Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


At Chernobyl It Was All Under Control

• March 19, 2011 • 5:00 AM

Valery N. Bliznyuk was a young physicist in Kiev 25 years ago during the Chernobyl disaster. His recollections of the slow spread of accurate information about what was really happening suggest parallels with the current nuclear crisis in Japan.

As a visiting scholar last year at the Linz Institute for Organic Solar Cells, I met Valery N. Bliznyuk, a visiting professor at Linz and a permanent faculty member at Western Michigan University. His fascinating work in materials at molecular and nanotech levels includes work on polymer photovoltaics.

Over dinner, he told me he hailed from Kiev (or Kyiv in Ukrainian), and the subject of Chernobyl inevitably arose. And now, with the disaster at Fukushima dredging up memories of that meltdown 25 years ago, Bliznyuk’s recollections of being a scientist laboring in an informational black hole seemed particularly resonant.

Yes, he told me, as a young physicist he had lived through the 1986 disaster at the Ukrainian nuclear plant about 60 miles north of his hometown.

Bliznyuk’s personal knowledge of Chernobyl began in the most banal way. He first learned of the world’s greatest nuclear power disaster from a routine news broadcast, not a breaking bulletin. As part of the same nightly newscast on April 26, 1986, two dispassionate sentences announced, “A fire has broken out at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. The situation is under control.”

More bits of information emerged slowly. Several days into the crisis, the Voice of America — this was during the era of the Soviet Union, and VOA offered an important outside source of news — reported that radioactivity had escaped, but the winds blowing southeast to northwest had carried all the nuclear debris toward Scandinavia. Meanwhile, the Soviet media admitted that though fires continued to rage, “All measures to keep it under control are being taken.”

Four days into the crisis, Bliznyuk and his colleagues showed up for their traditional May Day barbecue bash. At that point in the Soviet Union, most of the revolutionary stuff associated with the day had given way for an excuse to pig out and drink. And party Bliznyuk and his comrades did, they cooked shish-kebabs over an open fire, guzzled booze and got wild as a rock ’n’ roll band played. They were happy they hadn’t heeded the warning of a grumpy geologist friend who had called each of them earlier that day.

“Don’t go to the barbecue,” he warned. “Stay indoors. I can’t tell you what’s wrong. But don’t go outside.” As Bliznyuk remarked to me a quarter century later, his uptight colleague had “some secret only known to the Geological Society. But I was young at the time. I had prepared for the [barbecue] over many months. So I went, and I had a great time.”

The following day another ominous call came from an older friend and colleague. “I can’t tell you what is happening, but I’m on a team deactivating an awful mess. Stay at home. Don’t buy anything at the market. Close all your windows. And, by the way, your clothes reek with radiation.”

Everyone who had gone to the picnic got a similar call, and everyone was scared witless.

Bliznyuk reacted as a physicist. He went straight to the lab, took off the clothes and shoes he had worn the day before and checked them out with a Geiger counter. “Damn!” He recalled. “I had never seen such high readings.” He reconstructed what was going on from the calls and news reports and the mega dose of radioactivity he had just measured, coming to the conclusion something bad had happened at Chernobyl.

The masses — those without knowledgeable colleagues or access to Geiger counters, those who were assured by their masters that “everything was under control” — continued life as usual, having no way of knowing about the serious amount of nuclear poison they were ingesting in the foods they ate and the liquids they drank, or what was falling on their bodies every time they stepped outside and entering their lungs every time they breathed.

Slowly, word came through the public’s grapevine that something was just not right. Because the radiation was so great at the melted reactor, the cleanup cycled through lots of workers who quickly received the maximum — and beyond — safe dose and had to move on. When these workers returned from the front lines of this battle of Chernobyl, tongues wagged. Soon, millions knew about the nuclear disaster even with the Soviet broadcasts droning on about the valiant measures that “kept things under control.”

A great exodus began in early May from Kiev, although the radiation pattern — and areas evacuated — were concentrated north of the plant, in Belarus. Between that month and June, the women and children of Kiev left. The city transformed into a town of men careful to avoid vegetables and fruits picked after April 26 or meat from animals slaughtered during the same time frame. “You tried to eat only things produced before the catastrophe or if they passed muster under a Geiger counter,” Bliznyuk explained.

A forest behind the plant was dubbed the Red Forest (perhaps with an additional touch intentional irony given the official stonewalling) after radiation cooked the trees and turned them a ginger color. The forest was bulldozed and buried in impermeable shrouds.

Bliznyuk said many more died than either the Soviets or the international community admitted (a point still the focus of a lively debate between those who say the count was lower than first estimated and those who insist it must be higher.

But the psychological toll overshadowed everything else. When might cancer strike? Pregnant women stressed over deformities their babies might develop. Everyone lost any lingering trust in the Soviet system, and respect for science and scientists was greatly diminished.

Only when they had buried the remains of the destroyed reactor under the sarcophagus of cement, Bliznyuk said, did the women and children return. The Chernobyl area and the town of Pripyat remain vacant except for those studying the devastation. Perhaps surprisingly, the undamaged portions of the plant remained active until 2000, shut down only after Ukraine convinced the rest of Europe and the U.S. into paying for a “New Safe Confinement and Spent Fuel Storage Facility” for the destroyed reactor and its fuel rods.

For Bliznyuk, Chernobyl greatly changed his views on energy generation: “Solar power has a bright future. Not so for nuclear,” he said, well before Japan’s current nightmare.

 

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

John Perlin
An international expert on solar energy and forestry, John Perlin has lectured extensively on these topics in North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Perlin is the author of A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization as well as From Space to Earth: The Story of Solar Electricity. Perlin mentors those involved in realizing photovoltaic, solar hot-water, and energy-efficiency technologies at the University of California-Santa Barbara, and coordinates the California Space Grant Consortium as a member of UCSB’s department of physics.

More From John Perlin

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

Study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


November 24 • 10:00 AM

Why Are Patients Drawn to Certain Doctors?

We look for an emotional fit between our physicians and ourselves—and right now, that’s the best we can do.


November 24 • 8:00 AM

Why Do We Elect Corrupt Politicians?

Voters, it seems, are willing to forgive—over and over again—dishonest yet beloved politicians if they think the job is still getting done.



November 24 • 6:00 AM

They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.


November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


Follow us


Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

Study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.