Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A few more thoughts from Borderland

Ask a Ukrainian when he stopped believing in communism, and you will get a variety of answers. Some will quote the invasion of Czechoslovakia, some the Afghan war, others the discovery of Stalin's mass graves at Bykivnya. Many, says Anna Reid, will give you a blank look, because they have not really stopped believing in communism at all. But by far the likeliest reply is "Chernobyl:"


"A saga of technical incompetence and irresponsibility, of bureaucratic sloth, mendacity and plain contempt for human life, the Chernobyl affair epitomized everything that was wrong with the Soviet Union." (194)



For those of you who are unfamiliar with the details of the accident, which occurred at 1:23 AM on the night of Friday, April 26, 1986, here is a brief summary. Basically, the cause was neither equipment failure nor human error, but an experiment that went awry. In order to test how long a reactor could operate with no external power supply, plant engineers purposefully lifted all but 6 neutron-absorbing control rods out of the core of reactor #4, and disabled the automatic shut-down system which would have normally kicked in in the case of a power failure. As soon as the external electricity supply had been switched off, power levels inside reactor #4 began to rise, escalating into a full-scale nuclear explosion.


This is a depiction of the contamination cloud (roughly following that reported by Time Magazine on May 12, 1986). Since the USSR was silent about the accident until after it had been detected by its neighbors to the north, the first reports of radioactivity actually came from Finland . With time, some detectable radiation spread throughout the world. (From http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/nucene/cherno.html.)

The Soviet system's response to Chernobyl has been likened to its behavior during WWII - Reid describes it as sluggish, chaotic, profligate with human life and bolstered by the crudest propaganda. Indeed, today's uncertainty over the health consequences of Chernobyl is largely the fault of a deliberate cover-up by Soviet authorities. Registers of clean-up workers and evacuees were left incomplete, making post-Chernobyl medical histories hard to track. Also, believe it or not, in 1988 a decree was issued forbidding doctors from citing 'radiation' as a cause of death on death certificates! Such widespread uncertainty about the health effects of radiation has prompted the need for the ICARR study, among others, over 21 years after the accident.

In fact, independent research on the effects of the accident was derided or hushed up under the Soviet regime. Reid tells an interesting story about a group of journalists who made a short film on collective farms near Chernobyl in 1988. They documented a foal who had been born with 8 legs, eye-less pigs and head-less calves, etc. More than half the children in the area had swollen thyroids, and cancers of the mouth and lip had doubled there since the accident. Government response to the film was vilification and denial, which was choreographed, says Anna Reid, by Kyiv's Research Center for Radiation Medicine, where I will be working this summer! Supposedly, scientists from RCRM lambasted the film as "incompetent:" livestock deformities were due to inbreeding, they said; mouth cancers to poor dental work; thyroid problems to poor diet. Records later showed that radiation levels in the area had been 3x higher than at the nuclear power plant itself in the months after the accident. Yikes. Although I'm sure RCRM is a fully competent scientific organization today, it's disturbing to know that it played a role in the cover-up of Chernobyl's effects under the Soviet regime.

When Anna Reid published her book in 1999, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was still in use. (Operations finally ceased in 2000 due to international pressure.) In her book, she includes an interesting interview with a shift controller at the plant:

Anna Reid: 'Why don't you work somewhere else?'

Young Worker: 'If you were Ukrainian, you'd be begging for a job here, because otherwise you wouldn't survive! The bazaars are full of teachers, doctors - educated people, all out of work.'

Anna Reid: 'Aren't you afraid of getting cancer?'

Young Worker: 'And if I were a taxi-driver or a kiosk owner? I'd only get killed in a car crash, or by the mafia. We're safer here... If the West wants to close the old Soviet reactors it's because Western companies will get the orders for the new ones!...Success to you! Come back! And bring your children!'

This interview is disturbing to me on many levels. First, it confirms my hypothesis that people are desperate for jobs in north-central Ukraine, and that they are willing to take risks with their health in order to work. Second, it shows a clear contempt for Westerners, which could prove to be a severe roadblock to my research. Will the Ark workers want to interact with me, an American girl who is privileged enough to attend a $40,000-a-year institution, and who's most "risky" job entails filming Duke football practices from a scissor lift a few times a week for a comfortable wage of $9/hour?

I guess we'll see.

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