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Pieces of Eight

ECU graduate student Chris Henry takes radiation readings on a bridge near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, site of the world‰s worst nuclear disaster. Henry was part of an ECU contingent that traveled to the scene. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)

Silent, 'Sobering' Chernobyl Greets Group

By Doug Boyd

After traveling last month to the site of the world‰s worst nuclear meltdown and the deserted towns nearby, Dr. Daniel Sprau still forecasts a bright future for nuclear power, but said seeing what can happen when all goes wrong is ,sobering.Š

,I think we‰ve learned our lessons and I think it can be a real boon , to keep energy costs down and help the environment,Š Sprau said of nuclear power, which emits no greenhouse gases

Dr. Larry Toburen (above) and the rest of the ECU group had to pass through these radiation measurement devices before exiting the ,exclusion zoneŠ surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

Sprau, an associate professor of environmental health, led a group of six environmental health students, three faculty and two staff members to the shuttered Chernobyl nuclear power plant, about 80 miles from Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. The trip was the culmination of a class Sprau taught about nuclear power and public health.

At Chernobyl, students took radiation readings as close as 250 yards from the destroyed Unit 4 reactor and the deteriorating sarcophagus that encloses it.

The group also walked through the silent ,ghost-townŠ of Pripyat, the city built in 1970 approximately a half-mile from the reactor as the new, modern home of those who worked there. Leaves blow down empty streets, radioactive moss grows on the sidewalks and an amusement park that once hosted laughs and smiles sits rusting and still.

,I think it was a sobering experience,Š Sprau said. ,Unless we do it right, we can run into problems. But I don‰t think we could ever have something that catastrophic happen in the U.S. That reactor could have never been approved by the (Nuclear Regulatory Agency).Š

On April 25, 1986, the Unit 4 reactor at the Chernobyl station was scheduled to be shut down for routine maintenance. Officials decided the shutdown would be a good time to conduct a test to see if inertia would keep the turbines spinning long enough, in case of a power failure, to operate pumps that circulate water to cool the reactor until diesel generators kicked in. A similar test had been successfully carried out before on another reactor.

In shutting down the reactor for the test, operators reduced power too much, too quickly. They then increased power, but not to the normal amount for this experiment. Nevertheless, at 1:23 a.m., they began the test. Versions vary on the exact sequence of events that led to the disaster, but a series of missteps made worse by the disabling of several safety mechanisms for the test caused the reactor to surge out of control. A steam explosion inside the reactor blew off the 2,400-ton reactor lid; it landed on its side on top of the reactor.

The explosion also blew off the roof of the reactor building, spewing radioactive material into the atmosphere. Air rushed in, igniting graphite inside the reactor. The fire burned nearly four hours as helicopters dumped sand and lead to extinguish it and firefighters struggled to contain it.

For the first day or so after the explosion, plant officials said only that a problem had occurred and no one should be concerned. But with radiation levels so high they didn‰t register on the meters officials used, and with firefighters and plant employees dying of acute radiation poisoning, officials ordered the evacuation of Pripyat‰s 50,000 people April 28. They were told the evacuation was temporary, and many left with just the clothes they had on and a bit of food and money. They never returned.

The United Nations reported last year that 56 people ‹ 47 workers who died of acute radiation exposure and nine children who died of thyroid cancer ‹ died as a direct result of the explosion, and another 3,940 people could die prematurely of cancer caused by radiation exposure. Greenpeace, on the other hand, released a report in April estimating 93,000 people have died or will die from Chernobyl.

The scale of the disaster and its aftermath ‹ altered lives and deserted towns ‹ struck students.

ECU students, faculty and staff visited the Chernobyl nuclear power plant April 27. Pictured at the plant are, from left, Chris Fletcher, Dr. Richard Kilroy, Kenneth Dingle, Eric Ferrell, a Chernobyl tour guide, Doug Boyd, Leonard Robinson, Michael Apple, Dr. Daniel Sprau, Chris Henry, Dr. Larry Toburen and tour guide Raissa Pugachova. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)

,I definitely have more respect for the hazards of nuclear power,Š said graduate student Chris Henry. He measured radiation at eight millirems per hour within 250 yards of the reactor. In Pripyat, he took readings as high as 20 millirems per hour. Standing next to that radiation source for an hour would roughly equal the radiation dose from one chest X-ray.

But inside the reactor building, measurements as high as 3,400 rads per hour have been taken, according to Julia Marusych of the Chernobyl plant information department. The maximum survivable acute dose is 1,000 rads, Sprau said.

The trip held valuable lessons for the environmental health students, Sprau said. ,If you can do something in the environment that directly affects people‰s health, I think that‰s important,Š he said. ,I hope our students got out of this that what we do at the local level is important.Š

Outside Pripyat, nearly 100,000 more people were evacuated from surrounding towns and villages, and about 300 or so have moved back as ,resettlers.Š Workers and military personnel who still work at the power plant and its vicinity stay for a couple of weeks, then rotate out. The ,exclusion zoneŠ extends 30 kilometers, or about 18 miles.

While the anniversary turned the world‰s eyes to Chernobyl, long-term attention is needed.

,The 20th anniversary shouldn‰t be like a campaign,Š Marusych said. ,I wish the world community won‰t forget about Chernobyl on the 27th of April.Š Sprau isn‰t likely to forget.

,It was almost emotional for me,Š he said. ,I‰m a very religious person, but in your professional life you don‰t usually feel that way. I think God sometimes puts obstacles in front of folks, and you don‰t know why things happen. But the way people respond ‹ if they have God-given talents, they know how to handle it and how to prevent it in the future.Š

Sprau said other faculty members considering an overseas trip with students should try it. The trip wasn‰t totally smooth, however. The group suffered two van breakdowns on the way to Chernobyl. ,Radiation killed our first van,Š Henry quipped as the second van began sputtering about 30 miles from the exclusion zone.

This page originally appeared in the May 19, 2006 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at