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"I knew there was an element of danger, but the job had to be done."
October 4, 2009 10:26 AM   Subscribe

Inside Chernobyl Sarcophagus (1996). Deep inside the sarcophagus, a remarkable group of Soviet physicists is at work in levels of radiation that would be considered almost suicidal in the West.

In 1991, a joint team from WGBH and the BBC went to Pripyat, Ukraine to interview the scientists working in the wreckage of Chernobyl nuclear power plant. A BBC team went back in 1996 to follow up with the scientists. This documentary is the result, updating the 1991 footage with ten minutes of new material.

The film shows nuclear scientists Viktor Popov, Konstantin Checherov, Alexander Borovoi and Edvard Pazukhin in 1991 and 1996, as they attempt to manage the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident while battling fierce levels of radiation, 'Chernobyl heart,' and "an invincible bureaucracy."

The 1991 footage seems to be the same footage that aired in the USA as "Suicide Mission to Chernobyl", for which PBS received an Emmy Award in 1992.

Previously on Chernobylfilter:
Chernobyl Today: A Creepy Story Told in Pictures.
Radioactive Fungi.
Chernobyl, 20 years later.
Surviving Chernobyl.
posted by Monsters (42 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite

 
It's striking to think of this as an example (among many) of how humankind has turned that once-habitable part of the planet into an otherworldly death zone where invisible forces will kill you.

"Sarcophagus" seems pretty apt. It sounds like the stereotypical ancient Egyptian tomb, complete with mummy's curse.
posted by darkstar at 10:36 AM on October 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think I may have linked to this in a previous thread but it may be of interest here too.
The current plan is to build a huge movable structure over the sarcophagus so that the ruined reactor can be made safe. This is known as the New Safe Confinement and this animation explains how it will be constructed and operated.
posted by biffa at 10:42 AM on October 4, 2009 [2 favorites]


I love the safe/neutral corporate education generic techno music in biffa's link.
posted by Decimask at 11:01 AM on October 4, 2009


The first link is absolutely fascinating. I mean seriously, what do you do after the reactor blows? You don't even know exactly what has happened inside, the building could further collapse at any moment, you need to, somehow, get into the building to both assess the situation AND figure out how to deal with it AND implement whatever solution you've decided to go with... christ. I mean, you have to get people to go in there to do work without dying. Dropping neutron bombs, sending lead clad Red Army 'volunteers' for one minute fuel-search runs... Incredible.
posted by molecicco at 11:02 AM on October 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Dropping neutron bombs

They did not do this or talk about doing this, they attempted to 'dump' neutron absorbing material into the reactor, to retard any possible chain reaction.
posted by Catfry at 11:12 AM on October 4, 2009


Also, the quote of the beginning of the film, ' this was the biggest disaster in the history of mankind' is hyperbole. Just the last couple of years has seen bigger loss of life and wealth in for example the Sumatra earthquake and tsunami, or the big Sichuan earthquake.
posted by Catfry at 11:17 AM on October 4, 2009


almost suicidal

Translation: not suicidal?
posted by zippy at 11:17 AM on October 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


I want to know what sorts of new lifeforms are being evolved in there. I've heard of a radiation-eating fungus on its walls. There must be bacteria that are using the radiation as a food (energy) source, too.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:38 AM on October 4, 2009


Dropping neutron bombs

They did not do this or talk about doing this, they attempted to 'dump' neutron absorbing material into the reactor, to retard any possible chain reaction.


Correct. My mistake, written in haste.
posted by molecicco at 11:45 AM on October 4, 2009


Wow. Wonder if they are keeping track of any radiation-related medical problems encountered by the quarter of a million "bio-robots" that were used to clean up the mess.
posted by HyperBlue at 11:52 AM on October 4, 2009


Although in my defense, the narration of the first video does use the word 'bomb' and shows planes flying over and dropping the neutron absorbing material in (although none of the neutron absorbers actually reached their target of the reactor core).
posted by molecicco at 11:53 AM on October 4, 2009


Actually they are keeping track, my SO's aunt is a cancer research specialist and is working on monitoring cancer frequencies in the area currently.
posted by biffa at 11:54 AM on October 4, 2009


Makes me nostalgic for when the BBC made documentaries that didn't assume you were an idiot, and weren't full of enough jump cuts and shaky camera work to make you feel travel sick.
posted by Coobeastie at 12:01 PM on October 4, 2009 [5 favorites]


> Just the last couple of years has seen bigger loss of life and wealth in for example the Sumatra earthquake and tsunami, or the big Sichuan earthquake.

