My time in Chernobyl

NOBODY in Suffolk knows more about Chernobyl, the nuclear accident, and its aftermath than former Sizewell engineer Len Green.

By Paul Geater

NOBODY in Suffolk knows more about Chernobyl, the nuclear accident, and its aftermath than former Sizewell engineer Len Green. PAUL GEATER spoke to him about the world's worst nuclear disaster and its continuing impact on the planet in the week of the explosion's 20th anniversary.

IT'S a long way from the idyllic Suffolk village of Henley to the Ukraine/Belarus border, which remains in quarantine 20 years after the explosion which shattered the Chernobyl nuclear plant and sent shock waves throughout the world.

But nuclear expert Len Green is equally at home in both places - he's a regularly visitor to the area and has advised on the management and decommissioning of the three undamaged reactors at the nuclear plant.

Over the last seven years he has made many trips to the area, spending about two or three weeks at a time working with engineers who are trying to make Chernobyl safe.

He said: “I go there about four or five times a year and it is a fascinating and interesting area to visit.

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“Immediately after the explosion the town of Pripyat which provided homes for most of the people working at Chernobyl was evacuated. That remains a ghost town today - visiting it is very strange. But the people moved to a new town called Slavutych about 40 kilometres away.

“That was built by the different republics of the old Soviet Union. Each contributed a different district in their own home nation style. It is a young town - about 40 per cent of the population is under 16 - and it is establishing itself as a strong community.”

There are about 1,500 people working at Chernobyl today still working to make the stricken reactor safe and to start decommissioning the other three reactors on the site. The last reactor stopped supplying electricity in the year 2000.

They travel from Slavutych to Chernobyl in a special sealed train which passes out of the Ukraine, through neighbouring country Belarus and back into the Ukraine.

Len said: “You can't drive from Slavutych to Chernobyl, if you did you would need to have to pass through border crossings and have passports stamped and everything like that.”

After the explosion engineers risked their life to encase the reactor in a temporary sarcophagus in an attempt to prevent any further radioactive leak. That was always seen as an emergency response - and it has seriously deteriorated over the last 20 years.

Now engineers are working hard to create a permanent sarcophagus which will keep the radioactivity contained for all time - but it is not scheduled for completion until 2009.


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IN the aftermath of the Chernobyl explosion the priority was to move everyone out of the affected area.

The town of Pripyat, with a population of 45,000, was abandoned overnight and a 30-kilometre radius area was declared an exclusion zone.

No one was allowed to live there - and that exclusion zone remains to this day even though about 360 people, mainly elderly, are defying the authorities and have set themselves up as latter-day settlers.

But within the exclusion zone - nearly 3,000 square kilometres - nature has taken over.

Mr Green said: “It's become a real nature reserve. There are plants and animals there which have been driven out by people elsewhere.

“Scientists have tested animals like mice who are thriving there. There has been some sort of mutation among them, but it has not meant that they have grown two heads or anything like that - it seems as if their bodies have evolved to tolerate higher levels of radiation.”

In Pripyat trees and grass is taking over - the town looks like a set from a post-apocalyptic movie. The homes were simply abandoned. The funfair that was the centre of the community remains in place today - rusting dodgems and ferris wheels await customers who will never return.

Officially 63 people have died as a direct result of the Chernobyl explosion - either in the explosion itself or from radiation poisoning after working in the area. However experts accept this is only a small fraction of the total number of deaths.

The International Atomic Energy Authority has estimated that the number of deaths could top 4,000 - but many people feel this is a gross underestimate.

Greenpeace has estimated that the total death toll could total 100,000, other experts put the likely figure between the two although it might be impossible to ever know the exact figure.

Mr Green believes the IAEA's figure is much nearer the mark than that from Greenpeace.

He said: “The IAEA has done a lot of research and knows the facts. There is a danger in creating too much concern. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster many women had abortions fearing their unborn children would be affected.

“In the event it seems that there was nothing wrong with any of them - what happened was a real tragedy and caused the unnecessary loss of life. We have to watch against hysteria,” he said.

