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Chernobyl’s haunting impact, 30 years later

Bells tolled 30 times in Kiev on Tuesday, once for each year since the world's worst nuclear disaster. Fallout from Chernobyl haunts Europe: It’s estimated that long-term radiation effects will claim at least 9,000 lives. Science correspondent Miles O'Brien offers a closer look at the science of nuclear power and Hari Sreenivasan talks to photographer Michal Huniewicz about the lasting effects.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan

    : Now, 30 years on from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the fallout from that fateful day still haunts Europe as a somber anniversary is marked.

    (BELL TOLLING)

  • Hari Sreenivasan

    : Bells tolled 30 times in Kiev, once for each year since the world’s worst nuclear disaster.

    The president of Ukraine spoke at Chernobyl itself.

  • President Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine (through interpreter):

    The Chernobyl accident will for a long time remain an event of a worldwide scale that is a challenge to the whole of humanity. Such catastrophes do not respect state borders.

  • Hari Sreenivasan

    : The city of Pripyat, where the nuclear plant was located, is now a ghost town. It sits in the middle of an uninhabitable exclusion zone, where hundreds of towns and villages in Ukraine and Belarus were forced to evacuate.

    Ukraine was still part of the old Soviet Union when Chernobyl’s number four reactor suffered a catastrophic power surge on April 26, 1986. That triggered a meltdown and explosion, spewing huge amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere. Millions of people across Eastern Europe were exposed to dangerously high radiation.

    But it took two days for Soviet authorities to acknowledge the incident publicly. Some 600,000 troops and volunteers were sent in to fight the fire and clean up contamination, and 30 died from radiation poisoning.

  • Man

    (through interpreter): I went in there when everyone was fleeing. We were going right into the heat. And, today, everything is forgotten. It’s a disgrace.

  • Hari Sreenivasan

    : The stricken reactor was encased in a concrete sarcophagus. Work is now under way on a steel-clad structure to enclose the site and prevent further radioactive leaks, at a cost of more than $2 billion.

    The human toll is less clear, but the World Health Organization estimates long-term radiation effects will claim at least 9,000 lives.

    Some further perspective on the impact of Chernobyl, first more on the science, consequences, fears and risks of nuclear power from our science correspondent, Miles O’Brien, who’s done extensive reporting in Chernobyl and at the more recent accident site in Fukushima, Japan.

    Miles, you’re one of the few people that have gone to both of these places. You were reporting from Chernobyl just four or five years ago. Put this disaster in perspective.

  • Miles O’brien

    : Well, Hari, Chernobyl, by any measure, had a greater impact.

    I think the radiation released from Chernobyl was about six times greater than what we saw released from Fukushima. Both of them were so-called level seven accidents, which is the worst kind of accident on the scale that the international community puts upon them.

    But Chernobyl, because it had an explosion and a fire, caused the spread of radioactive material over a much broader area. Much of Europe was affected by it. And so it had a tremendous impact, not only potentially health-wise, but also politically and emotionally, and had a great impact on how people viewed nuclear power.

  • Hari Sreenivasan

    : Right. I mean, Americans remember sort of Three Mile Island, but Chernobyl was as important in the timeline of how the world perceives it.

  • Miles O’brien

    : Yes.

    Americans had sort of made up their mind about nuclear power already. We made up our mind here in the mid-’70s that we were scared of it, “China Syndrome” and then, of course, Three Mile Island.

    Of course, Three Mile Island, there was a barely measurable amount of radiation that escaped from the containment vessel. In the case of Chernobyl, there was no containment vessel whatsoever. And so there was a big amount of radiation which came out.

    And it really laid the groundwork for the reaction that many Europeans had toward Fukushima 25 years later. You saw the Germans, most notably, pulling the plug on their nuclear program. A lot of that has its roots in the fact they were under a cloud of cesium-137 30 years ago.

  • Hari Sreenivasan

    : That sarcophagus that you mentioned, that was only supposed to be there 15 years. It’s still there now, and it’s still leaking.

  • Miles O’brien

    : It is. And seeing it with my own two eyes five years ago, I was — it was pretty scary, frankly. It looked like something from “Mad Max.”

    And it was hastily built, to say the least, by these liquidators, true heroes, 600,000 conscripts who went in there and shoveled for short periods of time, many of them with devastating consequences later in the form of cancer. And it is still there. It is not safe.

    And this new structure which eventually will cover will be an improvement, for sure.

  • Hari Sreenivasan

    : So, where is nuclear now, five years after Fukushima, 30 years after Chernobyl?

  • Miles O’brien

    : It’s interesting, Hari. Things have changed a little bit on people’s perceptive of nuclear.

    It’s easy to take Chernobyl out of the mix, for one thing. That was a bad reactor design. We can all agree it was unsafe to have any reactor without a containment structure. There are still 11 of those types of reactors running in Russia now. But the West never adopted this type of graphite, moderated reactor.

    So what has happened, interestingly, even five years after Fukushima, is a lot of people are coming around to the conclusion that in order to truly fight climate change, the type of base load power, power that stays on all the time, at night, that is zero carbon emission, is in fact nuclear.

    So there’s interest in the business community in this. A D.C. think tank recently conducted a study. They found 50 start-ups in the U.S. in the nuclear space attracting $1.5 billion in investment. So, it’s kind of an odd outcome, actually.

  • Hari Sreenivasan

    : All right, science correspondent Miles O’Brien joining us from Boston tonight, thanks so much.

  • Miles O’brien

    : You’re welcome.

  • Hari Sreenivasan

    : Now an on-the-ground look. We get that from Michal Huniewicz, a Polish photographer living in England. He visited Chernobyl last year and documented the effects of the radiation on surrounding villages, plants, and animals.

    This was personal for and you your family. Tell me a little bit about how they were affected after the blast.

  • Michal Huniewicz, Photographer:

    I was 2 years old when it happened, so I don’t remember a great deal.

    But what I do know from my parents was that, when I was 2 years old, someone knocked on our door in the middle of the night and woke up my parents. And they had to wake me up and give me something to drink, which was called the Lugol’s solution, but we didn’t know at the time exactly what it was.

    And they didn’t offer any explanation to my parents, other than, there was some sort of environmental problem, and your son, due to his very young age, has to drink it.

    After that, they disappeared, because they had to distribute it to other children. It was only for people who were very young, because, when you’re done, your thyroid is unable to handle large doses of radiation. If you’re a grownup, it is — so it was distributed to children like myself.

  • Hari Sreenivasan

    : Tell me a bit about some of the pictures that stand out for you. I’m looking at a photo of a piano that was left in the same place. It looks like a hospital infirmary and then what would be baby bassinets.

  • Michal Huniewicz

    : That was in a place called the Piano Shop. It wasn’t actually a piano shop in reality. That is just the nickname that the place was given.

    It’s one of those places which contains objects which were never taken away. There was quite a large number of pianos. And maybe you can still play them, although I suspect they are out of tune by now.

    The hospital that you mentioned was probably the most eerie place, because we do know for a fact that there was where the firefighters were taken right after the accident when they felt sick. They were brought to the Moscow hospital. They were shaved, stripped. And later, they would be taken to the Moscow Hospital Number Six, which specializes in radiation poisoning, acute radiation poisoning.

    But the gear that those firefighters were wearing was dumped into basement of the hospital. That basement is pretty much freely available. It’s probably one of the most contaminated places on the planet, and you can just walk in there.

    And a piece of headgear was dragged up from the basement to the lobby of that building by someone. And it’s lying on a ledge, and it’s very highly radioactive. So, there is a picture of my hand with a dosing meter getting close to that piece of headgear. I was really stressed, because the dosing meter was very loud. It was telling us, don’t go any nearer.

    It was very highly radioactive. So, that’s one of the most memorable moments for me, because it was my hand close to that object.

  • Hari Sreenivasan

    : Finally, it looks like Mother Nature is winning. I mean, everything that’s unclaimed is being taken over by plants.

  • Michal Huniewicz

    : That’s right.

    You would imagine that the zone would be destroyed with nuclear fallout, but, actually, it’s become more of a sanctuary for wildlife. There is the Przewalski horses which were brought after the accident, and half of them died. They didn’t adjust. But the other half has lived and they remain in the zone.

    They live wild. People do hunt them, but they’re more or less allowed to live undisturbed. And, indeed, the number of those animals has been growing, and they are doing perfectly well.

    I spoke to a scientist who worked in the zone trying to establish what the impact was of radiation on those animal species. And he told me it was minuscule. There was nothing that he could detect. So, the animals and the plants live there without any problems. They are much better off without humans.

    And, as you said, they are taking over the zone. There are trees growing inside of buildings. So, I suspect, within a few decades, there will be not much left of the zone, other than the nuclear plant itself.

  • Hari Sreenivasan

    : All right.

    Photographer Michal Huniewicz, joining us from London tonight, thanks so much.

  • Michal Huniewicz

    : Thank you for having me.

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