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Classic: Inside Chernobyl

Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Reporter: Richard Carleton
Producer: Stephen Rice

If you're for nuclear power, it will save us from catastrophe. If you're against it, it is the catastrophe.

Either way, with fears of global warming and diminishing fossil fuel supplies, it's certainly back on the international agenda. But there's one almighty barrier in the way of nuclear expansion. Chernobyl.

It's now 20 years since that disaster, the worst nuclear accident in history, but Chernobyl is still exhibit A in the case against nuclear power. And with good reason, as you'll see when Richard Carleton takes you into the very belly of the beast, into the heart of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor

Transcript

RICHARD CARLETON: Ever wondered what the world might be like 20 years after a nuclear war? Well, something like this is my best guess. Welcome to Sunnytown, Belarus — that's its name, Sunnytown. Chernobyl is about 10 or 15km over there, across the river. None of this is blast damage. There is some vandalism here, but this place is just so radioactive, it's uninhabitable. We've been allowed just one hour to film here today before we must get out.

Thousands of people lived in Sunnytown. Then one day in April 1986, soldiers arrived and ordered everyone to leave. "Just for a couple of days," the residents were told. But 20 years later, none have ever been back. But, amazingly, here, just 200m from ground zero — the very epicentre of the disaster — it's relatively safe.

Have a look at this meter. I'd have to stand here for the best part of 40 hours to get the radiation effect of one chest X-ray. Go 100m closer, though, and I'd have to stand only five or six hours to get the radiation effect of one chest X-ray. But after that, it goes like that until you get to some of the hot spots inside where you're getting the equivalent of 30 chest X-rays a second, and at that rate, in a bit over five minutes, you're fried.

So how can I be safe here when villages 10, 20, even 150km away are no-go areas? To answer that, we have to go back to that day, April 1986, to the control room of reactor No. 4 where a handful of barely qualified technicians are trying to figure out what will happen if they turn down the power levels.

PROFESSOR IAN LOWE: They were trying to work out a way of keeping the turbines spinning as the nuclear reactor went offline, and in this case they produced a low power level that went dramatically unstable.

RICHARD CARLETON: Australian scientist, Professor Ian Lowe, recalls that disastrous experiment.

PROFESSOR IAN LOWE: … in the process they breached no fewer than six specific safety guidelines, and managed to produce a catastrophic explosion. We're talking about a structure that's equivalent to the size of the Telstra Stadium, or the MCG, to a height of 70 metres, with a reinforced concrete roof and the roof was lifted off and finished up collapsing sideways down the structure.

RICHARD CARLETON: The fire raged for days. Helicopter crews flew suicide missions over the smoking ruins, trying to blanket the flames and fumes with sand. Completely unprepared for anything like it, the Soviets sent in teams of men — human sacrifices, actually — to clean up the radioactive mess. These biorobots could work for just a few minutes at a time before running for their lives. The blast threw radioactive debris and dust to 50,000 feet. One reason it's relatively safe here is this whole area — roads, footpath, grass, everything — down to a depth of 1.5 metres, has been dug up and replaced with fresh stuff.

Another reason is a huge concrete shell has been built over the top of the destroyed reactor. It took six months and 300,000 workers to build this sarcophagus — a giant tomb of steel and concrete designed to seal in tonnes and tonnes of nuclear fuel, now mixed with once-molten rock that runs like a frozen black river through the heart of the ruins.

At least 2000 of these workers, known as the liquidators, will eventually die from the effects of radiation they absorbed. Today, Chernobyl is surrounded by a 30km exclusion zone guarded by militia. These are the nearby black villages. 350,000 people were uprooted from their homes. Here a graveyard for the thousands of contaminated vehicles used in the clean up — trucks, helicopters, buses, fire-engines. And then, emerging from the undergrowth — a city. This is quite obviously a library, but where are we?

PRIPYAT GUARDIAN: Sir, actually we are in the town of Pripyat, which is only 3km away from the nuclear power plant.

RICHARD CARLETON: This woman is one of the guardians of a ghost city, Pripyat, built to house 50,000 workers from Chernobyl and once the pride of the Soviet Union. On that morning in April, 20 years ago, the people of Pripyat were preparing for their May Day holiday. It was not until two days after the accident that they were eventually evacuated.

PRIPYAT GUARDIAN: Have a look how nature is taking over. It was a nice square at that time, was roses growing here, and now you see these poplar trees are growing right through the asphalt.

