One of the most frequently asked questions after the show- adult or children’s script – is Where is the nearest nuclear power plant to LA?
On our way to San Diego for our last Anniversary Reading, I drove past it. After thinking so much about it, I can’t believe I didn’t plan to stop there on the way. My carmate and ensemble member Carolyn Blais was nice enough to snap some pictures on our way home. Not bad for going 75 MPH.
Teaching your kids about basic arithmetic is easy. You can learn to count and add using your fingers and toes, or kernels of corn. Teaching children about power plants fueled by nuclear reactors and damage caused by radioactive spills, fires, core meltdowns caused by both human error and natural disaster; well that is a wee more difficult.
Stepping in to foster that conversation is VOICES FROM CHORNOBYL JR, Cindy Marie Jenkin’s short play inspired by the book of interviews Voices From Chernobyl, by Svetlana Alexievich.
VOICES FROM CHORNOBYL JR flirts with Story Theater conventions, allowing a family living in the shadow of the ill fated Ukrainian plant to narrate their own experiences during the crisis.
Katya is the daughter of a scientist and a nurse. She is nine, precocious, and inquisitive. The audience learns valuable lessons with her, as her dad explains that, “Our government likes to tell us all the positive things. It is up to us to find out more…”
We see events unfold through her eyes, as she worries about the firefighters and her younger neighbor. Jenkins keeps the horror of the meltdown to a minimum, allowing the subdued fear and forced calm of Katya’s parents and slight allusions to post meltdown physical debilities to provide a great jumping off point for discussions post show.
CHORNOBYL JR is not only a primer on nuclear power. It offers a fantastic way to broach power creation and consumption, pollution, trust in and truth from those in authority, and environmental based illnesses with the young theater goers you catch this show with.
Thematic content includes: Bring Kids.
VOICES FROM CHORNOBYL JR $10
6/11 TO 6/26 1pm
I feel like I know Anna Sushko. In our play the young girl Katya, home after the evacuation, asks a passing soldier to:
Find Anna Sushko for us.
I will describe her to you and you find her. She lived alone. No one knows how old she is. During the resettlement she was taken away in an ambulance in an unknown direction. She never learned to read and write, so we have no letters from her. The solitary and sick were placed in asylums. Hidden away. But no one knows the address. She’s an innocent soul suffering in an alien world.
I always pictured this woman as Anna:
I think of Anna on Earth Day because she is fiercely tied to the earth. Especially as played by Enci, an actress of incredible depth, Anna is a combination of interviews given by various women, the re-settlers, who returned to Chornobyl after being evacuated because they simply cannot conceive of living anywhere else.
(Clearly, Enci is much younger than the inspiration.) Anna’s connection to her home was one of the qualities that drew me to her as we adapted the play. In order to understand a different culture’s mindset, we had to see how closely their lives are bound to the earth, a bind that now will hurt them.
I always enter these anniversary readings with the question of why? If we know exactly why these stories need to be told then we know our purpose. Before current events brought the word “Chernobyl” into every day vocabulary again, our need to tell the stories stemmed from their connection to their land. It still does. The difference is that people like Anna feel a deep connection to their earth, yet didn’t fully comprehend the technology just a few miles away. They understood its importance to their region, but (most) did not understand potential consequences.
Very few people I know in the United States have that connection with the earth, nor do they have knowledge of the world around them. I am often one of those people, although I work on it all the time. So although the meaning behind our Anniversary Events is not as clear as pro or anti nuclear power, not as clear as the recently-viewed documentary “Bag It,” our hope is that all leave with the idea to learn more about the world around you and how we are all connected to it.
On Wednesday I attended the lecture “The Crisis at Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Plant” given by Caltech Professor Joseph E. Shepherd, the C. L. “Kelly” Johnson Professor of Aeronautics and Professor of Mechanical Engineering.
Shepherd first presented a thorough overview of the reactor design including the safety systems, then he sketched out the probable sequence of events and explained the physical and chemical processes that led to the explosions and fires, all from an engineering perspective. I appreciated his “just the facts” approach to a crisis that can be all too easily politicized. Those debates should also happen, but in a different arena. We need to know what happened if we as a global community are to meaningfully debate our relationship to nuclear power.
Nuclear fission generates a lot of heat; that’s why nuclear power plants work so well. In Chernobyl as in Fukishima, heat from nuclear fission in the core of the reactor boils water, which turns to steam; the steam drives several turbines, which generate electricity; the steam then condenses back into water that is returned to the core to begin the cycle again. As long as this process is maintained and temperatures are kept in check, things go along quite nicely. But if something disrupts the ability to maintain control of the temperatures, the heat makes the situation incredibly dangerous, which is why there are multiple backups and independent and diverse cooling systems. In Japan, the sheer power and magnitude of the earthquake and tsunami overwhelmed the system – the facility simply was not built to withstand such force.
I bring all of this up, however, not to explain the basics of nuclear power, but rather to describe a moment I witnessed after the lecture. After Professor Shepherd finished and had answered some public questions, the event officially ended. A small crowd, which included two engineering
students, gathered around him to ask additional questions. Engineers have an extraordinary ability to identify problems and seek out solutions for them, and I watched as these two young woman diagnosed and discussed the situation with the Professor.
The problem: the cooling system required external power. The earthquake disrupted this power. The tsunami flooded the backup generators that run when power is disrupted. The batteries that are a third layer of protection ran for 8 hours until they ran out of power.
A potential solution: run a cooling system with the energy of the reactor itself, thereby eliminating the danger of the loss of external power. Why not use the steam already present to run the cooling system?
This, said Shepherd, is what they were attempting to do at Chornobyl.
