The Dead Zone
North from Kiev, empty roads
The light of other summers opens
among the pages. In the photograph, your face,
fragile as pink shells washed along the beach;
the light moves, your face is more
the face of my memory,
not the face I knew, your image clouding over,
a shadow across these chapters.
At Chernobyl, in the first days after the explosions, places around the reactor emitted 30,000 roentgens per hour. To kill a human, a dose of 500 roentgens within a few hours is sufficient.
The cyclotrons divide
atom and soul, everywhere a sense
of madness and decay.
We shall wait a hundred years
to weigh the losses, behind the fence
comfy on the garden seat.
April 26, 1986
The Chernobyl staff received permission to resume the reactor power reduction. One of the operators made a mistake. Instead of keeping power at 30%, he forgot to reset a controller which caused the power to plummet to 1% because of water which was now filling the core, and xenon (a neutron absorber) which was building up in the reactor. This amount of power was too low for the test. The water added to the reactor is heated by the nuclear reaction and turned into steam to turn the turbines of the generator.
The operator forced the reactor up to 7% power by removing all but 6 of the control rods. This was a violation of procedure and the reactor was never built to operate at such low power. The RBMK reactor is unstable when its core is filled with water. The operator tried to take over the flow of the water which was returning from the turbine manually which is very difficult because small temperature changes can cause large power fluctuations. The operator was not successful in getting the flow of water corrected and the reactor was getting increasingly unstable. The operator disabled emergency shutdown procedures because a shutdown would abort the test.
By 01:22, when the operators thought they had the most stable conditions, they decided to start the test. The operator blocked automatic shutdown on low water level and the loss of both turbines because of a fear that a shutdown would abort the test and they would have to repeat tests.
I see through my hands, their taut nerves.
I have become more ancient than silence.
The test begins. The remaining turbine was shut down.
Power in the reactor began to gradually rise because of the reduction in water flow caused by the turbine shutdown which lead to an increase in boiling. The operator initiated manual shut down which lead to a quick power increase due to the control rod design.
Spade at the ready, Death at my shoulder sneers,
When whispers condemn, where
On the streets,
a crisscross of people, cars,
the celebration continues, the traffic light’s
ritual change, its sly wink
towards those disappearing deeper
of politicians, their jabber
of the public good a seepage
we sink through.
A gamma burst whitens flowers,
a mystery brightness surrounding
in quiet lanes.
The gag of fruit
ripens too early, plump poisons.
to send us to the wards.
Disaster Point – The reactor reached 120 times its full power. All the radioactive fuel disintegrated, and pressure from all of the excess steam which was supposed to go to the turbines broke every one of the pressure tubes and blew off the entire top shield of the reactor.
We came to the ocean, saying
but the seas were waste, vast
with our disbelief,
with our sinking through.
We believed the master plan, relentless,
all we were, the debt
at first we failed to notice
The day passes, and the world, too,
pale leaf sickly with this dew,
We look for blame, for reasons.
Crows boil up from the dead land.
Where are our senses, that we
may recognise our peace, the love
that has passed from us.
I have dreamed a dream,
and the dream returns, as if this sadness
could be named.
I watch the crows, above the city
their smoky flights, circling,
- The Art of Painting Fire-Warriors
The two explosions sent fuel core components, structural items, and hot, highly radioactive debris a kilometre in the air, exposing the destroyed core. On the rising plume, fission products and virtually all the noble gas inventory were sent northwest on prevailing winds.
Fires started in what remained of the Unit 4 building. A hundred fire-fighters from Pripyat were needed, and it was this group that received the highest radiation exposures. A first group of fourteen firemen arrived at 1:28 a.m., with reinforcements following until about 4 a.m., the largest fires on the roof of the machine hall by then under control; but by then the graphite fire had started.
Our journey begins without us.
We made a ceremony from our own ashes
that we should be remembered, orphans
in our time
that is without a history, a strangeness
that is ours alone, where we stood
to the great reaping,
in the winter that swallows us
after you have turned away.
Somewhere, distant, cheerful lands
Fly, fly, and as you fly, consider our condition here,
the indifference of fire
to our own wings, wrapped around us
in forgetting, charcoal-edged.
