Arquivo da tag: Desastre nuclear

The Art of Pondering Distant Future Earths (MIT Press Reader)

Stretching the mind across time can help us become more responsible planetary stewards and foster empathy across generations.

Posted on Aug 10, 2021

Source: Jake Weirick, via Unsplash

By: Vincent Ialenti

The word has been out for decades: We were born on a damaged planet careening toward environmental collapse. Yet our intellects are poorly equipped to grasp the scale of the Earth’s ecological death spiral. We strain to picture how, in just a few decades, climate change may displace entire populations. We struggle to envision the fate of plastic waste that will outlast us by centuries. We fail to imagine our descendants inhabiting an exhausted Earth worn out from resource extraction and devoid of biodiversity. We lack frames of reference in our everyday lives for thinking about nuclear waste’s multimillennial timescales of radioactive hazard.

I am an anthropologist who studies how societies hash out relationships between living communities of the present and unborn communities imagined to inhabit the future. Studying how a community relates to the passage of time, I’ve learned, can offer a window into its values, worldviews, and lifeways.

This article adapted from Vincent Ialenti’s book “Deep Time Reckoning: How Future Thinking Can Help Earth Now.”

From 2012 to 2014, I conducted 32 months of anthropological fieldwork exploring how Finland’s nuclear energy waste experts grappled with Earth’s radically long-term future. These experts routinely dealt with long-lived radionuclides such as uranium-235, which has a half-life of over 700 million years. They worked with the nuclear waste management company Posiva to help build a final disposal facility approximately 450 meters below the islet of Olkiluoto in the Gulf of Bothnia in the Baltic Sea. If all goes according to plan, this facility will, in the mid-2020s, become the world’s first operating deep geologic repository for spent nuclear fuel.

To assess the Olkiluoto repository’s long-term durability, these experts developed a “safety case” forecasting geological, hydrological, and ecological events that could potentially occur in Western Finland over the coming tens of thousands — or even hundreds of thousands — of years. From their efforts emerged visions of distant future glaciations, climate changes, earthquakes, floods, human and animal population changes, and more. These forecasts became the starting point for a series of “mental time travel” exercises that I incorporated into my book, “Deep Time Reckoning.”

Stretching the mind across time — even in the most speculative ways — can help us become more responsible planetary stewards: It can help endow us with the time literacy necessary for tackling long-term challenges such as biodiversity loss, microplastics accumulation, climate change, antibiotic resistance, asteroid impacts, sustainable urban planning, and more. This can not only make us feel more at home in pondering our planet’s pasts and futures. It can also draw us to imagine the world from the perspective of future human and non-human communities — fostering empathy across generations.

5710 CE. A tired man lounges on a sofa. He lives in a small wooden house in a region once called Eurajoki, Finland. He works at a local medical center. Today is his day off. He’s had a long day in the forest. He hunted moose and deer and picked lingonberries, mushrooms, and bilberries. He now sips water, drawn from a village well, from a wooden cup. His husband brings him a dinner plate. On it are fried potatoes, cereal, boiled peas, and beef. All the food came from local farms. The cattle were watered at a nearby river. The crops were watered by irrigation channels flowing from three local lakes.

The man has no idea that, more than 3,700 years ago, safety case biosphere modelers used 21st-century computer technologies to reckon everyday situations like his. He does not know that they once named the lakes around him — which formed long after their own deaths — “Liiklanjärvi,” “Tankarienjärvi,” and “Mäntykarinjärvi.” He is unaware of Posiva’s ancient determination that technological innovation and cultural habits are nearly impossible to predict even decades in advance. He is unaware that Posiva, in response, instructed its modelers to pragmatically assume that Western Finland’s populations’ lifestyles, demographic patterns, and nutritional needs will not change much over the next 10,000 years. He does not know the safety case experts inserted, into their models’ own parameters, the assumption that he and his neighbors would eat only local food.

Yet the hunter’s life is still entangled with the safety case experts’ work. If they had been successful, then the vegetables, meat, fruit, and water before him should have just a tiny chance of containing only tiny traces of radionuclides from 20th-century nuclear power plants.

12020 CE. A solitary farmer looks out over her pasture, surrounded by a green forest of heath trees. She lives in a sparse land once called Finland, on a fertile island plot once called Olkiluoto. The area is an island no longer. What was once a coastal bay is now dotted with small lakes, peat bogs, and mires with white sphagnum mosses and grassy sedge plants. The Eurajoki and Lapijoki Rivers drain out into the sea. When the farmer goes fishing at the lake nearby, she catches pike. She watches a beaver swim about. Sometimes she feels somber. She recalls the freshwater ringed seals that once shared her country before their extinction.

The woman has no idea that, deep beneath her feet, lies an ancestral deposit of copper, iron, clay, and radioactive debris. This is a highly classified secret — leaked to the public several times over the millennia, but now forgotten. Yet even the government’s knowledge of the burial site is poor. Most records were destroyed in a global war in the year 3112. It was then that ancient forecasts of the site, found in the 2012 safety case report “Complementary Considerations,” were lost to history.

But the farmer does know the mythical stories of Lohikäärme: a dangerous, flying, salmon-colored venomous snake that kills anyone who dares dig too close to his underground cave. She and the other farmers in the area grow crops of peas, sugar beet, and wheat. They balk at the superstitious fools who tell them the monster living beneath their feet is real.

35,012 CE. A tiny microbe floats in a large, northern lake. It does not know that the clay, silt, and mud floor below it is gaining elevation, little by little, year after year. It is unaware that, 30 millennia ago, the lake was a vast sea. Dotted with sailboats, cruise and cargo ships, it was known by humans as the Baltic. Watery straits, which connected the Baltic Sea to the North Sea, had risen above the water thousands of years ago. Denmark and Sweden fused into a single landmass. The seafloor was decompressing from the Weichselian glaciation — an enormous sheet of ice that pressed down on the land during a previous ice age.

After the last human died, the landmass kept on rising. Its uplift was indifferent to human extinction. It was indifferent to how, in 2013 CE, an anthropologist and a safety case expert sat chatting in white chairs in Ravintola Rytmi: a café in Helsinki. There, the safety case expert relayed his projection that, by 52,000 CE, there would no longer be water separating Turku, Finland, and Stockholm, Sweden. At that point, one could walk from one city to the other on foot. The expert reckoned that, to the north — between Vaasa, Finland, and Umeå, Sweden — one would someday find a waterfall with the planet’s largest deluge of flowing water. The waterfall could be found at the site of a once-submerged sea shelf.