I found this whole exchange to be extremely enlightening. I was standing with the best and brightest of our nation’s minds – and they reached the Chornobyl conclusion, which at least tells me that the tests at Chornobyl weren’t completely without scientific merit. The Caltech students were brainstorming, and they had an expert to counsel them as they thought through the problem.
Shepard was able to explain to them how many variables were in play, and he generously helped them see how these variables rendered an idea intended to make the reactor more safe exceedingly unsafe. In Chornobyl, tests proceeded without the realization of how unpredictable a nuclear reactor could be.
The other thing that struck me about the lecture stemmed from Professor Shepherd’s extensive use of satellite images in the course of his presentation. We’ve all seen them: the before and after shots of Japan that lay bare the destruction wrought there. In the days following the earthquake and tsunami, I poured over them, trying to wrap my head around what had happened there. For Shepherd, the images enabled him to make reasoned assessments of the nuclear facility, and at one point he said, in an offhand aside, “Thank God for Google Earth.” This got me thinking about the increasingly open connection we have to each other. I, like so many others, watched the tsunami crash into northern Japan as it happened. I followed updates in real time. I watched news programming from Tokyo, the BBC, Public Broadcasting, and the various cable sites.
Fukushima was reported on from all angles, through all types of media.
In contrast, the Soviet Union was able to downplay the international
ramifications of the 1986 Chornobyl disaster for two days until Sweden reported the increased radioactivity. The official Soviet response was
sluggish; it was only when the severity of the situation could not be denied that the extent of the disaster began to be revealed. News trickled out of the region, often with conflicting stories, and in many ways, this not knowing amplified the fear attached to the disaster. The sort of secrecy
that dominated the Cold War no longer seems possible. With these sorts of disasters – incidents which truly affect the entire globe – transparency is a very reassuring thing.
Karen Jean Martinson is a Scholar, Director and Dramaturg.
I was one and a half years old when Chernobyl happened. I learned about it later on but everything was always in the past tense; Chernobyl was a cautionary tale, not a living breathing disaster. Only after becoming involved with Voices From Chornobyl did I truly realize the ongoing implications of what happened that day in 1986.
Like many people I stayed up late last Thursday evening watching the heartbreaking footage of the aftermath of both the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. At the first mention of the state of Japan’s three nuclear reactors in the area my stomach dropped. Even as I write this there are new developments, the situation is constantly changing, and no one can be certain what will happen next. While authorities are assuring the public nothing like Chernobyl or Three Mile Island is possible the parallels are hard to ignore. For me it’s somewhat surreal, after learning so much about Chernobyl – the events leading up to it, the immediate aftermath and the ongoing effects – to have an event happening in the modern day, that in many ways brings these elements into my daily life, was not something I was prepared for. I have to admit even after all the awareness we have been doing for VFC I never expected to be confronted with these realities in this way.
I don’t want to be reactionary, I think the major news stations do a good enough job on their own, and I don’t even mean this as a criticism of nuclear power per se, but the events of the past few days have made the topic of nuclear plants and radiation very real for me. But despite the fear of what might happen I think it’s important to point out the differences we have seen in the reaction to these ongoing events. Most evident is the amount of information available, in the age of the 24/7 news cycles and social media the global community is much more aware of what is happening than in the days after Chernobyl. Transparency is key to dealing with disasters and can truly impact the outcome in many ways. The early evacuation of those that live near the endangered reactors is a positive example of the difference between what is happening now in Japan and how the Former Soviet Union dealt with the events at Chernobyl.
The best test of course is time, to see how this is handled going forward and what the true aftermath might be. As I have learned from Chernobyl the effects of radiation go on long after all the foreign journalists have left and even after the major clean up is done. To quote a line from the play “this is for thousands of years”; for my part I’m hoping this will never be said of the events unfolding in Japan.
If you read my bio post, you’ll remember that I came across this book
randomly. However, VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL was not the first time I had
heard of the disaster, in fact it had been brought up many times but
in a different context. Prior to the book, Chernobyl was just a topic
to talk about in terms of nuclear energy and government transparency.
In my political science world, the disaster is used as an argument
against things like nuclear energy in many policy discussions. The
fact is that if it wasn’t for the government trying to cover-up and
deny what had happened, things may have turned out differently. All
that aside, Chernobyl is what it is now and nothing will change that.
This project is so important to me, because it wasn’t until I read
VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL that I realized the devastating impact the event
had on people. I had never made that connection before because I was
so wrapped up in the policy and environmental implications that came
out of the disaster. Shortsighted? Absolutely. Product of academia?
Very much so.
What I’ve realized is there’s basically two categories of awareness
when it comes to Chernobyl in my age group. The first is people who
may or may not have heard of the event and have a very vague to no
understanding of it, and the second is people who think about it in a
very sterile and academic way. There are people who are alive now who
do not recall the disaster, the aftermath. I am one of those who was
born after Chernobyl, and I can honestly say
that many of my peers do not know what it is.
They don’t know what Chernobyl was and what it is today
That’s amazing to me. For all my drudgery in policy, I knew the event
happened. Is that good enough? Likely not. The stories that are told
through our project are moving, powerful, incredible. The survival and
persistence of those in The Zone is admirable and heartbreaking. While
there isn’t a nuclear power plant currently on fire in the area, the
ghosts of the disaster still persist in the forms of environmental
and human rights issues. Why is this project important? It is
important to me because of how it has impacted lives and generations.
For all I can say about the policy and environmental implications of
this disaster, those discussions tend to forget what is happening to
those that remain. There is no right answer to some of those debates,
and there is no quick fix to the disaster. However, with time and
awareness it is possible that the immense tragedy that occurred will
not be a just a passing sentence in a history book that gives no
suggestion that there are unresolved issues and unmet needs.