RADIOACTIVITY from Chernobyl passed over East Anglia a few days after the explosion, but the particles were high in the atmosphere and did not affect the area.

However when they reached the west of the country, especially north Wales and the Lake District, they met Atlantic winds which created rain.

This fell, dousing the area with rain that was slightly contaminated with radioactive caesium.

The level was very low, but could be detected by Geiger counters and farmers were told their lamb could not be sold if it registered too high a level of radioactivity.

This problem has remained in some parts of north Wales where the pasture is still contaminated. This is because there is only a thin layer of soil on top of solid rock and the caesium has not been able to seep away into the ground.

This means the caesium, which has a half-life (the time taken for the level of radioactivity to decay by half) of 30 years is still in the soil and is being absorbed by the grass.

The element does not stay in sheep long - contaminated creatures can flush the caesium out of their system quite quickly by being moved to areas of “clean” grass.

But the existence of the radioactive element in the grass does force farmers to undertake extra checks before they send their stock to market.

NUCLEAR reactor number four blew up at 1am on April 26, 1986.

The accident happened while reactor staff were undertaking routine maintenance and decided to test emergency procedures.

Reactions in nuclear power stations are regulated by control rods. Inserting the rods into the reactor slows down the process and prevents overheating and the danger of a chain reaction.

At Chernobyl the control rods had been taken out of action as part of the maintenance so when the reactor was started as a test, it was not possible to stop it quickly enough.

There was not a nuclear explosion but the heat became so intense that it blew the top of the reactor and the building, allowing radioactivity to get into the atmosphere.

At the time the Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. The authorities were quick to evacuate the nearby town of Pripyat - that was cleared within 36 hours of the accident - but did not make the news public to the rest of the world immediately.

However experts across Europe soon detected increased levels of radioactivity in the atmosphere and it soon became clear something serious had gone wrong. The Soviet government admitted what had happened two days later and invited western experts to give them help and advice.

Mikhail Gorbachev had been Soviet leader for just over a year at the time of the disaster, and the international reaction to Chernobyl gave fresh impetus to his campaign of Perestroika and Glasnost - increasing openness and tolerance in the country.

This began a train of events which ultimately let to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ukraine and Belarus are now independent countries with widely differing political outlooks.

It would be wrong to say that the Chernobyl accident caused the destruction of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain . . . but it was a big factor in the changed world that emerged during the 1990s.

CHERNOBYL is described as the worst industrial accident the world has seen.

Part of the nuclear power plant, just 80 miles north of Kiev, exploded after testing went wrong during a routine shut down.

At 1.23am on April 26, 1986, two explosions destroyed Reactor Four at the plant.

A fireball blew off the reactor's steel and concrete and led to a massive blaze which burned for eight days, releasing poisonous and noxious gases into the air.

Huge clouds of radioactive gases and debris rose 5.5 miles into the atmosphere and deposited hazardous material across the globe.

The total amount of radiation emitted from the explosion was 200 times that of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Much of Earth's surface was affected, with 2,400,000 square miles of Europe contaminated.

More than half of the nuclear fallout from the disaster landed outside Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.

The immediate explosion caused the death of two plant workers but many more were to perish from the affects of radiation.

In the immediate aftermath, 237 emergency workers suffered from acute radiation sickness, leading to 28 deaths in 1986 and 19 the following year.

An independent study has claimed up 66,000 people around the world could die from cancer as a result of Chernobyl.

About five million people lived in contaminated areas and 200,000 people living in the local area were evacuated. A 30 km (19 mile) exclusion zone was soon established.

Hundreds of thousands of people, known as liquidators, were brought in to help clear up the damage.

Made up of plant employees, firefighters, soldiers and miners, the liquidators worked on decontamination and construction projects, as well as building accommodation for plant workers and evacuees.

They built a massive shell around Reactor Four to try and prevent any more radiation leaking out.

Known as the Sarcophagus, it was made of steel and concrete and over the years has gradually deteriorated.