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kottke.org posts about Chernobyl

Revisiting Chernobyl

posted by Tim Carmody   Apr 05, 2019

estimated-number-of-deaths-from-the-chernobyl-nuclear-disaster_v1_850x600.png

I’ve spent the last few years fascinated by the Chernobyl disaster. This fascination partly grew out of my interest in the Flint Water Crisis, which was directly compared to Chernobyl in a story I wrote about it. (One of the things people forget is that Chernobyl poisoned the water table for a huge region.)

Looking Again At Chernobyl” reviews two books: Midnight In Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, by Adam Higginbotham, and Manual For Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future, by Kate Brown.

The similarities with Flint start in the opening paragraph:

Catastrophes happen when a large system gets so out of sync with its environment that a tiny tweak can crash it to the ground. It’s happened to oil rigs, spacecraft and mines. Afterward, committees blame the people who did the tweaking. But what matters is how the system became unstable and crashed, the atmosphere that caused it and the aftereffects. In these two books about the April 1986 explosion of the No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, “Midnight in Chernobyl” focuses on the first and second, “Manual for Survival” on the third.

It’s probably fair to say that we’ve spent the last thirty years acting as if we don’t live in a post-Chernobyl world.

Robert P. Crease, the reviewer, seems most taken with Higginbotham’s book:

Adam Higginbotham’s “Midnight in Chernobyl” is a gripping, miss-your-subway-stop read. The details of the disaster pile up inexorably. They include worn control rod switches, the 2,000-ton reactor lid nicknamed Elena, a core so huge that understanding its behavior was impossible. Politicians lacked the technical knowledge to take action, while scientists who had the knowledge feared to provide it lest they lose their jobs or lives…

The explosion occurs less than 100 pages into this 366-page book (plus more than 100 pages of notes, glossary, cast of characters and explanation of radiation units). But what follows is equally gripping. Radio-controlled repair bulldozers became stuck in the rubble. Exposure to radiation made voices grow high and squeaky. A dying man whispered to his nurse to step back because he was too radioactive. A workman’s radioactive shoe was the first sign in Sweden of a nuclear accident 1,000 miles upwind. Soviet bigwigs entered the area with high-tech dosimeters they didn’t know how to turn on. Investigations blamed the accident on six tweakers, portrayed them as “hooligans” and convicted them. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (Unscear), which is to radiation studies something like what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) is to assessing human-induced climate effects, struggled to make sense of changing and confusing information.

Brown’s book is trying to do something very different, and Crease finds it correspondingly more complicated to evaluate:

Kate Brown’s “Manual for Survival” has a different style and emphasis. Its aim is to be an exposé of the attempts to minimize the impact of Chernobyl. The disaster was less an accident, says Brown, a historian at M.I.T., than “an exclamation point in a chain of toxic exposures that restructured the landscape, bodies and politics.” Unscear’s publications were cover-ups, and radiation-related maladies are “a dark horseman riding wild across the Chernobyl territories.” Brown undertook the book so as not to become “one of those duped comrades who found out too late that the survival manual contained a pack of lies.”

Around 2014, Brown began interviewing people in the affected areas, and sought measurements of radioactivity in such things as wool, livestock and swamps. Her stories are affecting, yet it is hard to evaluate memories and anecdotes. It is also hard to evaluate measurements. These are meaningful only within the tangled web of factors that radiation epidemiologists consider — including type and time-span of dose, pathways through the body, susceptibility of individual tissues and background radiation — as well as health issues like alcohol, obesity and stress.

Brown deserves credit, though, for wading into these murkier waters, because the murky waters is where we are. Part of reckoning with Chernobyl means admitting everything we don’t know. We don’t know the full health effects of the disaster. We don’t know how many people died. We don’t know how many lives were lost to neglect and cover-up. We don’t know how many could have been saved.

Part of what it means to actually live in a post-Chernobyl world is to accept that our most vital infrastructure is always threatened; that the threats it poses are always disproportionately affecting a society’s most vulnerable citizens; and that its threats are always downplayed by a society’s most powerful and directly responsible members, out of ignorance and fear.

That’s the lesson of Chernobyl. That’s the lesson of Flint. That’s the lesson of the future, which it never seems to hesitate to teach.

A massive billion-dollar movable arch now covers the destroyed reactor at Chernobyl

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 30, 2016

A building which cost $1.5 billion and was 20 years in the making was moved into position over the highly radioactive remains of the main reactor at Chernobyl this week. The time lapse video above shows how the building was inched into place.

The new structure, which is about 500 feet long, has a span of 800 feet and is 350 feet high, is designed to last at least a century and is intended to prevent any additional spewing of toxic material from the stricken reactor.

Even with the building in place, the surrounding zone of roughly 1000 square miles will remain uninhabitable.

The Long Shadow of Chernobyl

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 14, 2014

Gerd Ludwig Chernobyl

National Geographic photographer Gerd Ludwig has visited Chernobyl nine times over the past twenty years. The Long Shadow of Chernobyl is a forthcoming book collecting Ludwig’s photos, which includes an essay by Mikhail Gorbachev. The publication of the book is being funded via Kickstarter. There is also an iOS app.

The trees of Chernobyl

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 09, 2013

This is what the trees look like near Chernobyl when you cut them down. It’s a biiiit tricky but see if you can spot when the nuclear plant disaster happened…

Chernobyl trees

Not surprisingly, researchers have found evidence that the radiation has affected the growth of trees near the accident site. From the paper:

Mean growth rate was severely depressed and more variable in 1987-1989 and several other subsequent years, following the nuclear accident in April 1986 compared to the situation before 1986. The higher frequency of years with poor growth after 1986 was not caused by elevated temperature, drought or their interactions with background radiation. Elevated temperatures suppressed individual growth rates in particular years. Finally, the negative effects of radioactive contaminants were particularly pronounced in smaller trees. These findings suggest that radiation has suppressed growth rates of pines in Chernobyl, and that radiation interacts with other environmental factors and phenotypic traits of plants to influence their growth trajectories in complex ways.

The almost-vanished village near Chernobyl

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 27, 2011

From the NY Times Lens blog, a photo essay by Diana Markosian featuring a Ukrainian town near Chernobyl where only five families remain; the rest of the 1000 original residents evacuated after the disaster 25 years ago.

But life can be grim and lonely. Twenty-five years ago, Ms. Masanovitz was a nurse. Her husband was a farmer on a collective farm. Now he spends his time drinking.

While she was photographing the couple one day, Ms. Markosian watched as Ms. Masanovitz picked up the phone in astonishment. It was the first time it had worked in a year.

More photos are available on Markosian’s web site. (via @hchamp)

Powerful photo essay on Chernobyl, 20 years after

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 26, 2006

Powerful photo essay on Chernobyl, 20 years after the accident. Photographer Paul Fusco says the damage was so great that he thought he was looking at “a different race of people”. (thx, lisa)