(Since I am recurrently failing to secure sufficient time and energy to address the ongoing irradiating of Japan, I will in the meantime reprint this piece, from August of last year, which revisits Three Mile Meltdown and Chernobyl, and warns of today.)
Nearly a quarter-century after the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, the wild boar of Germany remain radioactive. Der Spiegel reports that government payments compensating boar hunters for lost income have quadrupled since 2007.
Germany’s Atomic Energy Law mandates government compensation to hunters who shoot animals that are too radioactive to consume. In regions particularly problematic, all boar shot are checked for radiation; there are 70 measuring stations in Bavaria alone. Especially in southern Germany, boar routinely test out with high levels of cesium-137, rendering them unfit to eat.
Wild boar are prone to the glow because they consume in large quantities mushrooms and truffles, which are very efficient in absorbing radioactivity. According to Der Spiegel, “the contamination of some types of mushrooms and truffles will likely remain the same, and may even rise slightly—even a quarter century after the Chernobyl accident.”
Mushrooms are 90% water; water accumulates radiation at a rate a thousand times greater than soil.
So one can imagine the lingering effects of Chernobyl in the water that falls and flows and pools throughout Germany. And the rest of Europe. And the world.
There isn’t a lot of talk about Chernobyl these days. Maybe there will occur a spurt of interest next spring, on the 25th anniversary of the April 26, 1986 disaster that expelled 50 tons of radioactive fuel into the atmosphere, equal to 50 of the “Little Man” bombs dropped on Hiroshima.
Probably not, though. A nuclear power plant is one of the most capital-intensive projects ever devised, and nearly the entire world now is subservient to capital. Capital wishes to construct more nuclear power plants. It is therefore imperative in the interests of capital to delimit discussion of Chernobyl, depress the magnitude of the disaster, dismiss Chernobyl as an aberration that cannot and will not be repeated.
Any campaign to cabin Chernobyl is assisted by the difficulties inherent in attempting to accurately measure its long-term effects. For although human beings have proved fully capable of blowing blazing tons of highly carcinogenic and mutagenic materials into the air, they remain laggards in limping along after, pinpointing who was poisoned, how, how badly, and where.
As Martin Cruz Smith wrote in Wolves Eat Dogs, his novel set largely in the largely abandoned Ukrainian city of Pripyat, part of the present-day “Exclusion Zone” around the crypt of the Chernobyl reactor:
Russians, Byelorussians, Ukrainians, Danes, Eskimos, Italians, Mexicans and Africans touched by the poison as it spread around the world had no connection to Chernobyl, and they would die, too. The first ones, Pripyat’s firemen, irradiated inside and out, died in a day. The rest would die obliquely over generations.
One of Smith’s character’s, Eva, was a thirteen-year-old girl at the time of the accident. As did thousands of young girls and boys in “real” life, the life outside of books, Eva, a few days after the roof blew off the reactor, marched in a May Day parade in Kiev, a city located less than 80 miles downwind from Chernobyl. Unwarned by her government that the haze over the sun, the wind from upriver, might, as with thousands of young boys and girls in real life, transform her “young body, a wonder of growth,” into “a new person.” Thereby “ending her days of dancing, and beginning her acquaintanceship with Soviet surgery.”
Eva, in the fictional book, says what is true, in the nonfictional world of the Real:
“No one keeps track. There were forty-one official deaths from the accident and half a million unofficial. An honest list would reach to the moon.”
I don’t forget Chernobyl because my daughter was in utero when the roof blew. I tracked on the news the progress of the radioactive cloud, as it slowly drifted round the globe, until it passed over where my daughter lay arest, growing inside my wife’s body. The newspeople claimed that there could occur “no measurable effects” by the time the Chernobyl cloud reached California, but as an American I had already lived through the Three Mile Island near-meltdown, and so I knew from experience that it is best to regard anything to emerge from any government or corporate or media spokesmouth concerning any nuclear accident as nothing more than a toxic, steaming pile of lies.
I had seen on TV the Swedes testing, and slaughtering, tens of thousands of reindeer in the Swedish alps, animals contaminated with truly toxic levels of cesium that had floated over from Chernobyl.
Now Swedes, as a rule, are both sensible and thrifty. They are not the sort of people to kill reindeer if there is no reason to. But if there is, they will.
And full-grown reindeer are nowhere near as delightful a host for the carcinogenic and mutagenic beasties that pour forth from the Pandora’s Box of a nuclear accident as is a developing human fetus.
In the event, my daughter was born alive, and with all the requisite parts. And it is true that mutations are not always negative. In fact, that is how organisms evolve: they mutate and survive. So it is perhaps possible that my daughter’s exposure to Chernobyl actually helped to make her so smart and so pretty. And maybe that accounts for her otherwise frankly bizarre decision to relocate in young adulthood to a town a few miles downwind from Three Mile Island. Maybe, in the glow-atoms still extruded from that place, she continues to get what she needs.
