Category Archives: kernongevallen | nuclear accidents

Even low radiation dose can take toll: scientist

The China Post | Enru Lin | January 27, 2016

TAIPEI, Taiwan–Animals exposed to even low doses of radiation suffer a higher incidence of physical abnormalities, a world-leading ecologist said in Taipei on Tuesday.

Timothy Mousseau, an ecologist at the University of South Carolina, is a pioneering expert on what radiation does to organisms.

For decades, he and his research team have studied Chernobyl, Ukraine — site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986 — and Fukushima in Japan.

Their studies found that radiation exposure had significant effects on local populations, for instance causing tumors, small brain sizes, sterility and cataracts in birds in Chernobyl.

No Safe Dose?

Findings indicate that radiation, even at low doses, can increase mortality rates and the incidence of physical abnormalities.

“There is no threshold below which there is no effect on organisms,” Mousseau said.

“We need to be very concerned not only about the consequences of nuclear accidents, but also the regular day-to-day operations of nuclear power plants, where radiation is released on a regular basis.”

Call for Taiwan Research

Mousseau was speaking on invitation at a press briefing and forum at the Legislative Yuan, where he was joined by three Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lawmakers including Tien Chiu-chin (田秋堇).

At the event, anti-nuclear activists called on the central government to commission an independent research team to study effects on people who live near Taiwan’s three operating nuclear power plants.

Birds, Butterflies First

Mousseau said his data suggested that some organisms were far more sensitive to radiation than others.

Studies from Chernobyl and Fukushima showed that the first significant effects of radiation occurred in the same taxonomic groups.

“Birds and butterflies are the two most sensitive groups — we saw immediate large responses in birds and butterflies in Fukushima,” he said.

Other animals, such as grasshoppers and spiders, are less susceptible to the effects of radiation.

On Humans

Meanwhile, there is insufficient research on the human population to make convincing assessments on the impact of low dose radiation.

Mousseau said that in the U.S., studies are thwarted when researchers can’t access the relevant health records.

“There are privacy issues related to health records that are so strong in the United States, and there is a lack of organization of the registries. That makes it very difficult to do solid, hard science,” he said.

In addition, causation is difficult to prove — even more so for human populations than for birds.

“The difficulty with people is that they move around and they have very complex behaviors in general,” Mousseau said.

“They have many factors on their lives impinging on their health. They smoke, drink, engage in other behaviors. So it is often difficult to unravel the various causes of disease.”

 

Nuclear disaster drill held near Japan’s only rebooted plant

Japan Today | Kyodo | December 20, 2015

KAGOSHIMA — A nuclear disaster drill was held Sunday around the country’s sole running nuclear power plant in southwestern Japan, following its reactivation earlier this year.

About 3,600 officials and residents took part in the event to prepare for the possibility of a serious accident within 30 kilometers of Kyushu Electric Power Co.‘s Sendai plant in Kagoshima Prefecture. The last time a major drill was held around the plant was in October 2013.

The drill assumed that a strong earthquake of intensity upper 6 on the Japanese scale of 7 had caused the plant to lose power sources and become unable to cool its reactors. About 1,200 residents within 5 km from the plant were evacuated by bus and other vehicles.

People farther than 5 km but within 30 km were instructed to move in accordance with a prefectural-run system to determine how the wind was blowing to avoid areas with radioactive fallout.

At the two-reactor Sendai plant, located in the city of Satsumasendai, the No. 1 reactor resumed operation in August and the No. 2 unit in October. All other nuclear reactors in Japan remain offline in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Drone Films Massive Construction At Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant

Nuclear Street News | Dec. 16, 2015

New drone footage shows the colossus that is the containment structure – and structures – at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine that was the site of the world’s worst radioactive accident in history as of April 1986, when an explosion destroyed Unit 4 at the plant.

Chernobyl NPPWorkers this year have been continuing work on construction of a dry interim fuel storage facility – known as ISF-2 – that is expected to store all of the used fuel on the site for 100 years in canisters designed and built by U.S. firm Holtec International. The facility is its final stages of construction and was scheduled for completion by the end of the year.

The double-walled canisters are being built in Pittsburgh, Pa. Chernobyl has accumulated about 21,000 fuel assemblies from Units 1, 2, 3, and 4 which were shut down in 1996, 1991, 2000 and, of course, 1986, respectively. The last of the used fuel at the site, which was moved from Unit 1, was not moved to a five-compartment pool, ISF- 1, until September 2013.

The plant itself did not enter its official decommissioning phase until April of this year. The final shut down process, including the preservation stage, is expected to last a decade.

Much attention has been focused on the massive containment structures that are unprecedented and historic engineering feats. Not only is the 32,000-ton dome large enough to encompass the Statute of Liberty, it was constructed on Teflon pads, so it could be moved into place after construction is completed, which is expected in 2017.

This clip puts it all in perspective:

 

Fast breeder reactor brings Japan’s policy to crossroads

Nikkei Asian Review | November 5, 2015

1104N-Monju_article_main_image

The “dream reactor” has turned out to be little more than a pipe dream so far

TOKYO — Japan’s nuclear watchdog is invoking its powerful authority to demand changes in the way the trouble-prone Monju fast breeder reactor is managed, a move that could have broad repercussions for the nation’s nuclear energy program.

New leadership needed

Specifically, the Nuclear Regulation Authority wants to see the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, which currently runs the Fukui Prefecture facility, replaced. If a suitable candidate cannot be found, the watchdog will seek a fundamental reassessment of the project, with decommissioning on the table. The NRA plans to put the request in writing as early as next week and set a six-month deadline to respond.

Monju first generated power in 1995 but was shut down that year after a fire. Not only has it rarely come online in the following two decades, but a number of equipment maintenance problems have come to light in recent years. It was discovered soon after the NRA’s formation in September 2012 that the JAEA had failed to inspect nearly 10,000 components. Even after the regulator ordered the JAEA in May 2013 to freeze preparations for a restart, more inspection problems cropped up.

The NRA decided to issue recommendations after concluding that the JAEA could not guarantee the reactor’s safety. “We haven’t seen acceptable improvement,” NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka said.

While the watchdog’s recommendations are not legally binding, Hiroshi Hase, minister of science and technology, promised Wednesday that they will receive “serious consideration.”

The ministry’s two main options — setting up a new government-affiliated company to take over Monju or handing the reins to a private-sector company — both come with issues. A new public company that is no more than a nominal replacement would do little to improve the situation. No research organizations aside from the JAEA have the necessary specialized technical knowledge, and private-sector utilities and nuclear equipment makers are unlikely to seek out the role.

A weighty decision

The cost of the Monju project has ballooned to roughly 1 trillion yen ($8.19 billion), and the reactor eats up about 20 billion yen a year for maintenance. In the private sector, it would likely have been scrapped by now. Its continued existence owes to its position as a keystone of the government’s energy policy.

Monju had been positioned as a key link in the nuclear fuel cycle that is seen as the holy grail for energy-poor Japan. Fast breeder reactors produce plutonium in the process of generating power through nuclear reactions, which Japan hoped would contribute to the stability of its long-term power supply.

Abandoning development, and thus changing the fuel-cycle policy, would not be easy. Fukui Prefecture Gov. Issei Nishikawa said Wednesday that the Monju project should be reworked so its research can get results, as a matter of national policy.

Municipalities tied to Japan’s nuclear policy feel strongly about their contribution. When the Democratic Party of Japan decided to rethink the fuel-cycle policy during its stint in charge, it met with vocal protest from the village of Rokkasho in Aomori Prefecture, which houses a reprocessing plant for spent nuclear fuel.

The opinions of the international community cannot be overlooked. Other countries worry that fuel reprocessing, which separates plutonium from nuclear waste, could contribute to proliferation of nuclear weapons. With Japan’s efforts to develop light water reactors that can use plutonium faring poorly, giving up on fast breeder reactors could heighten fears regarding the country’s plutonium stockpile.

Changing the fuel-cycle policy would also affect disposal of highly radioactive waste. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Wednesday that the science and technology ministry should step up and resolve the problem quickly. Monju’s fate could affect all of Japan.