The intense heat of it dispersed radio-nuclides and fission fragments high into the atmosphere. A decision was made to layer the fire with large amounts of different materials, each one designed to combat a different feature of the fire and radioactive release.
In the inventory of deaths, our names
are missing, and the grief of mourners
is saved for others.
The wreath never laid, the music never played…
that hides itself in chromosomes
lingers too in the party line, its sly dismissal of our lives
to lesser maladies.
The bureaucrats on long lunches
took steps, because of us they weighed
the advantages, trading us in kind.
The first measures consisted in dumping neutron-absorbing compounds and fire-control material into the crater left from the destruction of the reactor. The total amount of materials dumped was about 5,000 tonnes, including 40 tonnes of boron compounds, 2,400 of lead, 1,800 of sand and clay, and 600 of dolomite, as well as sodium phosphate and polymer liquids (Bu93). The emissions continued for about twenty days.
Our deaths, of course, annoyed them, our lives
described as reckless and extreme, a natural by-product
of error, in fatal repetition.
How many souls to balance the books?
How many noughts to make this desperation
We will never disappear, understand
we will never disappear, our sickness is deeper
than their lies, we will never be silent.
We will rise from our own graves,
from the earth itself, from the unchanging earth
that will not accept our burial.
While the conventional fires at the site posed no special fire-fighting problems, very high radiation doses were incurred by firemen, resulting in thirty-one deaths. Little national or international expertise on fighting graphite fires existed, and there was a very real fear that any attempt to put it out might well provoke a criticality excursion in the nuclear fuel.
Rest easy, stranger, out of time.
We all want something no longer possible,
a bit more room, a little breath
that tells of these things, of our
going out together.
This is the way it ends, in the last of prayer and the last of pain.
Rest easy, stranger, out of time.
In the heaven we imagine,
a fiery tumour swells in the throats of the liars,
and as they choke, our corpses rise
and walk through the ruined towns.
About 150 tonnes of material were dumped on 27 April, followed by 300 tonnes on 28 April, 750 tonnes on 29 April, 1,500 tonnes on 30 April, 1,900 tonnes on 1 May, and 400 tonnes on 2 May.
About 1,800 helicopter flights were carried out to dump materials onto the reactor. During the first flights, the helicopter remained stationary over the reactor while dumping materials. As the dose rates received by the helicopter pilots during this procedure were too high, it was decided that the materials should be dumped while the helicopters travelled over the reactor. This procedure caused additional destruction of the standing structures and spread the contamination.
While it was later discovered that many of these compounds were not actually dropped on the target, they may have acted as thermal insulators and precipitated an increase in the temperature of the core, leading to a further release of radio-nuclides a week later.
How is it possible
that I am alive?
I stagger on,
that was stalked.
In my thirtieth year
a wet-rot of corpses
crowding my soul.
Harder now to breathe,
I can no longer
my spirit’s own song.
I am poorly
in this silence, its dull
How shall I fly,
weary with roads?
Though I reach out
to heaven’s edge,
how shall I soar?
Here are my goodbyes.
In the sky
I recognise faces of those
who are remembered
beyond this nothingness.
Still, the soul remains.
everything of it, present,
everything of it, in its first
How shall we recall what cannot be forgotten?
I know my duty.
of it sacrosanct, I hold it to my heart.
So may we all be obliged.
The further sequence of events is still speculative, although elucidated with the observation of residual damage to the reactor. It is suggested that the melted core materials settled to the bottom of the core shaft with the fuel forming a metallic layer below the graphite.
On day 8 after the accident, the corium melted through the lower biological shield and flowed onto the floor, enhancing the radio- nuclide releases, and on contact with water, the corium produced steam, causing an increase of radio-nuclides at the last stage of the active period.
By 9 May, the graphite fire had been extinguished, and work began on a massive reinforced concrete slab with a built-in cooling system beneath the reactor. This involved digging a tunnel from underneath Unit 3. About four hundred people worked on this tunnel which was completed in 15 days, allowing the installation of the concrete slab. This slab would not only be of use to cool the core if necessary, it would also act as a barrier to prevent penetration of melted radioactive material into the groundwater.