Well, considering the film was made in 1996, i would say they were accurate in that statement, for the time period.

Also, the aspect of the radiation being there for many years to come makes this a much bigger issue than just the number of people who died directly from it. It's effects will be felt for ages, compared to cities rebuilding and people recovering within a few years from an earthquake or a tsunami. And even if those devastated areas, humans can in theory move back and start over (if they can't because of other outside things due to crime, socio-economic issues, development issues), but there is really nothing we can do with Chernobyl besides seal off the space, mitigate any future disasters, and hope that it is enough to contain the poison until we find some way of removing it permanently, which we haven't had much success with up until this point anyway.
posted by mrzarquon at 12:03 PM on October 4, 2009


Watching these types of videos always make me think about the private suffering people endure for the greater good, that is simply forgotten.

I enjoyed looking at the various posts on englishrussia concerning Chernobyl. Lots of good photos and various stories about the land, water, town, and power plant.
posted by Gravitus at 12:06 PM on October 4, 2009


I saw that documentary in '96. The shots of the honor picture gallery of the fire fighters who died has stayed with me all that time.
posted by jouke at 1:05 PM on October 4, 2009


That was really good. The practice of using "biorobots" isn't just limited to the Soviets; we did the same thing in cleaning up Three Mile Island, where the people who were sent in to get their entire lifetime radiation dose in a few minutes were called "sponges." I remember the days after Chernobyl blew vividly, and it just blows me away that the damn thing is still sitting there, enduring freeze/thaw cycles and continuing to be a threat to all life around it. We humans manage to build some impressive crap, don't we.
posted by localroger at 1:20 PM on October 4, 2009


Just the last couple of years has seen bigger loss of life and wealth in for example the Sumatra earthquake and tsunami, or the big Sichuan earthquake.

Well, considering the film was made in 1996, i would say they were accurate in that statement, for the time period.


I choose those events not because they were the biggest disasters since 1986. They were just randomly plucked from memory. I'd be surprised if I couldn't dig up some other event from after 1996 that would exceed the Chernobyl toll.

I will however be honest; I do not KNOW that the statement is hyperbole, due to the fact that the cumulative negative influence on humanity is so difficult to pin down. It is just my belief.

The actual death toll till now is still very uncertain and a subject of research, due to the natural uncertainty of knowing whether a death is radiation induced. I have seen wildly varying numbers for future projections of health effects.

The economical toll is enormous, but again, pinning down even ballpark numbers is difficult.
posted by Catfry at 1:32 PM on October 4, 2009


I'd be surprised if I couldn't dig up some other event from BEFORE 1996
posted by Catfry at 1:37 PM on October 4, 2009


The Truth About Chernobyl is a good book about the causes of and immediate aftermath of the disaster by a Russian nuclear engineer.
posted by neuron at 1:49 PM on October 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


> I will however be honest; I do not KNOW that the statement is hyperbole, due to the fact that the cumulative negative influence on humanity is so difficult to pin down. It is just my belief.

I don't think we can really find a way to quantitatively decide which is the worst, but what makes Chernobyl stick out more in my mind is that we just can't repair or clean up like we can do after most other catastrophic event, and add to it that it, unlike a volcano or an earthquake, was in theory a preventable disaster, marks such a profound distinction between those other events.

I mean, they had to keep the core from melting through the ground and causing a steam eruption (spreading radioactive steam and debris even further) when it reached the water table, by continuously pumping liquid nitrogen to keep the ground frozen.

The only thing that will really make the area truly safe (not just contained) will be a few thousand years for radioactive decay to take place, unless some currently unknown process will be developed that can process or remove all of that radioactive material faster by speeding up the decay or what have you.
posted by mrzarquon at 2:40 PM on October 4, 2009


I think one of my favorite parts of the whole documentary was when the one physicist bounces in his chair with obvious glee that a nuclear meltdown results in the creation of new minerals never seen on the Earth before. Yes, even in the face of daily mortal peril and the possibility of an early and painful death, geeks are still geeks.

And then contrast that with the way they clam up when asked about funding and international assistance. Ouch!
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:24 PM on October 4, 2009 [3 favorites]


This has to be some of the most frightening footage I've ever seen. The shot of molten nuclear fuel from the helicopter & the sight of steam coming off that same fuel years later, just boggles my mind.
posted by scalefree at 3:44 PM on October 4, 2009


I'm watching this thinking these people are so cold and calculating--perhaps more stupid than brave--and then they start talking about their colleagues who have died. Don't miss this segment--from 31:30 to 34:12. Raw emotion.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 3:56 PM on October 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Boggles the mind.
posted by fuq at 6:14 PM on October 4, 2009


I can't believe those nuclear scientists, as educated as they were, were smoking before their inspection runs. Don't they know those things cause cancer?

