In recent weeks major news organizations, researchers and bloggers have been marking the passing of thirty years since the Chernobyl catastrophe. So many articles have appeared that it would be difficult to write something original that covers new ground. Many clichés have entered into the topic, and as a result much of the coverage manages to be sensationalizing and trivializing at the same time. No one needs to read another article focused on disaster tourism in the exclusion zone, the amazing rebound of wildlife, or the folks who have found a way to live secretly back in the zone amid the radiation. And we certainly don’t need to see any more photos of “long abandoned” toys and laundry hanging on the line which, it usually turns out, were carefully placed in the shot by photographers.

In this week’s posting on Dianuke, we present an editor’s choice of the best coverage of Chernobyl that has appeared in recent weeks, and mention two other sources that were created farther in the past. With apologies to the many good writers who have covered this topic over the past three decades, we admit that there are undoubtedly other excellent articles not included here. Every good listicle is supposed to have ten items, but for the sake of brevity here there are only seven.

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  1. Top choice for its broad, thorough and thoughtful coverage

Matthew Schofield, “Ruined Chernobyl nuclear plant will remain a threat for 3,000 years,” McClatchy DC, April 24, 2016

Excerpt:

Reactor Number 4 today is essentially an unplanned nuclear-waste dump. To serve in that role requires it to last for 3,000 years. That means the area surrounding Chernobyl will be safe to inhabit by people again in the year 4986. How likely is that? To get an idea of what it means to contain and control a deadly and potentially devastating radioactive pile in Ukraine for 3,000 years, consider what the world looked like 3,000 years ago: … Christ was 1,000 years from showing up. Muhammad was 1,500 years away…

It’s not simply that a lot has changed in the last 3,000 years, it’s that almost everything has.

And yet, Detlef Appel, a geologist who runs PanGeo, a Hamburg, Germany, company that consults on such nuclear storage issues, notes that 3,000 years probably isn’t long enough. He suggests that truly safe radioactive waste storage needs to extend a million years into the future… “We can trust human endeavor, perhaps, for a few hundred years, though that is doubtful,” he said. “Storage implies a way to retrieve the materials. It requires trained personnel, maintenance, updating and security. Clearly, nothing man made is more than temporary, and therefore it isn’t adequate.”

… Tetiana Verbytska, an energy policy expert at the National Ecological Center of Ukraine, notes that people are far too easygoing about Chernobyl. “We don’t have the technology to fix the problem,” she said. “We don’t have the process to develop the technology to fix the problem, and we don’t have the money to support the process to develop the technology to fix the problem. The solutions for our Chernobyl problems are very much ‘seal it for now.’ We will have smart children and smart grandchildren who in 100 years or so will figure out what to do.”

Tetiana Verbytska, an energy policy expert at the National Ecological Center of Ukraine, worries that people are far too easygoing about Chernobyl… “The move to reduce the highly contaminated zone has nothing to do with science and everything to do with public relations,” she says.

… There are other reasons to worry. Ukraine is creaking under a civil war against insurgents backed by Russia and scraping by with an economy that in the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union has been looted by a series of oligarchs. It doesn’t have the money to fund an educational system that can be expected to create legions of top scientists and engineers.

  1. Photo essay of the youth of Slavutych, Ukraine’s youngest city, the town that was born from the catastrophe

Niels Ackermann, White Angel, 2016

From the photographer’s website:

In April 2016, the world will commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Instead of reminding viewers once more of the overly documented consequences of the accident, I chose to look toward the future. For three years, I photographed the youth of Slavutych: Ukraine’s youngest city. The town that was born from the catastrophe.

The story documents the life of Yulia: a teenager I saw transforming into a young adult in front of my camera. As time passed by Yulia changed her occupations. From parties, drinks and short relationships to a married life with a job and serious responsibilities. She and her friends let me photograph them along this very crucial phase of life: the moment when we decide what we want to do of our life, where and with whom.

  1. Technological catastrophe followed by political catastrophe

Elle Hardy, “Chernobyl nuclear disaster marks 30-year anniversary with ‘extreme tours’, boom in wild animals,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, April 12, 2016.

This article was one of the few to connect the Chernobyl legacy to Ukraine’s present dire political situation and the historical roots of the tensions with Russia. Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, and much of its nation-building has been based on longing to join the West and on resentment of Russia for what happened in the Soviet era. This may have led to some bad decisions in managing Chernobyl because the Russians were often the best choice for technical help since they knew the reactor design. (See number 5 below to learn about the fiasco that ensued when Ukraine turned for help from a French nuclear company). Sometimes it is best to stick with the devil that you know.

