Sunshine Recorder

Link: The Day After

How being 100 km away from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster changed my life.

Before the world’s worst nuclear accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on 26 April 1986, I was full of the certainties of youth. Then, overnight, or should I say over the course of a few beautiful spring days, everything changed and I stepped reluctantly into adulthood. Those who remember those days talk of the same thing: the weather. It was unseasonably warm, hot enough to sunbathe, and the lilac blossoms came early, infusing the parks and streets of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, with an aroma of lemons, vanilla and roses. I was studying Russian there and having the time of my life. As a Russian-speaking British student in what was still the USSR in the midst of the Cold War, I was regarded by the KGB as a potential future adversary and under constant surveillance. They took it seriously, I didn’t. Indeed, here, safely ensconced behind the iron curtain, I felt liberated from a far more significant entity than the KGB: my parents. I studied hard and partied hard, high on the adrenaline of playing hide-and-seek with those who were keeping tabs on me, and, of course, on Soviet vodka. I felt totally free for the first time in my life in spite of the restrictions of a totalitarian state because none of the rules of my world applied.

So it was with tremendous irritation that I listened one Monday morning to a panicky phone call from my parents in the UK warning me about a nuclear “incident” somewhere close by. Other foreign students had received similar calls. Someone had a radio that captured BBC broadcasts warning of an unexplained radioactive cloud emanating from somewhere in Western USSR, where we were located.

I ignored the news. It was interfering with my fun. I thought it was probably no more than a mixture of over-anxious parents keen to find any excuse for their children to come home and exaggerated anti-Soviet propaganda by the BBC. I skipped class and went to the ‘beach’, a small strip of sand on the bank of the Dniepr river that flows through Kiev, for a sunbath. It was probably the worse thing I could have done.

Further North, in Sweden, high levels of radiation had been detected the day before and suspicions were growing that something very serious had gone wrong in the USSR, from where the wind was blowing. The Swedes asked Moscow for an explanation but were met with a stony silence. As radiation levels continued to rise, the Swedes began to take emergency anti-radiation precautions in areas close to the Soviet border. They advised parents to keep children away from sandpits and avoid using rainwater, as both sand and water are extremely efficient vehicles of radioactive contamination.

That was 1,100 km from Chernobyl. We were 100 km away, and the news blackout was total.

As more alarming reports began to filter through the radio and over the phone, a wave of collective hysteria began to rise among foreign students. I was still in denial, sulking with a small group of non-believers. We had distanced ourselves from the main group, but I remember seeing a lot of tears and pleas with our group leader to organise an evacuation. Eventually, on 29 April, orders came through from the British embassy in Moscow that we were to pack our bags and leave by any means possible.

It must have been about then that I started to cry. I am not really sure what triggered my tears, but once they started, they would not stop. It may have been because a friend who worked in a Kiev hospital told me that a whole wing had been cordoned off with rumours of young men with severe burns being treated there. When I asked my teacher what he thought about this ‘nuclear accident nonsense’, he said he couldn’t believe that the Soviet government would allow its children—his children—to walk the streets unprotected if they were really in danger. I saw fear and doubt in his eyes.

Worried mothers had begun dressing small children in ridiculous woollen hats to protect them from radiation. Rumour had it that vodka offered good protection—for adults. Some opted for the hats and the vodka. Tragically, simple iodine tablets would have protected the population from radioactive iodine, which gets into the thyroid gland and is particularly lethal to children. But distributing these tablets would have meant admitting a problem.

I could no longer remain in denial, but I did not want to leave either. I felt like a rat leaving a sinking ship, abandoning my friends and their children to face whatever invisible poison was seeping into our bones. I was also, selfishly, dreading going home. I preferred to face the uncertainty of danger to the certainty of boredom in an English suburban town. I did not realise then how lucky I was to have a choice. My whimsical attitude was that of a privileged Westerner who could play at tipping her toes into misery, with the certainty that she could leave when things got too uncomfortable.