Great post -- thanks, Monsters.
posted by Rhaomi at 6:22 PM on October 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Nobody involved in the cleanup of TMI2 received exposures anywhere near "their entire lifetime radiation dose in a few minutes". The people who hauled chunks of radioactive debris out of the pressure vessel to defuel the reactor received doses of ~.15 mSv/hour, and maxed out at 50 mSv/year before being leaving the rotation. (50 mSv is also the current permissible annual dose for US radiation workers, though it was 120 mSv [12 rem] at the time.)
posted by Lazlo at 6:40 PM on October 4, 2009 [2 favorites]


Well Lazlo, it appears you're right. Getting old sucks, and you forget stuff. Here is what my source actually says:

"The defuelling operation runs seven days a week, five shifts a day. To keep exposure levels down, workers are only allowed to operate on the platform for four hours at a time, working one week in every six. Even though they wear pastic boots, two radiation suits, a plastic smock, several pairs of gloves (changed every 15 minutes) and a battery powered respirator, defuellers are still exposed to high levels of radiation. On average, say defuellers, there are two contamination incidents per week."

I had obviously confused this account of a totally normal work day with something that was actually bad, and I am totally sorry for implying that the US nuclear industry is anything other than a total boon to our economy.
posted by localroger at 6:54 PM on October 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


This was my first FPP so I'm glad others enjoyed it. I tried not to editorialize above, but the people in this film amaze me.

They didn't have adequate protective gear or the funding they needed to safely deal with the aftermath of the accident, but something had to be done. I like to think that at least a few of these guys did what they did in the name of SCIENCE!, which makes the story even more amazing.
posted by Monsters at 7:01 PM on October 4, 2009


I'm at work, so it's going to be a few hours before I get to see the video, but I'm pretty sure I already saw it years ago. Is this the one where the Russian scientists take a few moments to explain that vodka has very little flavor, and that mostly unpleasant, and therefore the trick is to gulp it down as quickly as possible? Because that always stuck with me as some excellent advice.
posted by Ritchie at 8:00 PM on October 4, 2009


Just the last couple of years has seen bigger loss of life and wealth

I don't know that those are the best ways to account for any comparison. Neither natural disaster comes close to the 100,000 years of radiation danger posed by Chernobyl.

Keep in mind that 100,000 years is approximately the time period since the emergence of modern man. It is widely accepted that human civilization, with cities and complex social organization, is approximately 10,000 years old.

Now, the wider area of exposure -- the exclusion zone -- may begin to resemble normal background radiation levels at around 30 years or so (2016, so near), and it may be possible to begin decontamination and removal of buildings at the site in the 50-75 year period, as gamma radiation sources recede. But the core, unless we find a way to reach and disassemble it within the sarcophagus -- before it collapses on itself -- will be dangerous for centuries, much longer than the lifetime of most governmental systems now in place. The scale is mind-boggling. And most of the care projections assume -- because they must -- functioning governments and economies. It's arguable that the current status of Ukraine is borderline, and certainly even with the involvement of European wealth and concern, it has taken nearly a quarter-century to begin the task of properly confining the danger, and right now nothing substantial is being done. You have to ask whether we, as a human civilization, are quite up to the task before us.

I understand there are mines out in the American West whose cleanup costs exceed the value of the wealth extracted. It's easily possible that the cleanup costs of Chernobyl to human civilization exceed some arbitrary valuation of the benefit gained from the operation of the plant throughout its lifetime.

Anyway, TMI and We Almost Lost Detroit notwithstanding, the US nuclear power industry has certainly had its share of unsettling, scary moments, but I don't think any of them hold a candle to Chernobyl and I don't understand the one-upmanship tit-for-tat above.
posted by dhartung at 8:38 PM on October 4, 2009 [5 favorites]


Keep in mind that 100,000 years is approximately the time period since the emergence of modern man. It is widely accepted that human civilization, with cities and complex social organization, is approximately 10,000 years old.

It's hard to wrap the mind around the sheer scope and duration of this "accident." Cro-Magnon man went extinct about 10,000 to 40,000 years or so ago. We're not talking about "well, we'll have to put up a sign so the next generation doesn't forget." We'll have to put up a sign that, potentially, the next step in human evolution can discover, decipher, and understand - and even that may not be enough. We have enough dead, undecipherable languages, dating back only a couple of thousand years, to indicate the enormity of simply warning others about the area.

