Mapping the Fallout from the Chernobyl Disaster

An Interview with John Baldwin

Excerpted from the Environmental Review newsletter Volume one, number twelve, December 1994


On April 26, 1986, operators at the Chernobyl nuclear power station turned off backup safety systems during a safety drill and allowed reactor number four to run low on cooling water. The reactor overheated and exploded, demolishing the containment building and setting it on fire and sending a plume of radioactive smoke and dust up to an altitude of 36,000 feet. About fifty tons of nuclear fuel was mobilized in the explosion and ejected into the atmosphere. In addition, about seventy tons of reactor material were ejected onto the grounds around the plant, mingling with the debris of the building. Twenty six people, fire fighters and plant operators, received lethal doses of radiation during the first hours of the disaster. Soviet army personnel called "liquidators of the consequences of the Chernobyl accident" were brought in to cover the burning remains of the reactor, and pick up pieces of the reactor core that were on the ground. No reliable health records are available, but anecdotal evidence indicates high casualties were suffered and continue to be suffered by these people. The reactor continued to burn for several days after the explosion releasing radioactive particles into the air. Especially heavy contamination occurred downwind of Chernobyl in the areas where contaminated rain fell.

A group of American and Russian scientists are using a technique called Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to map the extent and distribution of radioactive contamination in an area of Russia called Novozibkov about one hundred forty miles downwind (northeast) of Chernobyl. The American scientists include Kit Larson the computer programmer who developed the Mac GIS tool, Professor David Hulse who did much of the software development of the computer models and Professor John Baldwin. Dr. Baldwin, Chernobyl project administrator, is a professor in the Department of Planning, Public Policy and Management and also Director of the Institute for a Sustainable Environment at the University of Oregon. He received the Ph.D. in Zoology and Wildlife Management in 1977 from the University of Wisconsin.

We spoke with Professor Baldwin about the GIS program and Chernobyl.

ER: Dr. Baldwin, did the Soviets approach you to do the GIS work downwind of Chernobyl?

JB: Yes. In 1990 David Hulse and I were participating in a faculty exchange. We were giving talks around Moscow State University on environmental education and also on the new technologies to foster environmental decisionmaking, one of which was the GIS tool. A geographic information system (GIS) is a computer-based system of mapping and analyzing spatially distributed variables, most commonly for land uses.

Professor Hulse was using his newly developed Mac GIS programs to show the physical circumstances of the Columbia River Gorge and show alternative development schemes and the impact they would have on changing the landscape and the beauty of the Gorge. We eventually gave a presentation before the U.S.S.R. Minister of Education Gennady Yagodin and he asked us if we could apply that same GIS decision-making tool to Chernobyl. Our response was yes. And he said, would you, in the next week while you are here in the Soviet Union, write a proposal and bring it to a meeting next Saturday here in my office? We walked into Gennady s office the next Saturday and it was a who s who of the Russian environmental community. There were about fifty environmental officials there. After we made our presentation we waited outside. There was a bit of a heated discussion and at the end of it Gennady said, we accept your proposal. We will fund the Soviet side if you will fund the American side.

ER: What did you propose?

JB: To establish two interdisciplinary teams: one at Moscow State University, one at the University of Oregon to develop the GIS mapping using Mac GIS, and then to put together a cartographic decision tool that would calculate doses of radiation received by people who were in the area downwind from the reactor and who had not been evacuated. The Russians established their research team with Professor Kavtaradze as administrator. On the American side, we put together a team and wrote several research grant proposals. The MacArthur Foundation provided $250,000 worth of funding and Apple Earth Grants gave us about $100,000 worth of equipment. We were off and running. We immediately ran into difficulties, not in accomplishing the scientific work but in staying in communication. Also, the Russian team began experiencing difficulties staying together and staying focused, in light of the collapse of the Soviet political and economic systems.

ER: The Soviet Union collapsed when you were back in the U.S. raising money?

JB: It was beginning to. By the summer of 1992, we had the funding and computer systems needed but we were having difficulty obtaining information from the Soviet Union. We needed to acquire information on the Novozibkov landscape. The problem was that all of the needed maps in the former Soviet Union were labelled "top secret".

Finally we got the base map sent to us handed to us in an exchange. On the side of the map was a little note in the Russian language that this map is "top secret". Dmitri Kavtaradze, who brought the map to us said, "in America you are so used to getting information. In Russia it is not so easy." About three months later the world witnessed an attempted coup by hardliners against President Yeltsin. Had the communist hardliners returned to office, they could have tried Dmitri for treason for giving top secret maps to Americans.

