Nuclear Nightmares
April 22, 2006 3:29 PM   Subscribe

This is a stunning set of photographs by Robert Knoth, taken in the regions of Mayak, Semipalatinsk, Chernobyl, and Tomsk-7. [via]
posted by (35 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Jesus Christ. Some great photography there. For some reason, the picture of the 16 year-old twins really got to me.
posted by brundlefly at 3:42 PM on April 22, 2006

Fantastic - great post, thanks.
posted by jonson at 3:49 PM on April 22, 2006

These images are absolutely horrifying. The pastoral scenery is almost idealic with cows grazing and wind blowing through fields of grain.

It looks like any countryside in any land. It could be anywhere.

The Soviet government, through malice or incompetence, had been so criminally negligent of what needs to be done to secure the areas around these types of facilities. The new governments of Belarus and Russia aren't fairing much better.

Certain radioactive materials are very bad... the possibility of contaminating the entire human genomic pool through recklessness and greed makes me break out into a cold sweat.

I know that here in the states we've had our own accidents and contaminated facilities spewing radioactive into the surrounding environment. Savannah River and Oak Ridge to name a few.

Lets just hope that as we return to the prospect of new nuclear power plants, the we take great care in not making any mistakes that would take thousands of years to clean up.
posted by PROD_TPSL at 3:54 PM on April 22, 2006

Before the 1990s we used the water of the Techa for everything. We swam and washed carpets in it. We took water to the plants in the garden. Sometimes the authorities chased us away, but they never said why.
posted by gsteff at 3:55 PM on April 22, 2006

This has left me totally speechless. Absorbing, thought-provoking post. Thank you.
posted by annieb at 4:02 PM on April 22, 2006

Those interested in Chernobyl should take a look at these photos. They capture the place in a terrifying way.
posted by sindark at 4:08 PM on April 22, 2006

Certain radioactive materials are very bad... the possibility of contaminating the entire human genomic pool through recklessness and greed makes me break out into a cold sweat.

It's the greed I saw in some people that gives me cold sweat. It's deceptive because its somehow dressed like enlighterned rationalism, but much like religion when you center the life of a population around a few ideals, be it God or Profit, you will have a number of people trying to become the delusion or obtaining it..but obviously it's daydreaming, you can't never reach enough, you can't never touch an idea.

Yet sometime it's convenient to blame the witches, for they prevent us to become godlike, it's their fault not ours ! Or the poor, the communist, the socialist, the whatever, for they forbid us to follow our new self made god, it's their fault with their asking for social security , healthcare and safety nets, not ours !
posted by elpapacito at 4:11 PM on April 22, 2006

Similarly in Chernobyl the unholy fear of reporting troubles to godlike politburo in Moscow probably condemned many kids, while rationality would have suggested an immediate alarm and precaution for the population around the reactor. It's the technicians faults, not our fears of being sent to Siberia !
posted by elpapacito at 4:14 PM on April 22, 2006

Stunningly sad, unbelievable photos. The nightmare those folks are going through, oh man. Talk about perspective.
posted by dbiedny at 4:19 PM on April 22, 2006

So sad. I had the most visceral reaction to the the pictures of the twins. ..speechless.
posted by ludflu at 4:25 PM on April 22, 2006

that is amazing. nice post.
posted by js003 at 4:27 PM on April 22, 2006

That one with the doll is creepy
nice post man
posted by The Boy at 4:32 PM on April 22, 2006

Wonderful post.
posted by malaprohibita at 4:47 PM on April 22, 2006

It's heartbreaking that this tragedy is being played down through several generations.

posted by fire&wings at 4:54 PM on April 22, 2006

This is absolutely the stuff of my worst nightmares. Horrifying.
posted by Space Kitty at 5:59 PM on April 22, 2006

posted by rob511 at 6:04 PM on April 22, 2006

I'm going to go lock myself in a closet and cry for a bit now.
posted by Busithoth at 6:04 PM on April 22, 2006

Is the poor web design a metaphor for the mutations caused by Chernobyl's radiation?