The microbe, though, does not know or care about Vaasa, Umeå, Denmark, long-lost boats, safety case reports, or Helsinki’s past dining options. It has no concept of them. Their significances died with the humans. Nor does the microbe grasp the suffering they faced when succumbing to Anthropocene collapse. Humans’ past technological feats, grand civilizations, passion projects, intellectual triumphs, wartime sacrifices, and personal struggles are now moot. And yet, the radiological safety of the microbe’s lake’s waters still hinges on the work of a handful of human safety case experts who lived millennia ago. Thinking so far ahead, these experts never lived to see whether their deep time forecasts were accurate.

We do not, of course, live in these imagined worlds. In this sense, they are unreal — merely fictions. However, our capacities to envision potential futures, and to feel empathy for those who may inhabit them, are very real. Depictions of tomorrow can have powerful, concrete effects on the world today. This is why deep time thought experiments are not playful games, but serious acts of intellectual problem-solving. It is why the safety case experts’ models of far future nuclear waste risks are uniquely valuable, even if they are, at the end of the day, mere approximations.

Yet pondering distant future Earths can also help us take a step back from our everyday lives — enriching our imaginations by transporting our minds to different places and times. Corporate coaches have recommended taking breaks from our familiar thinking patterns to experience the world in new ways and overcome mental blocks. Cognitive scientists have shown how creativity can be sparked by perceiving “something one has not seen before (but that was probably always there).”

Putting aside a few minutes each day for long-termist, planetary imagination can enrich us with greater mental dexterity in navigating between multiple, interacting timescales. This can cultivate more longsighted empathy for landscapes, people, and other organisms across decades, centuries, and millennia. As the global ecological crisis takes hold, embracing planetary empathy will prove essential to our collective survival.

Vincent Ialenti is a Research Fellow at The University of Southern California and The Berggruen Institute. His recent book, “Deep Time Reckoning,” is an anthropological study of how Finland’s nuclear waste repository experts grappled with distant future ecosystems and the limits of human knowledge.

Should the Japanese give nuclear power another chance? (Science Daily)

Date: October 23, 2014

Source: ResearchSEA

Summary: On September 9, 2014, the Japan Times reported an increasing number of suicides coming from the survivors of the March 2011 disaster. In Minami Soma Hospital, which is located 23 km away from the power plant, the number of patients experiencing stress has also increased since the disaster. What’s more, many of the survivors are now jobless and therefore facing an uncertain future.

On September 9, 2014, the Japan Times reported an increasing number of suicides coming from the survivors of the March 2011 disaster. In Minami Soma Hospital, which is located 23 km away from the power plant, the number of patients experiencing stress has also increased since the disaster. What’s more, many of the survivors are now jobless and therefore facing an uncertain future.

This is not the first time that nuclear power has victimized the Japanese people. In 1945, atomic bombs exploded in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, creating massive fears about nuclear power in the Japanese population. It took 20 years for the public to erase the trauma of these events. It was then — in the mid 1960s(?) — that the Fukushima Daiichii Nuclear Power Plant was built.

According to Professor Tetsuo Sawada, Assistant Professor in the Laboratory of Nuclear Reactors at Tokyo University, it took a lot of effort to assure people that nuclear power was safe and beneficial. The first step was a legal step: In 1955, the Japanese government passed a law decreeing that nuclear power could only be used for peaceful purposes.

“But that law was not enough to assure people to accept the establishment of nuclear power,” said Prof. Sawada.

He explained that the economy plays an important role in public acceptance of nuclear power. Through the establishment of nuclear power plants, more jobs were created, which boosted the economy of the Fukushima region at that time.

“Before the Fukushima disaster, we could find many pro-nuclear people in the area of nuclear power plants since it gave them money,” said Prof. Sawada.

Now, more than forty years have passed and the public’s former confidence has evolved into feelings of fear about nuclear power and distrust toward the government.

According to a study conducted by Noriko Iwai from the Japanese General Social Survey Research Center, the Fukushima nuclear accident has heightened people’s perception of disaster risks, fears of nuclear accident, and recognition of pollution, and has changed public opinion on nuclear energy policy.

“Distance from nuclear plants and the perception of earthquake risk interactively correlate with opinions on nuclear issues: among people whose evaluation of earthquake risk is low, those who live nearer to the plants are more likely to object to the abolishment of nuclear plants,” said Iwai.

This finding is in line with the perception of Sokyu Genyu, a chief priest in Fukujuji temple, Miharu Town, Fukushima Prefecture. As a member of the Reconstruction Design Council in Response to the Great East Japan Earthquake, he argued that both the Fukushima Daiichi and Daini nuclear power plants should be shut down in response to the objection of 80% of Fukushima residents.

However, the Japanese government, local scientists and international authorities have announced that Fukushima is safe. Radiation levels are below 1mSv/y, a number that, according to them, we should not be worried about. But the public do not believe in numbers.

But Genyu was not saying that these numbers are scientifically false. Rather, he argues that the problem lies more in the realm of social psychology. Despite the announcement about low-radiation levels, the Japanese people are still afraid of radiation.

“It is reasonable for local residents in Fukushima to speak out very emotionally. Within three months of the disaster, six people had committed sucide. They were homeless and jobless, ” said Genyu.

It is heart-breaking to know that victims of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident died not because of radiation, but instead because of depression. Besides the increasing number of suicides, the number ofpatients suffering from cerebrovascular disease (strokes)has also risen. In Minami-Soma Hospital, the population of stroke patients increased by more than 100% after the disaster.

Local doctors and scientists are now actively educating students in Fukushima, convincing them that the radiation will not affect their health.

Dr. Masaharu Tsubokura, a practicing doctor at Minami-Soma Hospital, has been informing students that Fukushima is safe. But sadly, their responses are mostly negative and full of apathy.

“I think the Fukushima disaster is not about nuclear radiation but is rather a matter of public trust in the technology ,” said Dr. Tsubokura.

Dr. Tsubokura has given dosimeters, a device used to measure radiation, to children living in Minami-Soma city. But apparently, this was not enough to eliminate people’s fears.

In 2012, Professor Ryogo Hayano, a physicist from the University of Tokyo, joined Dr. Tsubokura in Minami-Soma Hospital and invented BABYSCAN technology, a whole-body scanning to measure radiation in small children as well as to allay the fears of Fukushima parents.

“BABYSCAN is unnecessary but necessary. It is unnecessary because we know that the radiation is low. But it is necessary to assure parents that their children are going to be okay,” said Prof. Hayano.

After witnessing the fears of the Fukushima people, Prof. Hayano thinks that nuclear power is no longer appropriate for Japan. He believes that the government should shut down nuclear power plants.

“As a scientist, I know that nuclear power is safe and cheap. But looking at the public’s fear in Fukushima, I think it should be phased out,” said Prof. Hayano.

