Radiation: what we do and do not know

Accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima expose how little we know about radiation

As the baton of nuclear disaster is handed after 25 years from Chernobyl to Fukushima, scientists still find themselves with more questions than answers on the effects of radiation on human health.

Vitalik Dashkevich is 18, has blonde hair and sparkling hazel eyes, but beneath his chin is the scar where doctors cut a tumour from his neck before his sixteenth birthday. He is among hundreds of children and teenagers the Chernobyl Children’s Project brings on respite holidays from contaminated areas of Belarus to Britain every year.

Despite being out of school for two years and spending months in the Minsk cancer hospital, he is not against nuclear power. “The old reactors were unsafe. The new generation of reactors are safer, it couldn’t happen again,” he says.

But it has. Tragically, 25 years almost to the month after Chernobyl, history threatens to repeat itself at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan, where partial meltdowns in four reactors have yet to be brought under control after eight weeks.

Described as “apocalyptic” by Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, Fukushima was this month updated to a level 7 event on the International Nuclear Events Scale – the highest level, which it shares only with Chernobyl. Germany, where anti-nuclear feeling has always run high, looks likely to invest in renewable energy rather than nuclear power.

It remains a highly divisive issue. Talk of radiation provokes fear and hostility despite the presence of background radiation across the planet in rocks, soils, food, the air and in our bodies, and despite the undeniable benefits of radiotherapy, X-rays, CT scans, or power. Radiation is invisible and poorly understood by the public, but even in scientific circles there is still much that is debated.

Our understanding of ionizing radiation comes mostly from the Life Span Studies of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb survivors. The effects of large doses of radiation, especially when received in short periods of time, are generally agreed: radiation sickness occurs at around 1 sievert (Sv, the unit of radiological dose, equivalent to 1,000 millisieverts or mSv), severe radiation sickness after 2,000 mSv, and death is likely beyond 4,000 mSv. Background radiation in Britain is 2.7 millisieverts per year, of which man-made radiation makes up around 20 per cent, mostly from medical imaging.

By comparison, the radiation levels around the Fukushima nuclear plant are in the range of 0.03 mSv to 0.5 mSv per hour indicating that, at worst, spending five hours at the plant would be about the same as a year’s background dose in Britain.

The Linear No Threshold theory (LNT) adopted by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) holds that risk increases with radiation dose, with near-zero levels posing a near-zero risk, increasing in line with dose. So according to the models used to draw up safety codes, low levels of radiation below 1 mSv – considerably lower than the background radiation – pose a risk so small as to be statistically invisible. This is the model used by the industry and other government watchdogs such as Britain’s Health Protection Agency.

But a growing number of scientific studies claim to show the LNT theory is inaccurate and unscientific, although perhaps demonstrating the limits of our understanding of radiation, however, it is either more dangerous, or less dangerous than the LNT model represents depending on who you ask. Some even suggest a little radiation is good for you.

One problem is that we don’t understand the mechanism by which radiation affects the body. Former World Health Organisation radiation biologist Dr Keith Baverstock says: “We know that after a dose of radiation you can find chromosomal damage and cell mutations. Then there’s a big gap, and then cancer appears. But until we know how we’re on shaky ground making any claims.” With cancer already running as high as one in three people among some populations, this makes it difficult for studies to accurately identify additional cancers that may have been caused by radiation.

Some have taken the lack of coherent findings that are not contradicted by other studies as proof that radiation poses no danger below the high levels required to cause radiation sickness. The radiation hormesis theory suggests that, similar to a vaccine, small amounts of radiation stimulate the body’s natural defences, actually increasing health. Belle, Beneficial Effects of Low Level Exposures, was set up in 1990 to study such theories and gather evidence that demonstrates the hormesis effect. For example, one study of residents from an apartment block in Taiwan built with steel accidentally contaminated with radioactive cobalt-60, found that among the 10,000 residents who had lived there for nine or more years rates of cancer were much lower than the model predicted, despite the dose they had received.