(Nikkei)

Voices from Chernobyl

The Paris Review | Letters & Essays | Svetlana Alexievich

On April 26, 1986, at 1:23:58 a. m., a series of explosions destroyed the reactor in the building that housed Energy Block #4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. The catastrophe at Chernobyl became the largest technical disaster of the twentieth century. . . . For tiny Belarus (population: ten million), it was a national disaster. . . . Today, one out of every five Belarussians lives on contaminated land. This amounts to 2.1 million people, of whom seven hundred thousand are children. In the Gomel and Mogilev regions, which suffered the most from Chernobyl, mortality rates exceed birthrates by twenty percent.

—Belaruskaya entsiklopedia, 1996, s.v. “Chernobyl,” pg. 24

On April 29, 1986, instruments recorded high levels of radiation in Poland, Germany, Austria, and Romania. On April 30, in Switzerland and northern Italy. On May 1 and second, in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and northern Greece. On May 3, in Israel, Kuwait, and Turkey. . . . Gaseous airborne particles traveled around the globe: on May 2 they were registered in Japan, on May 5 in India, on May 5 and sixth in the U.S. and Canada.

—“The Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident in Belarus”

The Sakharov International College on Radioecology, Minsk, 1992

Lyudmilla Ignatenko Wife of deceased Fireman Vasily Ignatenko

We were newlyweds. We still walked around holding hands, even if we were just going to the store. I would say to him, “I love you.” But I didn’t know then how much. I had no idea . . . We lived in the dormitory of the fire station where he worked. I always knew what was happening—where he was, how he was.

One night I heard a noise. I looked out the window. He saw me. “Close the window and go back to sleep. There’s a fire at the reactor. I’ll be back soon.”

I didn’t see the explosion itself. Just the flames. Everything was radiant. The whole sky. A tall flame. And smoke. The heat was awful. And he still hadn’t come back.

They went off just as they were, in their shirtsleeves. No one told them. They had been called for a fire, that was it.

Seven o’clock in the morning. At seven I was told he was in the hospital. I ran over there‚ but the police had already encircled it, and they weren’t letting anyone through. Only ambulances. The policemen shouted: “The ambulances are radioactive‚ stay away!” I started looking for a friend, she was a doctor at that hospital. I grabbed her white coat when she came out of an ambulance. “Get me inside!” “I can’t. He’s bad. They all are.” I held onto her. “Just to see him!” “All right‚” she said. “Come with me. Just for fifteen or twenty minutes.”

I saw him. He was all swollen and puffed up. You could barely see his eyes.

“He needs milk. Lots of milk‚” my friend said. “They should drink at least three liters each.”

“But he doesn’t like milk.”

“He’ll drink it now.”

Many of the doctors and nurses in that hospital‚ and especially the orderlies‚ would get sick themselves and die. But we didn’t know that then.

At ten‚ the cameraman Shishenok died. He was the first.

I said to my husband, “Vasenka, what should I do?” “Get out of here! Go! You have our child.” I was pregnant. But how could I leave him? He was saying to me: “Go! Leave! Save the baby.” “First I need to bring you some milk, then we’ll decide what to do.” My friend Tanya Kibenok came running in—her husband was in the same room. Her father was with her, he had a car. We got in and drove to the nearest village. We bought a bunch of three-liter bottles, six, so there was enough for everyone. But they started throwing up terribly from the milk.

They kept passing out, they got put on iv. The doctors kept telling them they’d been poisoned by gas, for some reason. No one said anything about radiation.

I couldn’t get into the hospital that evening. There was a sea of people. I stood under his window, he came over and yelled something to me. It was so desperate! Someone in the crowd heard him—they were being taken to Moscow that night. All the wives got together in one group. We decided we’d go with them. “Let us go with our husbands! You have no right!” We punched and we clawed. The soldiers—there were already soldiers—they pushed us back. Then the doctor came out and said they were flying to Moscow, but we needed to bring them their clothing. The clothes they’d worn at the station had been burned. The buses had stopped running already and we ran across the city. We came running back with the bags, but the plane was already gone. They tricked us. So that we wouldn’t be there yelling and crying.

Later in the day I started throwing up. I was six months pregnant, but I had to get to Moscow.

In Moscow we asked the first police officer we saw, Where did they put the Chernobyl firemen? And he told us, which was a surprise; everyone had scared us into thinking it was top secret. “Hospital number 6. At the Shchukinskaya stop.”

It was a special hospital, for radiology, and you couldn’t get in without a pass. I gave some money to the woman at the door, and she said: “Go ahead.” Then I had to ask someone else, beg. Finally I was sitting in the office of the head radiologist, Angelina Vasilyevna Guskova. Right away she asked: “Do you have kids?”

What should I tell her? I can see already I need to hide that I’m pregnant. They won’t let me see him! It’s good I’m thin, you can’t really tell anything.

“Yes,” I say.

“How many?”

I’m thinking, I need to tell her two. If it’s just one, she won’t let me in.

“A boy and a girl.”

“So you don’t need to have any more. All right, listen: His central nervous system is completely compromised, his skull is completely compromised.”

Okay, I’m thinking, so he’ll be a little fidgety.

“And listen: If you start crying, I’ll kick you out right away. No hugging or kissing. Don’t even get near him. You have half an hour.”

But I knew already that I wasn’t leaving. If I leave, then it’ll be with him. I swore to myself!

I come in, they’re sitting on the bed, playing cards and laughing. “Vasya!” they call out. He turns around: “Oh, well, now it’s over! She’s found me even here!” He looks so funny, he’s got pajamas on for a size 48, and he’s a size 52. The sleeves are too short, the pants are too short. But his face isn’t swollen anymore. They were given some sort of fluid.

I say: “Where’d you run off to?” He wants to hug me. The doctor won’t let him. “Sit, sit,” she says. “No hugging in here.”

We turned it into a joke somehow. And then everyone came over, from the other rooms too, everyone from Pripyat. There were twenty-eight of them on the plane.

I wanted to be with him alone, if only for a minute. The guys felt it, and each of them thought of some excuse, and they all went out into the hall. Then I hugged him and I kissed him. He moved away.

“Don’t sit near me. Take a chair.”

“That’s just silliness,” I said, waving it away.

The next day when I came, they were lying by themselves, each in his own room. They were banned from going in the hallway, from talking to each other. They knocked on the walls with their knuckles. Dash-dot, dash-dot. The doctors explained that everyone’s body reacts differently to radiation, and what one person can handle, another can’t. They even measured the radiation of the walls where they had them. To the right, the left, and the floor beneath. They moved out all the sick people from the floor below and the floor above. There was no one left in the place.

He started to change—every day I met a brand-new person. The burns started to come to the surface. In his mouth, on his tongue, his cheeks—at first there were little lesions, and then they grew. It came off in layers—as white film . . . the color of his face . . . his body . . . blue . . . red . . . gray-brown. And it’s all so very mine! It’s impossible to describe! It’s impossible to write down! Or even to get over. The only thing that saved me was that it happened so fast; there wasn’t any time to think, there wasn’t any time to cry.

Fourteen days. In fourteen days a person dies.

It was the ninth of May. He always used to say to me: “You have no idea how beautiful Moscow is! Especially on V-Day, when they set off the fireworks. I want you to see it.”

I was sitting with him in the room, he opened his eyes.

“Is it day or night?”

“It’s nine at night.”

“Open the window! They’re going to set off the fireworks!”

I opened the window. We were on the eighth floor, and the whole city was there before us! There was a bouquet of fire exploding in the air.

“Look at that!” I said.

“I told you I’d show you Moscow. And I told you I’d always give you flowers on holidays…”

I looked over, and he was getting three carnations from under his pillow. He had given the nurse money, and she had bought them.

I ran over and kissed him.

“My love! My only one!”

He started growling. “What did the doctors tell you? No hugging me. And no kissing!”

He got so bad that I couldn’t leave him even for a second. He was calling me constantly: “Lusya, where are you? Lusenka!” He called and called. The other biochambers, where our boys were, were being tended to by soldiers because the orderlies on staff refused, they demanded protective clothing. The soldiers carried the sanitary vessels. They wiped the floors down, changed the bedding. They did everything. Where did they get those soldiers? We didn’t ask. But he—he—every day I would hear: Dead. Dead. Tischura is dead. Titenok is dead. Dead.