ER: What area did they give you maps for?

JB: The Novozibkov District west of the city of Bryansk. If you look at a map of Russia, you will see a tongue of land sticking out into Belarus and Ukraine. Novozibkov is that little tongue.

ER: Isn t that farther away from the reactor than the contaminated area in Ukraine?

JB: Oh, yes. It is about 230 kilometers downwind. [140 miles. ed.]

ER: So Novozibkov is not so contaminated that it has to be evacuated?

JB: To the contrary. We began looking at the maps of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia and it seemed like there was an inordinately large amount of radiation in this district, which is why the Russians were interested in it. A few months into the project, we hosted several of the Russians at the University of Oregon. During that visit, the Russians stated that the Hydro Meteorological Service of the Soviet Union was monitoring the radiation level, direction and speed of the clouds of radiation for days following the reactor accident. The reactor burned for something like twelve days. And any cloud that appeared to be heading towards Moscow, they cloud seeded over this rural Novozibkov district. We asked any proof of this. The answer was "There is no written record". We were subsequently working in the Ukraine with Andiy Demydenko, who was the Vice Minister of the Environment of the Ukraine and a physicist. Dr. Demydenko confirmed that it is widely known among the scientific circles of Ukraine and Russia that they did cloud seed and it was over Novozibkov. So this district has an inordinately high amount of radiation for the distance downwind.

ER: They were trying to get the radiation out of the clouds before it came down on Moscow?

JB: Right.

ER: Did that result in a patchy distribution of contamination?

JB: Very much so.

ER: I would expect a gradient; more contamination near Chernobyl and less farther away but apparently there are hot spots.

JB: The radiation downwind is much more spotty than a gradient, because this accident was in April when it was windy and rainy. The wind changed directions many times. In Novozibkov you can be standing with a geiger counter in one field which will be perfectly safe and 200 yards away it will be three times the level of evacuation.

In addition there are other concentrating factors like wherever rain hit a roof, the water collected into a gutter then spilled out into the grass adjacent to a home. We measured phenomenally high levels of radiation adjacent to several homes where rainfall from an entire roof poured down one spout. So right where children play, you had some of the highest levels of radiation.

ER: You were given topographical maps then you had to put the information from the radiation surveys onto the maps?

JB: Right. Part of the research team in Russia went out and collected the data that we needed on hydrology, soils, the sorts of standard things that you need. Vitaly Linnek, a professor in the geography department at Moscow State University did most of the independent collections and acquired the mapped information.

ER: You used Linnek's data and information to get an idea of where the radiation was and where it was not?

JB: Yes. We went out and measured every field (there were 560 fields in our study area many of them large, large collective farm fields) and took data from each of the fields and fed it into the computer.

ER: With a patchy distribution of fallout it is easy to miss hot spots. How did you organize the collection of data?

JB: We left it up to Vitaly Linnek, an independent professional who had no axe to grind and was only interested in telling the truth. The area we studied is rolling sand hills a very beautiful landscape very bucolic and quite homogeneous. The technique was to go out and sample the middle of every field. If in the middle of the field, there happened to be a peat bog, another sample site was chosen because a bog for example, concentrates a good deal of radiation. Peat, lichens and mushrooms concentrate an inordinately high amount of radioactivity. Rainwater washes the radioactive cesium into these flat, black bogs.

About halfway through the project we discovered an interesting policy issue involving a "coffin supplement". The supplement was being given to the locals to compensate them for having to live in a contaminated area. In our study area, the supplement was tied to the level of radiation in a resident's front yard. The higher the radiation, the greater the monetary compensation. To increase their income, residents would dig out peat, and burn it in their front yards to elevate their level of radiation. They would burn the peat just before the "men with clicking boxes" would come by to figure out what their supplement should be. They were actually contaminating their own front yards. As a consequence, some of the pensioners told us that they were getting the equivalent of double pensions.

ER: What is the primary contaminant?

JB: Cesium 137.

ER: What is the health effect of exposure to this radiation?

JB: Probably the most serious and most difficult to analyze health effect of the accident is what the Russians call "nuclear AIDS". The radiation suppresses and/or knocks out the immune system. Young children are more susceptible and many have gotten sick and/or died of the common cold or measles or influenza or pneumonia. We tried to collect data on per capita occurrence of contagious diseases at Novozibkov before and after the accident. But the data collection personnel and techniques were different. Our research team chose to stay away from issues of the likely health effects and focused on the standards and the doses.

ER: What would we expect from what we know from Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors?