However, other studies suggest that the LNT model is wrong because it fails to take into account the impact of radioactive particles absorbed by the body in food, water or air – so-called internal emitters – which potentially effect the body very differently to the strong, external radiation blast experienced by the atom bomb survivors on which the risk model is based. Independent radiological consultant Dr Ian Fairlie says even background radiation, while occurring naturally, is not benign. In fact radioactive radon gas, a by-product of natural uranium found in the earth, causes an estimated 21,000 lung cancers a year according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Strictly, the doses of radiation received by inhaling radon gas are not sufficient to cause harm under the model used by the ICRP. Yet while radon is the accepted cause, the same model rejects the idea that low doses from caesium, strontium and plutonium fallout from Chernobyl – and now Fukushima – is high enough to cause harm.

Fairlie says: “It has everything to do with the politics of nuclear power, and nothing to do with the science. It is a case of fitting the science around the policy. We all do it to an extent, but it is important to take the most unbiased approach possible, and not cherry-pick the evidence.”

The Committee Examining Radiological Risks of Internal Emitters, set up by the government and on which Fairlie sat, concluded in 2004 that the uncertainties surrounding internal doses were so large – differences of between two and ten times predictions – as to make the model’s estimates almost useless.

In 2008, the German KiKK study (Kinderkrebs in der Umgebung von KernKraftwerken, Childhood Cancer in the Vicinity of Nuclear Power Plants) examined data stretching back 10 years and found a regular pattern of childhood leukaemias that increased with proximity to nuclear plants. Similar studies had been carried out at Sellafield in the 1980s, which discovered no less than seven cases of childhood leukaemia in one village, Seascale, four miles from the plant.

“You have to be upfront and transparent about nuclear power. The government should have stated that in the worst instance we could expect a few deaths in the local population,” Fairlie says.

But is it reasonable to single out the dangers from nuclear power when the alternatives also come with risk attached? Fly ash released by coal-burning power stations contains radioactive uranium, thorium and radium – something known since at least a 1978 study of Tennessee and Alabama coal plants found doses of up to 1.8 mSv to those living within a mile – but without sparking the same media hysteria. That’s to say nothing of the tens hundreds of thousands of deaths from air pollution the world over, and the thousands of deaths in mines – 30 a year in the US; more than 2,000 a year in China alone. Even wind turbines have led to 69 deaths since the 1970s according to Caithness Windfarms Information Forum – comparable to those killed in nuclear accidents, but having produced a fraction of the power.

Modern society needs power, and it is prepared to accept a degree of risk in generating it but, says Baverstock, our approach to risk is not rational: “People will happily do things that are high risk like smoking. People are prepared to accept risk if they feel they’re getting a benefit from it, but perhaps don’t see nuclear power sustaining the electricity grid as benefit enough.

“We must be consistent,” he warns. “How are the public to make a decision if we tell them to avoid unnecessary CT scans because of the risk they pose, while at the same time telling us that radiation of a similar level radiation from power plants is harmless?”

Part one of this debate on nuclear power is here.


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, May 2011]


Where science and politics meet, uneasily

I feel like I’ve spent a couple of months now reading everything I could find about the Chernobyl disaster, the unfolding crisis at Fukushima, and scientific papers on contamination effects, radiobiology and radiation. It has been informative, but I’m so full of it I almost feel like I’m emitting I-131 and Ce-137. The first of the articles is up now, the second will be in next week’s Big Issue magazine and will be up here soon after.

While interesting, especially in parallel with the progressively more and more polarised rants from the pro- and anti-nuclear lobbies in the media and online, it has made be realise the limits and fallibility of a number of things I suppose I’d always held to be pretty bulletproof. Probably quite naively so.

The UN is most certainly a sprawling and highly bureaucratic edifice. It sprouts acronyms like weeds. You need only watch the actions of the five permanent members of the Security Council to see how the politics of international power play off against the supposed humanitarian aims and instincts of the UN. But I was surprised to find just how easily its member states’ tendrils could force the hand of managers or turn discussion one way or the other – not only in the Security Council, but in organisations such as the WHO.