It was not that easy to get out of Kiev. Foreign students needed permission from the Soviet authorities to leave the city and country. Once that was secured, we faced the additional hurdle of finding transportation. By now panic was beginning to spread in Kiev. A brief broadcast on television nearly 72 hours after the accident had mentioned a minor incident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, and rumour mills had started whirring in full force. People were scrambling for tickets on buses and trains leaving Kiev to go south or east, away from the wind. Seats were hard to come by.


Fukushima: a Strange Kind of Homecoming
One year on from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, the Unuma family return to the exclusion zone and what was once their farm.
I first met Yoshitada and Tomoe Unuma, aged 45 and 36, in a futuristic sports arena near Tokyo, 10 days after the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi power station plunged into crisis on March 11 2011. The quiet-spoken couple and their 10-year-old daughter Hana had been forced to flee their farm just 2km from the plant in the coastal district of Futaba, leaving behind almost all their possessions, their pack of beloved cats and dogs and 40 cattle. After a chaotic flight south, they and more than 1,000 fellow Futaba residents had found refuge in cardboard cubicles set up in the arena’s corridors.
Those were extraordinary times in Japan. The nation was still reeling from the biggest earthquake in its recorded history and a resulting tsunami that devastated the north-east coast, killing nearly 16,000 people and leaving more than 3,000 missing. Workers, soldiers and firemen were toiling in desperate conditions to cool Fukushima Daiichi’s radiation-spewing reactors. The day after I met the Unumas, then-prime minister Naoto Kan secretly commissioned a worst-case scenario for the crisis that would raise the dreaded possibility of evacuations as far away as the megalopolis of Greater Tokyo, with its population of 35 million.
One year on, those fears have receded. Conditions at the plant have been stabilised, radiation leaks stemmed and new jury-rigged cooling systems installed. Yet for many in Japan, the crisis is far from over. More than 100,000 people are still exiled from their homes; millions more suffer the anxiety of living amid elevated levels of radiation. The failure of Fukushima Daiichi has thrown into question resource-poor Japan’s energy strategy and shaken public faith in the government.
Like all the best horror story settings, the forbidden zone around Fukushima Daiichi is a blend of the bizarre and the banal. To enter, you have to show a travel pass at police checkpoints and then stop at an outdoor processing centre where you are issued with a white suit of disposable overalls, mask, gloves and shoe covers, a thin shield against radioactive dust or mud. The irregular flow of trucks and buses bound for the plant gives a veneer of normality to a road lined with a standard Japanese suburban sprawl of automobile dealerships, noodle shops and farm produce packing centres. It is only when you look closely that you notice all the lights are off in the convenience stores and grass is poking up through cracks in the tarmac of the chain restaurants’ forecourts. Off the main road, the shallow valleys are eerily quiet. Occasionally you spot a slowly patrolling police car or a fellow visitor, also clad in a white radiation suit. Otherwise all is still, except for a circling kite in the cold blue sky.
As we turn the last corner before the Unumas’ farm, Tomoe cries out at the sight of a small group of cows that start and run at our approach. It is the first time she has seen any survivors from the family herd. These were in the fields when the Unumas fled and were later set free by animal welfare volunteers. Now they roam wild. The cows and calves stuck inside on March 11 were not so lucky. We find their corpses lining the floor of the barn in tangles of skin and exposed bone. In one pen, however, there is a panicking live cow that has returned out of habit and become trapped. Tomoe finds a tool kit to dismantle the pen’s fence, then gently shoos the cow outside. “Take your time, take your time,” she tells it. “Go and join the others.”
For the Unumas this is the strangest kind of homecoming. Futaba’s coastal villages were scoured by the tsunami, but most houses inland survived the earthquake. Now, neglect is exposing them to a more insidious kind of destruction and everything is tainted by the fear of radiation. I find in the Unumas’ home a chaotic mess, created first by the earthquake, which turned over furniture and tossed toys off shelves, and then later deepened by their rushed efforts to find prized belongings and by the defecation of abandoned pets. At least the family appears to have been spared by the burglars who looted many homes and businesses in the evacuation zone in the first months after the disaster. But the house where Tomoe’s parents lived, a long, low structure that combines living quarters and a barn for rearing calves, is already starting to sag. Its paper interior walls are torn and rot is spreading across its ceilings.