The Three Mile Island partial-meltdown is more of a cautionary tale than is Chernobyl, because, as will be seen, the roof blew off Chernobyl during an experiment designed to deliberately place the reactor under stress. The reactor at Three Mile Island, however, ran amok during the course of “normal operations.”
When you enter the terms “Chernobyl” and “Three Mile Island” into the tubes, you are in each instance directed first to Wikipedia. This is useful, if distressing, fodder for my continuing jeremiad against Wikipedia. Because the realities of both disasters have been thoroughly, relentlessly distorted there in entries quite clearly shaped by shills for the nuclear-power industry.
The Chernobyl entry drifts so far loose from the moorings of the Real that it will not even credit the official death toll of 41, instead but begrudgingly allowing that only 31 people perished. And the Three Mile Meltdown entry more or less echoes the suppurating lies that were discharged across the land at the time: there was No Danger.
Here is a little taste of the Newspeak we were subjected to even while the thing was melting down, and no one really knew whether said melting could be stopped:
The reactors at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl failed for the same reason: a combination of human error and mechanical error. Human beings are imperfect creatures, and thus the machines that they build are likewise imperfect. Both people, and the machines that they build, will eventually, inevitably, fall into error. Always. That is why a nuclear power plant is quite literally madness. As Buckminster Fuller observed, nature herself has shown us that the safe distance between a nuclear reactor and ourselves is 90 million miles—the distance between the Earth and the Sun.
At Three Mile Meltdown, first a series of pumps stopped working, for No Known Reason. (This occurred in the very early morning hours—a favorite time for Mr. Ha-Ha to start the ball rolling.) The failure of these pumps caused a turbine to shut down. Three auxiliary pumps “automatically activated,” but because the pump valves had been closed for “routine maintenance,” those pumps didn’t do diddly. Then a relief valve popped open, but, and again for No Known Reason, it failed to close.
Meanwhile, out in the control room, humans saw a lamp go out, indicating that power had been removed from the solenoid of the relief valve. The humans incorrectly interpreted the dimming of this lamp as meaning the valve had closed— though it had not; it was still open. But the humans didn’t know this. And so they proceeded to get very confused by their instruments, which were telling them things that they could not understand, because they believed the valve to be closed.
There did exist an indicator that would have unambiguously alerted the humans that the valve was indeed still open, but this indicator was located on the back of a desk, where no one could see it.
Down in the reactor, coolant was boiling in the core. This is a big no-no, in a nuclear-power plant. In the control room, the humans looked at instruments that did not tell them the truth of what was occurring in the core: they thought, from the instruments, that the core was sufficiently covered with coolant. It was not.
Then an alarm went off. The humans ignored it. They thought it was Lying.
Meanwhile, back at the core, things began rupturing. Radioactive coolant started leaking into the “containment building,” then into an “auxiliary building.” Things were really heating up in the core: water had become steam. Humans decided to let some steam out into the world. Except it was radioactive. But they didn’t know this.
When a new control-room shift came on, it started discovering the truth, which plant op-erators then decided to hide from Everybody. By the time company officials first contacted the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, more than half the uranium fuel in the reactor had melted. Plant officials lied that no radiation had been released, even as radiation detectors outside the plant proved that it had been. Five weeks went by before it was admitted that plant workers had measured fuel temperatures near the melting point.
And while they were hiding all this shit, they still didn’t really know what was going on: mainly, that half the core was bereft of coolant, totally exposed, and that a large part of it had melted. In the end, it was pure dumb luck that the whole thing didn’t go.
To assume that something like this will not happen again is just nuts. It was ultimately concluded that Three Mile Meltdown workers were simply overwhelmed by information, much of it misleading, irrelevant, or incorrect. In the future such a problem can be expected to be worse. Because every time there is a failure such as this, the first human instinct is to install even more gewgaws and doodads, to impart even more information . . . which, the next time something goes wrong, will pour forth even more misleading, irrelevant, or incorrect information.
Too, it was belatedly discovered that the ornery valve, the one that stayed opened when it should have closed, had previously failed on 11 separate occasions. And that virtually the entire sequence of events that plagued Three Mile Meltdown had occurred 18 months earlier at another reactor, which, like TMM, had been built by the firm of Babcock and Wilcox. Only difference was that in the prior fiasco, operators identified the valve failure within 20 minutes, and the reactor was operating at only 9% power, rather than TMM’s 97%.
Finally, although Babcock and Wilcox engineers were aware of the valve problem, they didn’t tell anybody. Because that’s capitalism. If something you sell has a tendency to get broke, you don’t tell people. You just send it out there, and hope nobody notices. That’s true whether the product is a toy, a car, or a valve in a nuclear reactor. And that’s not going to change. Not so long as the wheel of the world turns on profit uber alles.
