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A personal story of Chernobyl’s environmental effects

text-from-the-archivesthe Prypiat River [Ukraine] flowing through the empty town and nuclear power plant was already a black, dead waterway. Not one bird flew or stray cat mewed….Reindeer [Norway] with ultra-high levels of radioactivity were killed that winter’s day. Many were calves.

Nuclear not for Tassie   – The Mercury – The Voice of Tasmania, 26 March, 2011, Two of my own most memorable experiences as a journalist over the past three decades are linked to nuclear energy.
Chernobyl 1986The first was in late 1986 when, just a few months after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Ukraine region of the then-Soviet Union, I visited the site as one of the first Australian journalists allowed into the area.The burnt and melted-down nuclear reactor had not then been encased in its final concrete sarcophagus; Geiger counters and special suits were mandatory, and the closest we could go was the nearby deserted town of Prypiat.
But it was Prypiat rather than glimpses of the Chernobyl power plant 4km away that left the most chilling impression.

A thriving town of 49,000 people think all of Hobart’s Eastern Shore suburbs combined prior to the April 25, 1986, nuclear catastrophe.

Its residents all had to abandon their homes the following day after radiation reached fatal levels.

Not that the Soviet authorities immediately told locals a disaster was unfolding on their doorsteps, despite the new “glasnost” era of openness and transparency just proclaimed by new-look president Mikhail Gorbachev.

It was only when elevated radiation levels were detected in clouds above Sweden that night that Soviet officials finally admitted an accident and a fire had occurred at Chernobyl’s number 4 nuclear reactor earlier in the afternoon.

Visiting Prypiat a few months later was a haunting experience. Mouldy lunches and mugs still sat on kitchen tables, dusty coats were thrown over armchairs and bedrooms with their crumpled blankets and family snaps looked as if their occupants might return at any moment.

Prypiat-1990s-before-forest

Children’s toys and bikes were scattered around outside the concrete apartment blocks, as rampant weeds reclaimed the ghost town’s city square.

But the Prypiat River flowing through the empty town and nuclear power plant was already a black, dead waterway. Not one bird flew or stray cat mewed.

Just two months later, I was on assignment in the snowy wilds of northern Norway with a family of traditional reindeer herders, in the dark December days of early winter.

For these families, who have for generations grazed their herds up on the mountain tops and who eat reindeer meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner as part of their reindeer-centric tradition 1986 was a terrible watershed year.

Chernobyl’s radioactive cloud had drifted over Norway for several days in late April, dropping its deadly heavy caesium molecules in spring rain and mist.

The lichen that grow above the snowline absorbed the radioactive load; turning these hardy plants into deadly fodder for the deer, which rely on them as food.

For the first time, the semi-wild reindeer herds had to be removed from the mountains, possibly for decades, as the lichen would not be fit to eat for many years. Instead they were ordered into barns to be fed hay brought in from other areas of Norway.

Reindeer with ultra-high levels of radioactivity were killed that winter’s day. Many were calves.

And later that night Norwegian Government experts delivered another fatal blow. They told the same herders reindeer meat could not be safely eaten more than twice a week until years later, when their herds would be free of all radioactive contamination.

It has been impossible not to reflect on my own two sombre brushes with nuclear power gone wrong, as the world has held its breath over the past two weeks wondering how close Japan’s stricken Fukushima nuclear plant has been to the total core meltdown experienced at Chernobyl.

Already water and milk on parts of Japan has been declared unsafe for drinking, leafy vegetables and crops in surrounding farms banned from sale and seaweed from nearby waters found to be contaminated…….

Nuclear not for Tassie Editorial – The Mercury – The Voice of Tasmania

December 24, 2016 - Posted by | environment, history, Ukraine

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