Was it the scrolling to the right that annoyed you? I'll agree with you about that, but I kind of liked the mouse-over captions.
posted by brundlefly at 6:38 PM on April 22, 2006

nuclear power is safe and sustainable and environmentally friendly and will save us from dependence on foreign oil.
posted by 3.2.3 at 6:39 PM on April 22, 2006

Holy crap. I know Elena's pictures shocked me when I first saw them a few years ago, but these are just horrifying! As others have said, the one the twins got me.
posted by daninnj at 7:03 PM on April 22, 2006

This is an excellent post, and reminded me very much of the photographs in Carole Gallagher's American Ground Zero, an oral/pictorial history of the legacy of nuclear testing in the American West. Like Knoth, Gallagher uses black and white, often horrific portraiture and landscapes, with an added dimension of extensive oral histories taken from the downwinders themselves. She lived in Utah for 7 years, gaining the trust of her subjects and learning more about this subject than just about anyone on the planet. I could not recommend the book more highly.

I met Carole when we were both working gathering data for a survey. In an odd coincidence, she mentioned that she was a documentarian photographer who'd done work for Spin. I mentioned being impressed by the journalism done by the magazine (which, at least in the early 90s, was superb), and specifically mentioned her series, not realizing she was behind it. We talked quite a bit about her experience.

I admired her immensely for her dedication -- she went through a hell of a lot to get her story -- and what I remember most about her was how deeply affected she was by her experience. To hear from her lips what it was like to sit in the dark rooms of dying people fighting for justice and compensation that would probably never come, to persuade them to reveal the savage effects of their illnesses -- I have never forgotten it.

It would be likewise extraordinary to hear what Knoth and de Jong experienced to get these photos, presumably with the added complication of a language barrier, and obviously given the greater destruction they witnessed.

I have the highest respect for photojournalists and writers and documentarians who go into the darkest places to show the rest of us these hard truths. The personal price they pay is steep. They know better than most of us what suffering is, and how callous and corrupt governments can be when it comes to both causing and ameliorating it.
posted by melissa may at 9:42 PM on April 22, 2006

A novel set in the Chernobyl Zone of Exclusion: Wolves Eat Dogs, by Martin Cruz Smith.
posted by russilwvong at 9:48 PM on April 22, 2006

Hmmm, these pictures were stunning, but wasn't it just a few days ago that word came of flourishing wildlife around Chernobyl? Googling gives a 2006 report in The Independent about some people who live there, and here's another report about wildlife.

The thing that surprised me most was the claim that the Chernobyl accident wasn't accidental. They allegedly ran an "experiment" at night on April 26, 1986, and blew up the reactor. I hadn't heard this, or forgot it if I did. Still, it's not the sort of thing I would forget, and Googling produces an awful lot of sketchy "" websites. Is it commonly accepted that the Soviets intentionally blew the place up, or at least intentionally performed an unsafe experiment?
posted by spacewrench at 11:57 PM on April 22, 2006

The Chernobyl accident was fundamentally caused by an unsafe reactor design. The RBMK reactors became unstable when operating at low power outputs; they had several properties which one would expect to slow the reaction but counterintuitive sped it up. Moreover, the crew switched off some of the plant's safety systems.

I think the consensus is that the people operating the reactor were insufficiently trained to realize that what they were doing was extremely dangerous.
posted by joegester at 8:53 AM on April 23, 2006

I can't see any possible reason that the Soviets would've blown up the reactor. The entire system was a point of pride to the government due to the efficiency and performance of the RBMK reactors. A job at Chenobyl and living in Pripyat was a good life for the workers and their families. The disaster killed many many people (unofficially) and has left the surrounding lands uninhabitable, not to mention you'd look like a right idiot letting one of your reactors blow up. Doesn't do much for international relations.
They did run an experiment, and it went wrong probably because not enough people were given all the information that they would've needed to do it properly, if they could have done it. Inherent design flaws probably would have caused an accident anyway, but perhaps not to the same devastating level. Wiki has a good deal of info on it [link] and here's a timeline [link] from the Uranium Information Centre Ltd [link]. Note that Greenpeace and many other organisations totally disagree with the official number of deaths - " 56 fatalities as of 2004."

