In the zone: Chernobyl still dying after 30 years
As new shield for wrecked nuclear reactor in Ukraine nears completion, some people who lived or worked in contaminated zone find themselves unable to stay away
Alexey Breus, a former Chernobyl engineer: ‘When I saw reactor four, I understood what it really means for your hair to stand on end. It was like something from a nightmare.’ Photograph: Dan McLaughlin
Ivan and Maria Semenyuk, who live in a cabin in the remote village of Paryshev, 25km from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Photograph: Dan McLaughlin
Employees work in front of the sarcophagus covering the damaged fourth reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine in March 2016. Photograph: Gleb Garanich/Reuters
The sarcophagus covering the damaged fourth reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant seen behind a building in the abandoned city of Prypiat. Photograph: Gleb Garanich/Reuters
Alexey Breus never wanted to go to Pripyat, the model Soviet city built for staff at what was one of the world’s biggest atomic power stations: Chernobyl.
When he qualified as a nuclear engineer in 1982 from the prestigious Bauman Moscow State Technical University, he hoped to stay close to his fiancée and secure a job at a research institute at Podolsk, just outside the then Soviet capital.
“But it was complicated. There were a couple of other strong candidates for Podolsk. And then there was this one incident,” Breus says, thinking back more than three decades to before events that would sear Chernobyl’s name into history.
“My fiancée and I were walking, discussing where I should work, and a little girl bumped into my leg on her home-made rollerskates. She was maybe six years old, and called Oksana. ‘Hey, Oksana,’ my fiancée said to her, ‘should this guy go to Pripyat or Podolsk?’ And Oksana, a bit scared and having no idea what my fiancée was talking about, replied in her little voice, ‘Pripyat’.
“So I ended up going to Pripyat. But I didn’t like it. My fiancée did not go there with me, and I wanted to rejoin her as soon as possible.”
Breus moved to a city that had been built the previous decade, 100km north of Kiev, bringing tower blocks and 50,000 people to a bleakly beautiful landscape of woods and marshes, roamed by wolves, bears, lynx and elk.
He arrived at Pripyat in time to help finish construction of the fourth reactor block at Chernobyl nuclear power station, a hulking complex of drab grey steel, squat concrete cooling towers and red and white chimneys just 3km from the city.
On the morning of April 26th, 1986, Breus boarded the bus to go to the plant, where he was a senior engineer in the control room of reactor number four.
“My apartment looked out towards the power station, but that night I hadn’t heard or seen anything unusual. No one said anything special on the bus. It was about 7am and everything seemed normal, just like every other day,” he says. “But when I saw reactor four, I understood what it really means for your hair to stand on end. It was like something from a nightmare.”
At about 1am, Breus’s colleagues on the night shift had conducted a test to determine whether reactor four’s cooling system could cope with a power cut.
The experiment quickly and disastrously went wrong, key safety systems failed and a huge, uncontrolled surge of power caused explosions that destroyed the reactor, and hurled its 2,000-tonne protective “lid” through the roof of the building.
“When we arrived at the reactor I thought everyone must be dead inside, that it was a mass grave,” Breus says. “I wondered why they had they brought us here. What could we possibly do?”
Teams of firemen had worked through the night to extinguish blazes around the reactor, suffering massive exposure to the radiation that poured out into the surrounding area and was carried up into the atmosphere.
Inside the badly damaged building, Breus joined colleagues in desperate efforts to restart water pumps to cool what remained of the radioactive core, and to do whatever the plant’s ruined systems would allow to prevent another blast.
Already, engineers and firemen were falling ill with symptoms of radiation sickness. Breus took the military anti-nausea pills that he had been issued, and continued working until about 4pm.
“My colleagues and I were ready to do anything possible to help. It was a dangerous place, but we had to do what we could – no one else would do it,” he says. “I was the last person to press a button in the control room of reactor number four. By about 4pm the cooling tanks were full of water again, and I was ordered to start the pumps. I hit the button and nothing happened. And I was glad, because it could have caused another explosion. After that, I left the control room.”
The World Health Organisation recognises a “dramatic increase in thyroid cancer . . . among those exposed at a young age” to the nuclear fallout, and “some indication of increased leukaemia and cataract incidence among workers” in the clean-up operation.
Returning to Pripyat from his shift, Breus noticed that his hands and face were red and parts of his body had taken on a strange brownish hue that took several days to clear.
Breus received a radiation dose of 120 rem (a unit that measures exposure to ionizing radiation), when the permitted annual limit for Soviet nuclear workers was just 5 rem, but he has never been given full access to the results of his numerous medical tests from the time.
Soviet officials sought to impose secrecy over all aspects of the disaster: the KGB blocked phone calls from the power station to the rest of the Soviet Union; telegrams from Pripyat were censored; and state media issued a first brief and vague news report about the accident only on the evening of April 28th, after the billowing radiation cloud triggered sensors at an atomic power plant in Sweden.
