“Anna Blind and thousands of other Lapps in Scandinavia’s northland speak a language that has 18 words for reindeer. But none for radiation. . . . The Lapps’ innocence on atomic affairs ended with the accident at the nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union last April that has killed 31 persons.”
That’s how I began my series for the Globe 36 years ago, titled “After Chernobyl.” I’d spent weeks tracing the impact of the world’s worst nuclear accident — trekking to Lapland, which was as near as I could get to the plant and close enough to learn about some of the fallout; visiting with leading atomic and environmental officials across the continent, who realized the body blow that the mishap delivered to humanity and nature, and to industry’s hopes that the atom would become Europe’s and the world’s primary energy source; and ending in Vienna, where Russian scientists finally came cleaner on the devastation they had wreaked.
The idea that today’s generation of Russian autocrats would intentionally imperil another nuclear reactor, the way they did this week, is unfathomable. And whether or not the courts agree, it should — in the words of the American embassy in Ukraine — be deemed a war crime.
Here’s what we know so far. Russian troops shelled an area near the six-unit Zaporizhzhia nuclear complex, Europe’s largest. A fire broke out. While the blaze was extinguished by early Friday, and apparently didn’t affect critical equipment, the danger isn’t over given that Russian soldiers rather than Ukrainian plant operators are now in control.
On the one hand, it’s reassuring that Zaporizhzhia is a safer facility than Chernobyl, with metal-and-cement containment shells, more modern and effective cooling systems, and other measures that made Chernobyl — built a decade earlier — especially vulnerable.
And yet. “Fire has already broke [sic] out,” Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, warned on Twitter early in the attack. “If it blows up, it will be 10 times larger than Chornobyl!” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who was 8 at the time of the Chernobyl accident, said an explosion at Zaporizhzhia would have been “the end for everyone, the end of Europe.”
Hyperbole, certainly, but I saw for myself the repercussions of the 1986 accident. “Shepherds as far away as Wales found their flocks affected,” I wrote in the Globe. “Pregnant women and young children in Europe changed their diets to ward off real and imagined risks; hundreds of Poles, Swedes, and others may develop deadly cancers. For millions of Europeans, the nightmare of Chernobyl continues.”
And it did. We know now that the toll was much worse than anyone understood then. The World Health Organization has said 4,000 people have or will die from Chernobyl’s radioactive plume, with others projecting casualties many times higher. The accident, the WHO added, contaminated parts of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus that are home to 5 million people.
But that was an accident. What the Russians did this week was intentional, and chilling to Ukrainians living nearby and to anyone living near any nuclear plant.
The unsettling questions now are: Is this a sign of how vulnerable nuclear plants are to terrorism? Have the rules of war changed to make it acceptable to attack and occupy atomic facilities? And, for those who believe nuclear power should be a bridge to climate-friendly renewable energy sources, have they been dealt the same crippling setback as nuclear believers were 36 years ago in the wake of Chernobyl?
Larry Tye is a former Globe reporter and the author, most recently, of “Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy.”