CHERNOBYL, SOVIET UNION — "I am alone as a dry stick in the field." The words are spoken slowly with a profound and unself-conscious dignity. The dialect is ancient Byelorussian. The face is deeply wrinkled, the hair thin and white. The speaker, bent almost double with osteoporosis, is one of the old women of the Forbidden Zone, a 30-kilometer circle around Chernobyl.
I am a surprise visitor. Except for a narrow cot, there is no furniture in the woman's supposedly abandoned hut. No electricity and no water, except for a well. She lives off the land and the occasional kindness of the militiamen, who know she is there but never admit it openly.
The radiation level at her front door, nearly five years after the Chernobyl accident, is more than 200 times normal. She has not seen anyone for three months. She knows there are others like her nearby, but it is too far for her to walk to see them.
She came back to the Forbidden Zone after being evacuated. "Why?" I asked. "Because my home is here. I came back two years ago. I came back to die," she says.
This woman is part of a story the United States has been mistakenly ignoring. We have been relegating Chernobyl to that most unimportant of all categories known as "old news." But the stark realities of the nightmare that began on April 28, 1986, continue to be a major force shaping the future of the Soviet Union and global geopolitics.
No one knows how to cope with the still-unfolding consequences of what happened at Chernobyl Reactor Unit 4. No one knows what may happen next. This, in effect, gives entrenched authorities and those arrayed against them great piles of blank checks to fill in as they please to buy support for vastly different agendas.
Another stark reality is the alarmingly high probability that the Soviets could suffer another nuclear accident of near Chernobyl-like proportions. Over a dozen Chernobyl-style reactors continue to operate. The consequences of a Chernobyl II, both for the future of the Soviet Union and for the future of nuclear-power programs and politics worldwide, would be monumental. Nuclear power from these reactors is indispensable to the Soviet Union--even more so than the power from the Japanese reactor near Kyoto that malfunctioned last weekend is indispensable to Japan. Japan's high-quality safety system prevented a disaster. Soviet systems, operating procedures and maintenance are not nearly as good.
The next Chernobyl probably would not come from the grotesque combination of arrogance, stupidity and complacency that led to the first. No one is again likely to deliberately disable major safety systems to run tests on a reactor whose builders made a Faustian bargain: They accepted the inherent tendency of their design to produce wild surges in power, and they accepted the risks of a pathetic lack of containment to increase plutonium generation for weapons.
Since 1986, the Soviets have done several technical things to make the Chernobyl reactors less skittish, and they have improved their operating and training procedures. But the reactors remain unstable, their containment systems ineffective. Studies also have identified at least six ways the reactors can fail that appear entirely outside the original Soviet designs for controllable worst-case situations. Another nine types of failures that would be difficult to handle have also been uncovered.
The contamination from the Chernobyl disaster has become an inexhaustible source of personal political leverage. In a society where a poorly informed populace must grapple on a learn-as-you-go basis with the unfamiliar processes of democracy, politicians who wrap themselves in mantels of sure-voiced expertise can seem persuasive even though they are often wrong.
If future relocation policy for the contaminated areas in the Ukraine and Byelorussia is set according to Moscow's wishes, for example, the threshold for new evacuations would be roughly one-half to one-third that allowed for U.S. Navy nuclear personnel or nuclear-industry workers with several decades on the job. The U.S. standard implies a fatal cancer rate about equal to the frequency of fatal accidents in non-nuclear industries generally consid ered safe. Using this level as a guideline, Moscow should still move several hundred thousand more people to new homes and jobs.
But many politicians and scientists in the affected republics feel Moscow's threshold is far too high. They argue vehemently for a standard five times lower--corresponding to current U.S. guidelines for exposure of the general American population. This tighter standard would require that a huge number--perhaps millions--of Ukrainians and Byelorussians would have to be uprooted.