What the Wiki page doesn't mention is that the 800,000 workers that helped clean up the debris worked 30-second shifts on the roof of the reactor. Somewhere there was another picture of workers on the roof and the picture was shot on film that was proofed against radiation, and it was still being damaged by the amount of it on the roof.

All of that aside (or not)... - good find!
posted by Zack_Replica at 10:00 AM on April 23, 2006

The thing that surprised me most was the claim that the Chernobyl accident wasn't accidental.

It was an accident, but yeah, they were running a test.

The problem: Positive Void Coefficient. The RMBK reactors had a very large one. What it is?

The RBMK -- reaktor bolshoy moshchnosti kanalniy or "reactor, large power, channel type" -- was a light water cooled, graphite moderated reactor. The water cooled the reactor and brought the heat out, which drove turbines for power. The graphite moderated the neutrons -- slowed them down enough to allow them to more easily cause fission, continuing the reaction. The kicker -- light (that is, normal water, not heavy water, D2O) absorbs neutrons. So, when water is present, the neutron flux is reduced, reducing the total power output.

So, if there's a void in the coolant -- from, say, boiling water -- then the power increases. Thus, a positive void coefficent. The RBMKs at Chernyobl had a large one.

This, fundamentally, is what killed them. US reactors, and the non-RBMK Soviet reactors, try to have very low positive, or better, negative void coefficents. The RBMKs, designed to be very large power stations that, as a bonus, could run on recycled PWR fuel (and could be used to make plutonium) has very large void coefficents, worse, they were very touchy at low power -- ran fine at full load, but were quirky at low power loads, because they rapidly produced fission poisions that slowed the reaction, leading you to try to increase the power a bit, which would burn off the poisions quickly, and wham, power surge.

Finally, the Major, Big, Lordywhatwereyouthinking? design fuckup -- the control rods. The rods are large neutron absorbers. Stick them into the core, they absorb a bunch of neutrons, and the reaction dies. Pull them out, they don't, and the reaction runs.

But -- the control rods at Cherynobyl were badly designed. The first few inches weren't neutron absorbers -- they were graphite, to keep them from burning if they were inserted into a very hot core. Problem -- remember that bit at the top about the "graphite moderator?" Imagine a brake pedal that would first add a bit of gas to the engine.

So -- they lower the power level for the test. They have trouble controlling it, reaction poisions build, and to hold the reactor at low power, they keep pulling control rods out (the posions are now slowing the reaction, not the rods.) They end up running the test at about 10x the power they wanted to, because they couldn't keep the power level at the 10MW they wanted to test at, so, by gradually removing rods as the poisions build, they hold it steady at about 100MW. Of course, without the reaction poisions, the rods left in the core would have the plant running near 3000MW, very close to the full 3200MW the plant would produce in normal operation (These are thermal power, not electrical -- the plant at normal produced 3.2GW thermal, 1GW electrical.)

The test completes and either (this is still debated) they scrammed the reactor because they were shutting it down anyway, or somebody saw a power surge starting and scrammed it for saftey.

The rods come down -- those graphite tips moderate the reaction, and before the rest of the rods -- the part with the neutron absorbers -- can get in, the moderator tips surge the power and burn off the posions, the reactor leaps to full power, and start to boil the coolant -- which leaps the power even more, as bubbles (read, void) form. This warps the channels the control rods slid e into, and they jam, outside of the core, which quickly ramps to somwhere around 35 Gigawatts thermal output, well over 10x normal. The core handles this for about ten second, then the steam produced blows part of it up with enough force to flip the 1000 ton shield on top of the reactor away. This lets oxygen in, the heat and oxygen light the graphite on fire, and well, doomsday. The fact that there wasn't a containment building makes this vastly worse, but that was a deliberate design decision, based on frequent refuling and the use as a plutonium breeder.

