Friday, 29 April 2016

Chernobyl - 30 Years on

I was a teenager of the 1980s and just like many who look back with rose tinted glasses, it was amazing. There were the roller discos, Fame, leg warmers, Madonna, no mobile phones for your parents to keep tabs on you, but there was also some really bad stuff.

I grew up in a house my parents built and the lounge had a floor to ceiling curtain, a fabulously midcentury pattern of a dark petrol blue. I clearly remember as a child that I thought of this as the Iron curtain. The mysterious Russian political scene that played out on the TV news in the corner, naturally filtered its way into my imaginary theatre and curtain up on performances. The terminology could so easily be translated in my mind to represent literal meaning. The cold war was obviously, a war where it's cold. The Iron Curtain, an actual curtain made of iron very similar to the one that shut out the chilly evenings in our house.

But  teenagers struggle with the complexities of their hormones, individuality and growth as a young adult and I was no different. As my mind formed opinions about the world, I choose to be a vegetarian and became concerned with the environment. The 80s brought a new affluence and importance on wealth. Greed and self importance surrounded my fragile conscience and I did not like it. War wasn't something that went well with an emerging personality and there was plenty of that around. I was on a residential trip in the Brecon Beacons, Wales for a week during the Falklands War. Away from the influence of my family and awash with late night pre-teen conversations about war just before I slept and days filled with beautiful scenery and sustainability, had a profound effect on me. My conclusion... people are wrong, nature is right.

War however continued with the Iraq war and what I realised was not simply a war in a cold place. As I learnt about animal welfare issues and the threat to the environment, I became more concerned,  by what could be done about the hole in the ozone layer,  poor rabbits having shampoo squirted in their eyes and the world being completely annihilated by nuclear weapons. Nuclear war was a real threat in 1980s. I remember seeing the haunting animation of Raymond Briggs' "When the wind blows." and feeling genuine fear. This was no cheery lighthearted story of what Father Christmas does on the busiest night of his year or the touching but slightly sad story of the relationship between a boy and a snowman. Spoiler alert...everyone dies and the world is destroyed.

And then came Chernobyl. This week was the 30th Anniversary of the worst nuclear accident in the history of the world and it may well have slipped by unnoticed if it hadn't been for one of my students and my boy's ability to find the most weird and wonderful videos on YouTube. As it turns out YouTube isn't just people doing crazy stupid stuff and cute animals. Exploring with Josh is a YouTube star who has made a life for himself exploring abandoned buildings around the world with both respect and integrity. Last month my son and I watched him explore the abandoned city of Pripyat in the exclusion zone around Chernobyl. It was fascinating, eerily silent and beautiful. Here was a kid bringing useful and poignant stuff to the eyes of my child. We talked together about the workings of a nuclear reactor and moved on to his next adventure. On Tuesday I was helping a student explore what role in society he could play after studying environmental sustainability at University and discussed the impact that testing nuclear weapons can have. He left and I remembered the Exploring with Josh Chernobyl Series. Click click click, find me the link Mr Google and there it was top hit....Chernobyl 30 years on.

It strange how somethings capture your imagination and you wonder why. For the past three days I have been reading and watching and investigating why an event that happened 30 years ago has such significance to me. Well to start with I remember it happening, an accident that could never happen, spilling out nuclear fallout across Europe. I clearly remember watching Children of Chernobyl  1991 on Channel 4 (a relatively new TV channel that showed interesting stuff for young people like me) and being horrified.  But there is way more to this story.......

  1. Liquidators - these were the people who went in to try and control the situation because as the core of the nuclear reactor continued to burn, there was a real risk of a second explosion. These people were the fire fighters, the army, miners, scientists and randoms given no choice but to help. After all, the were in fact sacrificing themselves to save their loved ones, family, the rest of Europe. As is often the way with statistics they vary from one source to another but as the majority seem to be around the half a million mark, I'll go with that. So to clarify around half a million Russians between the ages 20 - 30 years old, exposed themselves to fatal doses of radiation to save others. This is their story here
  2. Sarcophagus - this is a big lid that the liquidators made out of steel and concrete to go over the reactor. Designed to last for 30 years (it was a temporary measure), that started to crumble a while ago now. Don't worry though guys, they are building a bigger box to slide over the top. The Ukraine aren't that rich so they are borrowing the money but I'm sure it will all work out fine in the end... hold on what about the radiation seeping into the earth below?
  3. Blame - when bad stuff happens, we have got to blame someone right? It must have been someone's fault. How about these guys here? After all the pondering and consideration and information that has poured into my head, I do not believe that blame can be placed at the feet of individuals. Perhaps nuclear energy is not the way forward, perhaps the race to be bigger and better is one that should not be run?
  4. Valery Lagasov - he is a bit of a hero in the story but not the one who gets the happy ending. The victim in many ways but make up your own mind here
  5. The returners - no matter how bad things get there are always the fighters, the resilient individuals who will stand by their beliefs. Imagine being told that there is radiation falling from the sky and you need to grab a couple of bits and leave on a bus until it's safe. Now imagine that it never is safe and that liquidators (see above) are ordered to go into your homes and bury your life possessions because the are now radioactive waste. I haven't discovered yet where these people are but I do know that a few of them said "No." They ignored the exclusion zone and went home. Their home was more important than their health. And here is where the story turns... The Babushkas of Chernobyl

Nature - and finally the true hero of the story... Nature. That small conclusion I made in the 1980s is actually becoming true. Stalin, his propaganda and deforestation and draining of the Pripyat marshes in the 1920s was wrong, building a Nuclear power station and a town for it's workers on the door step was wrong, but removing the humans with their destructions, hunting and pollutions appears to have had a positive impact on the environment. Despite the area being radioactive beyond human habitation, the forest has grown back. Beavers have come in with their obsessive damn building, blocked up the Stalin's canals and refilled the flood plaines. There are wolves and foxes, elks and wild boar, bears and all the domestic animals left behind that weren't destroyed as radioactive waste by the liquidators. They are all eating radioactive food but seem to being doing fine in the YouTube videos I've watched especially Mrs Domestic Cat. One day she came home and her humans weren't there but she learnt to hunt and had some kittens. Bears, wolves and owls tried to eat them but they kept on moving and now they happily live on one of the boats left behind by the liquidators because it was thought to be too radiative to leave the Dead Zone.

I imagine that I am totally wrong with all of my learnings from the World Wide Web and perhaps someone from the Ukraine can put me straight or maybe I will simply disappear in the night which will have nothing to do with the Kremlin or the KGB or the Secret Service. My final link is to Azure Dust (ps grab a hankie). 

1 comment:

  1. A captivating blog entry; fascinating..!!! - I know what I'll be doing this evening; watching one of the films that you've linked within the article. :)


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