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The Truth About Chernobyl.

The Truth About Chernobyl

I will never forget my visit to Three Mile Island. Almost a decade after the accident, the cleanup dragged on. For the most part, it consisted of three men, sucking on respirators and swaddled in protective bunny suits, standing directly on top of the open reactor core. You could watch them via remote video camera.

With the helped of nothing more than pairs of fancy pliers attached to the ends of very long poles, they wer chipping away at the melted fuel rods and damaged control assembly, piece by radioactive piece. It was a dangerous, dirty, inelegant job. When I interviewed the workers later, they referred to their task a cleaning "the pot." They thought of the core as a toilet bowl; they were cleaning up a very large, very hot mess.

If the Number Two Reactor at Three Mile Island can be thought of as a commode, the Unit Four Reactor at Chernobyl will forever in my mind be "the nuclear volcano" described in Grigori Medvedev's horrifying, bitter, and passionate book about the colossal disaster that occurred on April 26, 1986, on the banks of the Pripyat River in the Soviet Ukraine.

When it comes to nuclear power, I consider myself normal. By that, I mean that I am not hysterical, one way or the other. But Medvedev tells such a tale of bureaucratic incompetence and willful ignorance, a story of such needless death and widespread contamination, it makes me pause. Especially when I think about nuclear power stations dotted across the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Medvedev is in a unique position to tell the story of Chernobyl. A nuclear physicist by training who spent his career generating power in the Soviet Union, Medvedev assisted in the construction of Chernobyl in the early seventies. After the accident, he was sent back to investigate, interviewing many of the operators, turbine engineers, electricians, and firefighters before they died of radiation poisoning. He worked for and knew many of the men who sat at the control panels during the ill-fated test that led to the explosion at Chernobyl.

Medvedev tells his story in a rambling countdown to disaster, beginning with a recollection of the countryside around pre-radiated Chernobyl--a setting of primeval quiet and cleanliness. "I have such fond memories of the Pripyat River!" he writes. "If you stop rowing and scoop up some of the brownish water in your hand, your palm immediately tends to contract on account of the fatty marsh acids in the water. It was those small acids that, after the explosion and the release of radioactive substances, served as efficient coagulators, transporting radioactive particles and fission fragments."

That is Medvedev's style. He writes of the fishermen at the outflow gates of the plant. How big the fish are! How happy the fishermen, who enjoy the vodka and the warm Ukrainian night! And what a whopping dose of radiation they receive!

And so it goes. Characters are introduced and quickly sketched. Their cowardice or heroism during the accident is described. Then Medvedev delivers the obituary. "Of course, he died in great agony in the Number Six clinic in Moscow." (I began to lose track of the people who died in great agony in the Number Six clinic in Moscow.)

Medvedev's book is a Soviet book. It settles scores. The men responsible for the accident are not mere incompetents. To Medvedev they are "pathetic creatures hidden beneath layers of arrogance and official confidence." They are worse than fools. They are "half-crazed" bureaucrats who crack under pressure, who refuse to believe that the reactor core has exploded, despite a plant full of radioactive rubble.

"We did everything right!" screamed the directors of the plant, after sending worker after worker inside the unit to report on the situation.

Anatoly Andreyevich Sitnikov, deputy chief operational engineer, is one of those ordered in to inspect. "The destruction he saw surpassed his imagination. The massive lid of the central hall had been blasted off, and the pathetic remains of the battered concrete walls, their mangled reinforcing bars protruding wildly, looked like some monstrous flycatching plant, waiting for the chance to drag a living creature into its infernal belly. Dispelling this frightful image from his mind, but already feeling the embrace of hot nuclear tentacles on his face, hands, brain, and inner organs, Sitnikov carefully surveyed what was left of the central hall. The reactor had clearly blown up."

Of course, Sitnikov is not believed. Plant officials assure Moscow that the reactor is intact and the radiation levels are normal. Eventually, however, the full extent of the disaster is revealed, but only after men like Sitnikov have received fatal doses of radiation and the people of the towns beside Chernobyl have seen themselves, their gardens, their streets coated in nuclear fallout.

What are the lessons of Chernobyl? Medvedev concludes that the type of reactor used at Chernobyl contained design flaws that led to the explosion. He also blames bureaucratic incompetence and a cultue of secrecy and lies. But most of all, Medvedev believes that we forgot to respect the atom. The nuclear fire, Medvedev warns, burns.
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Author:Booth, William (English archbishop)
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1991
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