Vienna and Chernobyl

Same situation, 25 years later: Japan’s current catastrophe stirs up fear, harkening back to the 1980s Chernobyl disaster

News | Brett Bayly | May 2011

This account of the repercussions of Chernobyl  in Vienna was originally published in The Advertiser in Australia, in 1986 and is re-printed here by permission of the author.

"What is this radiation stuff all about?" my eight-year-old son asked as he dashed through the door after school. He was annoyed, and implied that Mum and Dad had let him down.

"We talked about it at school and I’m the only one in class who didn’t know what this stuff is,’’ he said. Carl is in Grade 2 at the American International School in Vienna. His teacher had been explaining why the kids were not allowed to play on the grass or in any sand or dust. They were told they had to bring an extra pair of shoes to school - one pair for outside and one for inside.

The problem of living with radiation was not the sort of subject the kids at Chapman Primary School in Canberra discussed, and I had not considered it necessary to brief my two children before we left for Europe in September.

But a place called Chernobyl in the Soviet Union has suddenly changed all that. The massive explosion at the nuclear plant about 1100 kilometers  northeast of here on April 26 has changed many facets of family life across Europe.

In some countries like Austria, the changes will last only one or two more weeks, but in other countries such as Poland and the Soviet Union the effects will be long-term. For some years now Austria has had an efficient network of more than 300 monitors scattered across the country to measure radiation levels. Initially the radiation cloud from Chernobyl headed northwest across the USSR , Poland and Scandinavia. But, six days after the explosion, there was a wind change and higher than normal radiation was detected in southern Europe.

It was after the Austrian presidential elections on May 4 that the Department of Health in Vienna began making recommendations "to avoid any possible danger from radioactivity." The populace was assured that radiation levels were no higher than those recorded on a regular basis prior to the ban on nuclear tests in the atmosphere in the late 1950s.

As a precaution rather than a necessity, however, the import of all fresh fruit and vegetables from Eastern bloc countries has been stopped. Any fruit and vegetables grown in the open in Austria are banned from sale and the distribution of fresh milk has been curtailed. People have been told that on no account were they to drink rainwater or water standing in open containers out of doors. Children should not be allowed to play in sandpits or for any length of time in fields or meadows. Adults, too, should not lie on fields or meadows and should use a deckchair to sunbathe.

After it was discovered that above-normal radioactivity levels had been found in air filters in the Vienna U-bahn system, it was recommended that filters from all air-conditioners and vacuum cleaners be changed using rubber gloves and then stored in closed containers. People have been advised to wash themselves often and thoroughly and children should be bathed every day. Pregnant women and children have been told not to swim in outdoor swimming pools or the slow-flowing arms of the Danube.

Close contact with domestic animals should be avoided and work in the garden should be postponed. Shoes should be well cleaned, or taken off before entering one’s home. My wife explained to Carl as simply as she could what was happening and why these strange activities were necessary for a little while. It was more difficult explaining to Simone, 5, why the sand in the sandpit at her kindergarten was being removed.

Carl listened to the explanation and then reacted: "When we came here I was told that the tick could make me real sick. Then I was told that there were bad men who put bombs around the place, and now it’s radiation, which comes out of the sky and we can’t see it.’’ He had a point. Living in Europe today is not like living in quiet and peaceful Canberra.

Ticks lives in the Vienna woods which extend almost to the back door of the American International School. Our family doctor, a Viennese woman who speaks good English, advised Carl when he was receiving his innoculation to stay away from the trees as much as possible during school excursions because ticks sometimes drop from trees. It was better to play in the open meadows. But not for another two weeks, said the Health Department.

Life at school is different in one other way. Carl and the other kids have become used to the presence of police armed with sub-machine guns wandering through the school grounds since the American planes bombed Libyan cities. Even Mum and Dad have to produce identification to enter the school. Reaction to the latest "incident’’ has been mixed. Some newspapers have carried alarmist articles – "River and pool water in Vienna has in some cases been found to have 100 times the normal radioactivity level’’ – but this, and other articles, did not explain what level is actually harmful.

Other papers quote experts as saying everything is normal and the recommendations issued by the Health Department did nothing but frighten people. There is no shortage of experts in this city. Vienna is the home of the supreme watcher of all things nuclear, the International Atomic Energy Agency. Agency officers have been on German and English-language radio talk-back programs giving advice on all sorts of things, e.g. joggers should stay at home for a week or so; motorists, if driving through dusty streets, should keep their windows wound up and sunroofs closed.

Meanwhile, everyone makes his or her own judgment and acts accordingly. While driving over the River Danube last Thursday, I saw many people lying on the grassy banks soaking up the sun while others swam in the slow-flowing water. Thursday was a public holiday and Carl attended a birthday party given by a Swedish classmate. As I delivered Carl to the front door, I was asked whether I objected to his playing on the lawn with the other kids. I had no objection. Perhaps I had in the back of my mind that it had started to rain. The experts had said this was a good thing, now that the radiation had settled on the ground. It crossed my mind to hose down the front path and porch when I got home, but it was raining and so I didn’t bother.

Other people we have talked to have expressed great surprise when we said we removed our shoes at the door and had stopped buying milk and eggs. But our babysitter refused to serve the children fruit and salad even though it has been thoroughly washed. At the weekend, we are taking the train to Venice. The radiation has reached Venice but there is no grass, trees or sand there – only water. It will be just our luck to have a gondola sink beneath us.


Brett Bayly is an Australian journalist whose international career led to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs; his first overseas posting in 1985 was to Vienna. He has retired here with his wife who works at the International Atomic Energy Agency.

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