RICHARD CARLETON: A few villagers have sneaked back into the forbidden zone because they have nothing outside. In one village we came upon an old woman mourning her husband. He'd died just two days before of heart failure, we were told, not cancer. The number of casualties from Chernobyl is still hotly debated.

PROFESSOR IAN LOWE: Somewhere between 4,000 and 24,000 people will eventually die as a result of the radiation from the accident.

RICHARD CARLETON: But in Belarus, the country most affected by the fall-out, doctors say the human cost of Chernobyl is still being counted.

DOCTOR: You can see his head is very big, the size of his head is very big, and there is water in his brain, and so under his prognosis is not very good.

RICHARD CARLETON: In the wards of the Gomel children's hospital, this doctor says she has observed a sharp increase in the number of premature births since Chernobyl.

DOCTOR: Our scientists have opinion that the prematurity born children is effects of Chernobyl.

RICHARD CARLETON: And it gets worse. Outside the clean white wards of the hospital, parts of Belarus have reverted to the Dark Ages. This is an orphanage for mentally ill children. No-one can say for sure if birth defects like these are caused by Chernobyl.

ADI ROCHE: This is the world of the children in this unit. It's their activity room. It's where they spend eight out of 10 hours a day, will be spent in this physical four walls.

RICHARD CARLETON: When Adi Roche, founder of the Chernobyl Children's Project, stumbled upon this grim outpost, she knew she had to do something.

ADI ROCHE: It's hidden away in a no-man's land down the road to nowhere, and they have to be self-efficient in food, so the children that are mobile, the children that are able to independently move have to work in fields to grow food so that they can feed the other children here.

RICHARD CARLETON: There's no treatment for these kids, next to no toys and precious little love or affection from the local staff.

ADI ROCHE: Some of the children, when we came here, didn't even have names, and, you know, they wouldn't be aware even of their own names, so we always take a photograph of the child... There are children dying here who shouldn't be. This is Maxy — he's five-years-old. In his last days, this little boy would at least know the touch of someone who cares, an Irish angel — a volunteer nurse from the Chernobyl Children's Project. What's a rational reaction when faced with this horror? Despair? There's a bunch of builders here who refuse to give in. More Irish volunteers have come here in their holidays, and at their own expense, to help. You do it for nothing?

VOLUNTEER: Absolutely nothing, I love this. The worst reason in the world to go to work is for money, so you come over here and get pleasure out of it, you know.

RICHARD CARLETON: I didn't know there was blokes left like you in the world.

VOLUNTEER: There is, there's plenty of us here.

RICHARD CARLETON: At the epicentre of the disaster, scientists have begun to notice something worrying. The sarcophagus, so hurriedly thrown together at the time, is now leaking. There are more than 100 square metres of holes and cracks in the shell, letting radiation out and rainwater in. The roof is unstable — what happens if, God forbid, it collapses?

PRIPYAT GUARDIAN: So, in that case, all these radioactive dust, which is accumulated inside the shelter facility, will be spread around the territory of the 30km exclusion zone.

RICHARD CARLETON: Just 30km?

PRIPYAT GUARDIAN: Just 30km.

RICHARD CARLETON: Why are you so confident about that?

PRIPYAT GUARDIAN: That's because I was told.

RICHARD CARLETON: Some nuclear scientists aren't so sure. They're urgently calling for a new sarcophagus — a 20,000 tonne steel structure that would be built close by and slid over the existing shelter.

It will cost over $1 billion if it's ever built. Despite many pledges, the money still hasn't arrived, and time is running out. This is part of the reactor core, as it lies now, all 3000 tonnes of it, and it should be like that. The roof here is made of 1.5mm steel plate.

That's not much thicker than a thumbnail. And it just sits there, it's not even tack welded in place. They couldn't use anything thicker for fear the weight would cause the whole structure to collapse. After 20 years, it's starting to rust through.

Over here is the control room that set it all off. Now the authorities have said we can go in there for just a few seconds. A handful of Ukranian scientists work inside the sarcophagus, but it's rare for an outsider to be allowed in. And not a little daunting.

And what do these two meters do. It's only a 5-minute walk to the point where it all unraveled 20 years ago. Twenty years ago, 1.23 in the morning, the day after Anzac Day, the man sitting at one of these panels here pushed one of these buttons that set off the worst nuclear disaster the world has ever seen.

This is an extraordinary place to be. It is truly a moment frozen in time. You think about the man and his mistake. But also remember that he stuck to his post for hours, trying to shut down the reactor core. He knew the price of staying, and sure enough, within days of the accident, he was dead. And then our few minutes were up.

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