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Preface

When evidence of a mysterious Soviet nuclear incident leaked out of the radiation detectors of a Swedish nuclear station on April 28, 1986, I had just moved from New York to start my new job as an associate at a big Los Angeles law firm. Temporarily ensconced behind an absent partner's expansive desk while my own office was being made ready for me, I was working on some case files when the phone call came from New York. "A nuclear bomb exploded in Ukraine," exclaimed a friend who had not yet really forgiven me for leaving Manhattan. I don't recall how I expressed my shock, but after gleaning from her what little information she had, I dashed to the law firm's kitchen and tuned into CNN on the kitchen's TV set.

Western scientists quickly determined that the type of radiation that had invaded several European borders came not from a bomb but from a civilian nuclear power plant. Soon afterwards, the Soviet Union admitted that an accident on April 26 had destroyed part of what was, until then, the obscure Chernobyl atomic energy plant in the Soviet Ukrainian republic.

Watching television during working hours was not an activity that high-priced law firms appreciate in junior associates - especially ones that had just started their jobs. But the nuclear disaster riveted nearly everyone's attention, and my ethnic Ukrainian background made me a minor office celebrity for the 15 minutes it took for everyone else's minds to return to clients, cases, and billing. My mind never did - a fact that eventually became evident to the law firm's partners. As one of them put it before nicely suggesting I consider a different career, I lacked a legal "fire in my belly." He was absolutely right. I had a fire in my belly, but it was not a legal fire. It was an atomic fire - a determination to find out the truth about Chernobyl.

Uncovering that truth proved to be a daunting task, at least in the beginning. Unlike the disaster of the space shuttle Challenger, which had exploded on television screens just a few months earlier, the public saw no live, dramatic images of Chernobyl, just some grainy photos of the blackened crater in the ruined fourth reactor block. But that was merely a building, like a charred piece of furniture, and not an object to evoke horror, sympathy, or even much anxiety. It was static and far away, unlike the radioactive cloud that drifted around the northern hemisphere, prompting L.A. disc jockeys to joke about buying Chernobyl umbrellas when the cloud hit Southern California in early May.

There weren’t even many voices to humanize the dry pronouncements of official Soviet news agencies and scientists. In the days before the Internet, only an occasional letter or ham radio operator could break through the impenetrable Iron Curtain to provide some uncensored news about the disaster. Well, “news” might be too kind a word.

It was mostly rumor, speculation, and science fiction, like a wacky story in some supermarket tabloid about a six-foot-tall Chernobyl chicken. I didn’t believe it, of course, but I duly clipped it and placed it in my fattening research files.

Like the radiation itself, the Chernobyl story was also invisible, rendered so by the habitual Soviet secrecy that even Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policy did not initially overcome. But even when glasnost did emerge victorious, the traditional secrecy of the international nuclear industry took over. Thus, when Soviet scientists met their Western counterparts at an unprecedented meeting to discuss the disaster in August 1986 in Vienna, it seemed that both sides operated according to an unspoken pact to minimize the disaster’s effects.

They told the truth, but they buried it so deep in the footnotes of scientific reports and the jargon of obscure journals that almost none of it could emerge to penetrate public consciousness.

After quitting full-time law in 1988, I spent a year as a bicoastal Chernobyl junkie, spending nearly all of my time in libraries in New York and Los Angeles and supporting my habit with an occasional short-term legal job. My favorite place was the restricted library at Brookhaven National Laboratories, where I snuck in by means I can no longer remember. The copying machines were free, and I could sit undisturbed for hours finding tidbits about real Chernobyl oddities like the “Minsk shoe” I mention in Chapter 1. I had hoped to write a book and came very close to a publishing contract but it fell through. With the clarity of hindsight, however, I am glad it did. Otherwise my second book on the subject would largely have to have been a retraction.

Because all the while, I was looking for lies to expose. No bit of information existed merely as a fact but as a clue to a deep underlying truth that would reveal a massive cover-up by both East and West. My Ukrainian-American upbringing had instilled a visceral distrust of the Soviet Union in me. Hollywood scenarios such as the China Syndrome and Silkwood also made me wary of the Western nuclear industry. Some of that skepticism was justified. The Soviets’ delay in announcing the simple precautions to take against radioactive iodine were unforgivable.

So was the West’s initial refusal to recognize the resulting thyroid cancer epidemic that became evident five years later. On many other issues, however, both sides told the truth—albeit in doses and over many years. Some truths did not become known until the USSR collapsed in 1991.

Reasonable minds may differ about the value of those truths. Initially, the disaster made me (and, I’m sure, many other people) oppose nuclear energy. In 1986 that was a painless position to hold, because the price of American dependence on foreign oil had not yet become two Iraq wars, the second of which still has undetermined costs and consequences. Nor had I yet moved to Ukraine, whose complete dependence on Russian fossil fuels seriously compromised the young state’s political independence. It was also before I could feel the real evidence of global warming on my own skin.

For the record, I have gone from adamant opponent of nuclear energy to ambivalent supporter—at least for giving a window of time for reducing our dependence on fossil fuels while pursuing research on alternative energy sources. But even those alternatives can have environmental costs. For example, to harness the energy of Ukraine’s Dnieper River, Europe’s third largest, over the years the Soviets transformed it into a series of shallow, eutrophic reservoirs where fish perish by the thousands during hot summers. Though there is probably less of a downside to wind or solar energy, it seems there is little we can do to feed the world’s growing appetite for energy without doing some damage. It is a choice of lesser evils.

Before Chernobyl, the odds of a reactor meltdown at one of the world’s 300 or so nuclear reactors was considered so miniscule it was practically disregarded. Chernobyl changed the odds to one meltdown every 30 years. Is that too high a price to pay? The extraordinary and unexpected fate of the evacuated “zone of alienation” around Chernobyl provides only a part of the answer. I hope that the rest will form in the mind of the reader after joining me on my journeys through the fascinating, beautiful—and radioactive—Wormwood Forest.

I write this in the wake of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution—a witty, peaceful, and joyous uprising that swept authoritarian President Leonid D. Kuchma out of power and ushered opposition leader Viktor A. Yushchenko in to replace him. The dioxin poisoning that scarred and cratered the new president’s face is mute testimony to the old regime’s diabolical methods. But it is my fervent hope that Yushchenko’s disfigurement will be like the radioactive poisoning of Chernobyl: a terrible wound that fades with time, leaving a warning about the past—and an abiding hope for the future.

Kiev, Ukraine
September 2005
Copyright c 2005 by Mary Mycio.
All rights reserved.