Let us pause for a moment, for some Three Mile Meltdown music from The Clash:
working down in Harrisburg
waiting to be melted down . . . .
And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; and the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.
Chernobyl—or, in Ukrainian, Chornobyl—was founded in 1193 as a hunting lodge. As the place slowly grew, and mostly prospered, it passed successively from Lithuania to Poland to the Russian Empire to the USSR to Ukraine.
Today it is a ghost town. No human being will be able to safely live there full-time, or anywhere else in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, for a minimum of several centuries.
“Chornobyl” is the Ukrainian word for “wormwood”—combining chornyi, or black, with byllia, or grass blades. The literal meaning, then, is “black grass.” A name prophetic.
Chernobyl for many years was home to a thriving Jewish community. The 17th Century Hasidic rabbi and Kabbalist mystic Menahem Nahum lived and taught in Chernobyl. This is a man who said many marvelous things. One of them Martin Cruz Smith relates in his novel Wolves Eat Dogs, through the character Yakov:
“Rabbi Nahum said no man was beyond redemption. He said redemption was established before the creation of the world itself, that’s how important redemption is. No one can take it away.”
Yakov is a fictional character, rooted in the real. His father escaped the unfortunately completely historical pogrom during the Russian Civil War, when rightist counter-revolutionaries gathered together the Jews of Chernobyl, packed them onto boats, steered them out into the Pripyat River, scuttled the boats, and then shot anyone who tried to swim for shore.
Boris Brasol, one of the leaders of these vicious, murderous anti-semites, later emigrated to the US, where he was re-sponsible for the first American edition of the notorious anti-semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Through this, Brasol came to the attention of automaker Henry Ford, who gave him a job on his Dearborn Independent; Brasol collaborated with Ford on the latter’s own despicable anti-semitic tract, The International Jew. That is a book that found favor with the forming Adolph Hitler, whose government later bought vehicles and parts from the Ford Motor Company, even after Germany was at war with Europe. When Hitler’s troops came to occupy Chernobyl, they exterminated those Jews remaining in the region. Every one.
It was Chernobyl that truly radicalized Mikhail Gorbachev. As the disaster continued, he found that even he, the head of the country, couldn’t get straight information—from anybody. From workers in the Chernobyl control room to his own ministers, everybody was living in a dream world: reporting what they wanted to be true, rather than what was true. Thousands of people were suffering and dying, evacuations of grossly contaminated areas delayed for days and even weeks, as Soviet officials refused to admit error. To render the country’s milk supply “safe,” officials had ordered that radioactive milk be mixed with clean milk; the national standard for “safe” milk was then elevated to the geiger-howling level of this poisonous hellbroth.
He’d had it.
On July 3, 1986, Gorbachev turned on both the lords of the country’s nuclear industry, and his own Politburo.
“For thirty years, you told us that everything was perfectly safe,” he said. “You assumed we would all look up to you as gods. That’s why all this happened, why it ended in disaster. There was nobody controlling the ministries and scientific centers. And for the moment, I can see no signs that you have drawn the necessary conclusions. In fact, it seems that you are attempting to cover everything up.”
Gorbachev learned through Chernobyl that the entire country lay concealed behind a rotting Potemkin facade. And he was determined to kick the thing down.
“We’re going to put an end to all this,” he said. “We have suffered great losses, and not only economic ones. There have been human victims, and there will be more. We have been damaged politically. All our work has been compromised. Our science and technology have been discredited as a result of what happened. From now on, what we do is going to be visible to our entire people and the whole world. We need full information.”
Thus was born glasnost (openness). With Gorbachev setting off down that path which, within a few short years, would see him entering—eventually, for his accomplishment today remains largely unacknowledged and unappreciated—the histories as a truly great man . . . for what he didn’t do. By deliberately declining to exercise the powers available to him, by allowing events to take their natural course, he presided over the dissolution of an empire.
The Chernobyl accident is described by the character Alex, in Smith’s Wolves Eat Dogs, this way. It is fact—the Real—embedded in fiction. And, as at Three Mile Island, Mr. Ha-Ha arranged for all to begin in the early morning hours.
“April twenty-sixth, 1986. The setting: the control room of Reactor Four. The actors: a night shift of fifteen technicians and engineers conducting an experiment—to see whether the reactor can restart itself if all external power for the machinery is cut off. The experiment has been performed before with safety systems on. This time they want to be more realistic. To defeat the safety system of a nuclear reactor, however, is no simple matter. It involves application. You have to disconnect the emergency core cooling system and close and lock the gate valves. Turn off the automatic control, block the steam control, disable the pre-sets, switch off design protection and neutralize the emergency generators. Then start pulling graphite rods from the core by remote control. There are a hundred and twenty rods in all, a minimum of thirty to be inserted at all times, because this was a Soviet reactor, a military model that was a little unstable at low efficiency, a fact that was, unfortunately, a state secret.