But, does the government care about the public when it comes to politics?

It has only been three years since the disaster and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been keen to revive the country’s nuclear power plants. The operations of more than 50 nuclear power plants in Japan have been suspended because of the Daiichi power plant meltdown.

Last month, Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority approved the reopening of a power plant in Sendai for 2015.

Itália enfrenta invasão de javalis radioativos quase 30 anos após Chernobyl (UOL)

Patrícia Araújo

Do UOL, em Roma


Quase trinta anos após o desastre da usina de Chernobyl (Ucrânia), a maior tragédia radioativa da história continua a causar graves problemas na Europa e a deixar a população em alerta. Desta vez, o alarme foi soado em uma zona de caça livre no norte da Itália. Após um ano de pesquisas, o Instituto Zooprofilático Experimental de Piemonte, Ligúria e Valle d’Aosta – entidade ligada ao governo regional – divulgou a presença de traços de césio-137 acima dos limites permitidos pela União Européia em dezenas de javalis encontrados na província piemontesa de Verbano-Cusio-Ossola, especialmente na pequena comunidade de Valsesia. A carne do javali seria consumida pelos caçadores.

O instituto começou a investigar a área com maior rigor em março de 2013, após a descoberta de 27 animais contaminados. Em pouco mais de um ano, foram analisados 1.441 porcos selvagens e a constatação foi a de que mais de 10% da população (166 javalis) apresentam índice de radioatividade superior a 600 becquerel/quilo, limite máximo permitido pela UE em animais selvagens. O becquerel é a unidade usada internacionalmente para mediação de radioatividade.

Embora não tenha revelado precisamente o nível de radiação encontrado nos animais de Vasesia, Maria Caramelli, diretora do instituto, afirmou que as análises apresentaram traços de césio-137 “significativamente superiores” ao permitido pela comunidade europeia.

Nuvem radioativa

De acordo com a instituição, a contaminação dos javalis é consequência ainda da nuvem radioativa provocada pela explosão de Chernobyl em 1986. Nos dias decorrentes ao desastre, a nuvem se espalhou por dezenas de países da Europa. Na Itália, um mapeamento feito pelo CCR (Centro Comum de Pesquisa da União Européia) constatou que as regiões mais afetadas foram Lombardia e Piemonte. Fortes chuvas atingiram essas áreas naquele período fazendo com que o césio penetrasse maciçamente maciçamente no solo.

A atual propagação da substância radioativa entre a população de porcos selvagens, e não em outros animais, pode ser consequência dos hábitos alimentares dos javalis. Como eles se nutrem principalmente de raízes, escavam camadas profundas do solo em busca do alimento, expondo-se assim à radiação. Além disso, as raízes são por si próprias grandes concentradoras de radiatividade.

Após a descoberta, o instituto zooprofilático emitiu um alerta pedindo maior controle na zona de caça da província de Verbano-Cusio-Ossola. Atualmente, o Piemonte possui um plano de monitoramento da carne proveniente da caça na região. Porém, a fiscalização não atinge a totalidade dos animais abatidos em zonas selvagens antes de serem consumidos.

Índices subestimados

Para Massimo Bonfatti, coordenador na Itália do Projeto Humus, que trabalha com políticas de contenção de contaminação em áreas atingidas por radioatividade, a situação é ainda mais grave do que parece. Segundo o médico, dois fatores não estão sendo levados em consideração para avaliar precisamente o quadro. O primeiro deles seria a análise exclusiva de somente um isótopo radioativo.

“Um problema grave é que o índice de validação de contaminação na Europa é feito só com o césio-137, mas a nuvem que foi liberada por Chernobyl era cheia de outros elementos em proporções diversas. Não conseguimos nunca ter, por exemplo, o resultado da contaminação no norte da Itália por césio-134, que também pode causar sérios danos”.

Além disso, segundo o coordenador, o valor permitido de radiação de 600 becquerel por quilo de carne é extremamente elevado. “É complicado, mas estamos trabalhando na elaboração de uma proposta de projeto de lei para baixar esse índice para 10 bq/kg”

Maior rigor

Ainda de acordo com Bonfatti, os danos causados à saúde humana por contaminação radioativa são gigantescos. “Nós sustentamos que a grande epidemia de câncer que existe no mundo é provavelmente consequência da radiação que foi liberada do pós-guerra até hoje no planeta. Além disso, estudos já revelaram que o césio-137 se liga às fibras do coração provocando o surgimento de graves patologias cardíacas.”

A reportagem do UOL entrou em contato com as assessorias do governo da região do Piemonte e do Ministério da Saúde italiano para saber quais providências devem ser tomadas após a divulgação do estudo. A administração regional informou que o Instituto Zooprofilático Experimental é o único “ente responsável pela solução de casos do gênero” na área e que, portanto, apenas ele pode falar sobre o assunto. Já o Ministério da Saúde, embora tenha sido procurado diversas vezes ao longo da última semana, não se pronunciou até a publicação desta reportagem.

Three years since Japan’s disaster: Communities remain scattered and suffering (Science Daily)

Date: June 3, 2014

Source: Taylor & Francis

Summary: While western eyes are focused on the ongoing problems of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor site, thousands of people are still evacuated from their homes in north-eastern Japan following the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear emergency. Many are in temporary accommodation and frustrated by a lack of central government foresight and responsiveness to their concerns.

While western eyes are focused on the ongoing problems of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor site, thousands of people are still evacuated from their homes in north-eastern Japan following the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear emergency. Many are in temporary accommodation and frustrated by a lack of central government foresight and responsiveness to their concerns.

With the exception of the ongoing problems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor, outside of the Tohoku region of Japan, the after effects of the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, and the subsequent tsunami and nuclear disaster, are no longer front page news. The hard work of recovery is the everyday reality in the region, and for planning schools and consultants across the country the rebuilding of Tohoku dominates practice and study.

But while physical reconstruction takes place, progress is not smooth. Many victims of the disasters and members of the wider public feel that the government is more interested in feeding the construction industry than addressing the complex challenges of rebuilding sustainable communities. This is a region that was already suffering from the challenges of an aging population, the exodus of young people to Tokyo and the decline of traditional fisheries-based industries. In the worst cases people are facing the invidious choice of returning to areas that are still saturated with radioactive fallout or never going home.

The frustration is reflected in four short pieces in Planning Theory and Practice’s Interface Section from architecture, design and planning practitioners working with communities in four different parts of Tohoku.

Christian Dimmer, Assistant Professor at Tokyo University and founder of TPF2 — Tohoku Planning Forum which links innovative redevelopment schemes in the region says:

“The current Japanese government’s obsession with big construction projects, like mega-seawalls that have already been shown to be not likely to be effective, is leading to really innovative community solutions being marginalized, the voices of communities being ignored, and sustainability cast aside.”

According to community planner and academic, Kayo Murakami — who edits this Interface section: “The troubles of the Tohoku reconstruction are not just a concern for Japan. They highlight some of the fundamental challenges for disaster recovery and building sustainable communities, in which people are really involved, all over the world.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Kayo Murakami, David Murakami Wood, Hiroshi Tomita, Satoshi Miyake, Rieko Shiraki, Kayo Murakami, Koji Itonaga, Christian Dimmer. Planning innovation and post-disaster reconstruction: The case of Tohoku, Japan/Reconstruction of tsunami-devastated fishing villages in the Tohoku region of Japan and the challenges for planning/Post-disaster reconstruction in Iwate and new planning chalPlanning Theory & Practice, 2014; 15 (2): 237 DOI:10.1080/14649357.2014.902909

Boom Town: atomic tourism blooms in a Western desert (Al Jazeera America)

As nuclear age approaches eighth decade, visitors flock to historic bomb craters at New Mexico test sites

TRINITY SITE, New Mexico — Standing a few yards from the spot where the world’s first atomic bomb detonated with a blast so powerful that it turned the desert sand to glass and shattered windows more than 100 miles away, tourist Chris Cashel explained what drew him here.

“You don’t get to go to very many places that changed the entire world in a single moment,” said Cashel as he glanced around the windswept, desolate Trinity Site in the New Mexico desert packed with tourists. “The world was never going to be the same after that.”

The military veteran was among thousands of visitors who piled into cars and buses to drive out to the secluded site about 35 miles southeast of Socorro, where Manhattan Project scientists split the atom shortly before dawn on July 16, 1945, ushering in the atomic age. The successful test of the nuclear “gadget” unleashed a blast equivalent to 19 kilotons of high explosive, and led to the devastation of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki weeks later.

The sagebrush-ringed spot lies on the White Sands Missile Range and is the most famous of a number of U.S. atomic weapon-related tourist attractions, as the nuclear age approaches its 70th anniversary next year. The popular, informal trail includes tours to the former Cold War bomb proving grounds in Nevada that are routinely booked up months ahead, as well as popular tours of an inter-continental ballistic missile silo hidden deep beneath the Arizona desert.

Legislation, meanwhile, to create a Manhattan Project National Historical Park to preserve sites in New Mexico, Tennessee and Washington state related to the project led by physicist Robert Oppenheimer is currently beingconsidered by Congress.

The Trinity Site “open house” earlier this month drew about 4,000 visitors from as far afield as Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom, who beat a trail out to the spot where the explosion created heat so intense it felt “like opening an oven door, even at ten miles,” according to one eyewitness account.

Visitors milled around ground zero and scoured the ground for fragments of green “Trinitite” — a glass-like substance forged from superheated sand sucked up into the world’s first nuclear fireball — and posed for photographs by a stone obelisk marking the blast’s hypocenter. “There are all kinds of reasons for coming,” said Jim Eckles, a docent at the site explaining its powerful allure. “There are kids here for their science class. There are World War Two vets here because they’ll tell you it saved their life. They didn’t have to go to the Pacific to fight the Japanese, island to island to island.”

Visitors milled around ground zero and scoured the ground for fragments of green “Trinitite” — a glass-like substance forged from superheated sand sucked up into the world’s first nuclear fireball.


Massive Sedan Crater, 320ft deep in desert. National Nuclear Security Administration

As World War Two segued into the Cold War, the sparsely populated U.S. West became key in the scramble to develop, test and deploy ever more powerful nuclear weapons. The region was a vital part of America’s rivalry with the Soviet Union. But there was an unexpected side effect — a tourism industry was also born.

During the heyday of above-ground testing at the former Nevada Test Site in the 1950s and early 1960s, hoteliers in Las Vegas 65 miles away cashed in by offering “Atomic Cocktails” and a “Miss Atomic Blast” beauty pageant. Parties to view the curling mushroom clouds were also a popular draw.

That fascination is still there. Tours to the site where 1,021 nuclear detonations were carried out between 1951 and 1992 are currently booked up through December. No cameras, binoculars or tape recorders are allowed, and background checks are required for all visitors to the area, since renamed the Nevada National Security Site.

The highlight is “doom town” — houses, bomb shelters and even a steel and concrete bank vault — built to see how they stood up to a nuclear onslaught. The homes were painted, furnished and populated with eerily lifelike mannequins dressed in the latest fashions donated by a Las Vegas department store.

Visitors also get to see the Sedan Crater, a 1,280-foot wide and 320-foot deep depression formed by a 104-kiloton blast to test the feasibility of using nuclear bombs for peaceful activities such as mining and construction – an idea almost unthinkable now.

The Southwest atomic trail also includes the Titan Missile Museum, a silo hidden deep beneath the desert south of Tucson, Arizona, which houses a decommissioned inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) that was on the front line of the Cold War from 1963 to 1987. The ten-story tall Titan II was topped with a nine-megaton thermonuclear warhead – hundreds of times more powerful than the Trinity device. Capable of launching in 58 seconds, it could reach its target more than 6,300 miles away in about 30 minutes.

That level of destruction disturbs some who visit. “It’s kind of humbling,” said John, an 18-year-old student from Minnesota, who sat in a chair at the command center and initiated a simulated launch sequence. “Someone can turn a key and in a split second destroy an entire city, miles and miles away.”

Atomic tour

Decommissioned ICBM. Titan Missile Museum

Arms-reduction agreements cut strategic nuclear weapon stockpiles by about 80 percent after the Cold War ended. The diminishing fear of a nuclear doomsday, together with increased access to some of the previously classified weapon-related sites, is spurring interest in the sites today, experts said.

“You have basically an entire generation that has grown up with the thought of nuclear annihilation as something that is historical,” said Sharon Weinberger, co-author with Nathan Hodge of “A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry.”

“There’s also more and more of these sites that are now accessible and being decommissioned,” she added.

For those drawn to the attractions scattered across the rugged West, the experience is invariably thought-provoking. The visit left Socorro resident Mary Bjorklund pondering whether the bomb’s terrible destructive power had brought any net benefit. “I will think about all the people that lost their lives in Japan. Then I will think about all the people that it was supposed to save by ending World War Two. It makes you thoughtful,” she said.

Among visitors on a fully-booked tour of the Titan Missile Museum was a retired U.S. Air Force officer, Randy Hartley, who served on the crew at the site from 1978 to 1982. Living for years with the ever-present possibility of having to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike made him particularly philosophical about the atomic age.