He was producing stool twenty-five to thirty times a day. With blood and mucus. His skin started cracking on his arms and legs. He became covered with boils. When he turned his head, there’d be a clump of hair left on the pillow. I tried joking: “It’s convenient, you don’t need a comb.” Soon they cut all their hair. I did it for him myself. I wanted to do everything for him myself. If it had been physically possible I would have stayed with him twenty-four hours a day. I couldn’t spare a minute. [Long silence.]

There’s a fragment of some conversation, I’m remembering it. Someone saying: “You have to understand: This is not your husband anymore, not a beloved person, but a radioactive object with a strong density of poisoning. You’re not suicidal. Get a hold of yourself.” And I was like someone who’d lost her mind: “But I love him! I love him!” He’s sleeping, and I’m whispering: “I love you!” Walking in the hospital courtyard, “I love you.” Carrying his sanitary tray, “I love you.”

One night, everything was quiet. We were all alone. He looked at me very, very carefully and suddenly he said:

“I want to see our child so much. How is he?”

“What are we going to name him?”

“You’ll decide that yourself.”

“Why myself, when there’s two of us?”

“In that case, if it’s a boy, he should be Vasya, and if it’s a girl, Natasha.”

I was like a blind person. I couldn’t even feel the little pounding underneath my heart. Even though I was six months in. I thought that my little one was inside me, that he was protected.

And then—the last thing. I remember it in flashes, all broken up. I was sitting on my little chair next to him at night. At eight I said: “Vasenka, I’m going to go for a little walk.” He opened his eyes and closed them, letting me go. I had just walked to the hotel, gone up to my room, lain down on the floor—I couldn’t lie on the bed; everything hurt too much—when the cleaning lady started knocking on the door. “Go! Run to him! He’s calling for you like mad!”

Right away I called the nurse’s post. “How is he?” “He died fifteen minutes ago.” What? I was there all night. I was gone for three hours! I ran down the stairs. He was still in his biochamber, they hadn’t taken him away yet. I didn’t leave him anymore after that. I escorted him all the way to the cemetery. Although the thing I remember isn’t the grave, it’s the plastic bag. That bag.

At the morgue they said, “Want to see what we’ll dress him in?” I did! They dressed him up in formal wear, with his service cap. They couldn’t get shoes on him because his feet had swelled up. They had to cut up the formal wear, too, because they couldn’t get it on him, there wasn’t a whole body to put it on. The last two days in the hospital—pieces of his lungs, of his liver, were coming out of his mouth. He was choking on his internal organs. I’d wrap my hand in a bandage and put it in his mouth, take out all that stuff. It’s impossible to talk about. It’s impossible to write about. And even to live through. They couldn’t get a single pair of shoes to fit him. They buried him barefoot.

Everyone came—his parents, my parents. They bought black handkerchiefs in Moscow. The Emergency Commission met with us. They told everyone the same thing: It’s impossible for us to give you the bodies of your husbands, your sons, they are very radioactive and will be buried in a Moscow cemetery in a special way. In sealed zinc caskets, under cement tiles. And you need to sign this document here.

If anyone got indignant and wanted to take the coffin back home, they were told that the dead were now, you know, heroes, and that they no longer belonged to their families. They were heroes of the state. They belonged to the state.

Right away they bought us plane tickets back home. For the next day. At home I fell asleep. I walked into the place and just fell onto the bed. I slept for three days. An ambulance came. “No,” said the doctor, “she’ll wake up. It’s just a terrible sleep.”

I was twenty-three. Two months later I went back to Moscow. From the train station straight to the cemetery. To him! And at the cemetery I started going into labor. Just as I started talking to him—they called the ambulance. It was two weeks before I was due.

They showed her to me—a girl. “Natashenka,” I called out. “Your father named you Natashenka.” She looked healthy. Arms, legs. But she had cirrhosis of the liver. Her liver had twenty-eight roentgens. Congenital heart disease. Four hours later they told me she was dead. And again: “We won’t give her to you.” “What do you mean you won’t give her to me? It’s me who won’t give her to you!”

[She is silent for a long time.]

In Kiev they gave me an apartment. It was in a large building where they put everyone from the atomic station. It’s a big apartment, with two rooms, the kind Vasya and I had dreamed of.

[She stands up, goes over to the window.]

There are many of us here. A whole street. That’s what it’s called—Chernobylskaya. These people worked at the station their whole lives. A lot of them still go there to work on a provisional basis, that’s how they work there now, no one lives there anymore. They have bad diseases, they’re invalids, but they don’t leave their jobs, they’re scared to even think of the reactor closing down. Who needs them now anywhere else? Often they die. In a minute. They just drop—someone will be walking, he falls, goes to sleep. He was carrying flowers for his nurse and his heart stopped. They die, but no one’s really asked us. No one’s asked what we’ve been through. What we saw. No one wants to hear about death. About what scares them.

But I was telling you about love. About my love . . .

Settlers’ Chorus: Those Who Returned

Oh, I don’t even want to remember it. It was scary. They chased us out, the soldiers chased us. The big military machines rolled in. The all-terrain ones. One old man—he was already on the ground. Dying. Where was he going to go? “I’ll just get up,” he was crying, “and walk to the cemetery. I’ll do it myself.”

§

We were leaving—I took some earth from my mother’s grave, put it in a little sack. Got down on my knees: “Forgive us for leaving you.” I went there at night and I wasn’t scared. People were writing their names on the houses. On the wood. On the fences. On the asphalt.

§

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

§

My man was in bed for two months. He didn’t say anything, didn’t answer me. He was mad. I’d walk around the yard, come back: “Old man, how are you?” When a person’s dying, you can’t cry. You’ll interrupt his dying, he’ll have to keep struggling. I didn’t cry. I asked for just one thing: “Say hello to our daughter and to my dear mother.” I prayed that we’d go together. Some gods would have done it, but He didn’t let me die. I’m alive . . .

§

I washed the house, bleached the stove. You needed to leave some bread on the table and some salt, a little plate and three spoons. As many spoons as there are souls in the house. All so we could come back.

§

The chickens had black coxcombs, not red ones, because of the radiation. And you couldn’t make cheese. We lived a month without cheese and cottage cheese. The milk didn’t go sour—it curdled into powder, white powder. Because of the radiation.

§

I had that radiation in my garden. The whole garden went white, white as white can be, like it was covered with something. Chunks of something. I thought maybe someone brought it from the forest.

§

We didn’t want to leave. The men were all drunk, they were throwing themselves under cars. The big Party bosses were walking to all the houses and begging people to go. Orders: “Don’t take your belongings!”

§

No one’s going to fool us anymore, we’re not moving anywhere. There’s no store, no hospital. No electricity. We sit next to a kerosene lamp and under the moonlight. And we like it! Because we’re home.

§

The police were yelling. They’d come in cars, and we’d run into the forest. Like from the Germans. One time they came with the prosecutor, he huffed and puffed, they were going to put us up on Article 10. I said: “Let them give me a year in jail. I’ll serve it and come back here.” Their job is to yell, ours is to stay quiet. I have a medal—I was the best harvester on the kolkhoz. And he’s scaring me with Article 10.

§

This one reporter said we didn’t just return home, we went back a hundred years. We use a hammer for reaping, and a sickle for mowing. We flail wheat right on the asphalt.

§

We turned off the radio right away. We don’t know any of the news, but life is peaceful. We don’t get upset. People come, they tell us the stories—there’s war everywhere. And like that, socialism is finished and we live under capitalism. And the czar is coming back. Is that true?

§

Everyone’s rearing to get back for the harvest. That’s it. Everyone wants to have his own back. The police have lists of people they’ll let back, but kids under eighteen can’t come. People will come and they’re so glad just to stand next to their house. In their own yard next to the apple tree. At first they’ll go cry at the cemetery, then they go to their yards. And they cry there, too, and pray. They leave candles. They hang them on their fences. Or on the little fences at the cemetery. Sometimes they’ll even leave a wreath at the house. A white towel on the gate. An old woman reads a prayer: “Brothers and sisters! Have patience!”

§

People take eggs, and rolls, and whatever else, to the cemetery. Everyone sits with their families. They call them: “Sis, I’ve come to see you. Come have lunch.” Or: “Mom, dear Mom. Dad, dear Dad.” They call the souls down from heaven. Those who had people die this year cry, and those whose people died earlier, don’t. They talk, they remember. Everyone prays. And those who don’t know how to pray, also pray.