“Alas, the power plunged.
“The reactor efficiency is dropping through the floor, and the core is flooding with radioactive zenon and iodine and combustible hydrogen. And somehow they have lost count—they have lost count!—and pulled all but eighteen control rods from the core, twelve below the limit. All the same, there is one last disastrous step to take. They can replace the rods, turn on the safety systems and shut down the reactor. They have not yet turned off the turbine valves and started the actual experiment. They have not pushed the final button.
“Let’s pause and consider what is at stake. There is a monthly bonus. There is a May Day bonus. If they run the test successfully they will likely win promotions and awards. On the other hand, if they shut down the reactor, there would certainly be embarrassing questions asked and consequences felt. There it is, bonuses versus disaster.”
Alex pushed the button.
“In a second the reactor coolant began to boil. The reactor hall started to pound. An engineer hit the panic switch for the control rods, but the rod channels in the reactor melted, the rods jammed and superheated hydrogen blew off the roof, carrying reactor core, graphite and burning tar into the sky. A black fire-ball stood over the building, and a blue beam of ionized light shot from the open core. Fifty tons of radioactive fuel flew up, equal to fifty Hiroshima bombs. Cool heads in the control room refused to believe that they had done anything wrong. They sent a man down to check the core. He returned, his skin black from radiation, like a man who had seen the sun, to report that there was no core. Since this was not an acceptable report, they sacrificed a second man, who returned in the same fatal condition. Now, of course, the men in the control room faced their greatest test of all: the call to Moscow.
“And what did our heroes say when Moscow asked, ‘How is the reactor core?’ They answered, ‘The core is fine, not to worry, the core is completely intact.’ Moscow is relieved. That’s the punch line: ‘Don’t worry.’ And here is my toast: ‘To the Zone! Sooner or later, it will be everywhere!'”
The logic of Smith’s plot eventually brings Yakov, together with a fugitive American Jew, Bobby Hoffman, to the concrete sarcophagus containing Chernobyl’s destroyed Reactor Four.
This is what a third character, Arkady, discovers them doing there:
Bobby Hoffman and Yakov stood in the middle of the road facing a security wall decked with shiny coils of wire. Each man wore a yarmulke and a tasselled shawl. Arkady couldn’t make out what they were saying, though they rocked back and forth to its rhythm.
Beyond the wall was another wire-draped wall and, fifty meters farther on, the sarcophagus, as stained and massive as a windowless cathedral. Dim security lamps glowed here and there. A crane and a chimney stack towered over the sarcophagus, but compared to it, they were insignificant. The sarcophagus was apart, alone, alive.
Arkady didn’t need to use his dosimeter; he felt his hair rise.
The chanting wasn’t loud enough to carry far. Bobby’s voice was whispery. Yakov’s was deep and worn, and Arkady recognized the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. Their voices overlapped, separated, joined again. Standing outside the corrupted shell of a nuclear disaster, rocking back and forth like human metronomes and intoning the same verses over and over, “Ose sholom himromov hu yaase sholom.” When they finished the prayer, they simply began again.
Arkady moved into their line of vision. Each step brought the sarcophagus closer, too, as if it had been waiting for the right hour to leap the wall, a hard sight to face without a prayer. Yakov acknowledged Arkady with the briefest nod, to say not to worry, that he and Bobby were fine. Bobby clutched a list of names that Arkady could see because of a rising moon that spilled over the station yard. The list looked long. Arkady remembered Eva saying that a complete list would reach the moon.
This is to me an achingly beautiful moment in literature. As it should be in life. Because that is what needs to be done there. In life.
It doesn’t matter if one is or is not Jewish, if the prayer is or is not the Kaddish. It is the reverent reading of the names of the dead, of the suffering, that is important. It is something that needs to be done. Atonement for the hubris of human beings who believed they could harness and control the power of the sun. And the disasters that they have wrought. The Kaddish needs to be intoned at Chernobyl, and at Three Mile Island, and at Hiroshima, and at Nagasaki. All the names need to be read. Those names, as Eva said, that reach to the moon.
I shy from reproducing photographs depicting suffering, for reasons I explained here. But I am here going to put up one more. Because I believe that it is unacceptable for any conversation, written or oral, to occur about nuclear power, without each and every participant being forced to gaze upon this boy. Because this boy is the face of nuclear power. He is the Reality. The Thing Itself. If you are for nuclear power, you are for this boy. And for boys like him, from here to the moon.
Okay. This piece was a rough one. So let’s end with something gentle. From a time and a place where human beings cause one another to glow from love, rather than poison.