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Red Forest

Getty Images/ Sean Gallup / Staff

The workers here called it the Red forest, an ironic political joke and an accurate description. In the months after the explosion at Chernobyl hundreds of acres of pine trees surrounding the power plant reacted to the intense radiation that had showered the area by turning red and slowly dying. All of the trees have been removed now except for one surrounded by red flags. The Nazis to hang Soviet partisans during the war, so it is a shrine and scientists have tried to keep it alive. Nearby that tree workers in huge machines continue to cart away radioactive topsoil. Trucks spray the roads with a latex solution to limit the radioactive dust in the air. And that one remaining tree clearly is dying.

The generating plant is immense, far larger than any American nuclear power station. It is as tall as the dome of the U.S. Capitol and many times the size. That makes it all the more amazing to see reactor No. 4, the one that exploded, encased forever in a sarcophagus of cement and lead. For more than a year the other three reactors have been running again, generating up tot 1,000 megawatts each of electricity. There is still no debate about nuclear power in the Soviet Union.

Driving to the plant from Kiev we pass through lush Ukrainian farmland with bustling villages and peasants working in the fields. Then we clear the military checkpoint, and suddenly the fields and the villages are empty. In the week after the accident the government evacuated everyone living within an 18-mile radius of the plant, and except for a few elderly peasants none of the 135,000 people have returned to their homes, nor are they likely to get back soon.

Even more eerie than the empty fields and villages is Pripyat, a modern city of skyscrapers built within a mile of the plant to house 50,000 people, construction workers, plant workers, and their families. Now it too is deserted. The buildings are empty. People left quickly without their possessions. Workers returned to remove and destroy everything. Tall grass splits the sidewalks. The rides in a children’s amusement park stand frozen.

But even though no one lives here, there is an enormous amount of activity in the shadow of the plant. The village of Chernobyl, about a mile from the plant, resembles the staff headquarters of a large army at war. Indeed, the officials at the offices here direct a force of more than 10,000 people dressed in brown work uniforms who operate the plant and continue the massive cleanup of the surrounding area. (A sign in Ukrainian over the plant says it is the V.I. Lenin electrical generating station. But since the accident Soviet officials have referred to it only by the name of the village.) Except for 500 workers who sleep in dormitories near the plant for two weeks at a time, all of the 10,000 leave the exclusion area when they are not working. They live in dormitories or villages, newly constructed outside the zone.

A Geiger counter shows that near the plant one is exposed to a radiation level a few hundred times normal background. But officials of Kombinat, the state organization formed after the accident to direct the plant and the cleanup operation, point out that after the accident they level was millions of times higher. The current levels, they say with pride, are evidence of the efficiency of the cleanup.

My visit to Chernobyl as well as those of several other Western journalists is part of the unprecedented access we are enjoying in the Soviet Union during the weeks preceding the summit. But the Soviets are much more eager to show us Chernobyl than most things. Many believe that the explosion and its aftermath contributed significantly to glasnost, and that continuing honesty about the situation here proves that the policy remains alive.

“The accident at Chernobyl, like a teardrop, concentrated all of the problems of our society,” says Aleksandr Kovalenko, the director of information for Kombinat. The major cause of the disaster was indeed the lax and irresponsible attitude toward work that pervades almost every aspect of life in the Soviet Union. In the early morning of April 26, 1986, technicians in the control room of reactor No. 4 had been assigned to carry out a test. In order to finish the test on time, to avoid working a few extra hours, they switched off an astounding number of safety devices. The result was that the reactor exploded, caught fire, and spewed out half its enormous contents of radioactive material, first in the surrounding area and finally in a cloud that encircled the globe.

At first both the local and central government acted with the usual impulse: deny and cover up. But as the radiation alarms sounded in Sweden and much of the world panicked, the government decided to try something different: openness and honesty. Many Soviets believe that this could not have happened if Gorbachev had not come to power. Whether that is true, Western observers think that the ultimate response did a great deal to facilitate continuing glasnost. James Oberg, author of the book Uncovering Soviet Disasters, says that “when the government did tell the truth the result was not the Soviet-bashing it had expected, but a genuine worldwide sympathy for what the Soviet people were suffering. And this encouraged more truth.”

Just as the behavior in the control room showed the worst and quite common aspects of Soviet workmanship, the efforts to contain the disaster and to clean up after it have demonstrated what this society can accomplish with a single-minded purpose. It is difficult to imagine that if the United States suffered a similar disaster so much could be accomplished in such a short time. Soviet television and newspapers have portrayed the people who came to Chernobyl as heroic and selfless. It is true that constructing the sarcophagus, tunneling beneath the reactor to stop a meltdown, and carting away massive amounts of radioactive soil carried great risk. But most of the workers were attracted by double pay, accumulation of double time to retirement, and benefits usually reserved for Party hacks or others with connections. These include vacations on the Black Sea, decent food, and admission of their children to the right summer camps where they have the chance to make acquaintances that might leas to upward mobility.

Food is an obsession of almost everyone in the Soviet Union. No one is starving, but because of constant shortages and indifferent service food is usually dreadful. The two best meals I’ve had during two weeks in the Soviet Union were in a dining tom in the generating plant and at a workers’ mess hall just outside the exclusion zone. It is clear the Soviet government knows what is needed to motivate its workers. The question is whether such motivation can ever be extended to wheat production, computer development, or distribution of consumer goods.

Another sign of the importance of Chernobyl as a symbol was the recent article in Pravda criticizing Kombinat. It charged that there are still instances of drunkenness among the workers and cases of people getting the best jobs through cronyism. It would be astounding to find any project in the Soviet Union lacking those problems, let along one of the largest undertakings in its history. Officials in both Moscow and Kiev told me that one reason for the article is that the Ukraine continues to be a center of resistance to Gorbachev’s policies, and undermining the credibility of the Ukrainian officials is useful. Even so, the message is clear: the response to the disaster is supposed to represent a turning point in the Soviet way of doing things.

The invitation to the U.S. and European scientists to attend a conference in Kiev from May 11 to 13 on the health effects of the disaster was another example of the Soviet effort to tell all about Chernobyl. The explosion exposed more people to radiation than any incident since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The exposures ranged from slight to massive. Except for the 31 who have died, so far there is little to tell. Soviet officials now acknowledge that they advised abortions for all women who were seven months pregnant or less and who were exposed to radiation. The officials say no one was forced, but it appears that most took the advice, so there have been no reported birth defects. Most other problems such as cancer would usually take longer to appear.

The Western scientists are eager to make sure that the health of all those who were exposed in checked thoroughly for many years and that the Soviets make the best possible effort to determine how much radiation each person absorbed. The Soviets say they are doing all this. Such information will be invaluable. Chernobyl was by far the worst peacetime nuclear accident, but no one believes it will be the last.