The lingering darkness and heartbreak of the Chernobyl disaster, 30 years later

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
maxPaginationLinks: 10

A series of explosions in one of the reactors of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant led to the disaster of April 26, 1986. Photo by LASKI DIFFUSION/GETTY IMAGES

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Just off the coast of the West Philippine Sea in the tranquil town of Morong lies a leviathan, looking both menacing and morbid with its dirty shades of gray, not unlike those on the carcass of a stranded whale or the exterior of an abandoned ship long washed ashore. But it’s neither mammal nor vessel — it’s the sleeping giant known as the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant.

Lying dormant since its completion in 1984, the $2.3 billion plant seemed primed to finally become operational not long ago, thanks to the persistent lobbying of proponents advocating nuclear power as an alternative energy source in the Philippines. But that realization was thwarted once again in the wake of the tsunami-triggered Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011.

And the operative phrase is “once again.”

The Fukushima accident is one of only two occurrences designated on the International Nuclear Event Scale with the maximum classification of level 7, a clear quantifier of the incident’s extreme enormity. The other is the event which was deemed so portentous of nuclear disasters to come that it led to the closure of the Bataan plant, which was then only about to be fueled. It’s none other than the cosmic catastrophe known as the Chernobyl disaster.

At about half past one on the morning of April 26, 1986, one of the reactors of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was ruptured. This anomaly set off a series of explosions that would result in what would be considered the largest technological disaster of the 20th century, which in turn would ultimately make the name of the Ukrainian town where it happened synonymous to the tragedy itself.

And what a tragedy it was — and still is.

Bataan Nuclear Power Plant The Bataan Nuclear Power Plant sits on a site 18 meters above sea level, which supposedly keeps it safe from tsunamis. Photo by DON JAUCIAN  

Regardless of the apparent causes of the calamity, whether or not it’s true that the faulty reactor had substandard specifications or that the plant operators were ill-suited to critical jobs that otherwise required engineering expertise, the Chernobyl disaster continues to cast a huge shadow even after a full 30 years. And nowhere is this penumbra more somber than in the barely lived lives of those who barely made it out alive.

Their stories form the spine of perhaps the best-known book by last year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Svetlana Alexievich, an investigative journalist who hails from Belarus, one of the countries hardest hit by the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl. Subtitled “The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster,” “Voices from Chernobyl” is a collection of personal accounts from people whom Alexievich interviewed a few years after the accident: from ordinary citizens to field experts, from members of the cleanup squad to relatives of the dead.

The first — and possibly the most heartbreaking — account comes from the wife of a fireman who died in the aftermath of the disaster from exposure to radiation. In the week before his death, his skin wasted away beyond recognition. “I clipped my nails down till they bled so I wouldn’t accidentally cut him,” she says. Two months later she gave birth to a girl, who didn’t live past four hours because of congenital complications of the child’s heart and liver, which had 28 roentgen. “Why are these things together — love and death,” she laments. “Who’s going to explain this to me?”

To read “Voices from Chernobyl” is to go through the harrowing experience of effectively listening with the ears of one’s mind to all but uninterrupted monologues about suffering and survival, seemingly delivered by a chorus of inhabitants of a post-apocalyptic world. “These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unknown,” Alexievich writes in her epilogue. “I felt like I was recording the future.”

Three decades later, the site of the disaster has become a site of disaster tourism. Some travel agencies are now offering packages — radiation-detecting Geiger counters included — for tours to Chernobyl and other towns within the predominantly deserted area dubbed the Zone of Exclusion. There, visitors can see for themselves the villages and the streets and the buildings that have long given way to rack and ruin.

As for the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, its reactor, its control room, and the rest of its idle structure are still being subjected to maintenance, even if it’s at an annual average cost of ₱40 million. In an eerily similar fashion to the Chernobyl disaster site, as the turbine of the nuclear power debate in the Philippines continues to rotate, the plant has itself been turned into a sort of tourist attraction — proof that while history may not repeat itself, it often rhymes.