Responding to an explosion that awoke them at 1:23 a.m. on April 26, 1986, six firefighters stormed up more than 250 feet of exterior stairway and stared into the glowing face of the nuclear genie released just over four decades earlier. Within two weeks, all were dead.
In the face of legitimate concerns about the potential for nuclear terrorism, the lessons of Chernobyl are worth reviewing. In October 2003, the California National Guard and the California EMS Authority led a group of 20 emergency management specialists to eastern Europe to do just that.
We were lodged in Slavutich, a town in northern Ukraine of some 25,000 inhabitants, built in the aftermath of the accident. We were hosted by the International Chernobyl Center, a multinationally supported facility dedicated to deriving benefit from the world's worst manmade disaster.
After two days of lectures on radiation, the nuclear accident itself and the firefighter and medical response, we boarded a train to the now-mothballed nuclear facility. The ride takes about 40 minutes, and about halfway into it we entered the "exclusion zone." A good portion of the radionuclides (or radioactive isotopes from several elements)1 that spewed from the reactor almost 19 years ago settled in this area covering a radius of roughly 30 kilometers (about 18.5 miles) from the accident. Like the other passengers on our train--a work crew of men and women who toil at the endless cleanup and maintenance of the facility--we wore pager-sized devices that measured the radiation we were receiving.
Our group was impatient to see the structure that had left such an enormous mark on the land--a radioactive Florida by way of comparison--and an even more significant mark on human history. We were reminded that the accident had cost the Ukrainians approximately $100 billion, and the world as a whole possibly 10 times that amount in economic costs, and tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of deaths resulting from ongoing illness.
There was a time when Chernobyl was destined to be the world's largest nuclear facility by far. We were thunderstruck when we saw the towering structure the firefighters had scaled in hopes of extinguishing the fire ignited by the blast. Engineers and operators at the plant had believed their cherished reactor incapable of such an explosion. How wrong they were was underscored by the fact that a sudden "surge" in the nuclear reaction launched the reactor's 1,000-metric-ton sealing cap--the equivalent to about 1,102 U.S. tons--10 meters into the air. When the lid returned to the reactor, it did so at an angle, unleashing 100 times the amount of radioactive debris into the environment than did the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.2 This was the sound that awoke the sleeping firefighters who were more than a mile away.
The outside world didn't learn of the accident until an alarm at the nuclear reactor in Fosmark, Sweden, 1,000 miles from Chernobyl, forced the evacuation of that plant. Further investigation prompted pointed Swedish inquiries of the Soviet leadership.
The secrecy of the Soviet system had kept the true vulnerabilities of their nuclear reactors from the Soviets themselves. The 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania had been dismissed by the Soviet leadership as more evidence of greedy capitalists neglecting the health and safety of their compatriots. This dismissiveness was subsequently mirrored by many in the West who attributed the Chernobyl disaster to the technological backwardness of the Soviets--until 13 years later, when the nuclear fuel processing plant in Tokaimura, Japan, experienced its own release of radioactive material into the atmosphere.
One Clear Answer--Prepare
As fire and EMS professionals, we came looking for insights into what Chernobyl might teach us about our own vulnerabilities. If we came looking for clear answers--and I admit to having had that hope--we were disappointed. The extent of the devastation wrought by Chernobyl is unknowable.