. Four years on, and it was still highly radioactive,” John said.

Today, 33 years on, Vladimir Putin has dismissed the TV miniseries as US misinformation and reportedly said Russia will make its own “version” blaming the CIA. Like radiation, Kremlin propaganda has a long half-life.

Poison legacy
Chernobyl was to be the largest nuclear plant in the world, with 12 reactors.

Years before the catastrophe, a KGB report highlighted flaws in the RBMK reactor.

The radioactive elements released in the explosion are active for between 30 and 24,000 years – an environmental threat for centuries.

Up to 600,000 people, known as ‘liquidators’, took part in the clean-up. Some were ordered to shovel fatally radioactive graphite, working in shifts of 90 seconds each.

About 350,000 people from more than 200 villages were evacuated.

The last reactor was shut down in 2000.

(Source: The Guardian)

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