Twenty years have passed since Chernobyl’s Unit 4 reactor exploded on April 26, 1986. In the months following the disaster, 116,000 residents from 188 towns and villages were evacuated, leaving an area nearly twice the size of Rhode Island uninhabitable. And although partisans from both the pro- and antinuclear lobbies continue to debate the number of deaths directly attributed to the disaster, the allure of nuclear energy has only grown in the past decade.
Today, the Exclusion Zone remains a depopulated field experiment, part wildlife sanctuary and, increasingly, a destination for tourists. Early this year, the Speaker of Ukraine’s Parliament suggested that extreme tourism might be the only way to “derive some practical good out of this tragedy.” And for a few hundred dollars, writes Peter Finn of the Washington Post, the adventurous traveler can spend a day in the Exclusion Zone, wander the empty streets of Pripyat, whose 45,000 residents were evacuated after the explosion, and observe the Unit 4 reactor, one of the few monuments left.
Chernobyl itself, like the villages and towns that once supported the eponymous power plant, has largely disappeared from the public imagination. The survivors too have disappeared, their stories eclipsed by the dramatic collapse of Soviet Communism and the intangible experience of those who, as Svetlana Alexievich notes in her devastating collection of monologues, Voices From Chernobyl, “are already living after the nuclear war.” Chernobyl in many ways foreshadowed the precipitous decline of the Russian countryside following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Village life is dying. Life expectancy continues to fall and is among the lowest in Europe. Young people, if they can, are leaving for cities.
Assessing the impact of Chernobyl has been complicated by a rise in morbidity throughout the contaminated region, which encompasses parts of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. “A major confounding factor in mortality studies,” according to a working draft of a report published by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Chernobyl Forum, “has been the significant decrease in average lifespan in populations of all three affected countries.” Yet this does not explain the wildly different conclusions regarding the number of deaths attributed to the disaster. The International Atomic Energy Agency contends that fewer than fifty people died in the mishap and that, at most, 4,000 may ultimately die. A more recent report by leading doctors and scientists concludes that some 500,000 have died and that 30,000 more are expected to die of cancers directly linked to Chernobyl.
Chernobyl’s impact and its fate, as evidenced by the wrangling over the number of deaths, remain contested. The debate over the future of nuclear power, on the other hand, is not. On the eve of Chernobyl’s twentieth anniversary, the world’s industrialized powers are laying the groundwork for a massive capital investment in nuclear technology. According to a leaked copy of the G-8’s action plan scheduled for publication in St. Petersburg July 16, “We believe that the development of nuclear energy would promote global energy security.”
There are currently plans to build more than a dozen new reactors in the United States (the first since 1973), and the recent sale of Westinghouse’s former nuclear division to Toshiba for $5.4 billion is fueling talk of a nuclear renaissance. Vladimir Putin (current chair of the G-8) has announced that by 2030, one-quarter of Russia’s energy will come from nuclear power. This will require the construction of at least forty new reactors over the next twenty-five years. In roughly the same period, China hopes to quadruple its nuclear output. Italy, Poland and Britain are all considering new reactors. Mexico is also planning to build a new plant by 2020 and is investing $150 million in its existing plant in Veracruz.
Meanwhile, the Bush Administration flirts with the possibility of nuking Iran while awarding India, a country that has not signed the nonproliferation treaty, a nuclear cooperation initiative.
At the same time, there is little talk of the dangers of weapons proliferation, the cost (economic and environmental) of storing spent nuclear fuel or the possibility of another accident. For the nuclear lobby, Chernobyl is an inconvenient obstacle but by no means an insurmountable one.
Chernobyl’s fate may be that of a sideshow among the ruins of the post-Soviet landscape, a site good only for “dark tourism.” As part of a tour package to the Exclusion Zone, travelers can view the remains of the Unit 4 reactor through the bay windows of an information center 300 yards away. The reactor, which remains at the center of the ten-kilometer zone, buried beneath 5,000 tons of sand, clay, lead and boron carbide, is entombed in a twenty-story steel and concrete structure known as the sarcophagus. It has been described as a twentieth-century pyramid.
If it is viewed as a monument, however, the ruined reactor is not one that honors the memory of those who survived the disaster. They are better served by the elegiac testimony of their own words. Viktor Latun, a factory worker who became a photographer after the explosion, tells of a newspaper crew seeking a compelling photograph of the window of an abandoned house. They put a violin in front of it and called it “Chernobyl Symphony.” But, as Latun acknowledges, “you didn’t have to make anything up there. You wanted to just remember it: the globe in the schoolyard crushed by a tractor; laundry that’s been hanging out on the balcony for a year and has turned black; abandoned military graves, the grass as tall as the soldier statue on it, and on the automatic weapon of the statue, a bird’s nest. The door of a house has been broken down, everything has been looted, but the curtains are still pulled back. People have left, but their photographs are still in the houses, like their souls.”