“I think that anyone who has been associated with these weapons would wish they had never been around, would wish that we had never done the Trinity bomb or the Manhattan Project … But you can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” he said. “I want people to understand the fear and the horror of these weapons, to propel us to do what we can do to break down barriers between our fellow inhabitants of this earth.”

Tourism, Construction and an Ongoing Nuclear Crisis at Chernobyl (Newsweek)

By  / April 17, 2014 12:11 PM EDT


From high-end tourism to one of the world’s most ambitious engineering projects, strange things are happening at the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history, which could still kill plenty of people Stephan Vanfleteren/Panos

We climb eight flights of stairs. Eight more remain. This is sturdy Soviet concrete, dusty as death, but solid. So I hope, anyway. My guide, Katya, who is in her early 20s, has informed me that the administrators of the Exclusion Zone that encompasses Chernobyl do not want tourists entering the buildings of Pripyat for what appears to be an unimpeachable reason: Some of them could collapse.

But the roof of this apartment building on the edge of Pripyat, the city where Chernobyl’s employees lived until the spring of 1986, will provide what Katya says is the best panorama of this Ukrainian Pompeii and the infamous nuclear power plant, 1.9 miles away, that 28 years ago this week rendered the surrounding landscape uninhabitable for at least the next 20,000 years. So we climb on, higher into the honey-colored vernal light, even as it occurs to me that Katya is not a structural engineer. And that the adjective Soviet is essentially synonymous with collapse.

And what do I know? Nothing. I am just a curious ethnic hyphenate, Russian-born and largely American-raised. In 1986 we lived in Leningrad, about 700 miles north of the radioactive sore that burst on what should have been an ordinary spring night less than a week before the annual May Day celebration. Considering that Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev wasn’t told for many hours what, exactly, had transpired at Chernobyl (“Not a word about an explosion,” he said later), you can safely extrapolate to what the Soviet populace learned on April 26: absolutely nothing. But a couple of days after the disaster, a family friend from Kiev called and said we had better cancel our planned vacation in the Ukrainian countryside.

Then details started falling into place, as workers at a Swedish nuclear power plant detected radiation, eventually determining that it came from the Soviet Union. That forced the ever-defensive Kremlin’s hand, which admitted on April 28 that an accident had happened at Chernobyl. “A government commission has been set up,” a statement from Moscow assured. My father, a nervous physicist himself, was not mollified. I remember, as clearly as I remember anything of my Soviet youth, his telling me to stay out of the rain.

The narrative of Chernobyl has been told so many times, there is no point in regurgitating all of it here. Very briefly: a shoddy Soviet reactor, moderated by graphite instead of water; a turbine generator coastdown test that senselessly called for the disabling of all emergency systems; the reactor’s fall into an “iodine valley” and the consequent poisoning of the reactor by xenon-135; the incompetence and impatience of the plant’s managers, especially of Anatoly Dyatlov, a supervising engineer who stubbornly drove the test forward and would later serve prison time for his role in the night’s events; the indefensible lifting of all but six of the 211 control rods; the reactor going prompt supercritical; the inability to fully reinsert the control rods, leading to steam explosions and graphite fires; a biblical pillar of radioactive flame surging into the sky.

A cross with a crucifix is seen in the deserted Ukrainian town of Pripyat November 27, 2012. The town's population was evacuated following the  disaster at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear reactor in 1986.A cross with a crucifix is seen in the deserted Ukrainian town of Pripyat November 27, 2012. The town’s population was evacuated following the disaster at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear reactor in 1986.

Through it all, two off-the-clock workers fished in a nearby coolant pond. They continued to fish until the morning, receiving enormous doses of radiation yet somehow surviving. Theirs may be the only feel-good story of the night.

The toxic cloud that enveloped much of Europe that spring has intrigued me ever since. I can name all of the radionuclides it contained: cesium-137, iodine-131, zirconium-95 strontium-90, ruthenium-103…. But I longed to know its origins, the way a naturalist might yearn to see the source of a river somewhere high in the mountains, simply to fulfill the human need to discover beginnings and pay homage to them.

I also happen to be a journalist and now find myself in Ukraine when it is at the center of world events, as opposed to the periphery where most former Soviet states languish (when was the last time CNN did a gripping live remote from Uzbekistan?). Except I am about 90 miles north of Kiev, the site of the Maidan uprising, the epicenter of a conflict that has Russian President Vladimir Putin sharpening his swords again. Everyone else is reporting on Crimea, possible NATO retributions, a new Cold War…and here I am, in the midst of this “weirdish wild space” (h/t Dr. Seuss).

Katya is right. Not only do the stairs hold, but the view from the roof, 16 floors above Pripyat, is spectacular. Winter singes the air; nothing yet blooms. There is a severe beauty that is particularly Slavic, the earth at once fecund and stark. The white quadrangles of Pripyat seem to have risen up between the trees that grow thickly right up into Belarus, encompassing a forbidden zone of a thousand square miles. The V.I. Lenin Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station (the official name of what the world knows as Chernobyl) is visible in the distance as a squat collection of shapes, emitting equal parts radioactivity and mystery.

That apartment building was part of my two-day excursion into Chernobyl, one that quickly dispelled any notions that this swath of Eastern Europe is a radioactive wasteland. Or, rather, only a radioactive wasteland. I can’t quite believe that I am saying this, but tourism to Chernobyl is booming. There were 870 visitors in 2004, two years after the Ukrainian government allowed (some) access to the Exclusion Zone. Today, the Kiev-based tour company SoloEast says it takes 12,000 tourists to Chernobyl a year, which accounts for 70 percent of the pleasure-visitors heading there (including myself). I even stayed at a luxury hotel of sorts, a neo-rustic cottage that featured towel warmers and a sign that said, “Please keep your radioactive shoes outside.”

For the most part, the defunct station of reactors (the first went live in 1977; the last, the one that blew, in 1983) looks like a tidy industrial park in central Ohio: shorn green lawns, a smattering of abstract art, half-empty parking lots, a canal rife with fish. Nothing indicates that this is the site of the worst nuclear disaster in human history.

Yet as tourists Instagram away at Pripyat’s ruins, Chernobyl is undergoing one of the most challenging engineering feats in the world, as a French consortium called Novarka tries to replace the aging sarcophagus that contains the reactor, a concrete shell hastily and heroically built in the direct aftermath of the meltdown. The place remains a half-opened tinderbox of potential nuclear horrors, and just because much of the world has forgotten about Chernobyl doesn’t mean catastrophe won’t visit here again.

But don’t let that detract from your sightseeing.

