National Geographic : 2014 Oct
128 national geographic • october 2014 into the Black Sea. Russian troops were mass- ing on Ukraine’s eastern border. In a crazy way, Chernobyl felt like the safest place to be. The other diehards in the van had come for their own reasons. John, a young man from Lon- don, was into “extreme tourism.” For his next adventure he had booked a tour of North Korea and was looking into options for bungee jump- ing from a helicopter. Gavin from Australia and Georg from Vienna were working together on a performance piece about the phenomenon of quarantine. We are used to thinking of sick people quarantined from the general population. Here it was the land itself that was contagious. Of all my fellow travelers, the most striking was Anna, a quiet young woman from Moscow. She was dressed all in black with fur-lined boots, her long dark hair streaked with a flash of magenta. It reminded me of radioactivity. This was her third time at Chernobyl, and she had just signed up for another five-day tour later in the year. “I’m drawn to abandoned places that have fall- en apart and decayed,” she said. Mostly she loved the silence and the wildlife—this accidental wil- derness. On her T-shirt was a picture of a wolf. “ ‘Radioactive Wolves’?” I asked. It was the name of a documentary I’d seen on PBS’s Nature about Chernobyl. “It’s my favorite film,” she said. In the early hours of April 26, 1986, during a scheduled shutdown for routine maintenance, the night shift at Chernobyl’s reactor number four was left to carry out an important test of the safety systems—one delayed from the day before, when a full, more experienced staff had been on hand. Within 40 seconds a power surge severely overheated the reactor, rupturing some of the fuel assemblies and quickly setting off two ex- plosions. The asphalt roof of the plant began burning, and, much more threatening, so did the graphite blocks that made up the reactor’s core. A plume of smoke and radioactive de- bris rose high into the atmosphere and began bearing north toward Belarus and Scandinavia. Within days the fallout had spread across most of Europe. Throughout the night firefighters and rescue crews confronted the immediate dangers— flames, smoke, burning chunks of graphite. What they couldn’t see or feel—until hours or days later when the sickness set in—were the invisible poisons. Isotopes of cesium, iodine, strontium, plutonium. The exposures they received totaled as much as 16 sieverts—not micro or milli but whole sieverts, vastly more radiation than a body can bear. From the high-rises of Pripyat, less than two miles away, Chernobyl workers and their families stood on balconies and watched the glow. In the morning—it was the weekend before May Day—they went about their routines of shopping, Saturday morning classes, picnics in the park. It was not until 36 hours after the ac- cident that the evacuation began. The residents were told to bring enough supplies for three to five days and to leave their pets behind. The implication was that after a quick cleanup they would return home. That didn’t happen. Crews of liquidators quickly moved in and began bull- dozing buildings and burying topsoil. Packs of dogs were shot on sight. Nearly 200 villages were evacuated. The immediate death toll was surprisingly small. Three workers died during the explosion, and 28 within a year from radiation poisoning. Mounted over the door was an educational poster illustrating the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation.