In radioactive wilderness, old dangers remain
Twenty-five years after the disaster at Chernobyl, the area around is deserted. Wolves roam through the abandoned towns. And worryingly, the reactor's concrete shell is starting to crumble.
Scientists in Sweden were the first people to notice something was wrong. It was April 1986, and their instruments were picking up unusual levels of radiation in the atmosphere. Its origin was unknown.
It was only by analysing the prevailing winds that the alarmed researchers were able to trace the radioactive particles back to their source, a nuclear power plant in the communist Soviet Union.
Yes, Soviet officials admitted, there had been an accident. Something had gone wrong at the Chernobyl plant in the Ukraine. Cooling systems had failed and the reactor had gone critical and exploded, releasing a cloud of deadly radioactive waste into the atmosphere.
The consequences were dire. The 600 workers who were onsite at the time of the accident were exposed to huge doses of radiation – dangerous sub-atomic particles being fired off by decaying atoms.
Those who got hit by the most intense doses died quickly. Firemen scaled the roof to pour water on the blazing reactor below. None returned alive.
Emergency responders who'd rushed to the scene soon felt the effects of severe radiation poisoning: first a sensation like pins and needles on the face; a metallic taste in the mouth; then vomiting, headaches, diarrhoea. Many died within weeks of the accident, or later, from cancers caused by the leak.
But their heroic efforts were, in part, successful. The fire in one reactor did not spread to the others nearby. And after months of work the leak was encased in a 'sarcophagus' of cement, designed to seal in the radiation.
For thirty kilometres around the plant, towns and villages were evacuated. Now, abandoned flats and schools lie as they were left, as weeds choke the ruins where the local people once lived.
Back to nature
Even now, 25 years later, the area is highly contaminated with radioactive waste. The poisonous fallout still causes health problems wherever it was blown by the wind.
Worse, the old sarcophagus that sealed the reactor is beginning to crumble. Governments including Britain's are now being asked to contribute millions of pounds for a new protective seal, to prevent any more radiation from spreading.
But there has been one unexpected consequence. As people moved out of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, wild animals, undisturbed by radiation, moved in. For wolves, bears, wild boar, elk and horses, the uninhabited wilderness is a paradise where they live out of reach of human interference.
- Imagine you were a fireman at Chernobyl. If you fight the flames, you'll get a lethal dose of radiation but, if you don't, the radiation leak could affect the whole of Europe. What do you do?
- Wild animals now roam the streets where humans once lived. Is there anything good about that? And are there any lessons to be drawn from it?
- Imagine having to leave your home at a moment's notice, knowing that you'll never be able to go back again. Write a letter, song or poem explaining how you feel.
- Do some further research into Chernobyl and nuclear power. Prepare a speech to your class arguing either for or against the building of new nuclear power stations.
Some People Say...
“Chernobyl shows us that technology can't be trusted.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- I'm confused – was Chernobyl in the Ukraine or in the Soviet Union?
- Both. The Soviet Union, a communist state that existed till 1991, linked several older nations together, including Russia, the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and many more.
- And how did the Soviets let such a disaster occur?
- The Chernobyl plant was built with out-dated technology and faulty safety procedures. Experts had warned that it was an accident waiting to happen.
- Are all nuclear plants that dangerous?
- Modern plants have much better safety measures in place. But having seen the Chernobyl disaster, many environmentalists think that we shouldn't use nuclear power at all.
- Does nuclear power have any advantages?
- Yes - it's much better for global warming than coal or oil power stations. And it reduces our reliance on shrinking supplies of fossil fuels. It's still very controversial though.