The U.S. Department of Energy has been working on markers for the Yucca Mountain Project for some time now, with that scope and duration in mind, and the task is daunting.
posted by FormlessOne at 9:17 PM on October 4, 2009 [6 favorites]


> Anyway, TMI and We Almost Lost Detroit notwithstanding, the US nuclear power industry has certainly had its share of unsettling, scary moments, but I don't think any of them hold a candle to Chernobyl and I don't understand the one-upmanship tit-for-tat above.

To self link, we've made some things that are much much worse than Chernobyl. The Hanford area is composed of not just radioactive fissionable waste (which is what is at chernobyl) those tanks are sitting next to other vessels containing things like radioactive nitroglycerine which would make a nice death cloud of toxic radioactive hexane or what have you.

I am sure Russia has their own Hanfords as well, a result of their race to make nuclear arms to compete with us, cutting corners to show that both government and free market systems are flawed.

The scope of all of these disasters is what makes them so large. We have made things we cannot undo within the lifetime of an individual, that is how large the scope is, which is why it is such a radically different level of fuck up and why I have become so anti nuke, as I can't see America developing a sound system to prevent such a catastrophic fuckup from happening, as it would involve an entire change in labor laws and attitude towards whistle blowers to ensure that no corners are cut ever.
posted by mrzarquon at 9:31 PM on October 4, 2009 [2 favorites]


Right around 29'30" in the video, someone asks a question (in English) that the scientists are very evasive about answering. It has something to do with managing their radiation exposure and dosimeters. Can anyone understand what the question is? I've tried listening to it a few times and just don't understand the exchange.

My take on it was, reading between the lines, that the guys must be fudging their numbers significantly and had some sort of agreement with the video crew to not report or reveal what they were doing to keep the apparent dosage down. (E.g. not wearing their dosimeters all the time or something.)

The number of people among the scientific staff who died of "heart failure," combined with the project lead's insistence that nobody had acute radiation syndrome, also seems a bit fishy. I suppose it could be all the cigarettes, but combined with the weirdness about exposure limits I tend to wonder if they weren't doing some cause-of-death book cooking. (Or, if you really want to speculate, if perhaps on learning that they had received a fatal radiation dose, perhaps some people were choosing to kill themselves in ways that would both be more pleasant than ARS and also not look like it.)

Fascinating video either way.

Regarding the "100,000 year" thing, that number gets thrown around a lot (and quite breathlessly at times) but it's not entirely clear that the entire site would necessarily be off-limits for that long, if it were properly managed. The management plan mentioned in the video—constructing a huge domed concrete 'roof' over the reactor building—is not mere encapsulation, but would involve eventual disassembly and processing of the contaminated materials. The remaining fuel and some long-lived waste products could be sent to other reactors to be "burned", while remaining waste could be consolidated into a form more suited to long-term monitoring and storage. There would always be something at the site, but it might be a lot closer to what would have been there anyway, had the reactor completed its service life normally. The main problem with this, of course, is the massive upfront cost. Nobody wants to pay for it, and given that the current situation seems generally stable, other things take priority. There's also the question of whether current waste-processing technology is up to the task.

Plus, there is a limited amount of fissionable uranium in easily-accessible locations on the planet's surface (to say nothing of Plutonium, which is synthetic). It's entirely possible that even if there were no real desire to clean up the site for environmental or protective reasons, that we'd end up back there soon enough just to mine it for the remaining fuel, or perhaps even some of the high-level "waste" isotopes. (There's a current worldwide shortage of several important nuclear-medicine isotopes; if new reactors aren't constructed and good alternatives aren't found, that pile of half-reacted fuel inside the Sarcophagus might start looking like a gold mine.)

The chances of the site remaining in anything like its current state for even a century or two strike me as being extremely small.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:03 PM on October 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


My take on it was, reading between the lines, that the guys must be fudging their numbers significantly and had some sort of agreement with the video crew to not report or reveal what they were doing to keep the apparent dosage down. (E.g. not wearing their dosimeters all the time or something.)

That was my take as well.

The number of people among the scientific staff who died of "heart failure," combined with the project lead's insistence that nobody had acute radiation syndrome, also seems a bit fishy.

Well, long term effects of repeated high but sub-acute radiation aren't really well studied. Most work involves either long term low-dose or an acute high dose. Maybe heart failure / stroke is just what happens in these cases through a previously unknown mechanism.
posted by atrazine at 10:13 PM on October 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


> Can anyone understand what the question is?