§

We have everything here—graves. Graves everywhere. The dump trucks are working, and the bulldozers. The houses are falling. The grave diggers are toiling away. They buried the school, the headquarters, the baths. It’s the same world, but the people are different. One thing I don’t know is, do people have souls? What kind? And how do they all fit in the next world? My grandpa died for two days. I was hiding behind the stove and waiting: How’s it going to fly out of his body? I went to milk the cow—I came back in, called him, he was lying there with his eyes open. His soul fled already. Or did nothing happen? And then how will we meet?

§
 

Soldiers’ Chorus

Our regiment was given the alarm. It was only when we got to the Belorusskaya train station in Moscow that they told us where we were going. One guy, I think he was from Leningrad, began to protest. They told him they’d drag him before a military tribunal. The commander said exactly that before the troops: “You’ll go to jail or be shot.” I had other feelings, the complete opposite of that guy. I wanted to do something heroic. Maybe it was kid’s stuff. But there were others like me. It was scary but also fun, for some reason.

Well, so they brought us in, and they took us right to the power station. They gave us white robes and white caps. And gauze surgical masks. We cleaned the territory. The robots couldn’t do it, their systems got all crazy. But we worked. And we were proud of it.

§

We rode in—there was a sign that said: Zone Off Limits. We met these crazed dogs and cats on the road. They acted strange: They didn’t recognize us as people, they ran away. I couldn’t understand what was wrong with them until they told us to start shooting them . . . The houses were all sealed up, the farm machinery was abandoned. It was interesting to see. There was no one, just us and the police on their patrols. You’d walk into a house—there were photographs on the wall, but no people. There’d be documents lying around: people’s komsomol IDs, other forms of identification, awards.

People drove to the block, the actual reactor. They wanted to photograph themselves there, to show the people at home. They were scared, but also so curious: What was this thing? I didn’t go, myself, I have a young wife, I didn’t want to risk it, but the boys took a few shots and went over. So . . .

§

There’s this abandoned house. It’s closed. There’s a cat on the windowsill. I think: Must be a clay cat. I come over, and it’s a real cat. He ate all the flowers in the house. Geraniums. How’d he get in? Or did they leave him there?

There’s a note on the door: Dear kind person, please don’t look for valuables here. We never had any. Use whatever you want, but don’t trash the place. We’ll be back. I saw signs on other houses in different colors—Dear house, forgive us! People said goodbye to their homes like they were people. Or they’d written: We’re leaving in the morning, or, We’re leaving at night, and they’d put the date and even the time. There were notes written on school notebook paper: Don’t beat the cat. Otherwise the rats will eat everything. And then in a child’s handwriting: Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good cat.

§

I went. I didn’t have to go. I volunteered. I was after a medal? I wanted benefits? Bullshit! I didn’t need anything for myself. An apartment, a car—what else? Right, a dacha. I had all those things. But it exerted a sort of masculine charm. Manly men were going off to do this important thing. And everyone else? They can hide under women’s skirts, if they want. There were guys with pregnant wives, others had little babies, a third had burns. They all cursed to themselves and came anyway.

We came home. I took off all the clothes that I’d worn there and threw them down the trash chute. I gave my cap to my little son. He really wanted it. And he wore it all the time. Two years later they gave him a diagnosis: a tumor in his brain . . . You can write the rest of this yourself. I don’t want to talk anymore.

§

On May 9, V-Day, a general came. They lined us up, congratulated us on the holiday. One of the guys got up the courage and asked: “Why aren’t they telling us the radiation levels? What kind of doses are we getting?” Just one guy. Well, after the general left, the brigadier called him in and gave him hell. “That’s a provocation! You’re an alarmist!” A few days later they handed out gas masks, but no one used them. They showed us Geiger counters a couple of times, but they never actually gave them to us.

Before we went home we were called in to speak to a KGB guy. He was very convincing in telling us we shouldn’t talk to anyone, anywhere, about what we’d seen. When I made it back from Afghanistan, I knew that I’d live. Here it was the opposite: It’d kill you only after you got home.

§

We got to the place. Got our equipment. “Just an accident,” the captain tells us. “Happened a long time ago. Three months. It’s not dangerous anymore.” “It’s fine,” says the sergeant. “Just wash your hands before you eat.”

I got home, I’d go dancing. I’d meet a girl I like and say, “Let’s get to know one another.”

“What for? You’re a Chernobylite now. I’d be scared to have your kids.”

§

Every April 26, we get together, the guys who were there. We remember how it was. You were a soldier, at war, you were necessary. We forget the bad parts and remember that. We remember that they couldn’t have made it without us. Our system, it’s a military system, essentially, and it works great in emergencies. You’re finally free there, and necessary. Freedom! And in those moments the Russian shows how great he is. How unique. We’ll never be Dutch or German. And we’ll never have proper asphalt and manicured lawns. But there’ll always be plenty of heroes.

They made the call, and I went. I had to! I was a member of the Party. Communists, march! That’s how it was. I was a police officer —senior lieutenant. They promised me another “star.” This was June of 1987. The looters had already been there. We boarded up windows and doors. The stores were all looted, the grates on the windows broken in, flour and sugar on the floor, candy. Cans everywhere. One village got evacuated, and then five, ten kilometers over, the next village didn’t. They brought all the stuff over from the evacuated village. That’s how it was. We’re guarding the place, and the former head of the kolkhoz arrives with some of the local people, they’ve already been resettled, they have new homes, but they’ve come back to collect the crops and sow new ones. They drove the straw out in bales. We found sowing machines and motorcycles in the bales. There was a barter system—they give you a bottle of homemade vodka,* you give them permission to transport the television. We were selling and trading tractors and sowing machines. One bottle, or ten bottles. No one was interested in money. [Laughs.] It was like Communism. There was a tax for everything: a canister of gas—that’s half a liter of vodka; an astrakhan fur coat—two liters; and motorcycles—variable. They transported the zone back here. You can find it on the markets, the pawnshops, at people’s dachas. The only thing that remained behind the wire was the land. And the graves. And our health. And our faith. Or my faith.

They gave me a medal and one thousand rubles.

§

I remember the empty villages where the pigs had gone crazy and were running around. The kolkhoz offices and clubs, these faded posters: We’ll give the motherland bread! Glory to the Soviet worker-peoples! The achievements of the people are immortal.

§

My wife took the kid and left. That bitch! But I’m not going to hang myself. And I’m not going to throw myself out a seventh-floor window. When I first came back from there with a suitcase full of money, that was fine. She wasn’t afraid. [Starts singing.]

Even one thousand gamma rays

Can’t keep the Russian cock from having its days.

That bitch! She’s afraid of me. She took the kid. [Suddenly serious.] The soldiers worked next to the reactor. I’d drive them there for their shifts and then back. I had a total-radiation meter around my neck, just like everyone else. After their shifts, I’d pick them up and we’d go to the First Department—that was a classified department. They’d take our readings there, write something down on our cards, but the number of roentgens we got, that was a military secret. Those fuckers! Some time goes by and suddenly they say: “Stop. You can’t take any more.” That’s all the medical information they give you. Even when I was leaving they didn’t tell me how much I got. Fuckers! Now they’re fighting for power. For cabinet portfolios. They have elections. You want another joke? After Chernobyl you can eat anything you want, but you have to bury your own shit in lead.

§

My friend died. He got huge, fat, like a barrel. And my neighbor—he was also there, he worked a crane. He got black, like coal, and shrunk, so that he was wearing kid’s clothes. I don’t know how I’m going to die. I do know this: You don’t last long with my diagnosis. But I’d like to feel it when it happens. Like a bullet to the head. I was in Afghanistan, too. It was easier there. They just shot you.

Arkady Filin Liquidator

I was thinking about something else, then. You’ll find this strange, but I was splitting up with my wife.

They came suddenly, gave me a notice, and said, “There’s a car waiting downstairs.” It was like 1937. They came at night to take you out of your warm bed. Then that stopped working: People’s wives would refuse to answer the door, or they’d lie, say their husbands were away on business, or vacation, or at the dacha with their parents. The soldiers would try to give them the notice, the wives would refuse to take it. So they started grabbing people at work, on the street, during a lunch break at the factory cafeteria.

