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
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
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
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.