Excerpt:

According to local human rights advocate Viktor Tarasav, Ukraine’s post-revolutionary struggles and economic downturn has meant today’s Chernobyl clean-up workers are better off than the former residents of Pripyat.

“Through this difficult economic crisis, the Ukrainian Government has tried to limit or artificially complicate the payments and benefits for Chernobyl survivors, which they had previously legislatively guaranteed,” he said.

Olexi Pasyuk, from environmental advocacy group Bankwatch, said neglect extends beyond the human tragedy of the disaster. “Twelve out of 15 nuclear reactors in Ukraine will have passed their 30-year lifespan between 2010 and 2020 and the Government now has to extend them,” he said. “The Government commissioned a paper which outlined all of the problems with their policy [of extending reactor life spans], so they dismissed the paper and had a new, more favorable one written. “It’s a political issue — they don’t want to be seen to be buying gas from the Russians.”

Mr Usatenko sees a more sinister side to the ongoing regional tensions and conflict with Russia.

“The state of the Ukrainian nuclear power plants, thanks to government corruption, are considered by the Russian military as well-located nuclear bombs in enemy territory,” he said.

  1. A major Chernobyl documentary film made at the 20th anniversary of the catastrophe

Thomas Johnson (director), “The Battle of Chernobyl,” Icarus Films, 2007.

(available usually on various YouTube channels)

From the Icarus Films website:

Based on top-secret government documents that came to light only in the 1990s, during the collapse of the Soviet Union, The Battle of Chernobyl reveals a systematic cover-up of the true scope of the disaster, including the possibility of a secondary explosion of the still-smoldering magma, whose radioactive clouds would have rendered Europe uninhabitable. The government effort to prevent such a catastrophe lasted for more than seven months and sacrificed the lives of thousands of soldiers, miners and other workers… These nerve-racking events are recounted through newly available films, videos and photos taken in and around the plant, computer animation, and interviews with participants and eyewitnesses, many of whom were exposed to radiation, including government and military leaders, scientists, workers, journalists, doctors, and Pripyat refugees.

One of the more revealing segments of the film is near the end when the focus shifts to the official reactions of the international community. During this period of glasnost and perestroika, Soviet people had learned to see flaws of their own system, which led many of them to idealize the West. The reaction of the Western nuclear industry, represented by the IAEA, should have served as a stunning reality check for Soviets who thought everything was more open, honest and democratic in the West. While everyone had expected the Soviet conclusions would be a lie and a cover-up, it was the Western experts who panicked when they heard the dire conclusions of the Soviet governmental commission on the catastrophe.

From the film (1:18:30~):

Narrator: The tendency to manipulate the numbers was not unique to the Soviets. In late August, 1986 the first international conference, assessing Chernobyl, took place behind closed doors. It was presided over by Hans Blix [head of the IAEA]. No journalists or outside observers were admitted into the amphitheater. The Russian delegation was led by [Valery Alexeyevich] Legasov, the man who had been in charge of the governmental commission during the battle of Chernobyl.

Mikhail Gorbachev:  When we put him in charge of preparing the report for the IAEA, we gave him the duty of reporting everything. He came up with a very detailed report that put everybody in a state of shock.

Narrator: Legasov spoke for three hours. His report concluded that in the decades to come, about 40,000 deaths from cancer, caused by Chernobyl, were to be expected. The Western world refused flat out to accept this estimate which spurred a genuine East-West negotiation… There again, the figures were surprisingly flexible. By the end of the conference people were no longer talking about 40,000 but rather of 4,000 probable deaths. Nearly twenty years later, in September 2005, this figure became the official death toll of the disaster. The staunchest opponents to the Soviets’ policy of transparency were the French who went as far as to deny that the radioactive cloud passed over their country…. Twenty years later in France, and especially in Corsica, cases of thyroid cancer of the same nature and severity as those around Chernobyl are being reported.

Alla Yaroshinskaya: The most dangerous element that came out of the Chernobyl reactor wasn’t cesium or plutonium, but lies. The Lie of ‘86. That’s what I call it. A lie that was propagated like the radioactivity—throughout the whole country and the entire world.

