Wormwood forever

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 6 August 2016

Perhaps it is a result of lying on a beach under the hot Italian sun for three days that have caused my thoughts to think about radiation…

I have just returned yesterday from a two-week holiday in Tuscany and have looked at some of the books I read, or wanted to read, whilst I was away.

I find myself most moved by a book I purchased before I went away: Svetlana Alexievich´s Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster.


On 26 April 1986, at 1:23:58, Reactor #4 at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station, 100 km north of Kyiv, in the Ukraine, exploded.

Chernobyl Disaster.jpg

The nuclear reactor after the disaster:

Reactor 4 (centre). Turbine building (lower left). Reactor 3 (centre right)

It was the largest technological disaster of the 20th century.

Nearly 9 tonnes of radioactive material (90 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb) spewed into the sky.

An estimated 4.9 million people living in northern Ukraine, southern Belarus and southwestern Russia were affected.

Contamination spread to cover 3/4 of Europe.

On 29 April 1986, instruments recorded high levels of radiation in Poland, Germany, Austria and Romania.

A day later, the radiation spread to Switzerland and northern Italy.

On 1 and 2 May, it reached France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Britain and northern Greece.

On 3 May, radiation is detected in Israel, Kuwait and Turkey.

Gaseous airborne particles travelled the globe.

On 2 May they were registered in Japan, 5 May in India, 6 May in Canada and the States.

A local problem on the Belarussian border was suddenly a global problem.

On 11 September 2001, after the first hijacked plane hit the World Trade Center, emergency triage stations were set up throughout New York City.

Doctors and nurses rushed to their hospitals for extra shifts and many individuals came to donate blood.

These were touching acts of generosity and solidarity.

The blood and triage stations turned out to be unnecessary.

There were few survivors.

List of Victims from Sept. 11, 2001 Royalty Free Stock Photography

The effects of the explosion and nuclear fire at the Chernobyl power plant in 1986 were the exact opposite.

The initial blast killed just one plant worker, Valeriy Khodomchuk.

In the next few weeks no fewer than 30 workers and firemen died from acute radiation poisoning.

But tens of thousands received extremely high doses of radiation.

It was an accident that produced more survivors than casualities.

Lyudmilla Ignatenko, the wife of a fireman whose brigade was the first to arrive at the reactor, witnessed the total degeneration of her husband’s skin in the week before his death.

Any little wrinkle in his bedding would wound him.

The Zone of Exclusion, as the Soviets termed the land within 30 km of the Chernboyl explosion, though evacuated of humans, was still filled with household pets.

As they had absorbed heavy doses of radiation in their fur and were liable to wander out of the Zone, hunters had to go in and shoot them all.

The Soviets had designed a poorly constructed reactor and then staffed it with a group of incompetents, then lied about the disaster while trying to cover it up.

Today the land is still too dangerous for agricultural use and children are still getting sick from the effects of radiation poisoning passed onto them genetically, those that manage to survive pregnancy and do not die pre-term.

The rivers remain polluted by much of the silt carried downstream from Chernobyl.

“The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water.  The name of the star is Wormwood.  A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter.” (The Holy Bible, Revelations 8: 10-11)

Thirty years after the 1986 disaster, many babies born in Chernobyl’s neighbouring regions have birth defects and develop rare forms of cancer.

For neighbouring tiny Belarus, population 10 million, one out of every five Belarussians live on contaminated land.

That is 2.1 million people, of whom 700,000 are children.

Mortality rates exceed birth rates by 20%.

The 4th reactor, known as “the Cover”, still holds about 20 tons of nuclear fuel in its lead-and-metal core…and there are fissures.

There are now over 200 square metres of spaces and cracks.

Radioactive particles continue to escape…

The operation to dismantle Chernobyl’s radioactive core is one of the world´s largest engineering projects and could take another 30 years.

Some say that present radioactive levels at Chernobyl are negligible, so organised tours of the site and the surrounding ghost villages are possible.

Pripyat-Chernobyl Tours by UkrainianWeb.com

Journalist Svetlana Alexievich interviewed hundreds of people affected by the meltdown and their stories reveal fear, anger and uncertainty with which they still live.

These survivors are fatalistic, stoically brave people who won´t abandon their homes even if they are poisoned with radiation.

Meanwhile in Fukushima, Japan, the only other nuclear accident almost comparable to Chernobyl, full clean-up of the site is expected to take at least 40 years.

Five years (11 March 2011) after a powerful earthquake and tsunami struck, causing three reactors at Fukushima to melt down, a veneer of stability masks a grueling daily battle to contain hazardous radiation.

A smooth clean-up is top priority for the Japanese government which wants to rebuild Japan’s tattered nuclear power industry, as only one atomic power station remains operating in the country and more than 40 reactors sit idle.

