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Radiation: It’s Not Just for Superheroes

There’s vast uncertainty over what exactly happened in the early wee hours of April 26, 1986 in northern Ukraine, and the Soviet government wasn’t much help in elucidating. For several days, as children went to school and people prepared for the May Day holiday in the town of Pripyat, soldiers, scientists, and suckers were trucked to reactor #4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant to address what would later be recognized as the world’s worst nuclear disaster.

The first anyone outside the inner circle knew of the events was two days after the fact, when Sweden picked up high levels of radiation on their own shores and snitched that some kind of nuclear accident had occurred in the USSR.

So there’s the little history lesson. The Kiev museum dedicated to the accident serves primarily as a memorial. The entrance hall is flanked by 70+ black signs with evacuated-town names that are now in the 35km Exclusion Zone. The first exhibit is a dollhouse model of the plant, with flashing lights that an old woman was responsible for turning on whenever a tourist approached. Now I know which way the water traveled in the pipes. Helpful.

My handheld audio tour guide explained how the plant works. I didn’t really understand, but the guide seemed pretty confident, so I’ll assume it was accurate. The museum is as much a modern art collection as anything else, full of abstract dioramas, statuary of gas-masked cleanup crews beside an icon-painted church door, a barren tree growing out of a baby’s cradle, and an ark of children’s dolls hovering over an abyss of Jesus paintings.

Although there’s a broad overview of the events and repercussions, there’s many more photos and personal stories of the cleanup crews, almost all of which end with a line like, “He died in a Moscow hospital of X cancer three months later.” There are also a couple examples of what happens when you throw someone’s DNA in a box, shake it up, and then whip it back together again randomly. Such as the piglet at the top of this page, which didn’t get very far in life. As it turns out, radiation doesn’t always give you superpowers.

What the museum doesn’t provide is any information on the long-term impact, which I imagine is the most-devastating part. But maybe I’ll try to do some research for my visit to the actual plant in a few weeks. Or maybe I’ll just plan on doing that and then forget, which is much more likely.

View the complete flickr gallery of the museum.

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