Chernobyl - 35 Years Of Silence
It's the sound of shoes creaking that breaks the ghostly silence in the narrow corridor. The path to control room of reactor 4 in the Ukrainian nuclear power plant Chernobyl is covered with centimeter-thick, strongly yellowed rubber mats. Shreds of light blue color are crumbling off the walls, there is a strange, pungent smell in the air, drops of water fall on the damp floor. The close proximity to Ground Zero, the remains of the exploded reactor 4, is depressing. With each step it goes deeper under the so-called New Safe Confinement, a gigantic protective cover that is supposed to prevent the escape of radioactivity.
"From now on it has to be quick." With a decisive jerk, Stanislav, an officer of the nuclear power plant, opens a thick steel door and enters control room four behind it. The greatest nuclear disaster in human history began here 35 years ago. An immense radiation hazard still emanates from this fateful place, lingering is limited to a few minutes. Stanislav's gaze falls on an empty socket in which a switch was once hidden. "Everything started at this point." On April 26, 1986, at 1:23 a.m., the Soviet nuclear technician Alexander Akimov operated switch AZ-5 in Block 4, contrary to his express will, which was supposed to cause an emergency shutdown of the entire reactor. Akimov had long resisted the test of the emergency power supply, but his superior Anatoly Dyatlov gave the man no choice. In the end, wrong human decisions, violations of safety regulations and the long-known design-related defects of the graphite-moderated nuclear reactor of the RMBK type led to an uncontrolled increase in output and ultimately to the explosion of reactor 4. After Akimov pressed the switch, the world was no longer the same.
For most people, Chernobyl is still a synonym for the collective nightmare of an entire generation. For a world in which the technology of atomic fission seems to have gotten out of control, manifested in an apocalyptic end-time scenario that threatens man and nature alike. The explosion of the reactor in Block 4 killed 30 people, including Alexander Akimov, as a direct result of burn injuries or acute radiation sickness. According to a study by the United Nations, at least 4,000 other victims died as a result of the direct effects of the reactor accident; the number of unreported cases could be many times higher.
For months, more than 200,000 liquidators were busy cleaning up, sacrificing their health and often their own lives to clean up the aftermath of the nuclear disaster. Alcohol abuse and psychological anxiety disorders rose just as rapidly as radiation-induced thyroid disease in children. "There was the time before the disaster, and there is the completely different time that followed," wrote Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union, of the reactor accident.
Hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated; entire villages were bulldozed and buried in the ground due to the dramatic radiation exposure. Pripyat, once a flagship atomic grade and home to almost 50,000 people, was completely evacuated on the afternoon of April 27th. A look into the buildings still reveals what life once looked like in everyday Soviet life. A time capsule cemented in by a nuclear disaster that ended the pulsating life of an entire metropolis overnight. “People were told they could return after three days,” says Stanislav. But a few days turned into an eternity.
But not all people have accepted this finality. In the abandoned village of Kupuváte, Hanna Zavorótnja lives in a modest wooden house. The stone oven next to the bed is pleasantly warm and there is a potato stew, pickled cucumber and several glasses with homemade vodka on the kitchen table. Hanna is 87 years old and proud to be able to take care of herself. The vegetable garden behind the house provides for the essentials, and water comes from the well. Life has always been difficult for the old woman. The only child died at the age of a few, and the beloved sister was always a need for care. In the days after the reactor accident, the military knocked on her door and told her to leave home. She was later told that she would not come back. But between 1987 and 1988 several hundred people decided, against the will of the state, to return to their home villages. Hanna, her husband and her sisters also returned. At first they found their house looted and dilapidated, but were able to start over elsewhere in the village. Soon the returnees were officially tolerated and for decades defied radioactivity and loneliness in equal measure.