  1. Areva’s Chernobyl Problem

Martin Leers, “Areva’s Incredible Fiasco in Chernobyl,” Journal de l’Energie, February 24, 2016

The fifth item in this list was chosen because it is a unique report on a side-issue of the Chernobyl cleanup that has remained out of public awareness: how to decommission the other reactors (the ones that didn’t explode) and spent fuel at the Chernobyl power plant. This report serves as another stark reminder that when it comes to technological promises to fix technological blunders, three lines from Hamlet are apt reminders of our hubris:

Our wills and fates do so contrary run

That our devices still are overthrown;

our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2)

Excerpt:

The EPR reactor is not Areva’s first failure in the field of nuclear engineering. The French nuclear company was involved in another disgraceful fiasco in Chernobyl, which the press has not wasted any time exposing.

In the heart of the exclusion zone, just 2.5 kilometers from the ruins of Chernobyl’s reactor no. 4, lies a strange pile of concrete boxes, and two horizontal beams with multiple oval holes drilled into them extending for hundreds of meters. This unusual assemblage is called ISF2, which stands for “Interim Spent Fuel Storage Facility 2”. It is a nuclear waste storage facility, which Ukraine commissioned Areva to build. The French nuclear group made a major design error in the facility, which has rendered it inoperable. This facility, considered by the international community to be as vital to the nuclear safety of Chernobyl as the giant arch over the damaged reactor, is still not functioning to this day, largely because of Areva’s initial errors.

After the explosion of Chernobyl’s reactor no. 4… the nuclear power plant, which housed three additional units, continued to operate for more than 14 years. The dismantling of these three reactors and the management of their nuclear waste is the other major project for Chernobyl’s nuclear safety, concurrent with the giant arch meant to cover the “sarcophagus” of the ruined reactor.

  1. And the impact on human health?

Coverage of the Chernobyl catastrophe this year has generally had little to say about the ecological impact of radiation released from the reactor explosion, and the term “ecological” should include soil, water, air, flora and fauna—with humans included as part of the fauna. The last two articles on this list were two of the exceptions that went into some detail about the work of scientific researchers who have done courageous work on the ecological impacts. They asked the right questions that the official studies have not wanted to pursue, for obvious reasons.

Exiled scientist: ‘Chernobyl is not finished, it has only just begun,’” King 5 News, April 18, 2016

Excerpt:

Yury Bandazhevsky, 59, was the first scientist in Belarus to establish an institute to study Chernobyl’s impact on people’s health, particularly children, near the city of Gomel, about 120 miles over the border from Ukraine. He was arrested in Belarus in 1999 and sentenced to eight years in prison for allegedly taking bribes from parents trying to get their children admitted to his Gomel State Medical Institute. He denied the charges.

The National Academy of Sciences and Amnesty International say he was detained for his outspoken criticism of Belarus’ public health policies following the nuclear disaster. He was released in 2005 and given French citizenship, after rights groups took up his case along with the European Union, Britain, France and Germany. He now runs a medical and rehabilitation center outside Kiev dedicated to studying and caring for Chernobyl’s victims.

“At the first, we were observing the effects of the large doses because Gomel was located in the epicenter of this high level of contamination. Then we started to look at the accumulation of radioactive elements in internal organs at lower doses, children’s in particular. We were already seeing a complex pathology affecting the endocrine system (which produces hormones), the cardiovascular system and almost all the internal organs. This was work that had never been done in Belarus and has not been done since.”

“When I arrived in Ukraine in 2009, I did not find any serious objective source of information about the state of health of the children and people in the Ivankiv and Polesskiy regions (two areas that neighbor Chernobyl). There was no interest. We have now examined about 4,000 second-generation children and most of them have serious problems with their cardiovascular systems. I was starting to see the same thing in Belarus before I left. I am especially disturbed by irregularities I see in teenagers, in particular boys ages 12-17.”

  1. The impact on other forms of life?

Linda Pentz Gunter, “Blind mice and bird brains: the silent spring of Chernobyl and Fukushima,” The Ecologist, April 25, 2016

Excerpt:

Evolutionary biologist Timothy Mousseau and his colleagues have published 90 studies that prove beyond all doubt the deleterious genetic and developmental effects on wildlife of exposure to radiation from both the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters, writes Linda Pentz Gunter. But all that peer-reviewed science has done little to dampen the ‘official’ perception of Chernobyl’s silent forests as a thriving nature reserve.

But none of this work has received anything like the high profile publicity afforded the ‘findings’ in the 2006 Chernobyl Forum report which claimed the Chernobyl zone “has become a wildlife sanctuary.”

“I suppose everyone loves a Cinderella story,” speculated Mousseau, an evolutionary biologist based at the University of South Carolina. “They want that happy ending.” But Mousseau felt sure the moment he read the Forum report, which, he noted, “contained few scientific citations”, that the findings “could not possibly be true.”