I continue to the last.
Endless time, I know you better now.
I am dizzy with the thought
of last goodbyes.
Whom shall I adore?
You, stranger, by chance
I shall never know you, except
in your smile, the wry, sidelong look.
Your eyes follow me, bewildered
by my love for you.
This pointless love,
focusing through the stark silence
of abandoned villages,
the absurdity of grudges
and confessional splendour.
Fortune is a trifling thing, success, too.
The pining for wealth, paltry.
How much for last year’s snow? Tell me
the worth of what has passed your understanding
This is my joy, returning home
to my friends, kinship’s debt, for once
without thinking of the ashes
of my home, or the burden
of bowing down.
What life is left to me?
A month is ash in my hand.
Here is love,
my world robed in brightness.
this fire and breathlessness?
After the interrogations,
even the ashes disappeared.
Yet the soul lives on, the ashes
rise up, reckless with new life.
So shall breath, so shall I live.
I am standing in cool flame.
Inferno, I step forward
Your hands, merciful.
My love, to protect you,
here is heaven’s broad shield.
- Dose Estimates
The exposure of the population as a result of the accident resulted in two main pathways of exposure. The first is the radiation dose to the thyroid as a result of the concentration of radio-iodine and similar radio-nuclides in the gland. The second is the whole-body dose caused largely by external irradiation mainly from radio-caesium.
The most exposed workers were the firemen and the power plant personnel during the first days of the accident. Most of the dose received by the workers resulted from external irradiation from the fuel fragments and radioactive particles deposited on various surfaces. Of particular interest are the 226,000 recovery operation workers who were employed in the 30-km zone in 1986-1987, as it is in this period that the highest doses were received.
April’s wrongs are with us, the misery
we made our own.
We have awakened to what cannot be changed, our lives
stooped with the burden of this knowledge, the anguish.
Home is nowhere… it has slipped
into a greater pain, and you have my word
that everything we remember
continues fixed in pain between heartbeats.
Our town, surrounded by thorns and bitter voices
wonders, in its love for us, in forgiveness always,
When will you return?
Our town lives on,
nightly its windows brushed with moonlight,
and we, empty wisps of dreams,
Memories hold the shapes of trees,
unchanged, our hands touching there unforgotten.
No one walks in the shade,
saved from high summer heat, no one
to tell the trees they are memories.
Our dreams are on fire, and in this fire the branches
sway gently, and we, without a champion
except towards morning the stars,
bright battalions of them, falling on pavements
until the hour passes,
and even dreams are abandoned.
We stare into the windows of nameless places,
into crazed, deep cold
we know means goodbye.
Immediately after the accident, monitoring of the environment was started by gamma dose rate measurements. About 20 hours after the accident the wind turned in the direction of Pripyat, gamma dose rates increased significantly in the town, and it was decided to evacuate the inhabitants. About 20 hours later the 49,000 inhabitants of Pripyat had left the town in nearly 1,200 buses. About a further 67,000 people were evacuated in the following days and weeks. Prior to evacuation, those individuals were exposed to external irradiation from radioactive materials transported by the cloud and deposited on the ground, as well as to internal irradiation essentially due to the inhalation of radioactive materials in the cloud.
Our X-ray lives somehow
different than your dread
of wars, betrayals,
the meanness, the fools of law
we see through.
So, it is time we define this condition.
After all, did you think Chernobyl
was play-acting, or doses
of agitprop we would meekly swallow.
The ministers blame us, we
who are made ciphers, we who
would not lower ourselves
to the burning brand: radiophobia.
What do you suggest, that we
accept your world, its forms,
its promises of reform? You need
your eyes tested.
With regard to internal doses from inhalation and ingestion of radio-nuclides, the situation is similar: radioiodine was important during the first few weeks after the accident and gave rise to thyroid doses via inhalation of contaminated air, and, more importantly, via consumption of contaminated foodstuffs, mainly cow’s milk.
