A Chernobyl Diary

Nuclear Power

» Revisiting Chernobyl: 20 Years Later - go to coverage

IAEA's Kirstie Hansen was in the field in the Ukraine in April 2006 accompanying a group of journalists who visited Chernobyl to assess the legacy of the nuclear accident 20 years after it happened. This diary records her impressions as she gathers facts and talks to experts and local residents affected by the tragedy.

Dmitri Malinovskiy

April 24th, 2006

Dmitri Malinovskiy

Dmitri Malinovskiy (Photo: Nigel Dickinson)

Dmitri was a teenager living in Pripyat when the Chernobyl reactor blew. He and some friends climbed onto the roof of the city's tallest building. They couldn't see flames but watched as smoke billowed from the reactor.

Less than 35 hours later Dmitri and the city's 50,000 residents were forced to evacuate to escape the radioactive fallout. "They told us we'd only leave for a couple of days. I was never allowed back to my home again." Dmitri lived just two miles from the reactor, where his father worked. It will be decades before the area is safe for people to live there again.

I think of radiation raining down on Dmitri. I was also a pretty curious teenager. If I'd heard rumours of a possible fire at the nearby nuclear plant, I probably would have climbed up on the roof to look, too.


Entrance to a Ghost Town

It was by chance that I met Dmitri in Kiev. He is a laidback young Ukrainian guy who wears Diesel jeans and doesn't speak much.

"How's your health?" I try to casually inquire. No problems, he replies. "It's good. I'm fit. Sometimes I take vitamins if I need the extra energy."

Dmitri hasn't seen his apartment in 20 years. Since the day 1,100 buses from across Ukraine came to evacuate his town.

I'm about to go Pripyat and the ill-fated Chernobyl reactor. I invite Dmitri to join me. "Sure. Why not?" His face splits into a smile. "I'll find my home."

A diary begins

April 24th, 2006


I was only a few years younger than Dmitri when winds swept radioactive ash and smoke from the Chernobyl accident over much of Europe. Seventy percent deposited in Belarus, Ukraine and the Russian Federation.

I lived on the other side of the world in Australia. All I remember is my mother telling me I couldn't eat chocolate from Europe. The milk in it might be contaminated. Now I work in the public information department at the IAEA in Vienna. The media call us "the world's nuclear watchdog."

Trying to separate the facts from fiction is hard. For a start, how many people died? Most of the scientists here don't speak plain language. They talk in 'millisieverts' and 'collective dose'. In the run-up to 20th anniversary of the accident the controversy is renewed. I'm about to take a group of journalists to the ill-fated reactor. We'll try to go inside what remains of the nuclear plant. We will visit the 'exclusion zone', a hospital and nearby villages. I want to talk with people in local pubs. This is my diary account.

The Graveyard

April 23rd, 2006


They call it The Graveyard. Row upon row of contaminated fire trucks used to fight the inferno that blazed for ten days at the Chernobyl reactor. It is our first stop inside the exclusion zone, a 30 km radius surrounding the reactor that is barred to the public.


A helicopter used to fight the radioactive fire

Among the steel skeletons, great hulking helicopters were used to dump lead and sand to douse the radioactive flames. The task was horrific. The pilots were among 1000 "liquidators" -- emergency workers and on-site personnel -- to be exposed to the highest radiation doses during the first days of the accident, according to United Nations reports.


A helicopter moves in to check the damage. (Photo: the Ukrainian Society for
Friendship and Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, 1986)

One hundred and thirty-four liquidators developed acute radiation syndrome, the UN report Chernobyl's Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio Economic Impact says. Twenty-eight died in 1986, six of whom were fire-fighters.

To ever really know the total death toll from Chernobyl is impossible. Direct causes of cancers are difficult to pinpoint, their link to radiation hard to prove. The report estimates 4,000 lives will be claimed by radiation induced cancers in the 600,000 most highly exposed individuals.

A Wildlife Refuge?

April 23rd, 2006


Wild Przewalski horses are thriving in the exclusion zone.

Coming face to face with wild Mongolian horses was not exactly what I'd expected to find in Chernobyl's exclusion zone. Perhaps a mutant bird -- but wild ponies?

The zone, it turns out, is teeming with animals: moose, deer, wild boar, bison, hundreds of bird species, even wolves. With humans banished, the animal kingdom now reigns the 2,000 square mile "no-man's land" in Belarus and Ukraine.

The land is being used for release programs of wild animals on endangered species lists, like the Przewalski horses. At odds with my perceptions, documented cases of mutant animals are rare, says Mary Mycio author of Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl.

Mycio first started writing about the zone in 1989 as a Kiev correspondent for the Los Angles Times. "In the first years after the accident, albino swallows appeared," she said. But Nature's law is survival of the fittest and they died out when they couldn't attract mates.

