April 26th, 1986. It was 30 years ago and I was nearing the end of my second year in Graz as an English teaching assistant. Suddenly there was only one thing on the all the radio and TV stations all day (and day after day). A catastrophic nuclear reactor accident in Russia had the city, the country, the entire continent . . . on edge and holding their breath. We were all glued to the TV and checking atlases. I quickly found out that Chernobyl was over 700 miles away from me as the bird flies (or in this case, the cloud drifts). That seemed a fairly safe distance.
The Austrian media (which apparently went immediately into calm-the-population mode) reassured us about our remoteness from the disaster’s ground zero. They added that the winds seemed to be blowing northward toward Scandinavia and not in our direction. Kindergarten kids were told to stay home just in case, and mushroom hunting was not advised. We also might want to skip eating salads for a while. Measurements were being taken constantly and the situation was being monitored carefully. They would keep us advised.
Thirty years ago today, my mother called me.
“C., I want you to get on a plane and come home. Right now. Can you do that?”
There was panic in her voice. I had never heard her sound that way (and have never since). Obviously the tone of the news reports she was listening to in the States did not include that intention of calming people who, realistically speaking, had no options anyway. My mother looked at a map of Europe and saw only a small, one-country buffer zone between me and the radiation source. It took a long conversation to allay her fears.
The thing is, though, she was right. Years later, computer simulations had improved enough to show almost exactly how and where that radiation cloud moved in the days following the accident. When the five year anniversary of the disaster rolled around, this information was published and broadcast without much fanfare. I stared at the maps and thought “That’s not we were told at the time!”
As far as I can tell now, about the same time my mother and I were talking on the phone, the cloud was crossing the border into Austria. Three days later, this was the picture
Over the following years, many new policies, procedures and plans were quietly implemented in Austria, despite the fact that this country has no nuclear power plants. As we had learned, radioactivity does not respect borders and six of Austria’s neighboring countries have 29 reactors between them. So, for instance, we have a supply of emergency thyroid medication in our school to be administered to the children if something like Chernobyl happens again. If the news ever breaks that Temelin in the Czech Republic is melting down (50 miles from the Austrian border), my first task will be to find the binder of permission forms from the parents and then check which of the kids gets to/has to/ is not allowed to swallow a pill. Once that is done, I am not quite sure what the next step is. But I think I would be heading out quickly in the direction of my own children.
In the past three days, there have been many “Chernobyl – Thirty Years Later” reports. Fascinating camera images of the huge and de-peopled “Exclusion Zone” around Chernobyl document the seemingly thriving animal populations with their eerie ghost town backdrops.
An example exists, right now and not far from here, of what would happen if the people in this world were to disappear virtually overnight.
It makes you stop and think.