In a powerful article in the second section of The Times on 14 November, Martin Fletcher recounted his journey to the control room at the heart of Chernobyl's Reactor Four.
Fletcher's visit was timely. The last nuclear reactor on the Chernobyl site, 90 minutes north of Kiev, is due to be shut down on 15 December. His visit was also brave, or at least foolhardy.
Accompanied by a photographer, he ventured inside the leaky, structurally unsound, concrete and steel sarcophagus that encases the remains of the infamous reactor that blew up on 26 April 1986, saying: "The result was an explosion many times bigger than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined."
A glimpse inside the sarcophagus
Radiation levels inside are still dangerously high. Fletcher estimated that a reading on his Geiger counter of about 28 micro-roentgens an hour would be safe for everyday living. Deep inside, when "just 30 yards and two concrete walls divide us from the plutonium core," the dial touched 80,000 micro-roentgens.
At least the two visitors were dressed in protective clothing. Their guide, a veteran of the reactor, was remarkably reckless. Not even bothering to put on his face mask, he joked, "Soviet radiation is the best radiation in the world. It makes hair thicker and men more potent."
A stolen souvenir
In the control room itself, where it all went wrong, Fletcher sensed "a malignant force" surrounding him "in this hellish place." The accident occurred when the external electricity supply was switched off as an experiment. He is told that the switch itself had been stolen long ago, as a souvenir.
The situation outside the irradiated concrete tomb seems little better. Thousands of square miles around the reactor are too contaminated for human habitation, creating dozens of ghost towns (not that this has stopped everyone from returning). Thyroid cancer rates are astronomical in northern Ukraine.
Kuchma takes second billing
Fletcher's interview in the same feature with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma "about his efforts to reverse his country's own economic meltdown," very much took second billing to the description of the trip to Chernobyl. But Fletcher draws parallels between the present situation in Ukraine with their situation as a part of the old Soviet Union: the onetime engine room suffered a meltdown, but will Ukraine as a country avoid the shutdown that awaits the rest of the Chernobyl site?
The Ukrainian economy and society suffered greatly in the 1990s. Kuchma concurred with his interviewer in locating the cause of economic collapse and rampant corruption in the helplessness of the new post-Soviet society, previously so used to central control from Moscow but now forced to go it alone. "The national anthem may be entitled Ukraine is Not Yet Dead, but it was not far off," wrote Fletcher.
Fletcher records recent, and more promising, signs in the bottoming out of the economy: the balancing of the budget, the control of inflation and the currency stability. He notes that, "70 per cent of fuel bills are being paid in cash compared to 10 per cent last year," which is important for a state which suffered an insolvent energy sector. While remaining cautious, Fletcher does offer hope, crystallised by the kinds of reforms which have produced this minor turnaround. These reforms have been led by Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, appointed last year and popular in the West.
Fiddling the fuel figures?
But Fletcher is a little out of date, since already earlier this month the Financial Times (3 November) reported the verdict of the Ukraine national security director, Yevhen Marchuk, who said that much of the announced increase in the level of cash payments for fuel bills was achieved by utilising overnight credits, "which go in a big circle." Marchuk had criticised Yushchenko for this, and also lambasted Yulia Timoshenko, the deputy Prime Minister, for allegedly funneling revenues into other favoured companies.
The Prime Minister had threatened to resign, suspecting an orchestrated campaign from vested interests in the energy sector, and on poor terms with the President. The Economist wrote on 21 October, that "in the year that Mr Yushchenko has been in office, barely a word of praise has come from the President's office."
Truce in the dispute
This week, Charles Clover in the Financial Times (13 November) reported that Kuchma had called a truce in the dispute and looks keen to hold onto his premier. But doubts remain about the government energy policy. He says:
So far the government has not convincingly refuted most of Mr Marchuk's findings. While Ms Timoshenko insists that the government has massively increased revenues from Ukraine's largely insolvent electricity sector, there is not much evidence of this apart from her statistics...He continues:
Energoatom, Ukraine's state nuclear power monopoly, which has produced 45 per cent of the country's power this year, said recently it was receiving less than eight per cent of its revenues in cash.
If the Chernobyl disaster was a metaphor for Ukraine and the Soviet Union in the 1980s, as Fletcher suggests, then Ukraine will be hoping that the accursed power plant's final days will mark a turn for the better in its history.
Oliver Craske, 17 November 2000
Also of interest:
- Ghost Town: Chernobyl twelve years on Documentarist Nikolaus Geyrhalter interviewed about his time in Chernobyl's "Zone"
- Archive of Oliver Craske's UK press reviews in CER
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Central and Eastern Europe through CER
- Return to CER front page