Dr Keith Baverstock’s experience of being advised to ‘avoid’ investigating evidence that might reveal a greater potential health problem than was accepted from radiation releases was not based on some sinister conspiracy originating in the IAEA. In a much more predictable fashion, it stems from financial implications for the US government from lawsuits brought by servicemen and civilians affected by I-131 fallout from surface nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s, not known to be harmful at the time. Or from French reticence to purchase and stockpile millions of potassium iodide capsules for the populations of major cities like Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, Marseilles, and Bordeaux for the eventuality of a reactor failure at one of its 70-odd nuclear power stations nearby. To consider such realpolitik is understandable, but to enact it is ultimately reprehensible — especially when delivered through the mouthpiece of the WHO, for whom the health of the people should be the highest matter.

I was also amazed by the endless stream of contradictory scientific results. Studies that demonstrate a clear relation between cases of leukemia around power stations, increasing as distance to the plant decreases – highly persuasive epidemiological evidence — and then others that show no relation, or contradictory results. It seems that for whatever your position, there is a scientific study to support it. A lot of this comes down to the layman’s inability (or lack of interest) in understanding the nuances of scientific studies, and also journalists’ failures to understand or explain those points across clearly. You need only glance at Ben Goldacre’s work at Bad Science to see how little journalists are able to – or are bothered about – understanding what the study found, rather than what the press release claims. Even the IAEA/WHO’s 2005 Chernobyl report is guilty of this, hiding details in the report’s body behind a press release gloss. But some blame must also be carried by scientists who, by incompetence, by design, or most likely for lack of funds, end up writing up studies whose conclusions hold little or no worth because of methodological failures, lack of controls, and so on. Yet if they come with a catchy headline (“x causes/doesn’t cause cancer”) their substance can travel around the world.

In fact scientists have shown themselves to be a fairly partisan lot, no doubt partly because of a world in which those with the deepest pockets for funding scientific work also have the most vested interests. But it is far from edifying to see, for example in the radiological debate, one side casting the other either as shills for the government or nuclear industry, or environmentalists Luddites.

The truth is somewhere in the middle: true perhaps, but ultimately not very useful. Nuclear science is barely 100 years old. We still don’t know how radiation affects our bodies, we can only peer on either side of the ‘black box’ to see the inputs and the outputs, and make educated guesses at how they connect. The organisations set up to support and regulate the industry, such as they are, are tainted by the requirements of a Cold War nuclear peril that is no longer relevant, but whose long shadow still ties their hands to secrecy.

Suddenly there is a lot at stake: governments have carbon reduction targets to meet, and growing countries to power; the industry has fought off one disaster only to be faced by a second; environmentalists predict the end of the world as we know it. It would be wonderful to think that science without bias or vested interests can answer these questions, but I have found little evidence to see that may happen.

Chernobyl has taught us more about the industry and politics than radiation and health

Pripyat is still abandoned, and 25 years later the same mistakes are made and the same questions hang over the IAEA and nuclear industry.

A quarter century after the world’s worst nuclear accident in Chernobyl, Michael Parker finds a power generating industry happy to keep the public in the dark.

Old habits die hard. When reactor no. 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine blew itself apart just before 1.30am on April 26 1986, it was natural for the Soviet government to deny it, even as the radioactive cloud swept far to the north and set Geiger counters shrieking in Finland and Sweden.

Denial, misinformation and cover-up were stock in trade for Soviet authorities, and a previous major accident – an exploding nuclear fuel dump at the Mayak processing site in 1957 – was not revealed until 1979. In the days after the Chernobyl disaster, Grigori Medvedev, the former deputy chief engineer at Chernobyl then working at the energy ministry, was put in charge of an investigation.