I think the question is pretty much "how do you guys manage to work in these environments yet still keep your dosimeters from going off" at which they smile and nod, and I would assume they just take them off before they would go into the more heavily radioactive portions of the building.
posted by mrzarquon at 10:16 PM on October 4, 2009


We'll have to put up a sign that, potentially, the next step in human evolution can discover, decipher, and understand

Except that we don't. As far as I can tell, it's an intentionally ludicrously difficult task whose entire purpose is to frustrate nuclear power development. The logic underlying it has an inherent contradiction -- it draws on the scariness of nuclear waste being radioactive for a very long time, but ignores that other forms of waste remain harmful even longer or, potentially, forever.

If we accept the notion that we must label dump sites for as long as the waste will remain hazardous, it is incumbent on us to find all dump sites with heavy-metal waste in them, that will be harmful pretty much forever, and emplace warning markers that will be decipherable and understandable by any arbitrary sentience whose physical properties, senses, and psychology are not merely unknown but completely unknowable, and that will last until the landform is destroyed by geologic action or Earth is destroyed by the Sun. Likewise for other wastes that cannot be expected to decompose over anything less than truly geologic time.

If you reject the claim that we have to do that, it should call into question the general claim that it is incumbent on us to place warning markers on dump sites that will last until the waste is no longer hazardous.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:17 PM on October 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Right around 29'30" in the video, someone asks a question (in English) that the scientists are very evasive about...

I backed the video up right there too, and I think mrzarquon pegged it. I'm guessing they were a little squeamish about admitting to being less than careful at times so as not to make themselves or people above them look irresponsible?

The video went from being both frightening and interesting to being downright creepy for me at 36'20" with the shot of the men in clean suits carrying scythes with barbed wire topped walls in the background. Shortly after that we are treated to pictures of the workers' deformed chromosomes.

Also, the video would have been better if it had included a sexy woman on a motorcycle.
posted by Avelwood at 10:48 PM on October 4, 2009


Re the 100,000 year storage question, assuming that humanity doesn't off itself or get offed (by meteor say) in the next 100,000 years, I would think that technology development, of the kind that could deal with radioactive waste, would also continue. If we continue to advance technologically, we will find ways of dealing with this waste. If we degrade to scavengers in a postapocalyptic wasteland, radioactive waste will be only one of many things likely to kill us off.

The least likely scenario is that nothing whatsoever will change except that our language changes enough that we don't know what a nuclear hazard symbol means. And that although we have not lost our technology, all our records about nuclear hazard symbols and radioactivity are wiped out.

Maybe if we were abducted by aliens en masse and then our descendants were returned here generations later with no knowledge, then "how to tell people 50,000 years from now that is radioactive" would indeed become something to worry about. But otherwise, human history is past the point of creating lost civilizations and languages, without also wiping out humanity itself and making the entire point moot.

Kadin's scenario, that we will have to mine this stuff or otherwise recycle it long before then, is a bit more plausible.
posted by emjaybee at 11:52 AM on October 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


It took me a while to get around to watching the video in the first link, but it was worth it. Fascinating stuff. Thanks.
posted by The Lurkers Support Me in Email at 8:07 AM on October 8, 2009


Except that we don't. As far as I can tell, it's an intentionally ludicrously difficult task whose entire purpose is to frustrate nuclear power development. The logic underlying it has an inherent contradiction -- it draws on the scariness of nuclear waste being radioactive for a very long time, but ignores that other forms of waste remain harmful even longer or, potentially, forever.


That's one (rather radical) way to interpret it. Another is to consider that the Office of Radioactive Waste Management is somewhat more diligent about taking its job seriously than other agencies that have waste management responsibilities over other kinds of hazardous waste.

Five hundred years ago, no one at Yucca Flats spoke English. Five hundred years from now, there may not be any English speakers left there. It seems fairly reasonable to recognize the potential risks to future generations and cultures on the planet and do a little diligence in planning to help safeguard those who might come after us. It'd be great if they did similar things with heavy metal waste dumps, too.

So I don't see doing this as an "intentionally ludicrously difficult task" entirely motivated by propagandists.
posted by darkstar at 2:00 PM on October 8, 2009


That said, I am more inclined, in general, to agree with emjaybee: assuming we're still around as a technologically advancing society, I would imagine that sometime within the next few centuries we'll have figured out a way to deal with this kind of waste.

My proposal involves specially mutated lichen that thrive on the radiation in a process similar to photosynthesis. But I still haven't been able to solve the problem of 20-story-tall, mobile lichen colonies that can emit pulses of gamma rays as a predation mechanism and have a taste for human flesh. But I'm sure future generations can iron out that little detail, too...
posted by darkstar at 2:05 PM on October 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


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