But I was almost crazy by then. My wife had cheated on me, everything else didn’t matter. I got in their car. The guys who came for me were in street clothes, but they had a military bearing, and they walked on both sides of me, clearly worried I’d run off. But my wife had left me, and I could only think about that. I tried to kill myself a few times. We went to the same kindergarten, the same school, the same college. [Silent. Smokes.]

I told you. There’s nothing heroic here, nothing for the writer’s pen. I had thoughts like, It’s not wartime, why should I have to risk myself while someone else is sleeping with my wife? Why me again, and not him? To be honest, I didn’t see any heroes there. I saw nutcases, who didn’t care about their own lives, and I had enough craziness myself, but it wasn’t necessary. I also have medals and awards—but that’s because I wasn’t afraid of dying. I didn’t care! It was even something of an out. They’d have buried me with honors. And the government would have paid for it.

You immediately found yourself in this fantastic land, where the apocalypse met the Stone Age. We lived in the forest, in tents, twenty kilometers from the reactor. We were between twenty-five and forty, some of us had university degrees, or vocational-technical degrees. For example, I am a history teacher. Instead of machine guns they gave us shovels. We buried trash heaps and gardens. We had gloves, respirators, and surgical robes. The sun beat down on us. We showed up in their yards like demons. They didn’t understand why we had to bury their gardens, rip up their garlic and cabbage when it looked like ordinary garlic and ordinary cabbage. The old women would cross themselves and say: “Boys, what is this—is it the end of the world?”

Maybe that’s enough? I know you’re curious, people who weren’t there are always curious. But it was still a world of people, the same one. It’s impossible to live constantly in fear, a person can’t do it, so a little time goes by and normal human life resumes . . .

The men drank vodka. They played cards, tried to get girls, had kids. They talked a lot about money. But we didn’t go there for money. Or most people didn’t. Men worked because you have to work. They told us to work. You don’t ask questions. Some hoped for better careers out of it. Some robbed and stole. People hoped for the privileges that had been promised: an apartment without waiting and moving out of the barracks, getting their kid into a kindergarten, a car. One guy got scared, refused to leave the tent, slept in his plastic suit. Coward! He got kicked out of the Party. He’d yell: “I want to live!”

There were all kinds of people. They were told, No, we need chauffeurs, plumbers, firemen, but they came anyway. Thousands of volunteers guarding the storehouses at night. There were student units, and wire transfers to the fund for victims. Hundreds of people who donated blood and bone marrow.

Every day they brought the paper. I’d just read the headlines: Chernobyl—A Place of Achievement; The Reactor Has Been Defeated; Life Goes On. We had political officers, they’d hold political discussions with us. We were told that we had to win. Against whom? The atom? Physics? The universe? Victory is not an event for us, but a process. Life is a struggle. An overcoming. That’s why we have this love of floods and fires and other catastrophes. We need an opportunity to demonstrate our “courage and heroism.”

Our political officer read notices in the paper about our “high political consciousness and meticulous organization,” about the fact that just four days after the catastrophe the red flag was already flying over the fourth reactor. It blazed forth. In a month the radiation had devoured it. So they put up another flag. And in another month they put up another one. I tried to imagine how the soldiers felt going up on the roof to replace that flag. These were suicide missions. What would you call this? Soviet paganism? Live sacrifice? But the thing is, if they’d given me the flag then, and told me to climb up there, I would have. Why? I can’t say. I wasn’t afraid to die, then. My wife didn’t even send a letter. In six months, not a single letter. [Stops.] Want to hear a joke? This prisoner escapes from jail, and runs to the thirty-kilometer zone at Chernobyl. They catch him, bring him to the Geiger counters. He’s “glowing” so much, they can’t possibly put him back in prison, can’t take him to the hospital, can’t put him around people.

Why aren’t you laughing?

Nadezhda Petrovna Vygovskaya Evacuee from the town of Pripyat

It happened late Friday night. That morning no one suspected anything. I sent my son to school, my husband went to the barber’s. I was preparing lunch when my husband came back. “There’s some sort of fire at the atomic station. They’re saying we are not to turn off the radio.” This wasn’t any ordinary fire, it was some kind of shining. It was pretty. I’d never seen anything like it in the movies. That evening everyone spilled out onto their balconies, and those who didn’t have balconies went to friends’ houses. We were on the ninth floor, we had a great view. People brought their kids out, picked them up, said: “Look! Remember!” And these were people who worked at the reactor—engineers, laborers, physics instructors. They stood in the black dust, talking, breathing, wondering at it. People came from all around in their cars and on their bikes to have a look. We didn’t know that death could be so beautiful.

I didn’t sleep all night. At eight that morning there were already military people on the streets in gas masks. When we saw them on the streets, with all the military vehicles, we didn’t grow frightened—to the contrary, it calmed us down. Since the army has come to our aid, everything will be fine. We didn’t understand then that the peaceful atom could kill, that man is helpless before the laws of physics.

All day on the radio they were telling people to prepare for an evacuation: They’d take us away for three days, wash everything, check it over. The kids were told that they must take their schoolbooks. Still, my husband put our documents and our wedding photos into his briefcase. The only thing I took was a gauze kerchief in case the weather turned bad.

Marat Filippovich Kokhanov Former Chief Engineer of the Institute for Nuclear Energy of the Belarussian Academy of Sciences

Already by the end of May, about a month after the accident, we began receiving, for testing, products from the thirty-kilometer zone. They brought us the insides of domestic and undomesticated animals. After the first tests it became clear that what we were getting wasn’t meat, but radioactive by-products. We checked the milk. It wasn’t milk, it was a radioactive by-product.

High doses were everywhere. In a few villages we measured the thyroid activity for adults and children. It was one hundred, sometimes two and three hundred times the allowable dosage. The tractors were running, the farmers were digging on their plots. Children were sitting in a sandbox and playing. We’d see a woman on a bench near her house, breast-feeding her child—her milk has cesium in it—she’s the Chernobyl Madonna.

We asked our bosses: “What do we do? How should we act?” They said: “Take your measurements. Watch television.” On television Gorbachev was calming people: “We’ve taken immediate measures.” I believed it. I’d worked as an engineer for twenty years, I was well acquainted with the laws of physics. I knew that everything living should leave that place, if only for a while. But we conscientiously took our measurements and watched the television. We were used to believing.

Zoya Danilovna Bruk Environmental Inspector

I worked at the inspection center for environmental protection. We were awaiting some kind of instructions, but we never received any. They only started making noise after our Belarussian writer Aleksei Adamovich spoke out in Moscow, raising the alarm. How they hated him! Their children live here, and their grandchildren, but instead of them it’s a writer calling to the world: Save us! You’d think some sort of self-preservation mechanism would kick in. Instead, at all the Party meetings, and during smoke breaks, all you heard about was “those writers.” “Why are they sticking their noses where they don’t belong? We have instructions! We need to follow orders! What does he know? He’s not a physicist!”

There was something else I was afraid of leaving out . . . oh, right! Chernobyl happened, and suddenly you got this new feeling, we weren’t used to it, that everyone has their separate life. Until then no one needed this life. But now you had to think: What are you eating, what are you feeding your kids? What’s dangerous, what isn’t? Should you move to another place, or should you stay? Everyone had to make their own decisions. And we were used to living—how? As an entire village, as a collective—a factory, a kolkhoz. We were Soviet people, we were collectivized. Then we changed. Everything changed. It takes a lot of work to understand this.

They had protocols written up for burying radioactive earth. We buried earth in earth—such a strange human activity. According to the instructions, we were supposed to conduct a geological survey before burying anything to determine that there was no groundwater within four to six meters of the burial site. We also had to ensure that the depth of the pit wasn’t very great, and that the walls and bottom of the pit were lined with polyethylene film. That’s what the instructions said. In real life it was, of course, different. As always. There was no geological survey. They’d point their fingers and say, “Dig here.” The excavator digs. “How deep did you go?” “Who the hell knows? I stopped when I hit water.” They were digging right into the water.

They’re always saying: The people are holy, it’s the government that’s criminal. Well, I’ll tell you a bit later what I think about that, about our people, and about myself.