"Human activities are far more damaging to nature than radiation -- at least the type and amounts released by Chernobyl," Mycio says. "To paraphrase Pogo, we have met the environmental disaster and it is us."

A Ghost Town

April 22nd, 2006


Back after 20 years. (Photo: Nigel Dickinson)

We are at apartment 50, building 118, in the abandoned town of Pripyat. A city built for the atomic power station workers and their families. It's Dmitri's childhood home. He found it immediately.

It's like we're in a weird Sci-Fi movie. It is a ghost town and nature's taken over. Trees sprout through floorboards, their limbs break windows. It's utterly silent, a city stuck on a day 20 years ago, when its residents evacuated to escape the radioactive fallout.


What was once the kitchen. (Photo: Nigel Dickinson)

"I can't believe it," he repeats over and over. Dmitri and I had split from the group and had an hour to explore the abandoned city. Levels of radiation in the ghost town can exceed a milliroentgen per hour, which is about 100 times normal background. It's not dangerous for our short visit.

Dmitri starts to laugh with emotion, as the memories flood back. "As a kid I thought Pripyat was the best place to live in the world."


Children of Pripyat. Dmitri sits front row, far left.

Dmitri takes me to a boxing ring where, as a child, he learnt to box. We climb over broken glass and rubble to reach his old gym, a swimming pool, his school. Finally a theatre, where he'd once sung a solo on stage.


Paintings of Soviet leaders in a dilapidated hall .

Discarded paintings of Soviet leaders speak of a bygone era. It took authorities three days to acknowledge to their citizens that an accident had occurred. The rest of the world was tipped off when high radiation levels registered at a Swedish nuclear power plant.

Dmitri was one of more than 330,000 people relocated following the disaster. For many, I'm discovering it was a deeply traumatic experience.


Innocence lost. A child's toy left behind.

The World Health Organization cites the mental health impact as the largest public health problem unleashed by the accident to date. The anguish and trauma caused from the rapid relocation, the breakdown in social contacts and fear and anxiety about what health effects might result.


Children from radiation-contamination areas sent abroad for medical treatment.
(Photo: the Ukrainian Society for Friendship and Cultural Relations with
Foreign Countries, 1986)

Dmitri's family were relocated to Kiev and given an apartment. Immediately after the accident he spent a month at a camp for kids near the Black Sea.

A 'hot' tourist spot

April 22nd, 2006


At a check point entry to the Exclusion Zone.

It's a media circus. I'm waiting for Security to check my passport when two bus loads of press people and tourists arrive. It's a stark contrast to the eerie emptiness of Pripyat. The countdown to the 20th anniversary of the accident has begun. The hype is rising. The BBC call. They want to do a live broadcast in front of the damaged reactor, starting at 1:23 am, the morning of 26th April. The exact time of the accident two decades ago. Will the IAEA have experts they can speak to?

Chernobyl is now a 'hot' tourist spot. I cringe at my play on words, as well as being a part of it. Over 1,400 sightseers came to Chernobyl last April. A few hundred dollars can secure your entrance.

Chernobyl Power Plant Reactor 4

April 22nd, 2006


Chernobyl Power Plant Reactor 4

We pull up in front of Chernobyl's ill-fated Unit No. 4. It looks like any other industrial site, the damaged reactor engulfed in a rectangular metal sarcophagus. It's hard to believe this mammoth steel chunk is the source of so much human trauma. In the past two decades, it is estimated that the accident rung up costs in the hundreds of billions of dollars.


Mikhail and me in front of Chernobyl (Photo:Nigel Dickinson)

I'm talking with IAEA's radiation expert Mikhail Balonov when one of the tourist busses catches up to us. It's a bizarre scene. People pour off the bus, some wearing white surgical masks, as the sound of Geiger counters (devices that measure radiation levels) crackle in the air. The typically serious Balonov chuckles. (I don't mention I've also packed a protective mask and shoe covers).

Mikhail explains there is little risk to one-time visitors. I'm likely to get a greater dose of radiation on my yearly flight home to Australia. But if I lived or went to the exclusion zone every day, then over the years I'd be exposing myself to a build-up of unsafe doses of radiation.


Mikhail Balonov (Photo:Nigel Dickinson)

Mikhail is one of Chernobyl's liquidators. Following the accident, it was the Russian radiobiologist's job to determine whether to protect on-site or to evacuate Russian cities and communities exposed to the fallout.

"The pressure coming from all sides was always to evacuate," Mikhail said. He brought the hard science. "In many areas the situation was not hopeless and communities could take countermeasures to protect themselves," he said. A tough message to sell to understandably scared and mistrustful communities.

The task became easier, says Mikhail, when his friend and colleague and his pregnant wife moved from St. Petersburg to live and work in the affected areas.