His 1991 book, The Truth about Chernobyl, lays bare the incompetence and negligence of staff who disabled safety systems, the lax safety culture, and the design flaws of the RBMK type reactors that were known but ignored. He records how the authorities issued no warnings to the population of Pripyat, the town which housed the plant’s workers barely two miles from the stricken reactor from which streamed radioactivity equivalent to 100 times that released from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. School children played outside and weddings took place.

When Pripyat’s 50,000 inhabitants were finally evacuated 36 hours later, the official line was that it was only for a few days – the town remains abandoned 25 years later. The official line still held on May 1, when Communist Party bigwigs came out to watch the parades knowing full well they, and all those marching, did so under the radioactive plume. There was even a show trial of senior managers, who were only freed from prison when the USSR collapsed.

The conniving did not stop there. Journalist and former politician Alla Yaroshinskaya dug out previously classified government documents which revealed how in the face of rising numbers of people diagnosed with acute radiation sickness, the ministry of health simply raised the safe acceptable radiation doses tenfold, redefining the sick as healthy. Without irony, the statement from May 8 1986 claims: “By these means the health safety of the public of all ages is guaranteed, even should the current radiation situation last for 25 years.” Doctors were banned from writing radiation-related causes on death certificates, and statistics were falsified.

However, since 1990 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), World Health Organisation (WHO), UN Scientific Committee on the Effects Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) and other UN agencies have produced numerous reports on the accident. But despite the involvement of the democratic western nations, a sense that the whole picture is not being revealed remains.

The Chernobyl Forum, set up by the IAEA and including the WHO and other agencies, reported in 2005 the controversial claim that around 50 had died, and 9,000 could be expected to die from radiation-related causes following the accident.

Given the scale of the disaster – a complete reactor meltdown, a radioactive fire burning in the open air for 10 days, a radioactive cloud across the continent contaminating hundreds of thousands of square kilometres – many felt this played down the consequences. The press release that accompanied the report’s publication even used the figure of 4,000 deaths, when the body of the report concludes the total is 9,000. There were other complaints: the tone seemed overly final, when any figures are only vague estimates, the report only examined the effects on Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, and emphasised only cancer deaths, rather than the wide range of non-cancer effects such as heart disease, cataracts, nervous disorders and genetic genome instability reported from the former Soviet republics. It is very hard to accurately connect deaths among exposed populations to radiation – studies are inconclusive, data incomplete, possible other factors too numerous – but science demands an objective assessment.

Some scientists felt it was a familiar routine. Radiation biologist Dr Keith Baverstock headed the WHO’s European radiation protection programme, where in 1992 he investigated claims of high rates of thyroid cancer appearing in Belarus. “We were shown around 11 children, all having had recent thyroid operations,” he recalls. “Thyroid cancer is so rare there was no way it was possible to have that many cases in one hospital. “I had been put under pressure not to go, and when we published a letter of our findings, a senior WHO manager strongly suggested I withdraw the letter, which I refused.”

Thyroid cancers in Chernobyl-affected children stand around 7,000 and rising. Treatment is readily available and generally successful, but while only a handful have died, the standard treatment of removing the thyroid leaves the patient dependent on medicine for the rest of their lives. Scars from the operation are so common they have a name – the ‘Chernobyl necklace‘.

Ultimately funded by their member states, the IAEA, WHO and other UN organisations are inclined to ensure that governments hear what they want to hear, Baverstock says. The discovery that radioactive fallout from power stations could be dangerous would “not be welcome”. “The upper levels of UN organisations are not technically qualified people, and make decisions based on politics.”

Based on their findings, Baverstock and his colleagues drew up new safety guidelines that would ensure potassium-iodide capsules, which prevent the thyroid from absorbing cancer-inducing radioactive iodine-131, would be distributed at a radiation dose ten times lower than previously. On publication, the IAEA announced the guidelines were “draft”, and should be ignored.

“We were furious,” Baverstock says. “When we finally had a meeting it turned out there were no scientific objections to this, only financial ones – from France, who with reactors near so many large cities objected to the expense of all those capsules.”

