Spring should bring flowers in bloom, birds, sunshine, and renewed hope after a long winter, not nuclear meltdown. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima Daiichi – all nuclear industry made disasters that started during springtime continue to forewarn us of the dangers of nuclear power. As Albert Einstein said, “The release of atomic power has changed everything except our way of thinking … the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker (1945).”
Fairewinds Energy Education commemorated the nuclear catastrophes at Fukushima Daiichi and Three Mile Island during March and April and Sunday, April 26, marks 29 years since the horrific and memorable meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Ukraine. Burlington, Vermont playwright and author Spencer Smith, who created the readers’ play Voices From Chernobyl joins Maggie Gundersen, president of Fairewinds Energy Education, in this week’s emotional and moving Fairewinds’ video production about the ongoing Chernobyl tragedy.
Spencer Smith remembers 1986 and the nuclear mess that the meltdown at Chernobyl created and her Peace Corp service from 2001-2003 in the Ukraine further deepened her interest in the Chernobyl meltdown and concern for those still experiencing the significant human repercussions. As a Peace Corp Volunteer, Spencer was advised not to swim in the lakes, not to eat foraged berries and mushrooms, and definitely not to drink the water due to residual traces of radioactive chemicals from Chernobyl, which remains to this day an uninhabitable radioactive zone. Spencer learned from first hand accounts about the Soviet Union’s cover up during the Chernobyl nuclear crisis that subsequently exposed hundreds of thousands to high doses of radioactivity.
After her Peace Corps service, Spencer moved to Vermont where she became involved with the Vermont Yankee Decommissioning Alliance in Montpelier in an effort to draw attention to the shutdown of Vermont Yankee. After reading Voices From Chernobyl, the highly acclaimed book by Soviet journalist Svetlana Alexievich, Spencer created the readers’ play Voices From Chernobyl, in an effort to make people around the world more aware of this ongoing catastrophe for the people of the Ukraine. Exiled from her own country, Svetlana Alexievich’s work is that of a truly dedicated journalist who risked her life by entering radioactive zones in order to interview victims and expose their stories about the truth of nuclear power.
Spencer’s play tells the story of six of Svetlana’s interviewees: the wife of a fireman, a physicist, a scientist, an executive of Chernobyl, a peasant who moved back to the contaminated area, and a mother.
“If you look back at the whole of our history, both soviet and post- soviet” said Svetlana Alexievich, “it is a human common grave and a blood bath, an eternal dialogue of the executioners and the victims, the accursed Russian questions, what is to be done and who is to blame. The revolutions, the gulags, the Second World War, the Soviet-Afghan War hidden from the people, the downfall of the great empire, the downfall of the giant socialist land, the land utopia, and now a challenge of cosmic dimensions: Chernobyl. This is a challenge for all the living things on earth. Such is our history. And this is the theme of my book. This is my path, my circles of hell.”
FAIREWINDS ENERGY EDUCATION –Spencer Smith interview (transcribed 4-20-15)
MG: Thank you for joining us today at Fairewinds Energy Education. Today’s video guest is Spencer Smith. And we’re here to talk about voices from Chernobyl. Spencer received her MFA in writing from Vermont College. She’s published fiction, two plays and a novel, “Depth of Field.” In New York City, she worked as a writer, producer in corporate television. And currently Spencer is writing a memoire of her experiences as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine from 2001 to 2003. She’s returned for visits to Ukraine in 2006, 2009 and plans to visit again this June. Spencer also taught creative writing, fiction, screenplays, memoire, at American colleges and universities, as well as in the Ukraine, and on a Fulbright in Belarus, Russia. Spencer, thank you for joining us today.
SS: Thank you for inviting me. It’s good to be here.
MG: It’s good to have you here. How did you first become interested in Chernobyl?
SS; Well, I remember the disaster in 1986. I remember there was question of what was going on because the Swedes were picking up radioactive signals and they thought it was one of their reactors. And then soon after – of course, the Soviets were trying to keep it totally quiet, they thought they could do that for some reason – and so unfortunately, because they didn’t tell the world, a lot of people were exposed. I know that the family I lived with during Peace Corps training in Western Ukraine, I remember not the first time I was there, but when I went back later for a visit, the young wife of the family – her mother is my age – said my mother and I were out in the radioactive rain. We never told anyone. And of course she had a child later who thankfully is fine. But another friend of mine was in Germany and she was pregnant – 8 or 9 months pregnant with twins and she was very upset, of course, because they got a very heavy – she was out working in her garden all day when it was raining. So I’ve kind of over the years picked up bits. Now when I was in Ukraine the first time in ’01 to ’03, nobody wanted to talk about Chernobyl. Of course, the Peace Corps did. They told us not to go swimming, not to eat wild berries or wild mushrooms, not to drink the water, all kinds of precautions. And there were other problems, of course. There was a lot of other industrial pollution besides Chernobyl but that was, of course, the worst. So – and now, of course there’s a renewed interest in having nuclear reactors in Ukraine.