My longest assignment was in the Krasnopolsk region, which was just the worst. In order to keep the radionuclides from washing off the fields into the rivers, we needed to follow the instructions again. You had to plow double furrows, leave a gap, put in more double furrows, and so on. You had to drive along all the small rivers and check. Obviously I needed a car. So I go to the chairman of the regional executive. He’s sitting in his office with his head in his hands: No one changed the plan, no one changed the harvesting operations; just as they’d planted the peas, so they were harvesting them, even though everyone knows that peas take in radiation the most, as do all beans. And there are places out there with forty curies or more. So he has no time for me at all. All the cooks and nurses have run off from the kindergartens. The kids are hungry. In order to take someone’s appendix out, you need to drive them in an ambulance to the next region, sixty kilometers on a road that’s as bumpy as a washboard—all the surgeons have taken off. What car? What double furrows? He has no time for me.

So then I went to the military people. They were young guys, spending six months there. Now they’re all awfully sick. They gave me an armored personnel carrier with a crew—no, wait, it was even better, it was an armored exploratory vehicle with a machine gun mounted on it. It’s too bad I didn’t get any photos of myself in it, on the armor. Like I said, it was romantic. The ensign, who commanded the vehicle, was constantly radioing the base: “Eagle! Eagle! We’re continuing our work.” We’re riding along, and these are our forests, our roads, but we’re in an armored vehicle. The women are standing at their fences and crying—they haven’t seen vehicles like this since the war. They’re afraid another war has started.

We run into an old lady.

“Children, tell me, can I drink milk from my cow?”

We look down at the ground, we have our orders—collect data, but don’t interact with the local population.

Finally the driver speaks up. “Grandma, how old are you?”

“Oh, more than eighty. Maybe more than that, my documents got burned during the war.”

“Then drink all you want.”

I understood, not right away, but after a few years, that we all took part in that crime, in that conspiracy. [She is silent.]

People turned out to be worse than I thought they were. And me, too. I’m also worse. Now I know this about myself. [Stops.] Of course, I admit this, and for me that’s already important. But, again, an example. In one kolkhoz there are, say, five villages. Three are “clean,” two are “dirty.” Between them there are maybe two or three kilometers. Two of them get “graveyard” money, the other three don’t. Now, the “clean” village is building a livestock complex, and they need to get some clean feed. Where do they get it? The wind blows the dust from one field to the next, it’s all one land. In order to build the complex, though, they need some papers signed, and the commission that signs them, I’m on the commission. Everyone knows we can’t sign those papers. It’s a crime. But in the end I found a justification for myself, just like everyone else. I thought, The problem of clean feed is not a problem for an environmental inspector.

Viktor Latun Photographer

Not long ago we buried a friend of mine who’d been there. He died from cancer of the blood. We had a wake, and in the Slavic tradition we drank. And then the conversations began, until midnight. First about him, the deceased. But after that? It was once more about the fate of the country and the design of the Universe. Will Russian troops leave Chechnya or not? Will there be a second Caucasian war, or has it already started? About the English royal family and Princess Diana. About the Russian monarchy. About Chernobyl, the different theories. Some say that aliens knew about the catastrophe and helped us out. Others that it was an experiment, and soon kids with incredible talents will start to be born. Or maybe the Belarussians will disappear, like the Scythians, Sarmats, Kimmeriys, Huasteks. We’re metaphysicians. We don’t live on this earth, but in our dreams, in our conversations. Because you need to add something to this ordinary life, in order to understand it. Even when you’re near death.

Vladimir Matveevich Ivanov Former First Secretary of the Stavgorod Regional Party Committee

I’m a product of my time. I’m a believing Communist. Now it’s safe to curse at us. It’s fashionable. All the Communists are criminals. Now we answer for everything, even the laws of physics.

I was the First Secretary of the Regional Committee of the Communist Party. In the papers they write that it was, you know, the Communists who were at fault: They built poor, cheap nuclear power plants, they tried to save money and didn’t care about people’s lives. People for them were just sand, the fertilizer of history. Well, the hell with them! The hell! It’s the cursed questions: What to do and whom to blame? These are questions that don’t go away. Everyone is impatient, they want revenge, they want blood.

Others keep quiet, but I’ll tell you. The papers write that the Communists fooled the people, hid the truth from them. But we had to. We got telegrams from the Central Committee, from the Regional Committee, telling us: You have to prevent a panic. And it’s true, a panic is a frightening thing. There was fear, and there were rumors. People weren’t killed by the radiation, but by the events. We had to prevent a panic.

What if I’d declared then that people shouldn’t go outside? They would have said: “You want to disrupt May Day?” It was a political matter. They’d have asked for my Party ticket. [Calms down a little.] They didn’t understand that there really is such a thing as physics. There is a chain reaction. And no orders or government resolutions can change that chain reaction. The world is built on physics, not on the ideas of Marx. But if I’d said that then? Tried to call off the May Day parade? [Gets upset again.] In the papers they write that the people were out in the street and we were in underground bunkers. I stood on the tribune for two hours in that sun, without a hat, without a raincoat! And on May 9, the Day of Victory, I walked with the veterans. They played the harmonica, people danced, drank. We were all part of that system. We believed! We believed in the high ideals, in victory! We’ll defeat Chernobyl! We read about the heroic battle to put down the reactor that had gone out of control. A Russian without a high ideal? Without a great dream? That’s also scary.

But that’s what’s happening now. Everything’s falling apart. No government. Stalin. Gulag archipelago. They pronounced a verdict on the past, on our whole life. But think of the great films! The happy songs! Explain those to me! Why don’t we have such films anymore? Or such songs?

In the papers—on the radio and television they were yelling, Truth! Truth! At all the meetings they demanded: Truth! Well, it’s bad, it’s very bad. We’re all going to die! But who needs that kind of truth? When the mob tore into the convent and demanded the execution of Robespierre, were they right? You can’t listen to the mob, you can’t become the mob. Look around. What’s happening now? [Silent.] If I’m a criminal, why is my granddaughter, my little child, also sick? My daughter had her that spring, she brought her to us in Stavgorod in diapers. It was just a few weeks after the explosion at the plant. There were helicopters flying, military vehicles on the roads. My wife said: “They should stay with our relatives. They need to get out of here.” I was the First Secretary of the Regional Committee of the Party! I said absolutely not. “What will people think if I take my daughter with her baby out of here? Their children have to stay.” Those who tried to leave, to save their own skins, I’d call them into the regional committee. “Are you a Communist or not?” It was a test for people. If I’m a criminal, then why was I killing my own child? [Goes on for some time but it becomes impossible to understand what he’s saying.]

Vasily Borisovich Nesterenko Former Director of the Institute for Nuclear Energy at the Belarussian Academy of Sciences

On that day, April 26, I was in Moscow on business. That’s where I learned about the accident.

I called Slyunkov, the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Belarussian Communist Party, in Minsk. I called once, twice, three times, but they wouldn’t connect me. I reached his assistant, he knew me well.

“I’m calling from Moscow. Get me Slyunkov, I have information he needs to hear right away. Emergency information.”

It took me about two hours to finally reach Slyunkov.

“I’ve already received reports,” says Slyunkov. “There was a fire, but they’ve put it out.”

I couldn’t hold it in. “That’s a lie! It’s an obvious lie!!”

On April 29—I remember everything exactly, by the dates—at 8 a.m., I was already sitting in Slyunkov’s reception area. They wouldn’t let me in. I sat there like that until half past five. At half past five, a famous poet walked out of Slyunkov’s office. I knew him. He said to me, “Comrade Slyunkov and I discussed Belarussian culture.”

“There won’t be any Belarussian culture,” I exploded, “or anyone to read your books, if we don’t evacuate everyone from Chernobyl right away! If we don’t save them!”

“What do you mean? They’ve already put it out.”

I finally got in to see Slyunkov.

“Why are your men [from the institute] running around town with their Geiger counters, scaring everyone? I’ve already consulted with Moscow, with Academic Ilyin. He says everything’s normal. And there’s a government commission at the station, and the prosecutor’s office is there. We’ve thrown the army, all our military equipment, into the breach.”

They weren’t a gang of criminals. It was more like a conspiracy of ignorance and obedience. The principle of their lives, the one thing the Party machine had taught them, was never to stick their necks out. Better to keep everyone happy. Slyunkov was just then being called to Moscow for a promotion. He was so close! I’d bet there’d been a call from the Kremlin, right from Gorbachev, saying, you know, I hope you Belarussians can keep from starting a panic, the West is already making all kinds of noises. And of course if you didn’t please your higher-ups, you didn’t get that promotion, that trip abroad, that dacha. People feared their superiors more than they feared the atom.