Pictures of Soviet era politicians in an abandoned building in Pripyat the abandoned town which was built to house workers at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Pripyat, Ukraine 2006. Stephan Vanfleteren/PanosPictures of Soviet era politicians in an abandoned building in Pripyat the abandoned town which was built to house workers at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Pripyat, Ukraine 2006. Stephan Vanfleteren/Panos


Of the many atrocities committed against this swath of north-central Ukrainian soil, the most recent may be the American horror movie Chernobyl Diaries (2012), which meticulously sticks to every outworn convention of the horror genre, as if deviating from such would be a terror of its own. The poor viewer is presented with a group of happy-go-lucky young travelers, mostly American, respectively buxom and bro-ish; a goonish Ukrainian tour guide with the locution of a Neanderthal; and a Pripyat rendered in such an unrelentingly grim color palette that I thought the director (one Bradley Parker) may have smeared dirt and moss over his camera lenses.

The characters, wishing to “see some cool s**t,” embark on a tour of Pripyat. All fine so far, just a little atmospheric unease. As night falls and the familiar, beery comforts of Kiev beckon, their van (surprise!) refuses to start. There follow many expressions of misplaced machismo, terror/wonder and good old animal fear, expressed in the purest clichés imaginable:

“We paid for this tour, bro.”

“This looks pretty f**king sketchy.”

And, inevitably, “Oh, s**t.”

At one point, a character asks the question that is central to all hackneyed horror movies: “Are you sure we are out here alone?” You can figure out what happens from there. In any case, I certainly can’t tell you, as I stopped watching about three quarters of the way through, having completed what I felt were my journalistic duties and not wishing to subject myself to this cinematic torture any longer. I do remember a pack of feral hamsters. Or something.

Katya, my tour guide, told me that American visitors are afraid of mutants lurking in the tenebrous alleys and dilapidated buildings of Pripyat. She finds this misguided concern easier to manage, however, than the fearless attitude of Polish and Russian visitors, who she says will climb into and over everything without any of the corporeal concerns one might harbor when exploring an abandoned, radioactive metropolis.

School books and papers in an abandoned preschool in the deserted city of Pripyat on January 25, 2006 in Chernobyl, Ukraine. Daniel Berehulak/PanosSchool books and papers in an abandoned preschool in the deserted city of Pripyat on January 25, 2006 in Chernobyl, Ukraine. Daniel Berehulak/Panos

Igor, our driver, a Baptist with a Hebraically world-weary sense of humor, found it especially amusing that one American visitor thought that a covered walkway between two buildings was an elevated subway. Igor made several comments about the general naivete of Americans, perhaps suspecting that I enjoyed them. Most of the time, he simply remained in the car sleeping or listening to religious radio, including at one point a lengthy sermon on marriage that he did not turn down for my benefit. He has been to Chernobyl 500 times, and it bores him, he says.

Pripyat did not bore me. It is often called a ghost city, because after the Chernobyl explosion-though not immediately after it, tragically-the majority of the 49,000 residents of this town, 17,000 of whom were children, were ordered onto 1,216 buses and 300 trucks that had come from Kiev, without the basic explanation any neophyte emergency-management student would know to provide.

Of the many books written about Chernobyl, the only one I can confidently say you have to read is Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. It is the ordinary voices that make this book extraordinary. For example, this is how Lyudmilla Ignatenko describes the evacuation from Pripyat:

It’s night. On one side of the street there are buses, hundreds of buses, they’re already preparing the town for evacuation, and on the other side, hundreds of fire trucks. They came from all over…. Over the radio they tell us they might evacuate the city for three to five days, take your warm clothes with you, you’ll be living in the forest. In tents. People were even glad-a camping trip!

Ignatenko’s husband, Vasily, was one of the firemen sent immediately after the explosions right into the reactor’s maw, where the radiation was far above the lethal dose. More than 20 would die from the exposure. In Voices From Chernobyl, she recalls someone telling her, as she watches Vasily expire in a Moscow hospital, that “this is not your husband anymore, not a beloved person, but a radioactive object with a strong density of poisoning.”

Pripyat is less a ghost town than a museum in handsome disarray. An excellent museum all the same, surely the most authentic record of the Soviet debacle that remains (other than Russia itself). A pretty good one of nuclear energy, too. I have been back to my native Leningrad twice. I have stood in front of the plain cinderblock building where I was raised; have squeezed into a desk in the very same classroom where I was once a Pioneer and where, as I bathed in nostalgia, bored post-Soviet teenagers texted away; have posed humorously in front of the Lenin statue at Finland Station with the native Californian who would become my wife. And these were all fine pricks of memory. Pripyat, though, was a hammer. With sickle.

A view of the control center of the damaged fourth reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant February 24, 2011. Gleb Garanich/ReutersA view of the control center of the damaged fourth reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant February 24, 2011. Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Not to get all William Wordsworth-at-Tintern-Abbey on you, but there was immense power in walking through a graveyard of gas masks on a classroom floor, or the fresh-meat station of what had once been a bustling supermarket, or the natal unit of a hospital, rusted cribs still looking, after all these years, as if they had just been robbed of their newborn contents. I don’t want to claim to have heard the same “still, sad music of humanity” that famously played to Wordsworth on the banks of the River Wye, but, well, Pripyat is the most life-affirming place that I have ever been to, despite all the suffering that lingers there. For all the cancers, deaths, irradiations and lives broken, the place remains, and there is something to be said for brute rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light survival.

Pripyat is not receding in my mind, the way so many great museums have. Sometimes, what the soul needs is not a masterpiece. And so dusty Pripyat seems to have lodged, like a radioactive particle, into some deep neural fold: slippers on a hospital floor, a rusted circuit box, a piano that can still manage a plangent note or two. Outside the music school, a colorful chaos of mosaic tiles littered the pavement. Katya leaned down, then hesitated. “I would give you some to take, but you have a daughter.”

We carried a dosimeter with us at all times; Igor, my driver, also had a beta ray detector in his car, which looked like an ancient remote control and remained largely inert. The dosimeter, meanwhile, would make its anxious clicks, but other than in a hot zone in front of a kindergarten, it rarely exceeded 3 or 4 microsieverts per hour-it read 3.88 µSv/h several hundred feet from the ruined reactor. That’s less than what you get bombarded with on a round-trip flight between San Francisco and Paris (6.4 µSv/h). Igor especially delighted in pointing out this fact; he shares that proclivity with a great number of individuals on the Internet, where numerous websites are devoted to gleefully chronicling the radioactivity of bananas (pretty high; it’s the potassium), Brazil nuts (the most radioactive food on Earth) and simply having a loved one sleep next to you (.05 microsieverts per night). I assault you with all these facts, in the manner of my Chernobyl guides, to simply point out that we are no more screwed in Pripyat than we are in Monterey or Omaha or Manhattan.