MG: They’re trying to build new ones now?
SS: Yes, because of their energy problems. They want to get away from natural gas. Well, it’s all over Europe. I mean the French, of course, are going ahead. They believe it’s clean. I saw a portion of an interview last night where they said, well – some spokesman saying well, at least we have clean energy here in France – you would know this – what percent nuclear power they are.
MG: (3:36) I think we’re at around 19 percent –
SS: In this country?
MG: Yeah. And I think France is higher than that, but I don’t remember off the top of my head, because they’re having trouble with some of their reactors now. They have a lot of pollution. They’ve leaked a lot of radiation from the reprocessing system, which doesn’t work correctly. And then what’s left – they don’t know what to do with all that waste, and they’re dumping it in Siberia. So their whole system doesn’t work and now –
SS: This is the French who are dumping it in Siberia?
MG: The French are dumping it.
SS: Lucky Russians.
MG; What they were supposed to reprocess.
SS: Well, it’s bad news everywhere. Now you asked about Chernobyl and what I knew about it when I was there. When I got back, this book came out in 1997 in Russian. It has a different – Molitva Tchernobylskaia which means “The Prayer of Chernobyl,” but the English translation, “Voices from Chernobyl” By Svetlana Alexievich, a well-known soviet journalist, except she’s exiled – not exiled, but she left for her own safety.
MG: So did you ever meet her?
SS: I never met her but I was so taken with this book when it got translated in – I guess it was in ’05, and I saw it in ’06. I guess it was just before or just after a visit back to Ukraine. So then I became involved in the Vermont Yankee Decommissioning Alliance when I was living in Montpelier. And it was getting to be either end of March or early April and I said well, you know, the Chernobyl anniversary will be next month. I think it was going to be the 21st anniversary. And I said we should do something to get people’s attention. And so everybody said yeah, that’s a great idea, what do we do. Well, I had just read this book and I thought maybe I could make a readers’ play out of that.
MG: That’s a good solution for you as a screenwriter and playwright.
SS: Well, I had written. And so I did it in a couple of days really. I created a narrator and then I took six characters from the book. There are actually 100 characters in the book. But I took six plus created a narrator to sort of hold things together. And it worked very well and we did it first twice in Montpelier and then we did it in Burlington and Shelburne –
MG: (6:09) That’s when I first met you was the very first performance in Burlington.
SS: Okay. That was the one maybe at Burlington College? Or was it at the View U Church? We did both.
MG: I saw both places. And I was so struck and just touched. It’s tearful and it’s so emotional. I felt so badly for the people.
SS: Well, it’s great, because the people are telling their story in their own words. She’s a very skillful interviewer obviously, and then instead of having her questions in there, it’s just presented as monologues by these people and their stories. So I picked a variety. I have an illiterate peasant woman, I have the wife of a firefighter who died a couple of weeks afterward because they were sent with no protection to the site. Then I had the head of the Belarusian – I guess – I don’t know, nuclear – anyway, the top scientist in Belarus.
MG: I liked that character a lot.
SS: And there’s another scientist who came in later who talked about how like 250,000 soldiers were sacrificed to the disaster. And of course still they’re trying to enclose the thing because it’s still releasing tons of radioactive material, and they don’t have the money for it. And Europe has been pouring a lot of money – billions into this – and still it’s not secure.
MG: Well, everyone’s backed off and my understanding is that by 2018, that sarcophagus has to be resealed. But there are – currently there are no funds available to do it. And as we look at this, I mean the 30th anniversary of this tragedy – this full meltdown will be in 2016 – next year. So I think it’s really mindful that we talk about this.
SS: Well, there’s also a thing, I think we talked about it, where there wasn’t a lot of forest in that area. There were forested parts, but mostly it was farmland and people – there were some small towns there. But since it’s been abandoned, people could no longer live safely there. The forests have grown up and now there are forest fires there. And so all that contaminated material is burning and sending radiation.
MG: We’ve talked about that on our website and done some tweets on our Twitter feed because it’s just devastating that that is happening again. And we’ll have a link up there to that material when this video is on the site. I was especially touched by the character you mentioned earlier from Belarus – the scientist.
SS: Most of them were from Belarus because even though it happened in Ukraine, it was right on the border of Belarus and the wind blew most of the radiation north into Belarus. There’s a joke when I was in Belarus later, the president said, well, we weren’t irradiated in Minsk because when the cloud came north, it parted around Minsk. You know, I’m like, well, it’s soviet humor.
