Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Chornobyl Adventure, Part 2: To Those Who Saved the World

We arrived at the Zone as a new shift was coming on duty. Dozens of workers filed single file through the gate, re-boarding their buses for the trip to their workplaces. Some work Monday through Thursday; others work two weeks in and two weeks out. All of these workers maintain the Zone and mitigate radiation effects, or provide services to the workers of the zone (like running cafeterias).

After our documents were checked, we passed through the first of several checkpoints. Our initial stop was the city of Chornobyl. Sergey delivered a briefing on the effects of radiation and the good fortune - amid tragedy - visited upon our final destination, the town of Pripyat. Pripyat was a company town of 40,000 residents, constructed specifically for the workers at the Chornobyl Atomic Energy Station. Planners assessed typical wind patterns and situated the city in the safest zone adjacent to the plant in the unlikely event of a meltdown. Their choice was fortuitous as the wind gusts on the day of the disaster sent particulate radiation west. Over the next few days the wind sent radiation to the north and east. Pripyat was placed in the wedge of lower radiation, preserving thousands of lives.

The Zone has several monuments dedicated to the disaster. The one above was not formally commissioned, but simply put together by workers in the Zone to commemorate the event. Its slogan is the title of this entry. Another memorial at the reactor site honors those who were the first workers on the scene, sacrificing themselves to save thousands of lives (to the right).

After the disaster, many of the locals who were evacuated returned to their village homes even though they were officially prohibited. Using routes blazed by WWII partisans, a few thousand moved back. Age has claimed many of them, and only a few hundred hearty souls remain. We visited one tiny spitfire who roughs it, relying on her well, garden, chickens, Zone workers, and occasional help from guests. She shared a bit of her tragic life story during our brief visit. Much like the elderly beekeepers we visited in Urich, she was quite hardy and self-sufficient. The difference was the hazards she faced and her solutions. Someone was supplying her wood; probably the lumberjacks maintaining the forests. Of course, the wood she burns for heat emits radiation. If something breaks, she can go to the abandoned homes to find a replacement. But, who will protect her from the wolves that killed and ate her dog?

Our next destination was the Chornobyl station itself. The great heroism of the first-responders, attacking the blaze and struggling to stop the radiation which was searing their bodies and dooming them to a painful death, is hard to imagine. While 9/11 first responders acted heroically, those who perished did not know that they would die trying to save others. Many Chornobyl first responders knew that doing their duty to save others was a death sentence.

The tragedy of Chornobyl stretches beyond emergency workers, to a great human and environmental toll. In this context, being a tourist at Chornobyl felt a bit uncomfortable. But, the event is an important moment in world history with long-lasting consequences. Recognizing this, the Ukrainian authorities have constructed a visitor's center at the site. A staff member delivered a fantastic, clear, and detailed presentation on the event and mitigation efforts. An interesting and disturbing fact is that the metal roof of the sarcophagus encompassing the reactor is not welded into place, but rather laid on top. This has allowed water to leach in, endangering containment. In addition, the roof was balanced on an unstable wall, a problem recently relieved by the construction of a steel buttress. The next step is to build a new containment shelter covering the current sarcophagus and extending the shelter's life for 100 years. But, this does not solve the potential problem of what is below.

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