Party like it’s Chernobyl again


Just over three decades on and another mysterious radioactive cloud is hanging over Europe:

Scientists are struggling to explain why traces of Iodine-131 have been discovered in Norway, Finland, Poland, Czech Republic, Germany, France and Spain.

The particles are usually found after an atomic bomb is detonated or a nuclear power station disaster, such as Chernobyl or Fukushima.

The public has been kept in the dark about the find – sparking accusations of a cover-up.

Rumour is now also running rife Vladimir Putin has detonated a nuclear device in the Arctic causing the radioactive plume.

The US has sent a special WC-135 Constant Phoenix plane to the UK to investigate.


(Map source)

All this, of course, brings back some very special and fond childhood – or early teenagehood – memories for me. In April 1986 I was living 737 km as the crow – or radioactive cloud – flies from Chernobyl, in Krakow, in southern Poland. I have just turned 14 a few days earlier. Madonna’s “Live to Tell” (weirdly appropriate) was my favourite song (it still is my favourite Madonna song, one of few), alongside a-ha’s much under-rated “Sun Always Shines on TV”. Life was good, as far as life can be in a communist country If you’re not a member of the nomenklatura.

Chernobyl went kaboom on 26 April. Two days later and about eleven hundred kilometres away, workers at a nuclear power plant in Sweden unexpectedly detected radioactive particles – including Iodine-131 – on their clothes, quickly establishing these have not come from their own station. Radiation was also already detected in Finland by that stage but since public service was on strike, no immediate alarm was raised. The same day, a Soviet news agency reported a minor accident at a nuclear power plant, downplaying the extent and the danger. In reality, four hundred times as much radioactivity was released into the atmosphere as in the Hiroshima explosion. By the time the news filtered back to Poland via Radio Freedom and Radio Free Europe, we – and large parts of Western Europe – were well and truly covered in the radioactive fallout. It would take another two weeks for the Soviets to owe up to the magnitude of the crisis. While the evacuations from Chernobyl’s immediate surroundings commenced reasonably quickly, the authorities allowed a May Day parade to proceed through Kiev as if nothing had happened, in complete disregard of any potential risks.

Our parents fed all of us kids iodine tablets (of non-radioactive variety), hoping it was not too little too late. I guess time will tell. Certainly the people of Ukraine seem to have been the most directly affected, and even in their case the health consequences, though tragic in every specific case, have not been nearly as alarming or catastrophic as many have initially feared. Five women in my extended family have died of different types of cancers while in their early 60s, but, if anything, I would ascribe that to living for several decades under communism in general rather than for several days under the Chernobyl fallout.

People still sometimes ask me whether this (kind of) first-hand experience – or exposure – has changed my attitude to nuclear energy, probably expecting me to be a hysterical greenie about it as a result. The answer is no. I’m a huge fan of nuclear energy as the cleanest viable alternative to fossil fuels we have at this point in time. I’m definitely for it, just not in the hands of the Russians or any other closed totalitarian society, which has a tendency to turn everything into a disaster and then make it even worse by covering it up. Had the Soviets had extensive wind or solar power generation capacities in their day, I’m quite sure they would have somehow managed to turn them into an environmental and public health Armageddon. There is nothing under the sun that communism cannot make worse.

P.S. Why, thank you; how nice of you to say that I look glowing.