Chernobyl Remembered, Part 1

On the night of April 26, 1986, a routine test at the RBMK #4 reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine, went badly wrong: in a fatal convergence of bad design and operator error, the reactor core overheated and exploded, scattering radioactive debris high into the sky, from where it eventually spread over most of western Europe.
IDEAS producer Philip Coulter shares the images and stories he learned while visiting Chernobyl in 2006. 5:16

On April 26 1986, in the middle of the night, a group of workers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Number 4 Reactor in northern Ukraine attempted to carry out a safety test. But things went horribly wrong. Number 4 Reactor exploded, shooting a vast column of radioactive debris into the night sky. The toxic cloud drifted mainly to the northwest at first, over Belarus, before passing over Scandinavia, Holland, Belgium and the UK. As the weather changed, the cloud travelled south, eventually covering much of the rest of Europe.

The accident at Chernobyl remains the worst nuclear accident in history, worse even than what happened in Fukushima. Thirty-one people died as an immediate consequence, and a great many more were treated for radiation poisoning, but what is less-well understood are the long-term consequences: who is sick today, more than 30 years later, as a result of Chernobyl? And another question maybe even more important -- what are the consequences for the faith and trust and hope of a people in their leaders? Around Chernobyl itself there's a 30 km zone, where no one is supposed to live, and nothing should be harvested. But many have returned to the zone, and many others are marked forever by their time there 31 years ago. In 2006, documentary producer Philip Coulter went into the zone and found tales of individual bravery and recklessness, lives changed forever, and communities shattered.

This series was first aired on the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, ten years ago. 

"At about 9 a.m., my wife returned from the market and told me that people were gossiping about an explosion at Reactor #4, and that it was not advisable to buy local produce. And my wife said that since I said it was impossible that such an explosion could happen, I should take our child out for a walk… "
-- Senior Engineer Yuri Andreev, remembering the morning of April 26, 1986 in Pripyat.

Zone of Absolute Exclusion

The remains of Reactor #4 is covered by the leaky temporary building they had for thirty years. There's a new dome covering it now that's supposed to be good for 100 years. But there’ll always be radiation, and there’ll be a dome over the reactor until the end of time. That crane, which is also radioactive, is left over from the construction of reactor #5, which was abandoned. (Philip Coulter/CBC)
There is no going back to these villages, or to the town of Pripyat, where the power plant workers lived. Around the epicentre of the disaster there is a zone with a 30 km radius --  the zone of absolute exclusion --  farms, villages, and towns from which some 116,000 people were evacuated.

The explosion at Reactor 4 was not a nuclear explosion. Basically, the reactor overheated, and the explosion that followed scattered about 6 tonnes of radioactive debris into the night sky. The effects were felt all over Europe, but much of the debris fell here, in the zone. The ground is hopelessly contaminated, and the zone itself is surrounded by fences and security checkpoints. The road weaves through wild and abandoned farmland.

Chernobyl changed forever our perceptions about nuclear power. Thirty-one years have passed, but we're reluctant to believe again, as we once did, that nuclear energy is the clean environmental fix for our energy needs. There's a new, more permanent dome now, but in 2006 Reactor 4 at Chernobyl was covered by a more leaky cover, a tomb for a certain dream of the future, an icon of the Soviet Union.

The debate still rages about exactly what happened that night, but it mostly seems to have gone like this. There was a test in progress. Reactors generate power, but they also use it, most importantly, to drive the pumps for the cooling system. The question at Chernobyl that night was, if power were to fail, for how long would the slowing turbines generate enough electricity to drive the cooling pumps, before the emergency generators cut in? As the test began, emergency systems were shut off, and the reactor output was allowed to drop. What the operators didn't know about was a design flaw in the RBMK 1000: at low levels the reactor could be prone to power surges. Output dropped below 1%, and at 1:23 AM, when the operators tried to bring the power levels up, there was a power surge. In seconds, output jumped to 100 times of what was normal. The reactor overheated and exploded, blowing the 1,000 ton lid clear off the core, hurling a great plume of radioactivity and debris into the night sky.

Philip Coulter with the Chernobyl generating station in the background. (Philip Coulter/CBC)
The plume rose high up into the air and was carried northwest by the wind, first over Belarus, and eventually over most of Europe. Immediately after the explosion, fires broke out that continued for 9 days. Pripyat and the surrounding area was evacuated. Then the longer job of clean-up began. Over the next few years, some 600,000 workers took part, each working for only a few minutes a day: one human being could only take so much radiation over a lifetime.

Today Reactor 4 slumbers fitfully under its new, $2 billion protective dome, but there's still a nuclear power station at Chernobyl, if not quite awake, then not asleep either. Reactors 1, 2 and 3 are still there, carefully monitored, but no longer generating power. When you go to the Reactor 1 control room, you walk along the 1 km Golden Corridor that links the reactors, passing through full-body radiation meters and electronic security checks. Finally you are in the control room, identical to the control room for Reactor 4. Not much has changed since 1986.
-- Philip Coulter

Guests heard in the series:

  • Dennis Zabarin, Philip Coulter's guide at Chernobyl
  • Anatoly Gritsak, senior engineer, Reactor #4,1986
  • Yuri Andreev, duty manager, Reactor #4, 1986
  • Yuri Kunakov, shift chief, Reactor #1, 2006
  • Sergei Martinenko, chief engineer, Reactor #1, 2006
  • Asher Atofzhanov, military helicopter pilot, cleanup, 1986
  • Natalia Preobrazenska, doctor, Kiev, 1986
  • Vladimir Usatenko, army reservist, cleanup, 1986
  • Vladimir Verbitsky, soldier, cleanup, 1986
  • Mychaelo and Maria Radkowitz, village residents, Chernobyl

Special thanks to Philip Coulter's fixer in Ukraine, Taras Burnos


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