I carried a Geiger counter in my briefcase. Why? Because they’d stopped letting me in to see the important people, they were sick of me. So I’d take my Geiger counter along and put it up to the thyroids of the secretaries or the personal chauffeurs sitting in the reception rooms. They’d get scared, and sometimes that would help, they’d let me through. And then people would say to me: “Professor, why are you going around scaring everyone? Do you think you’re the only one worried about the Belarussian people? And anyway, people have to die of something, whether it’s smoking, or an auto accident, or suicide.”

Natalya Arsenyevna Roslova Head of the Mogilev Women’s Committee for the Children of Chernobyl

That great empire crumbled and fell apart. First Afghanistan, then Chernobyl. When it fell apart, we found ourselves all alone. I’m afraid to say it, but we love Chernobyl. It’s become the meaning of our lives. The meaning of our suffering. Like a war. The world found out about our existence after Chernobyl. We’re its victims, but also its priests. I’m afraid to say it, but there it is.

And it’s like a game, like a show. I’m with a caravan of humanitarian aid and some foreigners who’ve brought it, whether in the name of Christ or something else. And outside, in the puddles and the mud in their coats and mittens, is my tribe. In their cheap boots. And suddenly I have this outrageous, disgusting wish. “I’ll show you something!” I say. “You’ll never see this in Africa! You won’t see it anywhere. Two hundred curies, three hundred curies.” I’ve noticed how the old ladies have changed, too—some of them are real movie stars now. They have their monologues by heart, and they cry in all the right spots. When the first foreigners came, the grandmas wouldn’t say anything, they’d just stand there crying. Now they know how to talk. Maybe they’ll get some extra gum for the kids, or a box of clothes. And this is side by side with a profound philosophy—their relationship with death, with time. It’s not for some gum and German chocolate that they refuse to leave these peasant huts they’ve been living in their whole lives.

—translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen

A Fukushima Lesson Unlearned

A Fukushima Lesson Unlearned: NRC scraps public rulemaking on weak GE containments

enformable | Paul Gunter | 4 sep 2015

Fukushima-Reactors-600x381

 

The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) typically begins its narrative on the “lessons learned” from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear catastrophe with Japan’s March 11, 2011accident. Not surprisingly, the agency has avoided addressing the most critical lesson recognized in the accident’s official investigative report by Japan’s National Diet. In their finding, the unfolding radiological catastrophe is “manmade” and the result of “willful negligence” of government, regulator and industry colluding to protect Tokyo Electric Power Company’s financial interests.  Likewise, here in the US, addressing identical reactor vulnerabilities remain subject to a convoluted corporate-government strategy of “keep away” with public safety as the “monkey in the middle” going back more than four decades and, for now, three nuclear meltdowns later.

In the latest development, by a 3-1 vote issued on August 19, 2015, the majority of the four sitting Commissioners with NRC ruled not to proceed with their own proposed rulemaking and bar public comment and independent expert analyses on the installation of “enhanced” hardened containment vents on 30 U.S. reactors. In the event of a severe nuclear accident, roughly one-third of U.S. atomic power plants currently rely upon a flawed radiation protection barrier system at General Electric (GE) Mark I and Mark II boiling water reactors that are essentially identical to the destroyed and permanently closed units at Fukushima Daiichi. The nuclear catastrophe has resulted in widespread radioactive contamination, massive population relocation, severe economic dislocation and mounting costs projected into the hundreds of billions of dollars.

A combination photo made of still images from video footage March 14, 2011, shows the explosion at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex.

Fundamentally at fault, the GE Mark I and Mark II boiling water reactor “pressure suppression containment system” designed for internalizing such a nuclear accident is roughly one-sixth the volumetric size of pressurized water reactor containment designs like Three Mile Island. Under accident conditions, the reactor pressure vessel and the operation of the emergency core cooling system is depressurized into the “drywell” containment component which in turn routes steam, heat, combustible gases and radioactivity into the “wetwell” component where it is supposed to be quenched and scrubbed in a million gallons of water.  The GE design was first identified as too small to contain potential accident conditions in 1972 by Atomic Energy Commission memos. The internal communications would eventually be released years later under the Freedom of Information Act after more GE reactors were granted operating licenses. The memos revealed that the undersized containment system is highly vulnerable to catastrophic failure from over-pressurization in the event of a severe accident. This long recognized chink in GE’s “defense-in-depth” armor was graphically confirmed with the global broadcast of the Fukushima explosions.

This combination photo shows smoke rising from Fukushima Daiichi 1 nuclear reactor after an explosion

Fukushima further demonstrated that “voluntary” GE containment modifications requested by NRC in the early 1990’s are not reliable under real accident conditions.  Most U.S. Mark I operators voluntarily installed a hardened vent on the “wetwell” or “torus” containment component. The same modification was installed in Japanese reactors including Fukushima Daiichi. The voluntary containment modifications in the U.S. were carried out under a NRC regulation (10 CFR 50.59) that avoids licensee disclosures in the public hearing process, claiming that the design changes did not raise significant safety issues. Other than the paper trail, even the NRC inspectors were not aware of the final as-built containment modifications.

Following a review by the NRC Fukushima Lessons Learned Task Force commenced in 2011, the Commission ultimately issued a revised two-phase Order (EA-13-109) on June 6, 2013 for the unreliable containment systems. The Order requires all U.S. GE Mark I and Mark II boiling water reactor operators in Phase 1 to re-install a more “reliable” severe accident capable hardened containment vent on the “wetwell” component by June 2018 to assist in preventing core damage and remain functional during a severe accident.  In Phase 2, operators are to install a severe accident capable hardened vent on the “drywell” component by June 2019, or alternately, provide a severe accident management strategy that precludes the need to vent an accident from the drywell. However, the Commission Order also rejected the collective research and technical recommendation of its lessons learned task force advanced on November 26, 2012. The staff recommendation was to require severe accident capable hardened containment vents be equipped with high-efficiency external filters as added defense-in-depth to trap much of the radiation while releasing to the atmosphere the extreme heat, high pressure and non-compressible explosive gases generated by the nuclear accident. The nuclear industry’s lobby group, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) vehemently opposed the installation of external engineered filters arguing it was unnecessary to add any more assurances other than the original design calculations for a radiation scrubbing effect underwater in the “wetwell” component.

The Commission’s Order, while rejecting the staff’s recommendation to add the engineered filters in vent lines, instructed staff to pursue researching a proposed rulemaking to gather more expert stakeholder input on how radiation filtration strategies would improve public safety and reduce severe accident consequences and costs.

The nuclear industry, under the direction of NEI, began developing the alternate strategy to the Phase 2 installation of a “drywell” containment vent which they describe as Severe Accident Water Addition (SAWA) and Severe Accident Water Management (SAWM).  Under the industry SAWA plan, in the event of a severe accident, water would be introduced into the reactor pressure vessel and/or the drywell containment  control temperatures and cool core debris. If the drywell hardened containment is not installed, flooding up the “drywell” containment requires constant severe accident water management to prevent the simultaneous over-flooding of the “wetwell” that would preclude the use of “wetwell” hardened vent for containment protection as well as crediting the large volume of water’s scrubbing effect for radiation release reduction. Both SAWA and SAWM will require an unspecified number of operator manual actions performed in containment that require a range of apparatus (tools, respirators, keys, etc) as well as shielding from potentially high radiation fields.

The proposed NRC rulemaking to develop regulatory guidance for severe accidents and reconsider filtration strategies was renamed “Containment Protection and Release Reduction” (CPRR) and published as a draft informational document in May 2015. The proposed CPRR rulemaking introduced the staff analyses of four alternatives for consideration by the Commission, the public and industry stakeholders and the NRC’s own independent Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards (ACRS).