Other organisations such as Greenpeace, Green Party-associated groups and environmentalists and scientists from the former Soviet Union issued their own reports, with death estimates ranging from 30,000 to one million. But if anti-nuclear groups could be said to have a vested interest in maximizing the Chernobyl bodycount, it must be said that the IAEA also has vested interests of a different nature. After all, this is a body set up to promote civil nuclear power, yet a 1959 agreement between it and the WHO gives it precedence in any nuclear-related matter – such as carrying out research to ascertain health risks of radiation and nuclear power. The conflict of interest is obvious, but Baverstock says in reality the agreement is irrelevant: the WHO and UN Development Programme sit on the UN Economic and Social Council, while IAEA with its role monitoring nuclear weapons sits on the more senior Security Council, and thus pulls rank.

Following the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, where partial meltdown in three reactors has yet to be brought under control after six weeks, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano stated the organisation is not the “nuclear watchdog” it is frequently described as. “Responsibility for nuclear safety lies with our member states. The IAEA acts as a hub for international cooperation, to establish safety standards and provide expert advice.” Applying and enforcing safety standards is up to national governments, he said.

Poor standards were to blame at Chernobyl, and perhaps also at Fukushima, where criticisms of the 40-year-old reactor design’s poor secondary containment – destroyed by the explosions last month – had been made since the 1970s, with recommended upgrades never rolled out. Tepco, the plant’s owner, was investigated for falsifying repair records in 2002.

Perhaps nuclear technology is incompatible with the profit motive? Not necessarily, Baverstock says. “What Fukushima has shown is that governments and the industry have not learned. There needs to be a watchdog with enforcement powers, perhaps even owning the plants,” he says.

“We still don’t fully understand radiation risks, and there is certainly irrational fear of radiation among the public. We are not always rational, but if there is incompetence and deception from the nuclear industry then that will, not unreasonably, colour the public’s view.”

At the birth of the atomic age nuclear power stations were the means to manufacture weapons-grade material for nuclear bombs. The industry grew up in an era of Cold War secrecy and the demands of the military over public interest. The state of the world has changed, but the institutional secrecy of the nuclear industry and the organisations created to excuse it remains.

The eventual acknowledgement of the link between iodine-131 and thyroid cancer meant Japanese authorities knew to act quickly and distribute potassium iodide capsules around Fukushima. This will have saved many lives and much suffering – yet were it not for the persistence of scientists like Baverstock and his colleagues, the link might never have been made. By trying so hard to fit the evidence to how they would prefer the world to appear, the industry’s cheerleaders run the risk of learning nothing from Chernobyl – and the accidents that will, and have, come after it.

Part two of the nuclear debate is here.

[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, April 2011]


Signs of Life: Pripyat and Chernobyl


Pripyat, a city near the Dniepr river in northern Ukraine, was built in 1970 to house workers at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, just three kilometres away. Almost 50,000 people lived and worked there.

When Chernobyl reactor no. 4 exploded just after 1am on April 26, 1986, the 1,000 ton concrete containment lid over the reactor was blown aside like a paperweight, blasting out ionising radiation and chunks of radioactive debris. Exposed to the air, the graphite and fuel rods inside the reactor to burst into flames.

Despite dangerous levels of radiation, it was more than 36 hours before the Soviet leadership decided to evacuate the city. By then, sixteen weddings had taken place in Pripyat, and the firemen who attended the fire that first night had begun to die. Men, women and children were told to take only a bag for a few nights, that they were being evacuated as a precaution. They would never return. Pripyat was abandoned, a 30 kilometre exclusion zone was established around the site, and a further 300,000 people in affected parts of Ukraine and Belarus were resettled.

In the days and weeks after the disaster, tens of thousands of men – volunteers, young army conscripts, helicopter pilots, firemen, even miners brought in to reinforce tunnels under the reactor – fought to extinguish the fires and clean up the radioactive debris. With only the most basic protective equipment, they were known as ‘liquidators’.