Pripyat was not evacuated until 36 hours after the disaster, and residents were told to take only a few clothes, important documents, some money and a little food, because they would be back home in a matter of days. But they never returned.
After the evacuation, when the last of the seemingly endless lines of buses had departed Pripyat, Breus and about 1,000 colleagues remained in an eerie ghost city.
Breus has unsettling memories of the time: the displays of digital clocks scrambled by radiation; a blizzard of urgent, anxious telegrams pouring into Pripyat’s post office for people who would had left the city forever; working at the plant in the days after the explosion and feeling “an earthquake” each time a helicopter dropped tonnes of sand and chemicals on to the smouldering reactor; the colleague whose body was never recovered from ruined block number four.
More than 200,000 workers were sent to Chernobyl to mount a vast clean-up operation. Acres of topsoil and trees were removed and buried as radioactive waste; livestock and pets were destroyed; the city of Pripyat was chemically washed to remove poisonous dust; and several villages were simply bulldozed and interred, along with hundreds of contaminated cars, trucks, military vehicles and helicopters.
Instead, Breus became a journalist and artist, but he continues to make brief visits to Pripyat, guiding visitors and sometimes sketching pictures on the flaking walls of his old flat in the still abandoned and heavily contaminated city.
Furniture stands, slowly rotting, in apartments; schoolbooks sit on classroom shelves. From dank and creaking offices, faded portraits of communist officials gaze over a fairground that was due to open five days after the explosion. A Soviet slogan atop a tower block declares: “May the atom be a worker, not a soldier.”
Pripyat sits at the heart of “the zone”, a strictly controlled 30km exclusion area that is still considered to be too dangerous for human habitation.
The explosion at Chernobyl released 400 times more radiation than did the US atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, and contaminated more than 100,000 sq km of territory, with Ukraine, Belarus and Russia worst affected. But the greatest concentration of heavy and highly hazardous particles fell near the plant.
In some people, however, a fierce craving for home, and for Chernobyl’s quiet forests and meandering streams, overcame all fears, road blocks and official bans.
“Where will I live in the world besides here? What will I do with myself? That’s what I thought as I left after the accident,” says former metalwork teacher Yevhen Markeyevich (79) in the front room of his small house in the town of Chernobyl.
“The area was officially sealed, but I’m a smart guy, and I managed to keep getting back into the zone. One day I met a man who was doing radiation tests at the power station, so I asked him for work and he gave me a job fixing the dosimeters.
“I would sneak into this house to sleep, being careful to replace the ‘keep out’ sign on the door. After a while there were a few dozen of us living back in Chernobyl, and we persuaded the local officials to stop threatening to kick us out. They turned the electricity back on in 1987, and I’ve never left here for long since.”
Markeyevich is one of about 176 samosely (self-settlers) who now live in Chernobyl and nearby villages, showing little fear of radiation or of the wolves and other wild animals whose numbers are increasing in the exclusion zone.
“There were so many mushrooms in the woods the year of the accident, which they say is a bad sign. But we ate them, and nothing happened. We eat everything that grows, catch fish in the streams, and we feel good. Local herbs and moonshine help, of course,” Markeyevich says.
“More than 1,000 people used to live here, but now there are only six souls,” says Ivan Semenyuk (81), a former collective farmer who lives in a cabin with his wife, Maria, while a cat, a few chickens and an unruly piglet share the yard outside.
“There is supposed to be a bread delivery every Thursday, but often it doesn’t come. We rely on forestry workers to bring us a few things to help keep us going. But if something grows here naturally, we eat it. We think this is a clean area, and we’re not scared.
“The ones who went away to the city are dying off much quicker than us.”
Twenty-five kilometres from Semenyuk’s wooden cabin and its few trappings of modernity, an extraordinary €1.5-billion project is nearing completion.
More than 40 countries, including Ireland, have funded the construction of a vast metal arch that will be the world’s largest land-based movable structure, weighing more than 30,000 tonnes and standing 110 metres tall, big enough to cover Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral.
The arch will be slid over Chernobyl’s sarcophagus next year, enclosing it with the aim of preventing the further escape of radiation for the next century.
The authorities tolerate the presence of Markeyevich, Semenyuk and other defiant “self-settlers” in the exclusion zone. But they are all older; no young people live here, and scientists believe the area could be dangerously contaminated for another 300 years. In a decade or two, the zone could be completely uninhabited.
In this sense, 30 years after the disaster, Chernobyl is still dying.
“Lots of wild animals are coming back, that’s for sure. I often see wolves, and hear them howling. They seem to be doing better than us humans,” says Semenyuk, sitting with his wife in their little cabin.
“But we don’t regret coming back. This is where we feel best. It’s our home.”