Thus -- a positive void coefficent + a badly desgined control system + no containment building + a test that set them up for disaster=disaster.
posted by eriko at 10:21 AM on April 23, 2006 [2 favorites]

By the way, Google Maps has a good image of the large hall with Chernyobl Reactors 1-4. At the far left is the Sarcouphagus, containing the remants of the destroyed reactor.

They ran units 3 and 4 for many years afterwards, not shutting down the entire plant until 2000. Why? The Ukraine desperatly needed the power. That one building, at full power, generated four gigawatts of electricity, a very large fraction of the total power consumed by the entire country.

A little to the southeast, we find the foundations for Chernyobl 5-6 -- two more RBMKs, these were to be 1.5GW electrical, which meant the entire plant would have generated 7GW at full power. At this point, the artificial lake used for cooling1 couldn't handle the thermal load in the summer, thus, the two cooling towers (one built, one just foundations.) for extra cooling.

Obviously, 5-6 weren't finished.

1] Cooling lakes aren't uncommon, esp. in areas where high humidity can be expected, see this image of the Lasalle County Nuclear Generating Station in Illinois -- and if you scroll north to the Illinois River, then east, then follow the southern (Kankakee) river when the river forks, you'll find three more power stations, two using artificial lakes, one using the river (one of them is an oil based peak-power plant, the other two, nuclear.)

In the winter, you can often see vapor coming off the lakes -- even from airplane at cruising altitude. I've seen this particular lake many times flying STL-ORD.
posted by eriko at 10:35 AM on April 23, 2006

wasn't it just a few days ago that word came of flourishing wildlife around Chernobyl?

It's not suprising that wildlife returned in places abandoned by humans. What's sad is that sometimes that's been reported almost as if to downplay the impact of the accident, if not with an overt "see? there is a positive effect!" or "radiation is not all that bad" angle.

Not to mention the figures for victims are very much disputed.
posted by funambulist at 11:05 AM on April 23, 2006

At the morgue they said, “Want to see what we’ll dress him in?” I did! They dressed him up in formal wear, with his service cap. They couldn’t get shoes on him because his feet had swelled up. They had to cut up the formal wear, too, because they couldn’t get it on him, there wasn’t a whole body to put it on. The last two days in the hospital—pieces of his lungs, of his liver, were coming out of his mouth. He was choking on his internal organs. I’d wrap my hand in a bandage and put it in his mouth, take out all that stuff. It’s impossible to talk about. It’s impossible to write about. And even to live through. They couldn’t get a single pair of shoes to fit him. They buried him barefoot.
-Lyudmilla Ignatenko
Wife of deceased Fireman Vasily Ignatenko

Excerpts from the book 'Voices from Chernobyl' by Svetlana Alexievich
posted by Zack_Replica at 11:51 AM on April 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Excerpts from the book 'Voices from Chernobyl' by Svetlana Alexievich

Those excerpts are devastating.
posted by at 12:16 PM on April 23, 2006

Yes... There's really not much to be said after that, is there?
posted by Zack_Replica at 12:36 PM on April 23, 2006

Thanks Zack. Can barely see to type that...
posted by hal9k at 4:47 PM on April 23, 2006

Wow. I'm speechless and deeply saddened.
posted by AmyMay at 11:25 PM on April 23, 2006

Thank you for posting this. Excellent images. I'm going to weep a bit and go about my daily business then.
posted by keijo at 12:23 AM on April 24, 2006

There is a lot to be said after that, on the handling of the accident by the Russian authorities, on the ongoing spin to downplay its impact, on other undisclosed accidents from the past, on the present and future security of the nuclear arsenal in Russia, and not only there.

It'd be sad if the focus on the human aspect of the Chernobyl disaster took over consideration of the political issues. I think the image archive was meant to also bring attention to those questions, not just to personal tragedies.
posted by funambulist at 2:23 AM on April 24, 2006

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