My guide, when I went to visit Chernobyl on the 25th anniversary of the accident, was a Greenpeace campaigner from Germany named Tobias Muenchmeyer. Tobias is the deputy head of our political unit in Berlin and also happens to know a great deal about nuclear power. But what really registered with me as we traveled together was the fact that Tobias has a personal tie to Chernobyl. His wife Katya was a 16-year-old schoolgirl in Kiev in 1986.
Katya was actually incredibly lucky, all things considered. Five days after the accident, which at that point was still a state secret, her mother was told about it by a someone in the know. Katya's parents scrambled to send their daughter away to friends in Moscow, and she was saved further exposure to the radiation that caused tens of thousands of deaths. Thirteen days on General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, finally admitted the magnitude of the disaster. Later on the Soviet government established mandatory resettlement for all people living in an area with exposure to radiation of 5 millisieverts (mSv) per year. (During the first days after the accident Kiev was already measuring 8 microsieverts per hour, which means a dose of 5mSv would be reached after approx. 25 days.)
Tragedy is often more easily apprehended when seen through a survivor's story, and I couldn't help but think of Katya and her parents as we drove north from Kiev, backwards in time, past stretches of abandoned land that reminded me of parts of underdeveloped Africa, to the site of the Chernobyl nuclear plant.
The reason for our trip to Chernobyl that starless night was to "bear witness" to the anniversary as part of Greenpeace's decades-long campaign to stop nuclear energy. After three hours, we passed a sign that read "Dityatki 30 Kilometers Checkpoint" and we were officially in the "Zone." Crossing a long bridge we turned left and drove the length of the empty nuclear plant, past Reactor No. 1 (shut down in 1996), Reactor No. 2 (shut down in 1991 after a fire), Reactor No. 3 (closed under international pressure in 2000) and finally the remains of Reactor No. 4, now covered by the infamous "sarcophagus" hastily constructed in 1986.
Afterward, surprisingly reticent to leave the ghosts of the past, we decided to stop at the ruins of the village of Kopachi, about two kilometers away. You've probably seen photos from this town, a sort of Pompeii with remains of concrete prefabricated buildings. Everywhere long sticks with little yellow radiation signs litter mountainous heaps of rubble, lest anyone forget that this is nuclear waste still waiting to be transported to a "safe" storage area.
One of the few buildings still somewhat intact is the kindergarten. Inside, our torches shed light on paintings of fairytale characters, children's beds, a big bathroom with five children's sinks in a row, blackboards and books -- all covered by the dust of 25 years. In the corner of a playroom I came across a pair of boy's baby shoes, their nameless owner quickly added along with Tobias's wife's in my personal collection of Chernobyl memories.
The area around Chernobyl once counted a population of 120,000 people. Today it is home to packs of wild dogs and a couple hundred elderly people who have returned, primarily for lack of anywhere better to go. It is a zone of the dying and the dead.
I am told that in Fukushima, which I will visit next week, life continues as normal, despite alarmingly high radiation levels being detected in schools, shrines and other places where people gather. Children have even been sent back to class. The government has instigated "voluntary" relocation -- but for those without the funds or means to pick up and move, this is meaningless.
In April, five weeks after a tsunami and earthquake damaged the Fukushima nuclear power plant, the Japanese authorities raised the upper level limit of acceptable radiation from 1 mSv per year to 20 mSv per year for school children.
It is hard to believe that the current Japanese government is falling so far behind the 5 mSv standard set by the Soviets. How can a government that lived with the fallout of nuclear bombs allow such high levels of radiation exposure for its children? Why is the Japanese government not actively decontaminating school grounds?
I think about Katya and the pupils of the Kopachi kindergarten who hopefully managed to grow up far away from the radiation. For those not endowed with memory of previous tragedies, surely these stories should be enough?
The Japanese government must do all that it can to protect its citizens from the aftereffects of Fukushima. Meanwhile, the rest of the world must join the Japanese, German and Swiss governments who have decided to stop funding nuclear energy. No more Chernobyls. No more Fukushimas. Never again.