After our forays into Pripyat and the power plant, we would leave the Exclusion Zone, which one is allowed to do only after passing several dosimeter checks, conducted via ancient-looking olive machines that appeared (to my admittedly inexpert eye) to be as effective at detecting radiation as Mr. Magoo is at driving. Anyway, I passed. There was also a lot of handing over of paperwork to surly Ukrainian guards, who would probably rather be battling Russian invaders than inspecting the passports of American journalists. After several needlessly tense moments, the guards would allow us to pass, and Igor would speed down the empty roads of northern Ukraine, often while furiously texting. He did not wear a seat belt, and neither did I. It would have been a grave insult to do so.

Until very recently, the only places to stay while visiting Chernobyl were two small motels in the Exclusion Zone, which would have been reason enough not to come, at least for a spoiled American used to Western comforts (i.e., me). One tour company, in a heartwarming but ominous display of honesty, describes one of these motels, unimaginatively named “Pripyat,” to be “Soviet-style simplistic,” which is probably the worst hospitality-industry endorsement imaginable.

This yuppie reporter’s savior proved to be Countryside Cottages, a pleasantly rustic cabin-cum-hotel set on a bucolic and fenced-in landscape in the village of Orane, on the banks of the Teteriv River. The cottage is outside the Exclusion Zone, with its strange currents of tranquillity and unease: You can walk about the village freely without having to undergo dosimetry checks. By my count, Countryside Cottages, which has now been open for about two years, is the closest-and only-good place to stay near Chernobyl. The best adjective to describe it is Western, and if you have ever traveled beyond the West, you will know what I mean. Yes, the electricity did go out one evening, but only briefly, certainly not long enough to steal the chill from the horseradish vodka in the fridge. There was also a fancy coffee machine, though, alas, no organic milk. SoloEast, which owns Countryside Cottages, boasts on its web page for the hotel, “We can also teach you to plant or dig potato.” This agricultural instruction was neither offered nor, I can assure you, requested. I have already praised the towel warmers.

At the behest of my driver, Igor, I did purchase the Slavic trinity of smoked meat, alcohol and bread before leaving Kiev. In the evening, I would sit with these, watching the swift and surly Teteriv, listening to the incessant crowing of roosters. For all the discordances of modern travel, from a McDonald’s in the Latin Quarter to “eco resorts” in Haiti, perhaps nothing is quite as surreal as the cozy country comforts of the Countryside Cottages, where you are supposed to forget, as you watch gaudy Russian cable on a flat-screen, the residual wreckage you have come to see.

A destroyed school in the ghost town of Smersk, in an area where the radioactive fallout was greater than in Chernobyl itself. Stefan Boness/Ipon/PanosA destroyed school in the ghost town of Smersk, in an area where the radioactive fallout was greater than in Chernobyl itself. Stefan Boness/Ipon/Panos


Ruin porn is a thing. Trust me. It has made Detroit a destination, as there are apparently legions of tourists who’d rather behold the shell of the Michigan Central Station than guzzle piña coladas at a Sandals resort. The popularity of ruin porn is responsible for listicles like “The 38 Most Haunting Abandoned Places on Earth.” Pripyat is first on this list, which also includes the creepy dagger blade of the Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea, and Bannerman Castle in the Hudson River Valley.

While I was in Pripyat, the Tate Britain in London was staging a show called Ruin Lust, whose catalog includes a quote from the 18th century French philosopher and encyclopedist Denis Diderot: “The ideas ruins evoke in me are grand. Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes, only the world remains, only time endures.”

Ruin porn has even been the subject of an entire book: Andrew Blackwell’s Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World’s Most Polluted Places (2012). The thing is amusing but ultimately too ironic and glib, though Blackwell does get credit for visiting, and dutifully chronicling his exploits at, the Canadian oil sands of Alberta; the refineries of Port Arthur, Texas; and the sewage canals of India. His section on Chernobyl promises to reveal “one weird old tip for repelling gamma rays.”

For some, though, ruin porn is exploitative, a version of poverty tourism: gang tours of Los Angeles, jaunts through Soweto, that sort of thing. On the topic of her city having become a hot spot for urban explorers and gonzo pornographers, one Detroit cultural official has complained that “people here are very sensitive to treating Detroit like it’s a big cemetery and our ruins are beautiful headstones. Those of us who live here don’t like to be seen that way.”

There is nobody in Pripyat to object to your voracious voyeurism. There are, however, some samosels in the Exclusion Zone, elderly settlers who returned to live on the land they had known and worked for decades. There had been about 180 villages here, and some people had survived both Stalin and Hitler. Rogue neutrons weren’t going to keep them away. So they came back, illegally. Nobody bothered to expel them.

Visiting the samosels was uncomfortable in precisely the way that detractors of ruin porn suggest. It was like touring a decrepit zoo where the animals are in obvious distress. I met two villagers, Ded Ivan and Babushka Maria, in front of a homestead in the village of Paryshiv. Many of the surrounding buildings seemed to be little more than wooden slats that accidentally, and only occasionally, formed right angles. Both Ivan and Maria were born in the 1930s, a decade that began with widespread starvation brought upon Ukraine by Stalin. The following decade commenced just as grimly, with the invasion of the Wehrmacht: Ivan remembers being bitten by a German dog that jumped out of a tank.

You are supposed to bring the samosels gifts when you visit on tours such as the one I was taking, but we had forgotten this detail, so I simply handed Maria 200 hrivny ($16.913, as of this writing), which she placed into the pocket of a filthy light blue coat. Ivan was trying to fix a chainsaw, and my driver Igor helped. Meanwhile, Maria brought me over to see the couple’s pig, and I was coaxed into feeding the snarling, smelly animal a rotten apple, which was the single most frightening and disgusting thing I did while visiting Chernobyl.

This was not a museum of Soviet history; this was Turgenev and Dostoyevsky, the Russian peasant in his element, with a sprinkling of radionuclides thrown in for modernity’s sake. “One tragedy after another,” Ivan bemoaned. He tried to explain further, but he spoke with an exceedingly heavy Ukrainian-Belorussian accent, and so we left things on that melancholy note.


While the samosels live in dishearteningly primitive conditions, the power station itself has the attention of the West’s finest engineers. Much of the Exclusion Zone can be allowed to remain in ruin-except, paradoxically, the thing that caused the devastation.

