So today I want to bring you one of my favorite things. It’s a video I found on YouTube while I was doing some research, and its poignancy has led me back to it over and over again.
This is purported to be the last film of Vladimir Shevchenko and the footage was taken in the early days of the Chernobyl disaster. The film has no accompanying sound, and given that it was taken almost thirty years ago, the quality of the film isn’t great. This doesn’t bother me; if anything it enhances my enjoyment of the film. If you watch carefully, you can see white spots on the film… these are artifacts left by the intensity of the radiation.
The footage of the countryside leading to the reactor building is deceptively verdant; many of these trees will die, and some will be torn up and buried during the Soviet attempt to clean up after the accident.
He filmed the faces of liquidators, some of whom were soon exposed to damaging levels of radiation. You can see them clearing out Pripiyat and/or Chernobyl town with no greater protection than a small respirator, locking up the doors to houses inside the Zone of Alienation. The people who lived in their homes were told that they’d be able to come back; they never were.
He filmed helicopters flying over the ruined reactor, dumping payloads of sand and water and dolomite, intended to shield and cool the ruined core. He also filmed the men working in tunnels under the reactor, digging into the lower levels of the building so that they could be filled with concrete in an attempt to stop the molten fuel, which was already starting to burn through the floor of the reactor building. The miners worked beneath the ruined reactor with no protection other than paper surgical masks or small respirators. The radiation measured in the tunnel was 0.1 sievert per hour… one sievert can cause the onset of acute radiation sickness. For comparison, a lateral chest X-ray exposes you to .04 millisieverts.
The most shocking footage for me, though, was that shot on the roof. The roof of the ruined reactor building contained debris from the explosion, which undoubtedly included pieces of the melted core; uranium and the graphite matrix fused together by the intense heat of the unchecked fission reaction. On the roof, Shevchenko filmed the “biorobots” at work, so named because the radiation in this area was so strong that the robots of the era soon ceased to function. The radiation on the roof varied from 50 sieverts to a 150 sieverts. In these conditions, the workers were only permitted to work for 20-40 seconds at a time. They would run out onto the roof, pick up a chunk of debris and throw it back into the ruined building, and then run back. The footage showing men filming on the roof, down into the caldera of the reactor, is utterly chilling, and it did in fact kill Shevchenko.
He was able to catch what has become emblematic footage of a helicopter failing in the high radiation and crashing into a nearby crane, and then falling to the ground.
I have watched a lot of footage about and of the Chernobyl plant. I have watched films on the evacuation of nearby Pripyat. But this film, with its pairing of horror and quiet beauty, has been my favorite and probably always will be.
Here in the US, we have a passing knowledge of the Chernobyl disaster. We know that it happened and that it was terrible, but when I set out to find out how terrible it was, I had no idea what I would find out. The numbers are astonishing. The plant itself still contains the melted reactor core, nicknamed the elephant’s foot for the shape it took as it finally cooled and solidified after burning through to the basements of the plant building. It can only be photographed or filmed by robots, as it is too radioactive to be approached by people, even today.
The forces that we as humans choose to meddle with are astounding.