We asked the ensemble if they could say a few words on why they want to be involved with this awareness project. First up is Kappa Victoria Wood, who has played Katya in both the adult and now the interactive children’s show.
“History had repeated itself”
Here’s my response to the material and why I keep subjecting myself to (stories about) radiation:
My character, Katya, was 9-year-old when the accident happened. I was also 9, but on the other end of the world in my safe little suburban neighborhood and have no recollection of ever having heard of it. Even throughout my education, I can’t recall ever studying about Chornobyl, save for a sidebar in a textbook, if that.
Fast-forward to five years ago when Voices From Chornobyl was first staged, where I learned of the weighty, compelling stories of those who were made to suffer and even those still living with the consequences of the intense radiation exposure. How had I never heard of this?
It seemed that there was not only the struggle of the physical effects, but a social struggle of a people who were so proud of their homeland under a government that essentially let them down. The VFC material in its various stagings over the past five years has always walked the fine line of presenting some rather horrific stories without preaching for or against nuclear power.
When I would share with people the nature of the material, I felt the need to explain that this is an on-going story. As Katya’s father, Vasily, says, “This is for thousands of years.” Then the Fukushima incident happened. While the circumstances were radically different, the danger of radiation is still the same. What really struck a chord with me is how so much of the language used by reporters, the technical terms, the governmental statements, even 25 years after the Chornobyl accident, all sounded the same. History had repeated itself and suddenly, I didn’t have to justify why remembering Chornobyl was significant.
My hope is that in addition to educating others, Voices From Chornobyl serves as a reminder that even the largest-scale events are about individual people who have their own hopes, thoughts, dreams, perspectives and, well, voices.
We’ll post pictures from last night’s reading soon, but meanwhile here is the poignant information on Chernobyl Children’s Life Line presentation of our play Voices From Chornobyl as part of their 25th Anniversary Vigil. (from their Flickr Page):
Voices From Chernobyl
April 26th 2011 will be the 25th Anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear reactor accident, at Chernobyl in northern Ukraine. The recent events in Japan have led to significant media attention on this anniversary and the work of UK charities such as Chernobyl Children’s Life Line (CCLL) who, since 1991, have been helping the 1000’s of children of Belarus and Ukraine who are living in contaminated regions of these countries, blighted by the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl.
To commemorate the 25th Anniversary events are being planned in the UK and all over Europe. Through the recently formed European Chernobyl Network, CCLL came up with the idea of holding simultaneous candle light memorials at venues throughout Europe on the eve of the disaster i.e. Monday 25th April, as the disaster happened at 1.23am on the 26th April. For the Derbyshire Dales, we will be holding an outdoor memorial event at Stoney Wood, off Middleton Road, in Wirksworth beginning at 8pm.
The commemoration evening will include a performance of the play, “Voices from Chornobyl” based on an award winning book written by Svetlana Alexievich by the same title. Images from the disaster and the immediate aftermath will be projected onto a large scene behind the actors. The main event will be the creation of a candle memorial consisting of a large diameter international radiation symbol and also a “25” formed by 25 people holding candles. Everyone there will have the opportunity to place a candle in the commemorative radiation symbol which will be about 4metres in diameter.
It’s been an fascinating journey for me, signed up initially as an actor – and then having to step forward and make my directorial debut, tackling a very difficult and emotional piece. We had our final rehearsal at our rehearsal room last night – it will be a powerful performance.
If you are anywhere nearby – please come. If not – please look out for local events. 25 years on, it is still a major issue for the people of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.
With thanks to Nicholas Lativy for the use of his shot of the CNPP – unfortunately the promotion budget didn’t stretch to a visit to Ukraine.
From left to right:
Anna: a villager – played by Hilary Jones
Vasily: a physicist – played by Lee Stephens
Lyudmilla: a fireman’s wife – played by Krystina Johnson
Grigory: a liquidator – played by Gordon Conway
Katya: a daughter and mother – played by Bryony Pollock
Sergei: a camerman – played by Mark Sobey
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.
When Cindy first approached me about contributing to this project, I was pretty sure I knew about as much about Chornobyl as the next person, which is to say, next to nothing. Okay, so maybe (as our recent foray to The Grove demonstrates) a little more than the next person, but still nothing to hang my hat on. My journey in educating myself of the subject has been heartbreaking, rage-inducing, and really illuminating; not just about the situation at Chornobyl, but the human condition in general.
The recent events in Japan have put my Chornobyl education into very sharp focus: you know that place where you know just enough to be really frightened, but not quite enough to actually know what you’re frightened of? I’m a pretty resourceful person, and I want to know all the facts, so I thought I’d share some of the results of my research into what’s actually going on at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant. In moments of international crisis like this – misinformation can spread as fast (or faster if it’s particularly sensational) than the real story, and for non-experts, such as myself, it can be frustratingly difficult to separate fact from fiction.
NPR has been interviewing experts of every stripe for days. They have accumulated all their stories, interviews and commentary into this primer.
Mother Jones, a political news periodical, has gotten a lot of attention lately for it’s investigative pieces that seek to explicate complicated current events (the protests and instability in Egypt and Libya, the demonstrations and political maneuvering in Wisconsin, the budget debate in Washington, etc.) for the layman. They have a really excellent piece that makes the very complicated subject of nuclear science easier to grasp, and they’re updating it regularly as news from Japan comes in.
One of my favorite daily reads is the tech blog Gizmodo. They have a pretty well-documented interest in Chornobyl and in nuclear power in general, and they have a comprehensive breakdown of events as well. This article also has a whole mess of links, to Boing-Boing, the BBC, Salon, Al Jazeera, The Atlantic and more! It’s a black-hole time-suck of really good science lessons.
A significant link on the Gizmodo page is to this Salon article, which thoroughly debunks a viral blog post that you may have seen by a Dr. Josef Oehmen at MIT. MIT is currently hosting this blog post, they have not taken it down, but I would say read it with a grain of salt (or at least read it with this Salon piece.)
On the subject of misinformation, this map has been going around (before you look at it, know that it’s a hoax – I’m only including it so you’ll know what it looks like in case someone sends it to you or you see it come up in your research):
It purports to be an estimated trajectory of nuclear fallout from the Fukushima plant released by Australian Radiation Services and has their logo, but they don’t claim it and the map isn’t hosted or displayed anywhere on their website. (Another key factor that reveals this to be less than savory, is in the legend. A real fallout map wouldn’t be measured in RADs. RAD is a medical term that stands for Radiation Absorbed Dose, meaning how much radiation is absorbed by an individual, not how much material is in the air or how radioactive it is. http://www.nrc.gov/about-nrc/radiation/health-effects/measuring-radiation.html) I would be very skeptical about any source of information that includes this map.
For me, knowledge is the best antidote to fear. These are uncertain times in general, and after the tragic events in Japan over the last few days it is even more important to make sure we have as much knowledge and awareness as possible.
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.