Baba Olga

April 22nd, 2006


Baba Olga

Baba Olga lives in the exclusion zone. She's about a ten minute drive from the reactor. She is one of more than 200 elderly residents that authorities turned a blind eye to when they insisted on returning to their homes. She moved back a few months after the 1986 accident and has been living there ever since. Olga eats the vegetables from her garden.

She is happy here, she says.

Chernobyl's Workers

April 21st, 2006


Workers at Chernobyl

Employees at the Chernobyl nuclear site work two weeks on, two weeks off. That way they can avoid a build up of unsafe doses of radiation. The ill-fated reactor was one of four reactor units on site. The plant -- a major source of employment -- was closed in December 2000. Work is now focused on ways to clean it up.

A Fragile Tomb

April 21st, 2006


The sarcophagus that entombs the damaged reactor might collapse.

I've heard that the sarcophagus which entombs the damaged reactor might collapse, spewing out radioactive debris and dust. I ask Mike Durst, a nuclear physicist at the IAEA, if it's true. He confirms that if there's a heavy snow fall it could. I'm pleased that winter's over. Mike spent three years onsite at Chernobyl in charge of a project to design the "new shelter" that will permanently enclose the damaged reactor for 100 years. Construction is scheduled to start next year. "The existing shelter was built very quickly when radiation levels were still extremely high. It was only expected to last about 20 years. There are no welded joins -- workers just couldn't get close enough. It was mostly put together with steal plates."

Inside Chernobyl

April 21st, 2006


Before the accident: staff at the Chernobyl Atomic Power Station control panel.
(Photo: the Ukrainian Society for Friendship and Cultural Relations with Foreign
Countries, 1986)

"It's like someone's taken a nuclear power plant and shaken it upside down," Mike tells me, when I ask what it's like inside Chernobyl. "It feels like you are in a tomb. Cold, wet, dark. Pipes are broken, there's lots of debris. You walk through a series of labyrinths until you reach the control room, where operators ran the reactor. Radiation levels here are not high. Go down lower and it's is lethal."

"There were two explosions," Mike tells me. "The reactor blew up and down. The top blew off but the other incredible disaster was the explosion down. It mixed hundreds of tons of nuclear fuel, graphite and concrete. It's a mass of highly radioactive lava. But in other places you feel like you are in a barn. Light filters in. Look up," Mike tells me. "You'll see birds nesting in the roof."

A Town on the Edge

April 20th, 2006


Tetyana Pavlenko

Shpili is a tiny town that sits on the edge of the radioactive fallout. A village of 900 people, some 60 km from the reactor. It was contaminated with radioactive materials but not at levels so dangerous to evacuate the town.

Tetyana Pavlenko is a nurse in Shpili. Her job in the immediate weeks after the 1986 accident was to provide iodine treatment for each house and watch the children swallow the tablets. The iodine could reduce their risk of developing thyroid cancer from the fallout.


Raisa Maslyon, Nadia Lozenko, Tetyana Pavlenko

Drinking milk from cows that ate contaminated grass straight after the accident was one of the main reasons why so many children developed thyroid cancer. Their growing thyroid glands greedily absorbed the radioactive iodine. By 2002, more than 4000 thyroid cancer cases had been diagnosed in children and adolescents exposed to Chernobyl's fallout.

In Shpili, Tetyana scrambled to find someone willing to take her two-month-old baby to Kiev - so that her child would be farther away from the radioactive dust. As a nurse Tetyana stayed in her village to treat families evacuated to Shpili. Her anxiety is still obvious as she speaks of the separation.

Childhood thyroid cancer caused by radioactive iodine fallout is one of the main health impacts of the accident. It is mostly treatable but it still shatters lives. Eight children died. Thousands must spend a lifetime on medication.

Valentina Subotina

April 20th, 2006


Valentina Subotina (on the right) and me

I talk with long-time resident, Valentina Subotina, in the afternoon sun. The river Teteriv flows below us. It was here that fire-fighters washed their contaminated trucks used to douse the radioactive inferno that burned at Chernobyl.

Life is hard for the people in Shpili, caught on the safer edge of the 'exclusion zone'. Nobody wants to buy their houses. They have trouble selling the vegetables they grow because of fear of contamination. They live with the worry that the shelter covering the reactor will collapse and again spew radiation towards them.

I'm struck by the fatalism of the people in Shpili that I speak with. Every pain, headache and asthma attack they tell me about is connected to Chernobyl. Scientists and medical experts at UN organizations like the World Health Organization and the IAEA where I work, would question their claims. But one thing is certain: the trauma in their lives and stress and fear for their and their loved one's health is obvious.

Shpili is a village of fields ploughed by horse and cart. A large modern yellow building catches my eye. It's a rehabilitation centre for alcoholic women.

» Revisiting Chernobyl: 20 Years Later - go to coverage