RIght now I am in Kiev, Ukraine to speak at a global jurists conference. On Saturday I spent an amazing day visiting the Chernobyl area, site of the world’s worst nuclear accident that occurred on April 26, 1986. The accident spread radioactive contamination over large areas of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, killing 56 people directly (including 47 workers who helped contain the fire). A total of 336,000 people had to be evacuated from the contaminated areas including the 50,000 residents of Pripyat, a town in sight of the damaged reactor which instantly became a ghost town. The town is located in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the 30 km radius around the damaged reactor where humans are allowed to venture only with special permission. The accident now is estimated to have caused $200 billion in damages.
You know it is no ordinary trip when the first order of business is to sign a release stating that you will not hold the tour company or the Ukranian state liable if you or your property suffer radiation contamination. There were 15 people in our group from six different countries - Australia, the U.K., Romania, Spain, Denmark, and six people from the U.S.
We spent five hours in the exclusion zone, which is just a two-hour drive north from Kiev, Ukraine’s beautiful capital which has 6 million inhabitants. Our first stop inside the exclusion zone was the town of Chernobyl, headquarters for the response efforts and the town for which the reactors were named. At the time of the accident, four nuclear reactors were operating at the site. The accident occurred in reactor #4. Two additional nuclear reactors (numbers 5 & 6) were in advanced stages of construction and only months from becoming operational at the time of the accident. These had to be abandoned. Reactors 1, 2 & 3 continued operations until the early 1990s with workers shuttled in and out each day by train from a town outside the exclusion zone. They now are shut down and being decommissioned by 4,000 workers who are allowed into the exclusion zone for 15 days each month.
Our tour started at the Chernobyl information center with our guide describing the accident and its consequences. He showed us detailed maps of the path of radiation contamination and photos taken in the aftermath of the accident. We then left the town of Chernobyl and drove further into the exclusion zone, stopping first at a memorial to the firefighters who responded to the accident. We then drove to the reactor sites, passing through another checkpoint at the 10 km inner exclusion zone. Just as the reactor buildings started to appear on the horizon we stopped at a site where a small villages had been buried. After the accident the Soviets ordered that several small villages be destroyed and their contaminated structures buried in the ground. Flags now mark the locations where contaminated structures were buried. Subsequently it was discovered that burying contaminated material in the ground in unlined trenches was not a smart idea because it only accelerated radioactive contamination of the underground aquifer. The guide also pointed out a large radar structure on the horizon that was the site of a secret Soviet facility to detect U.S. missile launches which had to be abandon in the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident.
Then we continued on to the reactors. What first appears is a gigantic unfinished cement structure that I thought might be the damaged reactor. Instead it is an unfinished cooling tower for the reactors still under construction at the time of the accident. Close by the unfinished cooling tower is the nearly finished reactor #5 surrounded by gigantic construction cranes abandoned in the wake of the accident.
We then went to reactor #4, the site of the accident, which can be viewed from a memorial monument located 300 meters away. From the outside it is hard to tell that at the bottom of the structure lies a festering mass of some of the most highly radioactive substances imaginable. In the immediate aftermath of the accident a cement sarcophagus was constructed. With international aid, this has now been reinforced with a structure expected to contain the radiation for the next 100 years. Our guide used a geiger counter to show us that background levels of radiation were twice normal, though below what you get on an airline flight. However, he warned us not to venture any closer because radiation levels rise rapidly beyond the monument, which honors the response workers killed by the radiation they absorbed in fighting the fires. While we were observing reactor #4 another tour bus unloaded several tourists wearing breathing masks and a couple garbed in protective white suits.
We then spent a couple of hours exploring the town of Pripyat where 50,000 people had lived in the shadow of the Chernobyl reactors. It became a ghost town immediately after the accident, despite initial Soviet promises that residents would be able to return within days. The town seems frozen in time. When the accident occurred it was preparing for a May Day celebration when a new amusement park and restaurant were supposed to open. We walked through the crumbling remains of the town’s recreation center, a school, apartment buildings, a swimming pool, and a theater, all abandoned at the time of the accident. Our guide deployed his geiger counter to warn us of radiation hot spots such as moss and chunks of asphalt that still emit as much as 10 times more radiation than their surroundings. Walking among radiation hot spots and through rooms of broken glass with crumbling floor boards, I realized that U.S. authorities would never allow tourists to take such a tour. It was particularly surreal to see several fading posters, photos and emblems honoring Soviet leaders. Our Ukrainian guide, who had lived nearby (though upwind of the damaged reactor) at the time of the accident, repeatedly reminded us of why the accident and the initial Soviet attempts to cover it up became such a powerful indictment of the communist system.
After visiting Pripyat we returned to the Chernobyl information center and had a late lunch featuring borscht. Before we could eat lunch we each had to go through radiation screeniing by placing our hands and feet on a machine that measures radioactivity. After lunch we left the exclusion zone to return to Kiev. The guards at the edge of the exclusion zone guards made each of us go through another round of radiation screening and they also performed a radiation check on our vehicle. A web gallery of photos of my visit to Chernobyl is now available at: http://gallery.me.com/rperci/100427.
Last Monday Li Dao, the top official responsible for climate change at China’s powerful National Development and Reform Commission, argued that the upcoming Copenhagen agreement should not require China to control that portion of its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are generated by production of goods for export. This is the same argument I heard repeatedly last year while giving guest lectures in China emphasizing the need for China to control its GHG emissions (see Archive for the post from June 15, 2008). My response was that it was a dangerous argument for China to use because it invited other countries who have no other means to control Chinese emissions to use China’s failure to do so as an excuse for imposing tariffs or other trade barriers to Chinese products. During a lunch this week a former student who works on trade issues for labor unions confirmed the political saliency of this observation.
Tomorrow South Korea will meet the winner of today’s U.S./Japan game in the finals of the World Baseball Classic. South Korea defeated Venezuela yesterday in the semifinals in Los Angeles. Last Monday my daughter and I were in San Diego to watch a small, but spirited, audience see Cuba eliminate Mexico from the competition. Cuba was itself eliminated by Japan on Tuesday.