MG: (9:14) As our viewers on Fairewinds Energy Education know, we just finished a whole lot of material on Three Mile Island. And one of the things people who were at Three Mile Island talk about, which the scientist in Belarus spoke about in your play is the metallic taste and the quiet, that all the birds stop, there’s no sound, and what that meant. And the plume issue was something that we talked about as well, with Dr. Ignaz Vergiener moved up the river by Three Mile Island and he studied everything. And the plume moved right up along the river and followed certain paths. And that’s the same thing you’re saying here. The plume goes where it goes by the meteorology. And that wasn’t fully studied at Three Mile Island. His testimony was excluded. And you have, as you’re saying, some people claiming oh, it never hit us in Minsk because it went around us. And you have what happened in Japan with Fukushima Daiichi in that people were evacuated into the plume because the meteorologists didn’t play a role in that process.
SS: Well, I guess if the plume had gone in a slightly different direction, they would have had to evacuate Tokyo, which is incredible to think – just think of New York city – well, of course, we have a plant just 40 miles north of New York City.
MG: Right, the Indian Point plant, and the evacuation plan will –
SS: There’s no way to –
MG: No. There’s no way to evacuate. It’s hopeless.
SS: So this is a really fine book. I recommend it. The original that the play is taken from. And the play I guess will be also posted in text form. You have an audio version, but also in text form if people want to perform the play, they can download it and have a community reading.
MG: That was one of my questions for you: Who should they connect with? Should they write? Do they have to write for permission or can they –
SS: No. I posted at the top of the text that I sent to you that anybody can perform this play as long as they don’t charge admission. And you’re allowed to charge a small – not charge, but ask for a small donation just to help if you have to rent a space to do it or something like that.
MG: That’s wonderful.
SS: Yeah. And it was the Dalkey Archive Press that actually did the American version, and we had a lawyer in our group, Ben Scotch, who contacted them and they said that these were the terms we could use it, if we weren’t making money from it.
MG: (12:06) That’s wonderful. I feel that’s really important. You said you’re still in touch with many of the people there, and you’re going back in June. What are you going to be doing in June when you’re back there?
SS: Well, I’m going to visit with my friends who I know. And I may be giving – do some readings of my writing in local libraries. My friend, the Dean of Foreign Languages at the University is making it possible for me to stay there free, so of course – I was there for a month I guess in ’09 and I think I spent $100 the whole month. Save money by going there. And that’s not the point. So yeah, I’ll visit with friends and after I’m there for about 3 weeks, I’ll probably go to Sweden and see friends I’ve known since high school days in Sweden to recover from what I saw in Ukraine.
MG: It’s sobering.
SS: Yeah, it’s very upsetting because of the – because of this terrible war that the Russians – Putin has pushed. And they’re very anxious because he’s already taken Crimea, if anybody – probably now people have seen a map of Ukraine and have a sense that Crimea is this peninsula off the southern part of Ukraine. And the Russians, through the separatists, but it’s really a Russian-led thing, are working through the east and they want to come right along the south and take that whole south, because they also want the city eventually where I will be going, to Nikolaev because it was their only warm water ship building center. The other one is in Murmansk, which is inside the Arctic Circle.
MG: Well, all of the war and the fact that there isn’t money to cover the sarcophagus. The concrete is deteriorating and they need to do that. With all of that in mind, what’s it like for people living there? What’s the financial situation? Can you tell our viewers that?
SS: Well, it’s very hard for the average person because if you think about the fact. I was there – well, I was first there in – well, I left in ’03 after being there two years. The exchange rate was 5 to 1. One Dollar would get you five hyrvinia. When I went back in ’09, it was 10 to 1. It’s now about 25 to 35 – it fluctuates – to 1. And their pensions and their salaries are not going up. And my friend the dean said that what’s happening is there’s this tremendous energy for civic rebuilding of the country, but it’s all, as he put it, horizontal. In other words, you have this corrupt elite and these oligarchs who’ve been controlling everything and how to break that pattern. Plus apparently the KGB from Russia had infiltrated a great deal of the army and also the intelligence service in Ukraine. It’s a hard thing. There’s this long history of Ukraine and Russia together, but pats of it have been never or hardly ever part of Russia in the west and the east was a part of Russia from about 1800 on.
MG: (15:20) I just saw a video today, a television video, of a young woman, she’s in her early 20’s, who’s running in a half marathon in Kansas City. And she is a child of the Chernobyl disaster. A group of doctors originally brought her to the U.S.
SS: Oh, there’s been a whole program of doing that with children.
MG: She has no – her legs stop at her knees, and the doctors have made her prosthetic legs and she has no feet. And so she’s learned to run. And she’s missing many fingers on her hands from the impact of Chernobyl, the radiation exposure that her mom was – received.
