Chernobyl: The Silent Museum

The earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan on March 12, 2011, crippled the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The facility was brought to the brink of a total meltdown in one of its reactors just weeks before the world was set to remember the 25th anniversary of the worst nuclear disaster in history. Before the Fukushima catastrophe, Vision interviewed one of the planners of a memorial to the victims of Chernobyl and asked, “Can a deserted city and the memory of an unspeakable tragedy become the inspiration for a new way of thinking about how we interact with the environment and shape our energy future?”

Meadows typically elicit feelings of peacefulness and serenity; but there’s at least one place where they’ll more likely trigger dread. This meadow “looks very green and lush, but underneath it is dangerous,” declared Joerg Altekruse, the founder of SHINE (Share Human Intelligence Nobility Energy), an organization with a mission to inspire progress in sustainability on local and global levels. “Under these circumstances, you cannot trust nature anymore,” he said.

In an interview with Vision, Altekruse talked emotionally about crossing through the countryside—and that deceptive meadow—to enter the Ukrainian city of Pripyat for the first time. Pripyat was built to house the workers of the infamous Chernobyl nuclear power facility, which exploded and burned 25 years ago, sending nuclear particles throughout the surrounding area and radioactive clouds across the entire continent of Europe. Because the region is still radioactive, the city of Pripyat has been a ghost town ever since.

The silence there struck me most,” Altekruse remarked, recalling the anxiety he felt while visiting the area. “You have a relatively big town, high-rise buildings all around you, but hardly any sound at all. No cars, no voices, no construction noises. Only a few birds and the wind blowing through the broken windows of the dilapidated buildings. And every noise you make is echoed back many times from all the empty facades.”

In Memoriam

Altekruse is feverishly preparing for an event to commemorate the disaster and its victims. Sponsored by SHINE, the memorial is scheduled to take place at Chernobyl on April 26. It will be one of many such events across Europe recalling that infamous day in 1986 when Reactor Number Four of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant melted down.

The official cause of the accident was put down to a combination of outdated technology and errors by the operators who, ironically, were conducting a test of the reactor’s safety procedures. It was the most lethal nuclear reactor disaster ever known, unleashing 400 times more radiation into the earth’s atmosphere than did the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

Nearby towns and cities in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus were heavily contaminated with radiation, endangering several million people. More than 300,000 residents of the surrounding area were permanently displaced from their homes. But other areas of Europe also experienced high levels of contamination; as weather patterns shifted, the clouds drifted as far north and east as Scandinavia and the British Isles, and westward and southward to the Balkans, Germany, Austria and Switzerland, Italy and Greece. Deaths directly attributed to the accident are highly disputed, ranging from 4,000 to several hundred thousand.

No matter the numbers, the tragedy of the event is not diminished, especially considering that children were affected greatly. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that more than 4,000 children had contracted thyroid cancer in the region, primarily as a result of consuming milk and other foods contaminated by the radiation.

What is not in dispute is the tremendous socio-economic impact the disaster had on this already poor and struggling corner of the globe. Uncertainty regarding the effects of exposure, conflicting and confusing information coming from all sides of the issue, and the uprooting of whole communities—all these factors have caused fear and emotional distress among the millions who lived and worked in the region, even if they weren’t among the displaced. According to the former director general of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, the exposed populations have anxiety levels twice as high as normal, with a much higher incidence of depression and stress symptoms. Many thousands of jobs were lost, and huge areas of farmland and forestry reserves were taken out of commission. Fish and wildlife in the region remain contaminated and unfit for human consumption.

“‘Chernobyl’ is a word we would all like to erase from our memory. It recalls an event—the explosion of a nuclear reactor—which happened in April 1986, opening a Pandora’s box of invisible enemies and nameless anxieties in people’s minds.”

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Chernobyl: A Continuing Catastrophe” (2000)

Altekruse hopes that the victims’ struggle will not be forgotten. That is why he has dedicated the last few years to planning the Chernobyl memorial event. It will feature the Ukrainian Symphony Orchestra on a stage just a few miles from where Number Four exploded. They will perform a new composition written especially to commemorate the tragedy. As they begin to play at 1:23 a.m., the exact time the accident occurred in 1986, they will be staring out at emptiness—in more ways than one. Amazingly, there will be no audience in the vicinity to hear the music echoing around the city from the outdoor theater. Pripyat was not only evacuated but has been essentially sealed off from the public since shortly after the reactor meltdown. The area is still so toxic from slowly decaying radioactive materials that a 19-mile (30-kilometer) no man’s land has been established around the city, and access is severely limited. For that reason, SHINE Chernobyl will play before an empty “house.” While the decision was driven primarily by the government’s security limits, it could as easily have been a creative decision by the concert planners to highlight the desolation that once was Pripyat, home to about 50,000 people.

There will be an audience, however, for whom the poignancy of the barren scene should serve as a powerful symbol of the effects of nuclear technology gone awry. SHINE Chernobyl will be broadcast live and by delay around the globe, not only via the Internet, TV and radio stations but also in theaters, concert halls and auditoriums around the world. Performances by musicians and artists in many of those locations will be beamed back to the stage in Pripyat and incorporated into the live show. Everyone participating in the performance will have some connection to the tragedy at Chernobyl. For instance, in Sydney, Australia, an aboriginal dance troupe will perform native dances and songs to highlight their local struggle with the nuclear industry. Their communities have been adversely affected by uranium mining.

SHINE Chernobyl will incorporate a technological feature that Altekruse says has never been attempted before. Every performance during the three-hour show will be simultaneously projected in 3-D as a multimedia “energy sculpture” in the skies over Pripyat. Altekruse says it will be visible for up to 60 miles, or 100 kilometers.

