60 Minutes: Chernobyl
It has been almost 30 years since the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in Ukraine, but since radiation lingers pretty much forever, it’s still still a real problem. You might remember the more recent Fukushima meltdown, which will also have consequences well into the future. Bob Simon returned to the still-dangerous Chernobyl site for 60 Minutes.
After the meltdown, a sarcophagus was built over the reactor, but its lifespan has pretty well expired. According to engineers, there is still plenty of radioactive material present, and over the past five years, a project has endeavored to permanently seal the reactor. However, it does not have the funding it needs, and it has faced continuous delays.
A 20-mile zone around the reactor was evacuated following the meltdown, and not many are allowed past that boundary. Inside, 1,400 workers are constructing an arch that is intended to cover the reactor. “It was the biggest disaster of the nuclear industry,” said Nicolas Caille, who is in charge of the construction.
60 Minutes: Chernobyl Disaster Cleanup
Explosions blew the roof off the Chernobyl #4 reactor, sending dust into the sky. Soviet troops were called in to extinguish the fire and clean up, a process that is still going on all these years later. Due to the high levels of radiation, the arch that will cover the site is being constructed about 1,000 feet away, with a concrete wall intended to protect workers there.
Upon completion, it is meant to be moved into place and sealed shut. In 2012, a snow storm led to the roof collapse of an old building on the site, where visitors must be monitored for exposure using dosimeters. In addition to the challenges of covering up a disaster at an aging facility, there are outside forces affecting the Chernobyl project. Contractors pulled out due to violence in Ukraine, and the task still needs another $770 million to reach completion.
60 Minutes: Pripyat Ghost Town
60 Minutes also visited the nearby city of Pripyat, two miles away. It was once home to a population of 50,000, and now it is abandoned. What was once a modern and populated residential area has now been overgrown by the forces of nature, after being abandoned following the accident.
An amusement park was set to open in the city in 1986, just days after the accident took place. Former resident Andre Glukhov noted that the site never welcomed the children it was meant to entertain. He told Bob Simon that he and his ex-neighbors refer to the Chernobyl incident as 26, referring to the date it took place, April 26, 1986.
Glukhov worked for the plant’s nuclear safety division, but was not on duty the night of the incident. He recalled seeing the “glowing core of the reactor” and contemplating “the scale of the disaster” when he drove past the fire.
60 Minutes: Chernobyl Radioactive Mice
Soviets lied to residents every step of the way, first assuring them that nothing was wrong, then evacuating everyone a day and a half later. Residents were told they could return in a few days, but that was not true. Pripyat is one of many ghost towns left in the reactor’s wake. Only a handful of residents can be found living within miles of the site.
Ivan Ivanovich said that he and his family were evacuated to an apartment near Kiev, but they are more comfortable in their isolated accommodations. He does not seem concerned about his proximity to the former plant.
University of South Carolina biologist Tim Mousseau has spent 15 years living in the danger zone as well, studying contamination in a slapdash lab. According to his data, the effects of the incident are still being seen in mice, for example, which are 10,000 times more radioactive as compared to those in clean areas.
60 Minutes: Chernobyl Tourism
It’s believed that many cases of Thyroid Cancer and Leukemia in former residents were the result of radiation exposure, and Mousseeau told 60 Minutes that “some of the genetic damage that occurs at the level of DNA can be transmitted from one generation to the next,” which means that it could be centuries before the effects of this radiation subside.
Despite, or perhaps because of, all this, the zone near Chernobyl has become a tourist attraction. Tourist David McHale admitted his friends thought this was a strange leisure destination. “I would assume that the guides wouldn’t bring people here if it wasn’t safe,” McHale said. That’s not something I would assume, especially after hearing from Mousseau.
60 Minutes: Chernobyl ‘Sacred Place’
Some workers do live in the town of Chernobyl, which is considered safe. Resident Yevgen Goncharenko thinks it is a “sacred place,” and he spends some of his free time writing music. In the mid-’90s, a monument was erected near the site, built by former plant workers and firemen, dedicated “to those who saved the world.”
Simon noted that some of the radioactive matter from the reactor explosion traveled to Italy and Sweden. Sealing the thing up is the only sure way to prevent another incident like that from taking place. Here’s hoping that someone comes up with the needed funds to wrap this project up!