On the night of 26 April 1986, about 400 workers were on the site of the Chernobyl power plant. As a consequence of the accident, they were subjected to the combined effect of radiation from several sources: (1) external gamma/beta radiation from the radioactive cloud, the fragments of the damaged reactor core scattered over the site and the radioactive particles deposited on the skin, and (2) inhalation of radioactive particles.
The second category of liquidators (workers brought in for clean-up) consists of the large number of adults who were recruited to assist in the clean-up operations. They worked at the site, in towns, forests and agricultural areas to make them fit to work and live in. About 600,000 of individuals participated in this work. Initially, about 240,000 of those workers came from the Soviet armed forces, the other half including personnel of civil organisations, the security service, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and other organisations.
Every life, every face,
Each death is our own.
Earth, so fragile through these windows.
Everything gone, beyond these panes only
we can see through, the rivers
boiled off, the forests yellow with Geiger static.
Here is my child, this
Who will protect us now, your sound bites?
Will we be saved by sound bites?
‘Radiation is good, radiation
Is the future, look, the bodies of children
soaked in it
As if our children could bargain
through bones burning
Blame us, as if, as if, as if…
While the scientists puzzle with the forms,
the passed buck bursts into flames,
an X-ray world, everywhere,
Our time in Hell prepares us. We have seen
the dead bolt through abandoned streets.
We have seen ourselves, running.
Prophets, we have cured ourselves.
Through your carelessness, we are gods.
We are changed.
The primary health effect of Chernobyl has been widespread psychological distress in liquidators, evacuees, residents of contaminated areas, and residents of adjacent non-contaminated areas; several psycho-neurological syndromes characterized by multiple unexplained physical symptoms including fatigue, sleep and mood disturbances, impaired memory and concentration, and muscle and/or joint pain have been reported in the Russian literature. These syndromes, which resemble chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, are probably not due to direct effects of radiation because they do not appear to be dose-related to radiation exposure and because they occur in areas of both high and low contamination.
The radioactivity released at Chernobyl was estimated to be about two hundred times that of the combined releases in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
You will stumble upon my shadow,
plunged in deeper, leafy shade.
See, within pale starlight
another question presides, searing,
The brutal darkness does not answer.
The light the mouth cannot describe
does not answer.
shake loose their gravity,
a sweetness of jasmine in the night,
at our backs a breath of mist.
The spent leaf yellows where it falls.
If it was possible to breathe it,
we would understand the end of time.
The lateness of this season
came to us suddenly.
Dazed, we understood everything.
Translated by Estill Pollock
Notes on the Text
The details of the events surrounding the nuclear accident at Chernobyl are adapted directly from public records. I have drawn on the comparative statistics from scientific journals to maintain the integrity of the narrative, although I have avoided the use of analytical tables where the evidence can be presented by other means.
In 1986, Lyubov Sirota was living with her young son Alex (called ‘Sasha’) in the city of Pripyat in Soviet Ukraine. On the night of 26 April, while sitting at the open window of her house, she witnessed the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, only 1.5 kilometres distant. They were among the tens of thousands evacuated from the area in the following hours. In the months and years following the events of that night, she and her son suffered the effects of radiation exposure, and came to share the same problematic medical histories as the other citizens of Pripyat and the surrounding region.
In the late 1980s, she published, in Kiev, a small book of ‘Chernobyl’ poems. The poems were later translated from Russian into English by Birgitta Ingemanson, with a further version by Elisavietta Ritchie and Leonid Levin, through the auspices of Professor Paul Brians in the United States. A small-press edition of the poems has been published in the United States, and particular poems have appeared in anthologies linked to scientific or medical studies and to anti-nuclear debate. The poems in “Resurrection Suite” are adapted from the Russian-English versions. It is fair to say that the poetry here is version rather than translation, although I have tried to maintain the thematic focus of the poems, that is inevitably affected in any case, through the revolutions of text from the original Russian.
The Soviet authorities originally denied the details of the accident, and the extent of the effects of radiation on the rescue teams and on the population in the surrounding area.
To this day, Pripyat remains an abandoned city.
This translation is taken from Available Light, by Estill Pollock, published 2007 by Cinnamon Press.
More information about Lyubov Sirota and translations of her work can be found here: http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/chernobyl_poems/chernobyl_index.html