Alternative 1

Alternative 1 adopted the status quo, namely, making the established Order EA-13-109 generically applicable, drop the rulemaking activity and take no further regulatory action. It adopts the Order’s Phase I requirement to install a severe accident capable vent on the “wetwell” containment component without an external engineered filter and instead relying upon the containment water to scrub out radioactivity before a release to the atmosphere. It adopts the NEI approach under Phase 2 to develop alternative capability for severe accident water addition and management to cool reactor core debris should it burn through the reactor vessel and end up on the bottom of the drywell;

Alternative 2

Alternative 2 would pursue the rulemaking to make Order EA-13-109 generically applicable for protection of BWR Mark I and II containments against over-pressurization;

Alternative 3

Alternative 3 would  proceed with a public rulemaking while making Order EA-13-109 generically applicable for improved protection of Mark I and Mark II containment systems with severe accident water addition to the drywell but dropped any further consideration, analysis and public comment for external engineered filters for severe accident capable hardened containment vents;

Alternative 4

Alternative 4 would pursue the rulemaking to protect containment against multiple failure modes and release reduction measures with controlled releases through hardened containment venting systems. This alternative would include making Order EA-13-109 generically applicable and require external water addition in the reactor pressure vessel or the drywell containment component. In addition, licensees would be required to further reduce fission product releases by maximizing wetwell scrubbing capability or   the installation of an engineered filter in severe accident capable containment vent pathway.

The NRC staff’s draft information paper recommended the adoption of Alternative 3 to pursue a rulemaking to make the Order generically applicable without external engineered filters.

What happened when the information paper for draft guidance was sent up to the Commission is alarming. NRC Commissioner Svinicki took the NRC staff information paper and turned it into a notation vote paper for the Commission to decide, leaving no further consultation, no independent expert input even from the NRC’s Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, the public and their independent experts.  Commission Chair Stephen Burns, Commissioner Kristine Svinicki and Commissioner William Ostendorf voted to approve Alternative 1.

Commissioner Jeff Barran’s comments submitted with his minority vote to go forward with the rulemaking are illuminating.

“Consistent with the Commission’s direction, the staff prepared a draft regulatory basis for a containment protection and release reduction (CPRR) rulemaking. The draft regulatory basis was provided to the Commission as an information paper. Prior to the conversion of the information paper to a notation vote paper, the staff planned to issue a Federal Register notice requesting public comment on the draft regulatory basis, ‘hold a public meeting to provide members of the public an opportunity to ask questions and have discussions about the draft CPRR regulatory basis,’ and present the draft regulatory basis to ACRS in order to obtain independent expert feedback on the document. After this public comment period and ACRS review, the staff was scheduled to provide the final regulatory basis to the Commission by September 19, 2015, the proposed rule by September 19, 2016, and the final rule by December 19, 2017.”

“In my view, it is premature for the Commission to consider the draft regulatory basis at this time without the benefit of public comment or ACRS review. I approve the staff’s established plan, based on clear Commission direction, to seek public comment and ACRS review of the draft regulatory basis prior to its submission to the Commission for a notation vote. “

“Furthermore, there is no reason for the Commission to vote on the draft regulatory basis before the ACRS (Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards) has reviewed and provided recommendations on the document. Under the staff’s original schedule, the ACRS planned to hold a subcommittee meeting and provide a letter to the Commission after the staff received and addressed public comments on the draft regulatory basis. The staff should resume this course. Though the staff previously presented the draft results of the rulemaking analysis to the ACRS, this will be the first time the ACRS will examine the draft regulatory basis as a whole and share its thoughts with the Commission. We should wait for the ACRS letter before making substantive decisions about the draft regulatory basis.”  

“This is an important post-Fukushima rulemaking. A wide range of stakeholders will have a variety of perspectives on the four alternatives presented in the draft regulatory basis. We should hear their views and critiques of these alternatives and the staff’s regulatory analysis before taking any alternatives off of the table. Therefore, consistent with existing Commission direction, the staff should carry out its plan to seek public comment and the ACRS review of the draft regulatory basis prior to submission to the Commission in the next few months for a notation vote.”

 

The Commission’s August 19th majority vote is effectively a gag order on the American public’s opportunity for formal input to fortify the continued operation of GE Mark I and Mark II reactors against the next nuclear catastrophe. Ironically, the international nuclear industry is simultaneously cashing in on the effort to restart Japan’s nuclear power plants where their Nuclear Regulation Authority has ordered state-of-the-art engineered external filters on severe accident capable hardened containment vents as a prerequisite to resume operation.  On August 17, 2015, AREVA issued  a press release announcing that it had just delivered it fourteenth filtered containment vent system to the Hamaoka Unit 4 reactor operated by Chubu Electric Power Company where 70% of the Japanese public no longer trust the industry and its regulator  and remain opposed to any further nuclear power  operations.

LINKS

August 19, 2015 Commission Notation Vote Sheet

AEC memo September 25, 1972

“voluntary” retrofits

EA-13-109

November 26, 2012, SECY 2012-0157

“Proposed rulemaking”

AREVA press release

No disaster prevention scheme worked out for 17 nuclear facilities

The Mainichi | Sep 1, 2015

No work has been done to establish a disaster prevention scheme for 17 nuclear facilities despite the fact the central government laid out its policy nearly three years ago to review the country’s nuclear disaster prevention structure in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns.

The 17 nuclear facilities consist of nuclear fuel processing and reprocessing and experimental and research facilities across the country that are subject to the Act on Special Measures Concerning Nuclear Emergency Preparedness. No discussion has been held on disaster prevention schemes for such facilities. Some of them are located in urban areas, but local governments hosting such facilities have been urging the central government to review the country’s nuclear disaster prevention scheme as local governments are unable to reflect such a scheme in their disaster prevention plans including those for the evacuation of local residents.

The Power and Industrial Systems Research and Development Center, a nuclear research arm of Toshiba Corp., is one of the 17 facilities. Its premises are situated side by side with Nippon Steel & Sumikin Pipe Co.’s steel plant in Kawasaki where a fire broke out on Aug. 24. The nuclear facility is located about 300 meters from the fire site. Toshiba said, “It was not affected by the fire.” It went on to say, “The research facility is a basic facility for development of nuclear technology and it is a reactor with a maximum output of 200 watts which is extremely low.”

Haneda Airport is about 1 kilometer from the facility on the other side of the Tama River. But Toshiba said, “We assess that the assumed annual radiation dose in the event of a fire or an airplane crash is 1 millisievert (the maximum permissible level of annual radiation exposure for an ordinary person) or lower.”

The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) provisionally designated disaster prevention priority areas for the 17 facilities at zones within a radius of between 50 meters and 10 kilometers from the facilities, depending on their scale and type — the same as those set before the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Meanwhile, the guidelines for countermeasures against nuclear disasters formulated in October 2012 under the Act on Special Measures Concerning Nuclear Emergency Preparedness expand the disaster prevention priority areas for nuclear power plants to about nine times as large as those set before the Fukushima disaster. But the guidelines say that the disaster prevention priority areas for the 17 nuclear facilities will be discussed with an eye toward reviewing them and be reflected in the guidelines. The guidelines also say that criteria for designating evacuation areas and methods are “issues to be discussed in the future.”

According to the NRA’s Secretariat, however, no specific discussion on such issues has been made. An official of the secretariat said, “The NRA has been taking time to sort things out because the facilities vary in type and size from one another.”

The disaster prevention priority area for Toshiba’s research facility is set at a radius of 100 meters which falls within its premises. But in 2013, the Kawasaki Municipal Government added “release of radioactive materials outside of the facility” to the list of assumed conditions set in its disaster prevention plan. But no decision has been made on specific areas and methods of evacuation. A municipal government official said, “Because the central government has not shown its criteria, we are watching the progress.”

About 4,000 people live in a provisional disaster prevention priority area for a nuclear fuel processing facility in the Kanagawa Prefecture city of Yokosuka, but the Kanagawa Prefectural Government has not been able to revise its disaster prevention plan. The Kanagawa Prefectural Government has been requesting the central government in writing every year since 2012 to review the guidelines.

There are three nuclear facilities including a university research unit and a nuclear processing facility in Osaka Prefecture, and they are located close to residential areas. The governments of Osaka, Aomori, Ibaraki and Okayama prefectures have been urging the central government in writing and verbally to review the guidelines.

Hirotada Hirose, professor emeritus at Tokyo Woman’s Christian University, said, “As long as the facilities are dealing with nuclear materials even though they are relatively small, a nuclear disaster could occur. The NRA should review the countermeasures that are ambiguous at present as soon as possible after properly assessing the risks.”