I have a tendency to directly confront the things that scare me most. I’m calmed by getting up close and personal with a bad thing until it becomes familiar and prosaic, whereas distant nebulous threats work on my nerves and become more ominous with time. So while I was in Kiev last summer an Italian friend and I explored Chernobyl and the ghost city of Pripyat where 49,000 people once lived. I left feeling a lot better about nuclear power and its drawbacks after seeing this worst case scenario first hand. This was a human tragedy, but after only twenty eight years nature has already begun the long process of healing itself. It wasn’t the end of the world. People won’t want to live here for another thousand years, but the bears, deer, fish and trees are thriving without humans around. Life goes on no matter what. Civilization is optional. That part is up to us to get right or suffer the consequences.
First and foremost the trip was a form of Soviet archeology. I lived in Leningrad and Moscow back in 1989/1990 when the wheels were coming off the Soviet cart and I felt rather nostalgic around all the communist iconography and design at Pripyat. People talk a lot about the First World and the Third World, but you don’t hear much about the Second World – which is what life in Soviet Russia was all about. Crushing poverty and illiteracy were mostly done away with and the baseline for medical care was pretty good so there were definite improvements over places that hadn’t yet industrialized. But the standard of living was considerably lower than the First World. If you were extraordinarily talented and ambitious life under communism was maddening since the bureaucracies and rigid culture stifled you. But it was a kind of heaven for slackers. “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.” The entire country looked like it had been built by seventh grade vocational students – lots of rough edges. That’s not a great basis for building and maintaining nuclear power plants. The best scientists in the world (and Russia is second to none in that department) won’t help you if the guys pouring concrete and fitting pipes aren’t on the ball.
Pripyat was a model city purpose built around the new power plant. Wages and conditions were twice as high as most places in the Soviet Union since Chernobyl was a high visibility example of technology and progress. The average age of the population at the time of the accident was twenty six. Most workers were fresh out of university and busy starting families with small children. After the blast everyone was relocated. The most interesting aspect of the evacuation and resettlement process is that a small number of villagers who had always lived in the countryside near the plant were forcibly removed and placed in apartments in distant cities. (Think of the bureaucrats who were unexpectedly given the task of finding 49,000 extra apartments overnight. The Department of Motor Vehicles meets Cabrini Green…) The young stayed away and eventually made their way in society, but many of the old people returned to their cottages inside the Exclusion Zone illegally. The old folks who stayed in “healthy” anonymous apartments in unfamiliar cities far from their roots died quickly. Those who returned to the toxic farmland with their old neighbors and traditional lifestyle lived much longer even as they experienced health problems from the radiation. Culture, place, and family are seriously important to humans. 4,000 people still live inside the Zone. The Zone is 1,000 square miles which makes it the de facto largest nature preserve in Europe. Or 1,000 square miles of failed civilization. Take your pick.
For the record (because many people have asked) I didn’t wear the disposable white bunny suit to protect myself from radiation. The ambient radiation levels even at the reactor itself aren’t bad enough to hurt you in a single afternoon. The real danger is from ingesting small radioactive particles from the contaminated soil. At the end of the day as we reached the final checkpoint on the edge of the Exclusion Zone I stripped and placed all my clothes, socks, and shoes as well as my gloves into a bag which I left behind. I then dressed with fresh clothes and shoes that I brought in a separate sealed bag. I also took a course of potassium iodine just as a precaution. In the end, I think the bunny suit added to the tragic/comedy of my tourist photos more than anything. At multiple checkpoints visitors are required to go through a device ostensibly meant to scan for radiation. The general consensus was that these machines probably weren’t even plugged in or operational. It was mostly part of the theater of the place.
There were other parts of the Pripyat experience that were obviously staged or otherwise enhanced. Photographers have a special love of children’s toys and grade school paraphernalia amid the ruins. There were dolls and Soviet era school papers left about that really couldn’t have survived in place after twenty eight years of Ukrainian winters and scavengers. Someone was artfully replenishing the stock to keep it all tourist ready. The cars on the Ferris wheel were still bright yellow while everything else in town had rusted red or brown. Our guide, a pretty Ukrainian college student, confirmed that the workers who guard and maintain the Zone don’t have enough to do so they paint things to keep themselves occupied lest they “fall in the bottle” every day. Boredom and alcoholism are serious problems for the staff.
I have mixed feelings about nuclear power. I like flipping a switch and having the lights come on like magic. And I’ve delegated the creation of that power to some far off collection of corporations and government bureaucracies that are remarkably competent at delivering reliable power at a very reasonable price. 20% of that power is generated in nuclear reactors. Then I think about where the other 80% of the power comes from. In the U.S. electricity is mostly made from coal and natural gas with a tiny sliver coming from hydro and an almost invisible shard coming from things like wind and solar PV. Do I really want more coal mines and coal fired plants instead of nuclear? Do I really want a whole lot more fracking for natural gas everywhere? Am I ready to pay a whole lot of up front money for solar panels? Can I really live with radically less power in my daily life? What are the alternatives? These are big questions.
I grew up near the Oyster Creek Nuclear Power Station in southern New Jersey which began operation in 1969. It’s the oldest commercial nuclear plant in the country and one of the oldest in the world. It also happens to be the sister plant to the two reactors at Three Mile Island – same manufacturer, same design, same initial management. Oyster Creek is scheduled to be retired in 2019 when it becomes fifty years old. Every bit of the nuclear waste that was created since 1969 is still sitting there in drums in a big swimming pool out by the parking lot. There’s still no plan for how it or the radioactive building itself will be disposed of or who will pay for any of it. The present owner, Exelon Corporation, says it has $750 M set aside for decommissioning after a cooling off period of sixty years. Really? That’s not enough money to retire the paper clips in the office of a nuclear plant. In sixty years Exelon will be long gone as a company. And there are another 103 of these plants around the country – not including military installations which are largely unknowable at this time. If Theodor Roosevelt’s generation had built nuclear power plants that began operation in 1904 with a fifty year lifespan and a sixty year cooling period we’d just now be ready to start paying for the disposal.
Or what if we do nothing and let these plants decay without the proper care and funding? Abandonment has in fact been the most prominent trajectory for old industrial facilities over the last century. Companies go out of business, people move away, and local municipalities fall into insolvency and cultural irrelevance. (Detroit, Youngstown…) Radioactive material will sit there patiently for the duration. Lacey Township (home of Oyster Creek) is a modest collection of tract homes and strip malls along the Jersey shore. The nuclear plant doesn’t merely contribute to the local economy by way of property taxes and employment – the plant is the entire tax base. Ocean County or even the state of New Jersey (which has three nuclear plants) may not be willing or able to rise to the occasion either. With or without dramatic explosions we have to deal with this stuff. But I don’t think we will. I’m just sayin’.