By Kim Willsher
There is a line in the television series Chernobyl that comes as no surprise to those of us who reported on the 1986 nuclear disaster in what was the Soviet Union – but that still has the power to shock:
“The official position of the state is that global nuclear catastrophe is not possible in the Soviet Union.”
It was not possible, so in the days and months after the world’s worst such accident, on 26 April, the Kremlin kept up its pretence. It dissembled, deceived and lied. I began investigating Chernobyl in the late 1980s after Ukrainian friends insisted authorities in the USSR were covering up the extent of the human tragedy of those – many of them children – contaminated by radiation when the nuclear plant’s Reactor 4 exploded, blasting a cloud of poisonous fallout across the USSR and a large swathe of Europe.
When photographer John Downing and I first visited, the Soviet Union, then on its last political legs, was still in denial about what happened despite president Mikhail Gorbachev’s new era of glasnost.
The Chernobyl miniseries is a compelling account of how the disaster unfolded, based largely on the testimony of those present, most of whom died soon afterwards. It rings true but only scratches the surface of another, more cruel reality– that, in their desperation to save face, the Soviets were willing to sacrifice any number of men, women and children. Even as radiation spewed out of the plant from the burning reactor core, local people told John and me how they had seen Communist apparatchiks in the area spirit their families to safety in Moscow while the residents were being urged to carry on as if nothing had happened. In Pripyat, the satellite city built for Chernobyl workers, windows were left open, children played outside, and gardeners dug their allotments.
The plume of deadly radioactive dust was just a harmless steam discharge, residents were told. It was 36 hours before the city was evacuated, by which time some were already showing signs of radiation sickness.
Today, Chernobyl is a tourist attraction. Thousands of visitors traipse around the ghost city of Pripyat, taking snaps of the crumbling housing blocks, parched swimming pool, schoolrooms, abandoned funfair and overgrown streets. The first time we visited, it seemed post-apocalyptic. We found homes still furnished, with personal belongings lying around. People had been told to take only what they needed for two or three days. It looked as if they had just vanished into thin air. Outside, the public-address system was still playing maudlin music and the funfair, with its bumper cars and brightly-coloured ferris wheel, was beginning to rust.
At the Chernobyl Research Centre, a short distance from the power plant, scientists showed us pine saplings grown from seeds from the nearby “red forest” where the trees glowed after absorbing radiation and had to be dug up and buried. The saplings were all bizarre mutations, some with needles growing backwards. There was no sign of wildlife, not even birds. The researchers spoke of mice with six toes and deformed teeth.
The Soviets were not the only ones who lied. France’s authorities hid information about the radioactive cloud over its territory, and Hans Blix, then director general of the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA)– still accused of minimising the dangers following the catastrophe– released a statement that settlements around Chernobyl would “be safe for residents” before long. Dissident scientist Andrei Sakharov was also deceived. “To my shame, I at first pretended that nothing much had happened,” he said.
Many doctors insisted there had been a spike in the number of cancers and leukemias. Children had been born with rare deformities including “frogs’ legs”, their hips twisted outwards. Others had heart defects, and thyroid cancers thought to have been caused by radioactive iodine.
Yet officials insisted that all this was “poor food and poverty” and unrelated to Chernobyl.
Oksana died, as did many others –but because no data was kept from before the disaster, nothing can be proven. Today, as the TV series points out, the official number of directly attributable victims of Chernobyl is 31. Other, “unscientific”, estimates vary from 4,000 to 93,000.
Now my photographer friend John Downing has terminal lung cancer. “I often wonder if Chernobyl had anything to do with it,” he told me. Like many others, he will never know. John reminded me of a scientist we met in Moscow. The man had spent some time in Chernobyl. “I’ll never forget. He took a notebook out of his desk and ran a Geiger counter over it, which started crackling like mad. Four years on, and it was still highly radioactive,” John said.