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Chernobyl Fires, Then and Now – 1

June 19, 2018

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, April, 1989. (R. Prince photo)

Nuclear Notes – 1…Chernobyl


A few weeks ago brush fires were reported to have spread not far from the decommissioned and contaminated Cherobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. According to Agence France-Presse, one broke out in the grass some six miles from the plant well within what is referred to as “the exclusion zone” – the heavily contaminated area of some 1000 square miles surrounding the plant.

The fire started on June 4, 2018. Three days later, by June 7 Ukrainian authorities reported that the fire had been extinguished and that radiation levels throughout the region had not acceded “acceptable levels.” They did not say however whether the radiation levels, even with in normal bands, had increased as a result of the fire nor what is included within the framework of “acceptable levels.

Nor is this the first time fires have erupted in the area. Similar brush fires broke out in June of 2017 and a much larger conflagration took place in April 2015. According to a Facebook post from Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, also quoted by AFP, “There’s no need to worry.” Groysman asserted that the radiation levels there remained within safe limits. Ukraine’s nuclear industry regulator said nothing untoward had taken place inside the former nuclear power station, which is not at risk from the flames.

None of the articles on these fires have suggested the obvious – that they are the result of droughts caused by global warming. Although ecology experts noted that smoke from the fires is likely to spread radioactive contamination far beyond the plant, there appears to have been little concern, or if there was, it was suppressed in the news.  According to scientists and environmentalists, the high temperatures and volumes of smoke produced in a forest fire can take contaminants hundreds of kilometers away from the exclusion zone: Radiation really doesn’t respect any international boundaries,” commented nuclear safety expert John H. Large at the time of the 2015 fire.

None of the articles on these fires have suggested the obvious – that they are the result of droughts caused by global warming. Although ecology experts noted that smoke from the fires is likely to spread radioactive contamination far beyond the plant, there appears to have been little concern, or if there was, it was suppressed in the news.  According to scientists and environmentalists, the high temperatures and volumes of smoke produced in a forest fire can take contaminants hundreds of kilometers away from the exclusion zone: Radiation really doesn’t respect any international boundaries,” commented nuclear safety expert John H. Large at the time of the 2015 fire.

Around the time of the 2015 fire an article appeared in the on-line International Business Times entitled “Chernobyl Scientists Warn That Radiation Can Be Unleashed by Climate-Change Induced Wild Fires.”  It made note of a study produced the year before: “…scientists from the Chernobyl and Fukushima Research Initiatives at the University of South Carolina found that radiation still poses a threat by being spread through “catastrophic wildfires”. That was three serious wild fires ago.

Getting back to the most recent Chernobyl brush fire earlier this month, RT, Russian news source, reported that there were over 130 firefighters on the scene aided by “several planes and helicopters dropping water from the sky.” The fire spread to 25 acres of woodland in an area near the plant referred to as “the Red Forest” because in the aftermath of the accident the original stand of pine trees turned red and died of radiation poisoning. Hundreds of tons of soil were flown in to cover radiated areas, much of it soon blown away by winds sweeping the region.


The date was April 26, 1986.

The Aeroflot flight was from Sofia, Bulgaria to Moscow after a conference. The plane was flying over the Ukraine, just above the area where the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was located. Suddenly it lurched downward what felt like 1000 feet or so leaving our stomachs back up at the prior cruising altitude. Almost immediately the pilot regained the plane’s cruising speed and it continued calmly on its journey to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport.

Did the nuclear plant explosion result in the plane’s temporary loss in altitude or were some other factors involved? We’ll never know. But 33 years on, reading about a fire in the brush some six miles from the plant in an area considered “an exclusion zone,” my mind was jolted with the memory of that plan flight and the momentary panic it triggered in all of us on that flight.

It was only after the plane landed that the word came that a major explosion and accident had happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant that we had just flown over. The resulting explosion released 400 times as much radioactive material as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It also blew the lid from the Soviet tradition of lies. The disaster killed an unknown number of people – estimates for deaths from radiation exposure range from dozens to thousands – and forced around 350,000 people to leave their homes forever. Later estimates of Chernobyl-related deaths would reach into the hundreds of thousands, with some suggesting the accident was responsible for more than a million killed over time.

At the time of the April, 1986 explosion, Chernobyl produced a full 10% of Ukraine’s electricity. One of its four reactors blew, triggering – along with Fukushima – the worst nuclear accident in history. Soon thereafter, communist authorities evacuated an area around the plant of 1,000 square miles. Few people live there, and much of the land has been reclaimed by forests and wildlife.