Disputed Results

Official agencies that have analyzed the effects of Chernobyl on the environment and on the health of those who were exposed to the accident and its lasting radiation are cautious about exaggerating the long-term damage of the disaster. The World Health Organization (WHO) completed a study in 2006 and concluded that “considerable uncertainty surrounds” estimates on the number of deaths that can be directly attributed to the incident. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) reached similar conclusions in their report the same year: “There is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure 20 years after the accident. There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality rates or in rates of non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure.” Both of these reports were part of a project known as the Chernobyl Forum initiated by IAEA.

But critics of these findings accuse these organizations of bias, especially the IAEA, which has long been a proponent of nuclear energy.

The city of Pripyat near the reactor will be uninhabitable for hundreds, probably thousands of years.” 

Joerg Altekruse

No matter whose assessment is more accurate or how safe the nuclear energy industry can eventually make power plants, nuclear power stations by their very nature will always pose some degree of hazard. Some experts warn that no matter how far nuclear energy advances, it can never be made completely failsafe. Japan’s current nuclear crisis should be all the proof we need for that.

But a disturbing report in 2006 by Greenpeace gives further cause for alarm. Though disputed heavily by nuclear energy proponents, the report claimed that nearly 200 potential meltdowns had been narrowly averted in U.S. nuclear reactors since 1986. Aside from safety issues, another major concern is the problem of finding safe and effective places to dispose of the nuclear waste from these plants. And with terrorist organizations openly threatening the use of dirty bombs, which would create deadly dust clouds full of radioactive material, and even full-scale nuclear bombs, the nuclear power industry has an enormous task on its hands to secure nuclear waste and prevent access to the materials that power such bombs.

Power and Responsibility

In spite of these concerns, the ongoing tragedy at the Fukushima power plant in Japan and the world gearing up to remember the terrible events at Chernobyl 25 years ago, nuclear power is gaining in favor again as an alternative to fossil fuels. Even some environmentalists are starting to plead the case for it.

So what should the average energy consumer do? We aren’t in a position to determine whose numbers are more accurate, nor whose prognosis is more sound. Yet, as noted, nuclear power by its very nature carries with it a certain danger. Should we view ourselves as too insignificant to make a difference and just accept the risk?

Altekruse says a new way of thinking is needed, one that is truly outside the box. And that can only begin on an individual basis.

Some of what he suggests sounds familiar. But he also advocates some very progressive ideas, not only in the production and sourcing of energy for the future but also in its distribution. “In Germany, we have four big utilities that provide all the energy,” he noted. “It has been that way since Nazi times. They have a grip on the supply of energy. They are progressing in terms of renewable and clean energy sources, but everything must be big” to make it a viable new enterprise. Small economies of scale will not keep these huge energy companies in their dominant position within the business. “For instance, they are investing heavily in wind farms across the North Sea and in massive solar farms in North Africa, from which they will pipe energy into Europe. But these have to be big, big, big to work for their business model.”

He added, “The alternative is to decentralize, with smaller local companies, consumer groups and even individual households producing their own energy and connecting it in an intelligent way to create a sort of virtual utility.”

Altekruse admitted that this is not going to be easy because of most people’s reluctance or inability to make such a transition. “People know they want to become independent from these big energy companies, but they are not brave enough or they don’t have the time or money needed to begin the difficult transition. It’s too easy to just plug in to the existing power grid.”

The idea of energy independence for local communities and individuals is a bold and audacious goal. Will it be practical and achievable? That remains to be seen and certainly will take a long time to be realized. One thing is clear, however: new and innovative ways of thinking about our energy production and consumption are going to be needed to guarantee that environmental disasters like Chernobyl (and more recently the BP oil spill) do not occur in the future.

Corporate decision-makers clearly have a major responsibility in this regard, but whether or not they abdicate it does nothing to absolve individuals from doing what’s right within the scope of their own lives. There are things each of us as consumers can do. We can begin by reexamining our lifestyle in this modern technological age, considering how it translates to the way we consume energy directly and indirectly. It may require reducing our dependence on energy by becoming smarter in our selection of products, foods and technology. We should become acutely aware of where and how we are consuming energy. It’s about taking personal responsibility for our own actions. We can also petition our energy providers to invest in and utilize clean energy and renewable resources such as solar and wind power.

Altekruse’s ideas may not end up winning the day, but he is right that the way forward cannot be left just to big energy companies, national governments and environmental advocacy groups. It will take participation from us all. It all comes back to that universally known but rarely practiced biblical maxim, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Our neighbor is every fellow citizen of the world, many of whom reap the results of our energy overconsumption—whether in local energy shortages or in polluted air, ground and water. But our neighbors are also our children, who tomorrow will be forced to deal with our actions and decisions of today. If these are driven primarily by economic concerns or profit motives, we’re on the wrong track, whether individually, corporately or governmentally.

A Perpetual Reminder

Will the silenced city of Pripyat be the symbol of humanity’s domination of the earth and foreshadow what other cities will look like sometime in the future? Or will it instead become a unique museum, one that reminds us of a time when we were less advanced in our thinking? Altekruse hopes it will be the latter, reminding future generations that our interaction with nature is fragile and that we have to radically rethink our relationship with it. We can no longer afford the arrogance of believing we can deplete the earth’s resources or play with powers locked inside the atom to feed our addiction to materialism and excessive consumption.

Perhaps like a medical history exhibit today might display an earlier generation’s lack of knowledge in treating diseases, the legacy of Chernobyl should make our grandchildren shudder and be thankful that their grandparents found a way to advance out of the nuclear dark age.