In the West we know it as the ‘Chernobyl disaster’ or ‘accident’, but in Ukraine and Belarus it is known as ‘the Catastrophe’. It is very difficult to gauge the lasting effects of Chernobyl, made more difficult by incomplete records, a mobile population, conflicting findings and political stonewalling. But Pripyat, empty for years, has become an unlikely tourist destination, the setting for computer games, music videos and films. People now walk among the ghosts.

Through interviews and photographs taken in March 2010, a little of Pripyat’s story is revealed through photographs and the words of those that lived and worked there.

With many thanks to Evgeney Gagushkin, Lyudmila Starodubtseva, Jeanne Rumiantseva and Roman, and Linda Walker of the Chernobyl Children’s Project who made this possible.



Welcome to Pripyat
Welcome to Pripyat

The city sign on the road to Pripyat (При́пять in Russian). Flowers and wreaths are a common sight on the statues, signs and plaques that remain in the zone. They have become memorials to what was lost – the city itself; two-thirds of the population were graduates, Pripyat represented the pinnacle of Soviet modernity and achievement.

“I was maybe three years old. There were many children born there, it was a beautiful, happy city. Schools, swimming pools, cinema, everything there was the best. When people came from Moscow to Pripyat, they used to say we lived in a resort. It was a very clean city, designed by a very good architect, built according to modern town planning theories, using the latest designs.”
– Roman

“We lived in a high-rise flat near the centre, by the culture palace near the main square. After graduation in St Petersburg we got to Pripyat in 1975. We had three bedrooms, everything we needed, all mod cons. We lived there for eight years. it was the best place in the world.”
– Lyudmila

“Once we saw the damage I was depressed, because the no one else realised the extent of the problem. I realised that no one would ever be coming back. I realised there was no hope for Pripyat.”
– Evgeney



Monument to the Liquidators
Monument to the Liquidators

When Pripyat was built a statue of Prometheus, the god that gave man the secret of fire, was erected in the city centre. It seemed apt, with nuclear power representing man’s mastery of nature’s most powerful forces.  After the accident, it was moved to a new home by the Chernobyl Exclusion Area administration offices, outside the city. Like this monument to the liquidators only a few hundred feet from the reactor, today the only statues inside Pripyat commemorate the brave and the dead.

“Since we worked at the power station, when we were called to clear up we did what we had to do, we did our duty. We realised that the consequences of not doing it were terrible. We realised it was very serious and that we could die from the radiation, but it was no use thinking about it.

“We were ordered to stop the chain reaction in reactor no. 3 and we did. The pilots flew sortie after sortie in helicopters because it had to be done, but it killed them all.

“The fire was put out on the first day, but the reactor core was giving off such heat and light that it seemed as if it was still on fire. You could see it at night, bright, many different colours. Like an electric fireplace, glowing, pulsing with light, all the colours of the rainbow. It was beautiful.”
– Evgeney



Abandoned apartments

One of the tallest buildings in Pripyat, it was from here that people watched the multicoloured plume of burning blue, yellow and green fire from the reactor light up the night sky, unaware they were receiving a potentially lethal dose of radiation.

Throughout Eastern Europe, symbols of the Soviet Union and statues of Lenin or Stalin have been torn down. But in Pripyat, where the year is still 1986, the beady eye of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin still watches visitors to the city, and the wreathed hammer, sickle and star of the USSR still adorns buildings.





Not everything in Pripyat remains the same – like the trees that force themselves up through the concrete or the tourists that come to gawp, the present day forces itself upon the city, acquiring 21st century graffiti unimaginable during Soviet times.

Chernobyl has become a major source of tourist income for Ukraine, with proceeds funding a government ministry dedicated to the post-Chernobyl clean-up.

Former residents were allowed to return to collect belongings in the mid-90’s, and guided tours began a few years later. Widespread looting of metal, wood and electrics has been a problem for many years. For a decade after the disaster the city retained a Marie Celeste sense of abandonment – tables laid for dinner, hospitals with beds still unmade. Now the buildings are largely stripped, empty and decaying.