JB: This is a much more serious long-term exposure to radiation. It is in the food chain. Russian scientists told us about three to five percent of the radiation doses received by the Chernobyl downwinders is external, similar to what survivors received at Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Ninety-five percent of it is internal through food and water and milk.

ER: And breathing dust?

JB: No, that is an external source. That is part of the three to five percent.

ER: So there is no historical precedent for this kind of human radiation exposure?

JB: No. The Soviet government set up systems of monitoring food and analyzing how much radiation was in certain foodstuffs. The Soviet policy was to distribute contaminated food throughout the different republics so that everyone in the Soviet Union got a little dose. But when the U.S.S.R. fell apart, so did the system of food monitoring and distribution. All of a sudden, the local people of Novozibkov had only contaminated local food to eat.

The majority of people who remain in the contaminated areas are older pensioners. Many of them feel that they do not want to change their way of life. The only way of life they know is farming. When many of them were evacuated to Kiev, they simply did not know how to live in a high- rise apartment. Eventually, despite the radiation risks, they moved back out to their farms. They said, we would rather die a year or two sooner from the radiation than live in those urban apartments.

Many of the citizens of Novozibkov were in total denial of the radiation contamination. You cannot see radiation, you cannot taste it, you cannot smell it. There appears to be no health effect at all. Perhaps my case of influenza was a little bit more severe this year. So what?

ER: According to Medvedev, local people seem to think that vodka is an antidote to radiation poisoning.

JB: Many people have asked me, what is the number one health effect of Chernobyl? My answer to that is, alcoholism. The bright young people with families and children, the enterprises that had excess capital that could move, have moved. Now, stores are open once a week, post offices one hour a week. What used to be a decent pension comes in from the government which is insufficient for a decent living today. And so these older people are farming the land as intensively as they can. The level of alcoholism is very high. We would find people at ten o clock in the morning, already too drunk to stand up.

ER: How many people live in Novozibkov?

JB: The mayor of the city of Novozibkov estimated that within the area that we were sampling, there were about 70,000 people.

ER: Have they abandoned the land closer in to Chernobyl?

JB: Oh, no. The Ukrainians are now spending about ten percent of their gross national product on mitigating the consequences of Chernobyl. They are doing everything from still working at covering up machines and contaminated materials at the site, health monitoring, getting medicines out to children, education programs. I have been working with the U.S. EPA and the new Ministry of Environment to develop a new national Environmental Education and Information Center in Kiev.

Up until two years ago, Chernobyl was Moscow s problem. The Soviets built the reactor; the Soviets controlled it. The clean-up came from liquidators that were Soviet many of them were from the Soviet Army. When Ukraine became an independent nation, all things changed. For example, the new Ukrainian currency began devaluing against the ruble. Ukrainians joke that the ruble is now considered a hard currency. When I last traveled in Ukraine, their currency had devalued by two-thirds over the ruble. So they hit hard economic times. The ability of the Ukrainian government to generate resources to help the children of Chernobyl is very negligible. Some childrens hospitals have been established in Kiev. There is some health monitoring going on now.

Up until the breakup of the Soviet Union, doctors were forbidden by Soviet decree from diagnosing a death being due to radiation from Chernobyl. They had to diagnose influenza, pneumonia, leukemia, cancer of some sort but never radiation from Chernobyl. So accurate health monitoring is just starting now.

ER: There is no trustworthy health data prior to 1992?

JB: I looked. There was a University of Leningrad study accomplished near Novozibkov that had been collecting health data. We were told informally by reliable sources that they were funded by proponents of nuclear power. Information systems in the former Soviet states have become so untrustworthy that unless you generate the data yourself, you cannot be certain you have good information.

ER: How many people are estimated to be in the downwind area in Ukraine that might be at risk?

JB: A 1992 United Nations pledging document said there are about four to five million people living downwind from the reactor in Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, the Baltic States and Eastern Europe, in unhealthful environments. Unhealthful is defined in the document as receiving some physical health effect. I must emphasize to readers that this definition of unhealthful could mean a rash, or it could mean a death from leukemia. Many more will get rashes than will die. But I think that statistic is important and reliable. The document is signed by the Prime Ministers of the forementioned affected republics.

ER: Is there an uninhabited region around the power plant?

JB: In theory, but we interviewed a woman who had moved back into the obligatory evacuation zone. There were scores of people living in formerly evacuated and abandoned villages.

ER: How large is the evacuation zone?