Sarcophagus comes from the Greek σαρκοφάγος, which roughly means “flesh-eating,” a reference to the limestone tomb within which decayed one’s earthly remains. The one that was erected around the reactor in the seven months following the meltdown is a brutally wondrous thing to behold: about 400,000 cubic meters of concrete and 7,300 metric tons of steel, all of it as gray as a November sky. Remarkably, it has held a radioactive crypt whose contents we don’t fully know and never want to see. Most everyone is sure that the sarcophagus can’t hold much longer, having weathered nearly 30 winters so brutal that their predecessors sapped the armies of both Hitler and Napoleon (the summers aren’t exactly clement, either).

In the winter of 2013, a portion of the turbine hall collapsed. With brazen nonchalance straight from the Brezhnev years, a spokeswoman for the plant deemed the event “unpleasant.”

James Mahaffey, a nuclear engineer and the author of the recent bookAtomic Accidents, told me that while the sarcophagus was necessary, it was “all wrong. You don’t just drop concrete on a burning reactor.” Not that there were many options (or any aesthetic considerations) in the wake of the catastrophe, but the concrete sarcophagus erected under hellish conditions in seven months essentially serves as a thermal blanket, keeping warm the radioactive elements inside (some of these have melted into a nuclear lava called corium, the most notorious deposit of which is called the Elephant’s Foot). It has been upgraded, but you can only do so much with an ’81 Lada. Everyone knows the sarcophagus has to go.

Mahaffey is not circumspect about what worries him most: “Russian concrete. Russian this and Russian that.” He lists a variety of dangers: wind blowing through gaps in the reactor, dispersing radionuclides; rain leaching off same. He later wrote, “I left out birds, insects, migrating animals, tourists, changing of the guard, and sporing bacteria.”

“It wouldn’t take much of a seismic event to knock it down,” a civil engineer recently explained to Scientific American. The Federation of American Scientists says, “If the sarcophagus were to collapse due to decay or geologic disturbance, the resulting radioactive dust storm would cause an international catastrophe on par with or worse than the 1986 accident.” Eater of flesh indeed.

Nor is the land surrounding the reactor quite the pristine preserve that some have celebrated in nature-has-triumphed-over-our-thoughtlessness-and-incompetence fashion. Earlier this year, a study by University of South Carolina biologist Timothy Mousseau and others indicated that fallen trees weren’t decomposing because, in Mousseau’s words, “the radiation inhibited microbial decomposition of the leaf litter on the top layer of the soil,” turning the ground into a vast firetrap at whose center sits the aged sarcophagus.

So, at best, Chernobyl is merely dormant. To extend that dormancy for a lot longer, Novarka was contracted in 2007 to build the New Safe Confinement. Though sometimes described as a gigantic hangar, having seen the NSC, I see it as something more elegant, its hopeful parabolic curves recalling the smooth grace of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. In cross section, it is two layers of steel with a 39-foot layer of latticework in between. Its combined shapes and angles are so fluid and simple, you want to put them on a ninth grade geometry quiz.

Currently being built in two pieces, it will rise 30 stories and weigh 30,000 tons-and cost perhaps as much as $2 billion. When completed, the steel contraption will slide along Teflon rails on top of Reactor No. 4 (a process that will take several days). It is believed to be the largest movable structure on Earth. The NSC will be so enormous that, according to the British technology journal The Engineer, it “is one of a handful of buildings that will enclose a volume of air large enough to create its own weather.”

Chernobyl is on the border with Belarus, far from both Crimea and the eastern borderlands where Russian forces have belligerently gathered. And yet the conflict between Kiev and Moscow could have repercussions here. A report on, for example, surmised that Western nations funding the NSC “may be leery of investing amid political instability.” The article has an economist wondering if Russia will “use completion as yet another bullying point to continue their moves on Ukraine.”

This may be a pure linguistic accident, but Novarka sounds like a Slavicized contraction of Noah’s ark. Yes, I am acutely aware that ark and arch might for some seem to be homophones, and not even good ones at that. Yet the more I think about the association, the more sense it makes: This arch, like that ark, is supposed to save us from our own sins and folly. Though, admittedly, the metaphor only goes so far. It would not be water, this time, prevailing upon the earth, but a pestilence invisible and unlikely to ever recede.


Katya, my Virgil through the Exclusion Zone, estimated that 90 percent of the tourists who come to Chernobyl are just “checking a box.” I was checking a box, too, one that had remained empty ever since my father made his strange warnings 28 years ago about the Leningrad sky, which was as overcast that spring as it was every spring for which my memory was available. What was up there, all of a sudden, that I needed to avoid?

“This is a lesson for humanity,” Katya told me as we walked through town. But what lessons, exactly, Ukraine has learned from Chernobyl are not clear. Some people put the death toll in the mere dozens, these being mostly of the first responders who entered the reactor without the benefit of proper protection. Others think that, when all the cancers have run their course, the fatalities will be in the six figures. The World Health Organization says that Chernobyl claimed 4,000 souls. But nobody truly knows.

Nor did Chernobyl put an end to nuclear energy in Ukraine. According to the World Nuclear Association, Ukraine “is heavily dependent on nuclear energy-it has 15 reactors generating about half of its electricity.” And the hostilities with Russia have renewed calls for Ukraine to regain its status as a nuclear superpower. As one Ukrainian politician explained, in what seems to be textbook realpolitik, “If you have nuclear weapons, people don’t invade you.” Yeah, maybe. But yikes.

“Humanity learns mostly by disasters,” Hans Blix told me when I reached him by phone at his home in Stockholm. As head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, he was the first Westerner to see the ruined reactor, flying over it in a helicopter about a week after the disaster. “It was a sad sight,” he recalls. The graphite moderator was still aflame; he jokingly likens it, today, to “burning pencils.”

Pliny the Younger, writing of the destruction of Pompeii in A.D. 79 by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, described how “a dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood…. We had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room.”

Yet the most curious aspect of Pliny’s letter to Tacitus is the following: “There were people, too, who added to the real perils by inventing fictitious dangers: some reported that part of Misenum had collapsed or another part was on fire, and though their tales were false they found others to believe them. A gleam of light returned, but we took this to be a warning of the approaching flames rather than daylight.” It is almost as if Pliny is offering a rebuke against excessive despair at the moment that Pompeii was facing certain doom. It’s hope against hope.

Chernobyl is a similar amalgam of fears real and imagined, of Chernobyl Diaries alarmism combined with sobering tales about the limits of human power. You are reminded of the latter by a statue of Prometheus that today stands at the power station. Originally, that statue stood in front of the movie theater in Pripyat, which was also called Prometheus, the metallic lettering (Прометей) still affixed to the facade, a three-syllable battalion weary and weathered by battle.

Prometheus! It’s like they knew.