Dark windows
Dark Windows

Pripyat’s first and only supermarket – due to open on May 1st 1986, it never did. Signs still mark the frozen section, and trollies still clog what is left of the aisles.



School's out
School’s out

One of 15 abandoned schools in Pripyat, still strewn with books, musical equipment, toys and propaganda – not least the banners painted for May Day parades but never used, the impact of the images of illustrious Soviet leaders fading like the paint’s colours.



Sporting heroes
Sporting heroes




Few schoolchildren during the 1980s could boast such familiarity and experience with gasmasks.






The fairground big wheel and dodgem cars, ready to carry off those celebrating Workers Day (May Day), but still waiting 25 years later.






So many curious eyes have passed through School No. 4, so many photographers looking for a lasting image, the sense grows that what you see is not the ruined city as it was left 24 years ago, but instead what those unnamed and departed visitors wanted to see, by means of any props found to hand: gas masks, pictures of Lenin, colourful children’s books in bold cyrillic, ragged dolls.



Signs of Life
Signs of Life
In truth, Pripyat is not a ghost town – around 4,000 people work in the exclusion zone monitoring the decaying reactor, radiation levels and wildlife. A new city, Slavutych, was built outside the zone after the disaster to house the workers, as Chernobyl’s remaining reactors were still producing power until 2000, when the plant was shut down as part of an agreement with the EU.

Some workers don’t relish the commute from outside the exclusion zone, however, and set up home inside the small town of Chernobyl from where the power plant takes its name, further than Pripyat from the reactor but still inside the zone.



Lyudmila and Evgeney
Lyudmila and Evgeney

Lyudmila and Evgeney lived in Pripyat. Lyudmila was evacuated while Evgeney, a technician at the plant, stayed behind as a liquidator, and continued to work at the plant until its closure.

“We were working on the third reactor because we were scared that it could be destroyed as well, a chain reaction. The structure was badly damaged, and it was a very thin wall between one reactor and the other. We had to make hundreds of trips to the reactor to cool it down with sand, it took five days to cool down the fuel rods. Only one man had a dosimeter [to measure radiation] and he was crying ‘faster faster faster!’. There were thousands of rads [unit of radiation] in there, we had to run back and forth, eleven of us, wearing only cotton boiler suits.

“Three died there. Others have got various diseases. There are disabilities that can’t be seen, I have high blood pressure and headaches, there have been organic changes in the brain. Lyudmila had an operation in 1985 to treat cancer, after working at the reactor.

“We have a son, 28, he has thyroid problems, He was eight years old when he was diagnosed with a disease that leaves white spots on skin, checkups revealed the thyroid problems too. He went to Cuba on the exchange program for children of Chernobyl.

“When the reactor exploded the concrete cover deflected the stream of neutrons into the forest. But it could have deflected it the other way, towards Pripyat. No one would have survived.”

– Evgeney


“The level of radiation was so strong the pine forest turned reddy orange, it supposed to be green but it became orange in only six hours.

“After we were evacuated we were afraid for our friends and family who were still there. We tried to call them but the lines were dead, there was no news, no information. Everyone had to go to May Day celebrations – in Minsk, in Kiev, even with the radiation from Chernobyl spreading in the air we had celebrations with all the children and families out on the streets. The bigwigs in the Communist Party were there showing their devotion with their families, despite knowing the dangers.

“Though there was no official information, people were trying to leave or get to safety, whatever they thought safety was. There was panic. In the Soviet Union, when you hear nothing, you know it’s bad.

“What happened, happened. No matter how the party misbehaved, they also helped people, they were helped to resettle and recover, given flats and houses and jobs.

“We went back only once, in 1995. We had an opportunity to go there and we were curious. The grass grown tall, the place was dirty and destroyed. I didn’t want to go back. Too many memories.

“Before the catastrophe and after the catastrophe – it is like before the war and after the war. No one will ever forget, nothing is ever the same again.”

– Lyudmila