SS: There are so many children that – yeah, horrendously –
MG: She’s still in touch with her own family, but they had put her in a special school that was to try and help her because she couldn’t get along in a regular system. But doctors – U.S. doctors went to those areas and proceeded to look at different children that they could help surgically and bring them here. And so she spent 7 or 8 summers here and really learned a lot. And she ended up the host family – 3 host families sponsored her to take university here. So she’s graduated from college and she’s now living in Kansas City and she’s running in this half marathon. And she said she’s –
SS: Was she from Belarus or Ukraine, do you know?
MG: It didn’t – it said Ukraine. That’s all it said. But I don’t know any closer than that. It was a regular channel media, news story.
SS: When I was in Belarus, there’s a huge cancer hospital on the outskirts of Belarus. You have to go by bus forever. I guess they don’t want people to see it basically. So I went out there because I had some little growth on my eye and this local doctor thought, oh, you probably have cancer, you go out there. And this woman there, this doctor said, oh, we can cut that out tomorrow for you. I said I think I’ll wait until I get home. Of course, it disappeared on its own. But there were a lot of – it was a pretty depressing looking place. But there were some vans there that were clearly from other countries who take children. And I can’t remember the countries now. There were several countries in Western Europe that also had taken children every summer, to get them out of the radiation. Because the radiation is still there in Belarus.
MG: Well, that’s happening currently. A lot of children from Japan are taken to other places in the world to help them because there’s so much radiation in Fukushima Prefecture. It’s challenging. After researching – I have a couple more questions for you – after researching this material and writing the readers’ play, what are your opinions about nuclear power?
SS: (18:22) Oh, well, I think it’s pretty evident. I think it’s a big mistake. I mean it’s the whole idea of – it was just a bad idea to split the atom. It was only done for military purposes, and then they had all this stuff laying around. What are we going to do with this? Oh, we could boil water with it.
MG: Einstein said it was the worst idea for boiling water ever. How do you feel about what’s happened at Vermont Yankee now? Because you said you were involved with Vermont Decommissioning –
SS: I know that they were ordered to shut down and they’re not producing heat, not producing electricity any more. But the thing is still there, and I’m sure it’s – there were a lot of things that needed to be repaired before they shut down, which may be causing problems now. You’re probably more up on that than I am. But you did mention – maybe you could say a little more about it – about the need to – what was it – you were talking about –
MG: Well, it’s really important for our viewers and listeners to understand that the federal government is trying to make changes to the decommissioning policy. And they’re trying to make sure that communities have to keep the waste and are responsible for further cleanup if the utilities and energy companies don’t. And that’s just not what the communities or the states took on. These companies have made a lot of money and they should be fully responsible for the cost of commissioning and entire cleanup. The statute – the Federal Code of Regulations – is clear.
SS: So the law is clear.
MG: The law is clear. It’s the Code of Federal Regulations –
SS: There needs to be a lawsuit perhaps. I don’t know, is the state thinking about bringing a suit?
MG: That I don’t know. We have done a really involved study and submitted it to the NRC and the State. We had a Lintilhac Foundation grant to do that and we’ve spent a year doing that. And it’s just terrifying now as all different groups – the State of Vermont submitted materials, we submitted materials, different interveners all around the country have submitted materials because 7 plants are being decommissioned now in the U.S. And as those were being submitted to the NRC for their rule making, they have not put those on their website at all. They’re not allowing everyone to see what the comments were; and behind the scenes, they’re working with the industry to change the rule to help the industry. So it’s pretty frightening.
SS: Pretty immoral.
MG: Yeah. I think it’s immoral, too.
SS: I could read you this short quote from Svetlana Alexievich. And this is the woman who wrote the book and is such a dedicated journalist and really put her own life in danger to go into the zones to interview people. She said: If you look back at the whole of our history, both soviet and post- soviet” – remember she was a soviet journalist – “it is a human common grave and a blood bath, an eternal dialogue of the executioners and the victims, the accursed Russian questions, what is to be done and who is to blame. The revolutions, the gulags, the Second World War, the Soviet-Afghan War hidden from the people, the downfall of the great empire, the downfall of the giant socialist land, the land utopia, and now a challenge of cosmic dimensions: Chernobyl. This is a challenge for all the living things on earth. Such is our history. And this is the theme of my book. This is my path, my circles of hell.” Heavy stuff.
MG: Very heavy stuff. Spencer, thank you for sharing that quote and thank you for joining us today. We really appreciate having you.
SS: It’s always great having a visit.
MG: In closing, I want to ask our viewers to please look at this material on our site. We’ve done a retrospective and commemorative piece on Fukushima Daiichi, we’ve also done two huge pages and given you lots of material to read about Three Mile Island. And now Spencer was kind enough to join us today and talk to you about Chernobyl. And she’s been there and met with Ukrainians and knows first hand –she’s written a beautiful readers’ play that I hope you’ll listen to. It’s up on our site. And I hope you work with us to find a more sustainable energy future.