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A visit to hell, Chernobyl’s aftermath

NBC producer Robert Windrem recalls a 1998 visit to Chernobyl nuclear power plant. He was among the first group of journalists allowed to visit after the disaster.
/ Source: NBC News

“Right down there,” the Soviet nuclear engineer pointed towards a cracked linoleum hallway and signs that said, Reactor 4, where the pride of the Soviet nuclear industry had exploded two years earlier. “That’s where it happened.” It was May 3, 1988, two years and a few days after the Chernobyl disaster.

I WAS WITH Bob Bazell, NBC’s chief health and science corespondent, and a camera crew — among the first TV journalists to visit the complex about 70 miles north of Kiev.

As English-speaking tour guides and Russian-speaking engineers briskly escorted us around the complex and its aptly named “forbidden zone,” they pointed out — too casually, I thought — the high points of what could only be called a guided tour of an outer ring of hell.

We were, at that point, entering the control from for Reactor 3, which was still operating. When I asked just how close we were from where the first of 4,000 Chernobyl victims died, I was shocked to hear “about 150 meters (yards)” — or about as far as my office is from the Rockefeller Plaza skating rink in New York City. Even though the hallway was sealed at the other end by lead wall, it was not a comforting thought.

That whole day, in some ways the most memorable of my 20 years at NBC News, was filled with such discomfort. We were of course excited by the prospect of seeing what we had reported on for two years, ever since the morning we learned of the blast and Soviet cover-up. Our hosts were happy to have us. Bringing television crews to Chernobyl, we were repeatedly told, was evidence of the glasnost and perestroika policies of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Of course, they charged us for the privilege — $700 in cash for food, transportation and a commemorative book signed by the head of the agency that ran the cleanup.


But as we moved around Chernobyl and its “forbidden zone,” the impression we got was not one of openness and restructuring, but of the incredible backwardness and cynicism of a dying state, one in which Soviet citizens were treated as guinea pigs not just for medical purposes, but for propaganda purposes as well.

The accident had indeed been awful, a tragedy, they repeated, but didn’t the United States have such accident too, they said — wasn’t the Challenger disaster very similar, an overreach of technology? From their perspective, or at least the one stated, the real lesson of Chernobyl was not the incompetence of the Soviet state, but rather how the future would look if Star Wars was implemented and the United States and Soviet Union fell into nuclear war.

We began the day at two locations near the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, where many of the 55,000 people who had been evacuated from the nuclear city of Pripyat now lived. The first was a towering housing complex at the edge of Kiev, a pleasant city I had visited — and liked — a few years before the accident. It was hard to tell if sullen faces I was seeing were the result of the displacement and ostracism every refugee faces or simply a more matter-of-fact reflection of the oppressive Soviet state.

But at the second location, the Lenin Collective Farm No. 9 south of the plant, we got a first-hand impression of what the hours immediately after the accident must been like. At the farm’s school, we were introduced to a class of nine-year-olds, most of whom were refugees.

There, in the middle of the group, sat a beautiful little girl, all blonde hair and blue eyes. She did not smile as she spoke about the night she and her family were told they had to leave, that there would be busses to take them away in an hour and that they could only bring one bag each. She and others told us of the confusion, the fear — and though they spoke without inflection, it seemed clear that the fear remained two years later.

Her teacher was proud of her, as was the local apparatchik who nodded and tried unsuccessfully to get her to return his smile. The day was filled with such moments: Soviet officials proudly showing off Chernobyl victims to show how far the state had come in opening up to the media, unaware that the underlying image was of a society whose members cared little for that state, a state that had continually betrayed them.


There was the group of old people in the village of Opacici, happy to see us but wary of our minders. Initially, they were forbidden from returning, as were all those who had lived within about 20 miles of the plant. But slowly, they had sneaked back and reluctantly, the Soviet “Kombinat” that ran the forbidden zone agreed to let them stay. They were old, one official explained to us, and thus were going to die soon anyway.

There was the overly protective mother at the makeshift village built to house other refugees. She seemed to sense her little boy was in danger and that he would be her only child. Her husband, she explained, was part of the clean-up crew and every night he returned to their home. They would be all right, she said — several times. Later, we watched the clean-up crew cart away school desks from the school her son would have attended. The desks, like everything else, had to be destroyed.

There was the translator who accompanied us on our journey and who told of how the summer after the accident, the Soviet government had ordered all children to leave Kiev, a city the size of Chicago, for special summer camps. It was, he explained slowly and painfully, a very quiet summer without the sounds of children in the streets. Later that day, he gave us his advice about avoiding the effects of radiation: Go back to your hotel, he said, and drink a bottle of red wine. It would flush the radiation out of your system.

InsertArt(891739)The place they had all left, Pripyat, was eerie, bizarre, frightening, malevolent. Built to house the workers at the plant, it was by Soviet standards quite nice. The apartment towers were new and well-maintained, the grounds nicely laid out.

A ferris wheel was at the center of a children’s park and a brand new soccer stadium that had been scheduled to open the weekend of the accident looked as if it had never been used. It hadn’t. It was all deadly, deadly quiet. The wind caused the ferris wheel cars to clang against the superstructure of the wheel as they blew back and forth in the breeze. The only other sound that could be heard was soft classical music played over an outdoor public address system so, we were told, that the silence did not depress the clean-up workers.


The workers were still, two years after the accident, gathering up loose materials, spraying the sandy soil with water so radioactive dust wasn’t carried by the wind, carting away what seemed to be millions of pine trees killed off by the radiation. We later learned that pine trees are affected by radiation in the same way human beings are.

The workers were doing well, by Soviet standards. They were being paid twice as much as regular workers, their benefits were better, their housing in a new city being built for them was even better than Pripyat’s, and their retirement benefits, should they live long enough to collect them, would be twice as high. They posed for our cameras, smiled benignly and did their job. The catch was that dosimeters registered the workers’ radiation levels at about 200 times the norm.

But the most bizarre part of the day was, of course, the time we spent inside the plant and much too close to the still too hot core. The plant’s chief engineer was an unsmiling young man sent in by the Ministry of Atomic Energy to get the plant operating as close to full power as possible. His predecessor had been jailed so he had plenty of incentive to succeed. He expressed confidence the plant was safe and said with assurances that belied all that was around him. According to him: “It could never happen again.”

“Never?” an incredulous Bob Bazell asked, “Not under any circumstances?”

“No, never,” he repeated.

It would be unfair to say it was as if nothing had happened. Something assuredly had. People had died. People had been moved. Careers had fallen. Some had even gone to jail. A state was teetering. But the Soviet engineer said the plant would go on operating because it was needed to generate electricity for Kiev, other parts of Ukraine, and Belorussia.

The state, he said, required it.

Robert Windrem is an investigative producer for NBC.