Wednesday, 16 March 2011

A blast from the past

Chernobyl power plant, encased in a sarcophagus.

The ongoing developments in Japan, especially at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, are terrifying to me. I’d go into detail about what’s happening there right now, but it seems that with every hour that passes, something new is happening. Another reactor explodes. More efforts to curb the radiation. A rare outburst by Japanese Prime Minister Naoto, who stormed into the Tokyo Electric Power Company and demanded to know: “What the hell is going on?!”

Reporter takes photos of Pripyat.
Too much to keep updated on. Every morning, I wake up, sip my coffee and look at the news with a wary eye. I’m hoping for something good to come out of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

But nothing comes.

I find it scary, because I’ve been to Ground Zero of a nuclear meltdown in the past. And it ain’t pretty.

The place is called Pripyat, in northern Ukraine. This town was once a lively town of about 50,000 inhabitants, until the world’s worst nuclear disaster struck nearby.

Reporters take photos of Pripyat.

That’s right. And I was there twice in the fall of 2001. I was also in Pripyat, which was evacuated completely in a matter of days after the meltdown.

The meltdown was so bad, so widespread, that deer were sick in Sweden and Geiger counters at nuclear reactors there were starting to click overtime.

Pripyat, meanwhile, became a ghost town. I stood in its streets, mesmerized at the ghostliness of it all. Weeds coming through cracks in the streets. Moss and mould on the buildings all around me. The large amusement park still in place, with a rusty Ferris wheel and a bumper-car park. Nothing had changed. It was a scene straight out of I Am Legend.

It was scary because I grew up with Twilight Zone horror episodes about the impendence of nuclear war during the Reagan years. The fear was very real in the midst of a dumb-ass arms race.

In the Chernobyl museum in Kiev, Ukraine, one of the most striking images I remember is seeing, right in front of my very eyes, a preserved cow fetus – or a newly born cow – with eight legs.

Eight legs. Like a spider. This isn’t some joke about three-eyed fish in the river. This is real.

Pripyat Hotel, uninhabited for nearly 25 years.A
People talk about how nuclear energy is indeed safer than other sources of energy, particularly coal. They talk about the numbers. Coal produces more pollutants and releases more radiation into the atmosphere annually than nuclear energy; that’s what they say. And it’s probably true too.

I also appreciate that one nuclear meltdown exposes the scale of damage in one day that the numerous coal plants around the world release into the atmosphere over a longer period. We can talk about Al Gore’s environmental theory of a frog in a frying pan slowly being heated. The heat grows so slowly that the frog, unaware of the increasing danger of the frying pan, remains on the hot surface and eventually gets fried.

That’s probably true too. And we do need to sit up and take notice.

But for me, I’ve yet to see a ghost town as a result of a meltdown at a coal plant. I’ve yet to see the massive impact on the world’s surface that can be caused by a nuclear meltdown like that of Chernobyl, which was and is still the only meltdown to reach the maximum Level 7 in the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale.

Yes, it’s a misunderstood stigma, but nuclear energy still scares the shit out of me. And I’m not even near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant – which, at last glance, is now at Level 5.

I can only imagine what the people in Japan must be feeling right now.

And believe me, I can understand it. Because I've seen the aftermath with my own eyes.