Watching HBO’s miniseries about the nuclear reactor accident at Chernobyl, Ukraine, I thought of my grandmother Verna. She died of uterine cancer in 1961 at the age of 52. I remember overhearing my grandfather and uncles discussing the radioactivity involved in the cobalt therapy used to treat her cancer. How could such a poisonous substance heal Grandma, I wondered? In the end cobalt therapy didn’t help Grandma and may have hurt her. Thus began my fear of radioactive poisoning. Not that my imagination needed any help on that score. I grew up in the Atomic Age. Maybe every generation has a dystopian fear. Today we worry about surviving climate change, but during the Cold War the possibility of nuclear holocaust seemed just as imminently threatening, if not more so.
Many times as a young girl I passed by the bank building in my hometown of Elkhart, Indiana, and saw the distinctive black and yellow “fan” posted on the outside of the bank indicating a fallout shelter in the bank basement. I saw this same sign not too far from where I now live, in the Idaho desert north of Shoshone. At one time Mammoth Cave, a large lava tube, served as a fallout shelter for Idahoans. I eventually learned that though a shelter might help, radioactive fallout is a vaporous ghost that haunts long after the initial flash of a bomb.
Late in the 1970’s, the nation seemed gripped by different nuclear fears, this time having to do with faulty nuclear reactors. In 1979 a movie called The China Syndrome was released and with it, a new term joined the vernacular. It was said that a reactor core could overheat and melt down so far into the earth, it melted clear to China. Eerily, not three weeks after the movie came out, life seemed to imitate art when one of three reactors at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in Pennsylvania went into partial meltdown. It was the most significant accident in U.S. nuclear power plant history, ranking a 5 out of 7 points on the International Nuclear Event Scale.
The core reactor fire at Chernobyl in 1986 ranked a full 7 on the INE scale. My husband and I watched the evening news, stunned that day after day emergency crews in the Ukraine were unable to contain the fire and with it, the plumes of radioactive gasses and other material sent skyward. No one ventured a guess as to the actual number of people affected by Chernobyl’s fallout. I thought of Grandma Verna. Sometimes the damage from radioactive poisoning revealed itself only much later with untreatable cancers.
One evening during the Chernobyl disaster, television news anchors reported that traces of radioactivity had been found in milk and dairy products as far away from Ukraine as Western Europe. Even more frightening, they said Chernobyl fallout had penetrated the jet stream, and radioactivity had been detected in Hawaii, with the expectation that it would soon reach the western edge of the U.S.
I tried to dismiss this ominous news, thinking what were the chances that a nuclear accident in Russia would ever affect me and my family thousands of miles away in Idaho? A day or so later I walked out to my garden in a light drizzle to cut some spinach for supper. Then, per usual, my husband and I sat down to watch the evening news. The newscaster announced the Chernobyl fallout had officially landed in America. The area of heaviest radioactive concentration (though nothing to worry about, he assured his audience) was somewhere northwest of Salt Lake City, Utah. The light rain this area was experiencing seemed to be bringing traces of fallout with it from the upper atmosphere.
I looked at Dale and knew we were both thinking the same thing: we’d probably just eaten a radioactive spinach salad. Of course, I thought miserably, Chernobyl fallout had to land here and not in some god-forsaken stretch of Nevada. Maybe Grandma Verna’s long ago cobalt treatments were a foreshadowing. Dale though, had a decidedly lighter view of the situation: “Let’s turn off the lamp and see if we light up in the dark.” Not funny, I shook my head at him, not funny.