The 30th anniversary of the nuclear disaster at the Vladimir Lenin (a.k.a Chernobyl) nuclear power station is here, and I could not be more excited.
There are several things that I really love to experience. A new Calvin and Hobbes, a new beer, a new Rush song, and the anniversary of major events. There are only three new Calvin and Hobbes comics I have not read, and Rush may or may not release a new album; however, anniversaries and new beers abound.
What I love is to see the change in the current understanding of a historical event. This started when I was studying the Apollo moon landings. We all know that the public universally lauded NASA for their efforts, and the country (if not the world) was fully behind these heroes. (Fermat blog pro tip: this is a setup for another post). We kicked the Russians in their red arse and proved that Americans are the dominate species.
Chernobyl is now reaching that magic age of 30 where all the young people were not around to experience it, so all they can do is put today’s spin on yesterday’s events. We will inevitably view a 30 year old event with today’s context and decide that someone else is responsible. I’m not saying this is right or wrong, good or bad. It is just what the dominate species does.
Growing up in the 80s the threat of the Soviet beast was very real. I can still conjure up the abject terror I felt knowing that nuclear bombs may rain down on my house. My mother assured me that our proximity of three Air Force bases meant that we’d all die instantly and not to worry about.
Seriously, that was her advice.
I am sure there was a little boy deep in Mother Russia who felt the same. Chernobyl was constructed to ensure that the USSR would be secure against Western aggression. The disaster was caused by a safety test (right?) that went all wrong. The idea of the test was to see if the turbines could generate enough electricity to keep the water pumps on the core active if there was a disruption in delicate balance between the core and the generators (it is actually much more complex, but explaining is hard, and hard things are hard).
The Israelis destroyed a nuclear power plant in Iraq. A plant designed by those evil commies. If that could happen in Iraq, could it happen to them? The test was partially to ensure that an attack on the plant would not cripple it. Irony. It’s not just a river in Egypt.
Because of the closed Soviet state, it is not surprising that the world is mostly not aware of the full sacrifice of the citizens of the USSR to ensure that Chernobyl did not render Western Europe uninhabitable. The Reds threw a half a million men at the destroyed reactor to ensure that the disaster was contained and that it would not do any more damage. Thousands of unrecognized heroes died so the full impact of their error did not crush the world. I’m not a big fan of blindly following authority, but in this case the dedication of the citizens of the USSR prevented the desecration of several rivers and the water table beneath the plant. This was the battle of Chernobyl.
The BBC covered the disaster in a show called Surviving Disaster. This episode is told from the point of view Valeri Legasov, the man selected to investigate the disaster and present the finds to the world in a conference later that year. In this show he has a line that sums up the Soviet spirit: ‘I don’t believe there are even a handful of nations in this world that could still produce such unquestioned sacrifice.’ Chernobyl claimed his life. You can find the video here. Please set aside some time for a morose hour of entertainment.
In the end, the USSR willing threw hundreds of thousands lives at the reactor because they knew that if they did not, they would die and take the world with them.
We still feel the effects of that night, and we will for eternity. The most toxic parts of the plant will remain unapproachable for an eon. But what is amazing is that life flourishes in the exclusion zone. Without the interference of humans, nature has taken her land back. The wildlife has adapted much more than this dominate species ever could.
In an effort to contain the radiation, the Soviets constructed a sarcophagus around the stricken reactor. It was designed to last for 30 years. There a new safe containment building going up and it should be in place soon. This structure is designed to keep the site safe for a century. After that, who knows what will go up.
If all this was depressing, I recommend a quick jaunt to this post.
And so it goes.