Fukushima: a Strange Kind of Homecoming

One year on from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, the Unuma family return to the exclusion zone and what was once their farm.

I first met Yoshitada and Tomoe Unuma, aged 45 and 36, in a futuristic sports arena near Tokyo, 10 days after the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi power station plunged into crisis on March 11 2011. The quiet-spoken couple and their 10-year-old daughter Hana had been forced to flee their farm just 2km from the plant in the coastal district of Futaba, leaving behind almost all their possessions, their pack of beloved cats and dogs and 40 cattle. After a chaotic flight south, they and more than 1,000 fellow Futaba residents had found refuge in cardboard cubicles set up in the arena’s corridors.

Those were extraordinary times in Japan. The nation was still reeling from the biggest earthquake in its recorded history and a resulting tsunami that devastated the north-east coast, killing nearly 16,000 people and leaving more than 3,000 missing. Workers, soldiers and firemen were toiling in desperate conditions to cool Fukushima Daiichi’s radiation-spewing reactors. The day after I met the Unumas, then-prime minister Naoto Kan secretly commissioned a worst-case scenario for the crisis that would raise the dreaded possibility of evacuations as far away as the megalopolis of Greater Tokyo, with its population of 35 million.

One year on, those fears have receded. Conditions at the plant have been stabilised, radiation leaks stemmed and new jury-rigged cooling systems installed. Yet for many in Japan, the crisis is far from over. More than 100,000 people are still exiled from their homes; millions more suffer the anxiety of living amid elevated levels of radiation. The failure of Fukushima Daiichi has thrown into question resource-poor Japan’s energy strategy and shaken public faith in the government.

Like all the best horror story settings, the forbidden zone around Fukushima Daiichi is a blend of the bizarre and the banal. To enter, you have to show a travel pass at police checkpoints and then stop at an outdoor processing centre where you are issued with a white suit of disposable overalls, mask, gloves and shoe covers, a thin shield against radioactive dust or mud. The irregular flow of trucks and buses bound for the plant gives a veneer of normality to a road lined with a standard Japanese suburban sprawl of automobile dealerships, noodle shops and farm produce packing centres. It is only when you look closely that you notice all the lights are off in the convenience stores and grass is poking up through cracks in the tarmac of the chain restaurants’ forecourts. Off the main road, the shallow valleys are eerily quiet. Occasionally you spot a slowly patrolling police car or a fellow visitor, also clad in a white radiation suit. Otherwise all is still, except for a circling kite in the cold blue sky.

As we turn the last corner before the Unumas’ farm, Tomoe cries out at the sight of a small group of cows that start and run at our approach. It is the first time she has seen any survivors from the family herd. These were in the fields when the Unumas fled and were later set free by animal welfare volunteers. Now they roam wild. The cows and calves stuck inside on March 11 were not so lucky. We find their corpses lining the floor of the barn in tangles of skin and exposed bone. In one pen, however, there is a panicking live cow that has returned out of habit and become trapped. Tomoe finds a tool kit to dismantle the pen’s fence, then gently shoos the cow outside. “Take your time, take your time,” she tells it. “Go and join the others.”

For the Unumas this is the strangest kind of homecoming. Futaba’s coastal villages were scoured by the tsunami, but most houses inland survived the earthquake. Now, neglect is exposing them to a more insidious kind of destruction and everything is tainted by the fear of radiation. I find in the Unumas’ home a chaotic mess, created first by the earthquake, which turned over furniture and tossed toys off shelves, and then later deepened by their rushed efforts to find prized belongings and by the defecation of abandoned pets. At least the family appears to have been spared by the burglars who looted many homes and businesses in the evacuation zone in the first months after the disaster. But the house where Tomoe’s parents lived, a long, low structure that combines living quarters and a barn for rearing calves, is already starting to sag. Its paper interior walls are torn and rot is spreading across its ceilings.