At first the Soviet authorities tried to kill or downplay the story, but a nuclear measuring station in Sweden picked up the increased radiation from the accident and Moscow was soon forced to come to terms with reality. Investigations by the United Nations Committee on the Effects of Radiation (UNSCEAR) concluded that “49 immediate deaths from trauma, acute radiation poisoning, a helicopter crash, and from an original group of about 6,000 cases of thyroid cancers in the affected area.

That of course, was only the beginning.

Radioactive fallout from the power station contaminated up to three-quarters of Europe, according to some estimates, with Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, all then part of the USSR, the worst-affected. Large areas of Ukraine, Russia, Byelorus and Poland were contaminated and radioactive clouds appeared over different areas of Europe, including France, Germany and Finland.

Afterwards, authorities evacuated an area around the plant of 1,000 square miles. Few people live there, and much of the land has been reclaimed by forests and wildlife. Cancer rates in nearby areas of the Ukraine, Byelorus and Poland spiked over the next few years.


In Finland, where our family was living at the time – nearly 1000 miles (1450 km) from the accident – people were warned not to collect mushrooms nor eat reindeer meat that year. In southern Germany that summer, children were forbidden to play out side because of the radiation danger. A friend who happened to be in Leningrad at an international women’s conference shortly after the accident related how the Soviet hosts did their best to trivialize every health warning as western propaganda.

Hearing about the Chernobyl accident, our families back in the United States urged us to leave Finland, where we were living at the time, and return state-side. We didn’t although radioactive “hotspots” – radioactive rain clouds pushed from the Ukraine northward did leave areas in northern Finland with high levels of radioactive contaminants. People were told that year not to collect mushrooms north of the Arctic Circle nor eat reindeer meat.

Three years later, in April, 1989, I at Chernobyl, this time very much on the ground, within 100 yards or so of the plant taking pictures. Since then, with access to the site open virtually to one and all, photos are quite common, but that time when access to the facility was strictly limited,  photos of the place were rare

Decontaminating radiation from Chernobyl at the time essentially was limited to washing down shoes with water. I did that leaving the highly contaminated area

The visit on the third anniversary of the 1986 explosion was tagged on to a small conference in Kiev exploring the possible consequences of conventional war in Europe given the large number of nuclear power plants throughout the continent. If nuclear power plants were targeted, the argument went, it could produce enough radiation contamination comparable to that produced if an actual bomb was dropped. It included scientists from former USSR, eastern and western Europe, USA. Somewhere in my notes I have the list of participants – a generally prestigious group of scientists from Europe – East and West – and North America.

The quality of presentations at the conference was first-rate, unusual for an event sponsored by the Soviet Peace Committee. I had little doubt though that participation in the conference was not so important. The scientists from Western Europe and the USA were lured there mostly by the possibility of the tour of the Chernobyl plant itself. As a part of the conference’s activities, we went from Kiev to Chernobyl by bus.

I don’t remember how long the 60 mile journey took, an hour? an hour and a half? but the participants kept insisting on the bus driver to stop so they could take a piss although what they really wanted to do was measure radioactivity levels every five or ten miles or so as we neared the plant, With penises in one hand and Geiger counters in the other, they kept piling out of the bus and comparing radiation levels with the previous bathroom stops. The bus driver accommodated. As we entered the plant area the Geiger counter measurements spiked considerably

As a part of the conference, we briefly visited the Chernobyl site itself and took a bus ride through Pripryat, the small abandoned town where many of the Chernobyl employees lived before being evacuated. Pripyat, once a 50,000-strong city but now a ghost town, where books still sit on school desks and May Day decorations flutter in the streets. Our delegation could only remain at the site of the nuclear power plant itself for five minutes. I took a number of photos at the time, which I lost for three decades until they reappeared in some old papers I was going through. The one above is from the plant. The one below was the little decontamination cabin we had to go through before leaving the area. It was a rather crude set up. Our shoes were washed off with water. That was about it.

Strangely enough, despite continued elevated radiation levels, in a move similar to another radioactive polluted site – the Rocky Flats Nuclear Power Plant just outside of Denver – in 2011, Chernobyl was declared a tourist attraction. In the case of Rocky Flats, it is, despite strong long opposition, about to open as a wildlife refuge. While the Chernobyl area remains heavily contaminated, a ministry spokeswoman said, tourism routes had been drawn up which would cover the main sights while steering clear of the dangerous spots. Although reportedly illegal, there are four tourism companies operating out of Kiev that for a hefty price will organize tours of the contaminated areas.

from the environmental rally with nationalist overtones in Kiev, April, 1989

4. Chernobyl and Ukrainian nationalism


Sometime in the midst of that conference, I witnessed something else, a precursor of things to come in the Ukraine. One evening, wanting to take a break  from the conference organizers, I took a long walk through the city of Kiev. After about a half hour I noticed that people were all walking “somewhere” – going in the same direction. Curious, I joined the crowd. I soon found out they were heading  to the city’s soccer stadium. Hmmm, a soccer game, let’s go see! There was no entrance fee yet when I got inside the stadium I could not help noticing that the place was absolutely packed to the gills, no place for me to sit and so I stood with some others.

