My Chernobyl: Reflecting on Scenes from a Disaster Zone

The story continues to haunt me. It affects my current beliefs on nuclear power, although I admit my views are guided by experience and emotion, rather than facts and reason.

More than 15 years ago I traveled to the Ukrainian city of Chernobyl and the nearby town of Pripyat to produce a CNN documentary on the lingering effects of the April 26, 1986 nuclear power plant explosion. I lived for two weeks in an abandoned apartment in Chernobyl. I wore a white Tyvec jumpsuit, a purple respirator and a ring that kept track of my radiation exposure. I toured the inside of the building that houses the burned out Reactor Four, a structure that’s eerily called “the sarcophagus.”

The upcoming 25-year anniversary of the disaster, along with the current nuclear disaster in Japan, has triggered troubling memories for me. They are memories of creepy images and sad stories. And with those memories has surfaced an uneasy feeling about nuclear power I’ve never been able to shake. Rationally, I understand the relatively low risks of a nuclear disaster, and the unique circumstances that led to explosions at both Chernobyl and the Fukushima Daiichi facility. But on a gut level, nuclear power just feels unsafe.

Our story centered on three American scientists, led by Dr. Cham Dallas of the University of Georgia, who conducted research on habitat around Chernobyl and in the so-called exclusion zone where no one was supposed to live. For days we trampled through contaminated fields with the scientists, toured abandoned houses still littered with personal belongings of residents who were forced to evacuate quickly, and reluctantly accepted and ate homegrown food offered to us by the elderly who had defied authorities and returned to live in the tainted exclusion zone. 

It takes little effort to recall the images: A rusting Ferris wheel in a deserted amusement park, a once-loved doll left untouched for a decade in an abandoned apartment, dusty jars of pickled vegetables in a kitchen cupboard that would never be used again.

We heard stories from parents whose children suffered from thyroid cancer, some of more than 6,000 cases of the disease linked to the disaster, according to a recent UN report. We talked to one of the men who battled the fire at the reactor, convinced his lung disease and other ailments stemmed from his radiation exposure. We defended our decision and desire to go to Chernobyl to Ukrainians who simply could not understand why we – why anyone – would want to spend time near a place that many in their country considered dangerous at best, and downright evil at worst. Crazy Americans, they said.

My most vivid memories come from our unexpected tour of the inside of the sarcophagus. Authorities surprised us by granting us access to the facility for 45 minutes. Any more time would be too dangerous, they told us. We suited up in protective clothing and made our way quickly through dark rooms. Water dripped around us, finding its way through cracks now evident in the hastily constructed concrete exterior. The now deteriorating shell had been built after the explosion to help contain the contamination. 

At the end of our unnerving tour, the men went in one direction and I in another. We were told to strip and shower. I couldn’t help but think of the scene in the 1983 movie Silkwood, when Meryl Streep is scrubbed raw after being exposed to radiation.

Was I sickened by my radiation exposure? Probably not. My “radiation ring” recorded levels that were within safety guidelines, although the needle on my handheld monitor spiked a few times. Are people in the affected regions of Ukraine and Eastern Europe still suffering from Chernobyl-related illnesses? Yes, but there is a tendency by some to blame unexplained diseases on radiation exposure from the explosion, despite evidence to the contrary. But did the accident spread sickness and death across distant parts of Europe, wherever the wind carried the radiation plume? No. But that did not stop people from panicking over the prospect of widespread nuclear fallout, much in the way many Californians have been stocking up on iodine tablets in recent days.

And that gets at the heart of the matter. We are what we experience. For example, with climate change, studies suggest that personal experience with an extreme weather event linked to climate change, such as a flood or severe heat wave, affects our belief in global warming, more so than exposure to the scientific facts that overwhelmingly support the case of a warming planet.

My personal experience with Chernobyl makes me nervous about an expansion of nuclear power, even though most of the facts come down on the side of safety and efficiency. Few could make the argument that coal is a better option than nuclear power when it comes to supplying non-polluting energy to an electricity-hungry world. Unless you live near Chernobyl. Or close to the tsunami-damaged nuclear plant in Japan.

Nearly five years ago, Dan Young, the photographer who shot the Chernobyl documentary, died of leukemia within a week of his diagnosis. Dan was just 47-years-old. Did he become vulnerable to cancer because of our time in Chernobyl? Maybe, but if we are to believe that our level of exposure fell within acceptable ranges, as authorities told us, then it’s difficult to prove a definitive cause and effect link with long-term health consequences. 

Still, Chernobyl was the first thing I thought of after I learned of Dan’s cancer. 

My Chernobyl experience continues to shape my thoughts on nuclear power and its risks. Those living near the crippled plant in Fukushima, and those who are bravely working to contain the damage, will undoubtedly have their own views shaped by their experiences with the controversial energy source.