The 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, the world’s worst nuclear accident since 1986, displaced 50,000 households after radiation leaked into the air, soil and sea.

Radiation checks led to bans of some shipments of vegetables and fish.

The Japan Times estimated 1,600 deaths were the result of evacuation, due to physical and mental stress stemming from long stays at shelters, a lack of initial care as a result of hospitals disabled by the disaster and suicides.

The Fukushima accident sparked worldwide controversy.

Eight of the seventeen operating nuclear plants in Germany were shut down after the 2011 Fukushima accident and it plans to close all its reactors by 2022.

“At Fukushima, four reactors have been out of control for weeks, casting doubt on whether even an advanced economy can master nuclear safety.” (Swiss bank USB, Bloomberg, 4 March 2011)

Countries such as Australia, Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Israel, Malaysia, New Zealand and Norway have no nuclear power reactors and remain opposed to nuclear power.

At present there are over 441 reactors worldwide in 31 countries, with 67 more under construction in 15 countries.

In Switzerland, for example, the Leibstadt reactor produces an annual average of 25 million kilowatt hours per day, enough to power a city the size of Boston.

The United States produces the most nuclear energy, with much of its military, and some civilian, using nuclear marine propulsion.

Nuclear power provides more than 11% of the world’s electricity.

There are five nuclear weapons states: the US, Russia, The UK, France and China.

This means there are 4,000 active nuclear weapons in the world and 10,000 nuclear weapons in total.

A full-scale nuclear war could bring about the extinction of the entire human race.

“We knew the world would not be the same.

A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent.

I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita

Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says,

“Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

I suppose we all thought that one way or another.”

— J. Robert Oppenheimer, The Decision To Drop The Bomb[

Proponents of nuclear energy contend that that nuclear power is a sustainable energy source that reduces carbon emissions and increase energy security by decreasing dependence on imported energy sources.

Nuclear energy produces virtually no conventional air pollution, such as greenhouse gases and smog.

Oil is running out amd nuclear energy could be a replacement energy source.

Opponents believe that nuclear power poses many threats.

There are the problems of processing, transporting and storing nuclear waste, the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation and terrorist targets, as well as health risks and environmental damage from uranium mining.

Reactors are enormously complex machines where many things can and do go wrong.

And as Chernobyl and Fukushima will attest, there have been serious nuclear accidents.

When considering all the energy-intensive stages of the nuclear fuel chain, from uranium mining to nuclear decommissioning, nuclear power is neither a low carbon or economical energy source.

“I don´t know what I should talk about – about death or about love?

Or are they the same?

Which one should I talk about?

We were newlyweds. 

We still walked around holding hands, even if we were just going to the store.  

I would say to him, “I love you.”

But I didn’t know how much. 

I had no idea…

One night I heard a noise. 

I looked out the window. 

He saw me.

“Close the window and go back to sleep.  There’s a fire at the reactor.  I’ll be back soon.”

I didn´t see the explosion itself.

Just the flames.

Everything was radiant. 

The whole sky.

A tall flame.

And smoke. 

The heat was awful.

And he’s still not back….

Seven o’clock. 

At seven I was told he was in the hospital. 

I ran there, but the police had already encircled it, and they weren’t letting anyone through. 

Only ambulances….

I started looking for a friend, she was a doctor at that hospital. 

I grabbed her white coat when she came out of an ambulance.

“Get me inside.”

“I can’t.  He’s bad. They all are.”

I held onto her. 

“Just to see him!”

“All right.  Come with me. Just for fifteen or twenty minutes.”

I saw him. 

He was all swollen and puffed up. 

You could barely see his eyes….

He started to change – every day I met a brand-new person. 

The burns started to come to the surface. 

In his mouth, on his tongue, his cheeks…

It came off in layers – as white film…the colour of his face…his body…blue…red…gray-brown…

It happened so fast. 

There wasn´t any time to think. 

There wasn’t any time to cry.

I loved him! 

I had no idea how much! 

We had just gotten married. 

When we walked down the street – he would grab my hands and whirl me around. 

And kiss me, kiss me….

It was a hospital for people with acute radiation poisoning. 

Fourteen days. 

In fourteen days a person dies….

I tell the nurse on duty: “He’s dying.” 

And she says to me: “What did you expect?  He got 1,600 roentgen.  400 is a lethal dose.  You’re sitting next to a nuclear reactor.”….

Fourteen nights. 

That´s how long it takes a person to die….

There are many of us here…

They have bad diseases, they’re invalids, but they don’t leave…

Often they die. 

In an instant. 

They just drop…

No one has really asked us. 

No one has asked us what we have been through. 

What we saw. 

No one wants to hear about death. 

About what scares them.

But I was telling you about love. 

About my love…”

(Lyudmilla Ignatenko, wife of deceased fireman Vasily Ignatneko)

(Sources: Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster; New York Times, 10 March 2016; Wikipedia)

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