It wasn’t a soccer game, but a political rally.

The speakers were speaking in Ukrainian, the posters and banners were in Cyrillic the letters of which I could vaguely make out. whatever, the crowd – I learned the next day it was more than 80,000 – was cheering wildly the remarks of one of the speakers who was on a podium in the middle of the field along with some others.

At one point, I said to myself something to the effect of “damn – I wish either I could understand Ukrainian or that there was someone here who could translate this for me into English.” And then like mana from heaven, a woman standing behind me, introduced herself, said she spoke English and would be glad to translate for me. And she proceeded to do exactly that for the next two hours. Such things don’t happen very often in life but it did that day.

It was a political rally par excellence.

While the rally was organized around “Transparency for Chernobyl” it was nothing short of a call for Ukrainian independence. Later I’d see a similar environmental movement in Estonia, which also quickly morphed into – or was an integral part of – the movement for separation from the Soviet Union.  The failure, absolute refusal of the Soviet authorities to provide information on the extent of radioactive contamination effecting Kiev was the immediate focus of the rally. There were concerns – that later proved valid – especially about the possible radioactive contamination of  Kiev’s water and milk supplies. The main slogans of the event called for openness and environmental “glasnost.”

The contradiction of what I had seen during the day – ie. a group of foreign scientists, journalists given access to the Chernobyl site, along with much scientific data – and the failure of the Soviet authorities to provide the same information to the people of the Ukraine – could not have been greater. It was the pressure from below, by rallies like the one I stumbled upon in Kiev in April, 1989 that forced open the details of accident and set the stage for Ukraine’s separation from the USSR.

I left that rally – it was two years prior to the break up of the USSR and the independence of Ukraine from Moscow – with the distinct impression that sooner or later, there would be a parting of the ways between the Soviet Union and Ukraine, that the gulf  separating the sentiment of the Ukrainian people for separation – and Mikhael Gorbachev’s efforts to bridge that gulf – were simply too wide.  The voice of the people that day was unmistakably moving away from remaining in the union. There was virtually no trust, no confidence in the center. Whatever I might have thought of Gorbachev – I greatly respected him then and still do – he was already persona non grata in Ukraine.

In a way, the way that the Soviet leadership first handled the Chernobyl disaster was little more than the icing on the proverbial cake, the last straw. The suffering that the Ukraine had endured during the 1930s at the hands of Stalin – when millions there starved – and then during the war at the hands of the Nazis one moment the KGB the next – had created a gulf that not all the good will that Gorbachev offered could overcome.

It was over Chernobyl that Gorbachev’s policy of “glasnost” or openness met its most important test. It was a battle even for Mikhael Gorbachev to pry open the details of the Chernobyl disaster, to let the Soviet people and the world know about it. Interestingly enough, at first not even Gorbachev could access information about the accident in the period just after it happened. In fact, the cover up which followed the accident infuriated Gorbachev. As an article on the Chernobyl accident in The Economist noted:

“In fact, as a transcript of an emergency Politburo meeting shows [the meeting took place immediately after the accident], Gorbachev himself was furious over his limited access to information: “Everything was kept secret from the Central Committee. The whole system was penetrated by the spirit of boot-licking, persecution of dissidents, clannishness, window-dressing and nepotism. We will put an end to all this.”

As the scope of the accident in a general sense became public knowledge, that mostly through a reorganization of the Soviet press where many old guard types were replaced by more honest, open journalists, in Ukraine, the authorities remained mum, silent on the impact of it all on the local region. “Glasnost” had not reached Kiev. By April, 1989, the situation, the stone walling, the silence of the authorities (ie, the Communist Party leadership) was deafening. And so the people exploded and by an accident of history, I happened to have witnessed that explosion.

More on Chernobyl in later entries…


Chernobyl Fires – Then and Now – 2

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Bill Conklin permalink
    June 19, 2018 9:57 pm

    Hi Rob: Thanks for the article on Chernobyl, I really enjoyed it. Although Nuclear Power seems to be our only hope to replace fossil fuel adequately at the present time, we simply don’t know what to do with waste and accidents. Imagine how we are screwing up the world for future generations, and then there is Fuckushima.

    • June 19, 2018 10:15 pm

      Yes waste and accidents. Will be writing about Fukushima soon too; much bigger than Chernobyl

  2. June 20, 2018 1:41 pm

    Thanks so much for the history which still reverberates. Looking forward to next installment. John


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