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Remembering Chernobyl

Robert Windrem writes:

When word came out about the Chernobyl nuclear accident, there was only reference point for most viewers: The Three Mile Island accident seven years earlier. But it quickly became apparent that there was a significant difference--many significant differences, in fact. 
The Chernobyl disaster had only been publicized because the Soviet Union couldn't hide it.  If the USSR had its way, Chernobyl would have been tucked in that file of previously unreported Soviet disasters, like failed moon launches, humanitarian disasters, even another nuclear accident 29 years earlier.  It was only when radiation readings rose throughout Scandinavia and meteorologists tracked back wind patterns did suspicion fall on the four reactor power plant 80 miles north of Kiev, a city the size of Chicago.
Initially, reporting on Chernobyl was a challenge for NBC News. There was no video available; the only image was a black and white photograph, published in the now-defunct Soviet Life magazine. (Soviet Life had featured Chernobyl, ironically enough, in an article on the Soviet Union's great nuclear safety record!) Satellite photos, still in their infancy as news tools, showed little other than the layout of the reactor--and the quality was hurt because the work had been rushed. Then, a freelance "journalist" with exclusive video of the reactor on fire approached three of the four networks' bureaus in Rome. Indeed,  the video showed a large building in a set of four on fire. It had been shot from a distance, suggesting it had been shot surreptitiously.  Eager for images, we eagerly used it on Nightly News. Problem: It wasn't Chernobyl, but a cement factory in Trieste. Apologies abounded.

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It was a week before Mikhail Gorbachev went on Soviet television to detail, somewhat, the devastation and consequences. It was no surprise that Gorbachev, in office only a year, added criticism of the United States and Western media for exaggerating the threat. This was during the Cold War, after all.  Ultimately, the Soviets opened up. There were reports on Soviet television and in Soviet newspapers and scientific journals. They by no means provided the complete story, but for the Soviet Union, it was an extraordinary degree of openness.
Two years later, in the first week of May 1988, NBC's science correspondent Robert Bazell and I--accompanied by an NBC camera crew from Munich-- flew to Kiev and then were driven north to Chernobyl. We were among the first American television teams to visit the site. After the four of us went through multiple checkpoints, there loomed the damaged reactor, encased in a dark, leaden sarcophogus and the iconic smokestack that marked the complex.

For most of the day, we went from location to location inside and outside the "exclusion zone," accompanied by a small group of Soviet scientists and minders. We toured a collective farm, where families who had lived near the reactor were now housed; visited the reactor control room, where we were assured by the new plant manager that it could never happen again; walked down a hall to within 150 yards of the reactor, the linoleum still torn up from the hectic days after the explosion. We met with residents of Opachichi, the only village in the "exclusion zone" where people--all of them elderly--actually lived, actually spent the night

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The eeriest part of the trip, no doubt, was watching the clean-up at Pripyat, the mini-city of 55,000 that surrounded the nuclear power plant. By Soviet standards, it was paradise. High rise towers with roomy apartments surrounded by parks, including an amusement park and a sports park that had been ceremoniously opened the morning of the accident but never used.  Two years after the accident, an army of clean-up workers were still carting away things like school desks from the local school, preparing to dismantle the steel cars from the ferris wheel at that park, all of it accompanied by classic music pumped out over an area-wide p.a. system...to help the workers avoid going crazy from the deathly silence of a city abandoned on a spring day two years earlier.  The workers were from all over the Soviet Union, drawn by the double salary, the double pensions, good housing. They talked of drinking vast volumes of red wine, ostensibly as an antidote for radiation, but no doubt for more banal medicinal purposes.
We've come a long way from those days in television news production.  We access vast amounts of data on our Blackberries or iPhones. But shock is shock, and horror is still horror.