JB: It is a thirty kilometer zone around the reactor [19 miles. ed.] The woman we interviewed and her husband had been moved into Kiev where she claimed her husband died of unhappiness. She claimed he died because of stress of leaving their farm house. When he died, she moved back onto her farm which is within the evacuation zone. She simply denied that any danger existed. She said "Look at me. I m healthy. My cow is healthy. There is no radiation. It s a fraud. It s a lie. The government is just trying to take our land. It s a government conspiracy." When I said to her, aren t you concerned that reputable scientists say you are living in a dangerous zone? She replied, "Not at all." I had a geiger counter in my hand and I turned it on and put it on the least sensitive level and the needle went off the scale. We were standing in an area of very hot radioisotopes, including probably plutonium. She looked at the geiger counter and said, "That machine lies."

ER: There were little bits of reactor core spewed around the neighborhood. You probably walked on some if you went into the site.

JB: Yes. But most of the reactor site has been covered over with clean soil.

ER: Medvedev described the way people were picking up pieces of reactor core by hand.

JB: And getting lethal doses in less than thirty seconds. Two men we interviewed, who were the coordinators of a group of former liquidators, said that they go to two funerals a month in Moscow of liquidators. There are young men in their early thirties who are dying of radiation related health problems. Nuclear AIDS knocked out their immune systems, then they get tuberculosis or pneumonia or influenza.

ER: Are you going to work with Ukrainian authorities as well as the Russians?

JB: The U.S. EPA international office has granted about $220,000 to help set up an environmental education information center in Kiev. They have picked, in my mind, the best person possible in Ukraine to do it, Andiy Demydenko. The Ukrainians are in the process of reestablishing their language, reestablishing their culture and their economy. I think with the development of the Ukrainian economy, the resources will begin flowing much more significantly to help, in particular, the children of Chernobyl. There are several groups in the Northwest U.S. that are trying to help. For example, there is a Ukrainian church in Springfield, Oregon, and the Northwest Medical Teams Chernobyl Children Medical Fund has contributed heavily to the children of Chernobyl.

I cannot tell you how much the Ukrainians appreciate these efforts. These activities are extraordinarily helpful for Ukrainian/American relations. This sort of person to person direct contact is really appreciated.

ER: A dollar goes a long way in Ukraine.

JB: The Vice Minister of Environment of Ukraine makes twenty-nine dollars a month, so a dollar goes a long way.

ER: What is the average contamination in Novozibkov like?

JB: In the very southwestern region of our 400 square kilometer polygon, many of the fields were registering around ninety curies per square kilometer.

ER: Ninety curies is hot! [One curie is thirty-seven billion nuclear disintegrations per second. ed.]

JB: That is three times the evacuation level established by the former Soviet Union. Many of the towns are evacuated, yet we actually saw a cattle drive right through downtown of a small town and there were milk cattle. In the northeast of the Novozibkov polygon, the contamination diminishes to between ten to twenty curies per square kilometer, which is relatively safe.

ER: It s safe but still way above background, isn t it?

JB: Yes, the background level of radiation is around .01 or .02 curies per square kilometer. In the northeast, it is reasonably safe to engage in certain types of agricultural practices

ER: A curie is a lot of radiation and to hear that twenty even spread out over that large an area is acceptable is mind boggling. But that is Novozibkov. That is outside Ukraine.

JB: Right.

ER: There is a larger group of people and a larger land area closer in to Chernobyl. What is the contamination like there?

JB: In the proximity of the reactor and in places where the radiation clouds touched down, very high levels of contamination were measured. In places where there were heavy rainfalls downwind, you will find heavy concentrations of radionuclides. If you look at a larger map you can see where the major precipitation events occurred. In areas where there was no "touch down" or precipitation of radiation, not very much.

ER: The contamination is so patchy that you would have to look for it acre by acre, I would think.

JB: If I were in charge of long-term management of that landscape, say for the next thirty or forty years, the first thing I would do would be just that. You need to know what places are safe and what places are not.

They thought Novozibkov was safe following the accident. It is 220 kilometers to the northeast of Chernobyl and many of the local people and public officials did not know they were cloud seeding. So we saw a community center in Starobovichi that was proposed in 1989, built in 1990 and abandoned in 1992 because they found ninety curies per square kilometer contamination near the center.

We also saw new housing in the Novozibkov region that they built after the accident to house the evacuees. After measuring the radiation contamination around the houses, many had to be abandoned. The Soviet government had to build housing quickly for the evacuees and they had to guess which areas were the safest. This dramatically points out how useful contamination monitoring and a GIS would be for doing the sort of analysis, land planning and management that needs to be done in this contaminated area.

Copyright 1994 Environmental Review

Click here to go the the USGS site that has satellite images of Chernobyl showing the areas that have had to be abandoned.