Chernobyl Community Resilience Study

In the wake of the Chernobyl reactor #4 ‘accident’ in April 1986, the City of Pripyat (Prep’yat’), with a population of 50,000 residents, was immediately abandoned, and a 30 km. ‘exclusion barrier’ erected around the reactor and living spaces. Over the following years, while still under Soviet control, families began to move back into the village, and when they reached a certain level, they would be summarily removed, in a cycle of re-occupation and removals. This reoccupation of what was considered the most radiologically contaminated living area on the planet was of great interest and relevance to our risk perception studies underway in Nevada in relation to the evolving Yucca Mountain high-level nuclear waste site. A decision was made to design and implement a study of this population, the reasons for returning, the logic, logistics, health risks, and perceptions that would make sense of such a decision. Dr. Petterson with is new research assistant, Jonathan Cody Petterson, initiated a preliminary (pre-NSF proposal) investigation in Kiev in 1992, in the immediate wake of the break-up of the Soviet Union. We arrived in Kiev at the very moment Ukraine was making the transition from a member of the Soviet Union, to a nation of its own. It was a time of extreme uncertainty, a time of social confusion, Gorbachev had declared the end of the cold war with his glasnost ("openness") policies, and the death of the soviet ‘economy’ with his perestroika ("restructuring"). After 40 years of socialist education, economic reasoning, and absolute dedication to the principals, if not the practice of communism, the nation’s many states, overnight, were told – the Soviet Union is no more, and each of the ‘republics’ is now its own independent ‘capitalist’ country. Ukraine voted its independence in December 1991, representing an unprecedented transition point in social, psychological, cultural, and economic terms, perhaps the most significant cultural event of the last century. After 40 years of socialist education, economic reasoning, and absolute dedication to the principals, if not the practice of communism, the nation, overnight, was told – the Soviet Union is no more, and each of the ‘republics’ is now an independent ‘capitalist’ country. Unfortunately, at the moment of our arrival, Ukraine was also dead broke – they had no treasury, no money in the bank, no national currency, no ability to pay the workers for repairing the streets, no system of property ownership, no property registry or ownership records, no recorder’s office, and yet the workers were working, the buses were working, but all major enterprise was on an extended pause. Kiev, a city in the process of dramatic developments weeks before, stood halted in its tracks, construction cranes, hundreds of them, all motionless. This was the overwhelming context of our preliminary investigation of the re-occupation of Pripyat.

It was under these circumstances that we met with the newly minted Ministers of Chernobyl (it had its own ‘minister’), Economics (a strange mix of Soviet and capitalist thinking), Health, and Interior (an early version). We were granted ‘permission’ and provided documents (letters) authorizing our visit and letters of ‘collaboration’ to undertake the proposed study. We visited the reactor, appropriately attired, and the ‘public’ abandoned areas (now a tourist site), and then, with translators, began interviewing the ‘returnees.’ The families had collected in small areas of a very large territory, an area less contaminated (the fallout pattern was extremely irregular, with patches of high and relatively low contamination levels), in clusters of families related by blood and long-term relationships.

The NSF proposal was never submitted, and results never published, although the implications are significant. Several hundred families had just been granted permission by Ukrainian authorities, following the collapse of the Soviet central government, to remain permanently in their homes in the exclusion zone. These families were, for the most part, all workers at the remaining three operating reactors (all now closed), next to failed reactor (#4), they were scientists, technicians, and skilled workers all with extensive, first hand, daily, continuous experience and exposure to radiological materials. Their responses to our questions were all counter to our expectations. Our assumptions proved wrong on virtually every issue. The general tenor of our questions was ‘how can you live in such a profoundly radiologically contaminated place’ where if you eat the liver of a wide boar, or dear, you will die, where you cannot drink the water, where the walls of your home are contaminated, the soil of your lands are wildly contaminated, your children can’t play on the ground, and dozens of other ‘angles’ and researcher bafflement. We were treated to their delightful home-cooked meals, great courtesy, professional respect, and their wry sense of humor regarding our palpable inexperience and gross scientific ignorance. Interview after interview, the stories fit a pattern. They had lived their entire lives as radiologists, all of them, regardless of occupation, had lived ‘in’ the reactor, they understood everything about radiation, and for every fear of exposure we expressed, they had adopted dozens of routine behaviors to avoid, they had always worn their dosimeters and had known within minutes (despite stories to the contrary) of the Chernobyl releases to evacuate Pripyat and had done so, 50,000 of them, the very next day. They wore them in their homes, to and from work, and they had thought of everything, certainly ‘every’ concern we were able to imagine.

But they had concerns, grave, existential concerns – not about radiation, but about the survival of their families, their country, and the psychological transition from a lifetime of ‘believing’ in communism to literally ‘becoming’ capitalists, which they had been taught since childhood was ‘stealing from your brother,’ as represented by the ‘mafia’ underneath overpasses selling black market gasoline. This is not the place for the telling, but our departure was under our own dark psychological cloud of concern, and fear, for the future of the population of Ukraine and the entire former Soviet Union.