26 April 2015

On This Day: Chernobyl Remembered

I was 10 when Three Mile Island (TMI) happened. That was big news here locally. It was the worst nuclear incident in history at that time. Safety precautions were put in place from the lessons learned. No one wanted to believe that anything like that would ever happen again. Then, in my junior year of high school, On This Day in 1986 … Chernobyl happened. 

The Chernobyl power-generating station is located in Pripyat, Ukraine, north of Kiev. There was an explosion and subsequent fire in one of the units, specifically Unit 4. The incident, which was a combination of design issues and operator errors, occurred during a system test. As a result of the incident a large quantity of radioactive contamination was released, spreading over much of Russia and Europe. 

Approximately 350,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes and essentially their lives as a containment zone was set up around the plant. The radius of the zone measured 19 miles. Chernobyl is still highly radioactive. The sarcophagus – cement containment – that covers Unit 4 is deteriorating and is in the process of being covered with a new steel arch containment to avoid another catastrophe. The area remains closed and controlled to this day. The Ukrainian government however does permit escorted tours.  

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone encompasses 1,660 square miles and is guarded by thousands of Ukrainian guards. The plant sits bare. Although it no longer produces electricity, several thousand are still employed there as part of the clean up crews or the security. Today that zone has ironically become one of the largest wildlife preserves in Europe.  

Nearby towns were evacuated and are now abandoned. Many evacuees could simply not bear to live their homes, their lives and their way of living. They chose to resettle nearby. Thousands still live in land left contaminated by the radiation from Chernobyl. Life simply goes on there. 

As much as life does go on, it also froze in place. Residents of Pripyat expected to be able to return home in a few days. Looters have long since vandalized and stole prized personal possessions of many. However many other items sit frozen in time covered dust and filth. Dolls sit on windowsills in kindergarten classrooms long absent of the sound of laughing children. Clothes lie thrown about in the houses. The foliage has claimed the building ruins, scaling walls and giving vibrant color to the area once again.
The Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum in Kiev educates the public on the “scope of the disaster through the destinies of thousands of those people who witnessed the accident, participated in the mitigation and suffered from the disaster, “ according to the museum’s website. For more information on the museum, visit http://www.chornobylmuseum.kiev.ua/index.php?lang=en
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