34 years since the explosion at the fourth power unit of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is a long time. It may seem that those events have long been blurred in people’s memory. However, the participants in the liquidation, scattered throughout the former USSR, remember the Chernobyl tragedy in every detail.
There are more monuments to the liquidators of the Chernobyl accident in some places than there are monuments to Taras Shevchenko. The feat of the liquidators is invaluable for the whole world. Furthermore, it has become not only a heroic, but also a moral example of sacrifice.
The memories of the Chernobyl accident:
“… The explosion at the fourth reactor took place on the night of April 26, 1986. Valentina Klochko, the head of the Poltava Museum of Local Lore, claims that this day was not much different from others. The only thing was that it became known that there was some kind of accident somewhere. But the situation was under control and there was no reason for panic.
Later, the newspapers wrote about some kind of explosion in Chernobyl. Even Gorbachev made a speech then. He said that there was an accident. And it was a big challenge for the whole country. After that, a regional headquarters was quickly created in Poltava. It was necessary to mobilize everyone to eliminate the accident. Many went to the ChNPP: doctors, drivers, firefighters, police, builders, utility employees. They didn’t even know where they were going. So, everything was sudden … “
More than 17 thousand Poltava residents helped eliminate the consequences of the accident. One of the participants in the liquidation, Nikolai Ageev, recalls that they brought him a summons on May 30 at 2 a.m. It was necessary to arrive within 2 hours at the Poltava school number 11 for a meeting. At that time, Nikolai Ageev was 35 years old. His pregnant wife and child remained at home waiting for him. All he had to take with him was a three-day supply of food, a change of clothes, a blanket.
That night, hundreds of men went by foot from all districts of Poltava to the assembly point. However, they did not know what awaited them.
The dogs left in the houses howled wildly
Nikolai Ageev recalls: “… Teams were formed to send at the headquarters. No one knew anything. We had no idea what awaited us. We came and saw a column of empty buses. Our management collected documents from us, distributing us to divisions. They sent us in the morning, having brought us to some field. A field camp would be set up there. We were changed into military uniforms. Only then, we learned that we were going to Chernobyl…”
Similarly, the summons was handed over to the liquidation participant, the head of the Poltava Union of Veterans and Disabled People Viktor Korpelov. He recalls:
“… At first, we came to Pripyat. Then, we got to the Chapayev division, which was being formed in Belarus. Our main task in the measures to eliminate the consequences of the accident was the fencing of a 30-kilometer Exclusion Zone. People call this fence a “thorn”: 12 rows of wire; we installed poles, towers, checkpoints. I also had to work at the repositories of radioactive waste to decontaminate the soil and to prepare the basis for the construction of the future sarcophagus.”
“After we fenced off the Zone with a ‘thorn’, we got out of it. Centres of infection were everywhere. While walking the norm is only slightly higher in one place. However, it squeaks very much a couple of meters to the side. But this did not affect the work, because we were fulfilling the tasks of the state. We have got to Pripyat once. I can’t describe the emotions. I saw a completely deserted beautiful city where the dogs left in their houses howled wildly. Our subdivision completely fenced off Pripyat. Then, we decontaminated nearby settlements. Besides us, there were many servicemen there: the Baltic, Muscovites, Belarusians. There were guys even from Tashkent.
Nikolay Ageev says:
“… When we got to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, a real hell began. Radioactive waste had to be dumped from the roofs of buildings. The authorities tried to take new people to the Chernobyl NPP every time in order to reduce the radiation dose. They worked like this: the liquidators put on a protective suit with lead inserts, a respirator on their face, and a shovel in their hands. Everyone ran out onto the roof and tried to dump as much waste as possible for 3 minutes. When time was up, we came back. And all the soldiers on the roof worked in an endless stream.
It’s good that we wore protective suits with lead, because we slept the first month in what we worked in. We wore 1 respirator for 3 weeks. And only when it was a bath day, we changed our underwear. There was nothing, no additional protective equipment, except for respirators and uniforms, in the first month. We ate from the field kitchen: our management bring something, we eat, drink water or tea, and continue working.”
It was different with the provision of liquidators. The main problem was the lack of fruits and vegetables. At the end of the summer, when we drove through the gardens, the guys were picking pears. Everyone knew that there was a ban because local fruits were riddled with radiation. But the temptation was great. Nikolai Ageev recalls that the guys filled their pockets with pears and then “sat in tents and chewed them like rabbits.” Also, actors came to the liquidators and distracted from the hard daily work with creative performances. In addition, we even managed to go in for sports in the camp. We organized playgrounds for playing football and volleyball.
The cat died before reaching the edge of the road
It is common knowledge that it is almost impossible to feel radiation immediately. All that gives it out instantly is the taste of iron in the mouth. Later, headaches appear, and the face turns red. At first, such redness is similar to sunburn. So, it is not very disturbing. Subsequently, it seems to get better, although movement disorder and some disorientation continues.
This false “recovery” can last from several days to several months, depending on the radiation dose received. All this time, the bone marrow is living out its last days. The liquidators say that they mainly began to feel the serious consequences of radiation after the shift in Chernobyl. After some time, the participants in the liquidation began to go to hospitals massively. Experts established a connection between diseases and the performance of work on the elimination of the consequences of the accident at the ChNPP.
Liquidator Anatoly Tunyan tells his story of the Chernobyl tragedy and life after it:
“I served in Kharkov, in the regiment of chemical radiation reconnaissance. We were alerted about three hours after the explosion at the ChNPP. We were preparing cars and assembling uniforms during the day. I had to serve about a week. The commander approached and said: “This is your last task, and then demobilization.” We went to the Ivankovsky district of the Kiev region late in the evening. Our company arrived at the ChNPP, literally the next day after the accident, on April 27.
I was the senior in the chemical reconnaissance vehicle BRDM. The command gave an order to put on gas masks and chemical protection. I still have a terrible picture before my eyes. When we were dressing, I noticed a cat crossing the road. The cat fell and died in the middle of the way… Thus, I thought that something terrible was happening.
The unit in which I served deployed near the village of Kopachi, a few kilometers from the ChNPP. We could even see a high flame above the station, around which helicopters flew.”
An order to constantly wear gas masks
“… We got pocket dosimeters in the form of a kaleidoscope with a scale of up to 25 roentgens and large portable dosimeters up to 1200 roentgens. Our work consisted of measuring radiation on the territory of the 4th power unit of the station and in its vicinity. When we first entered the ChNPP, small dosimeters were off scale. Although we were there for just a few minutes, it couldn’t have been longer. By the way, large devices also went off scale at certain points of the 4th reactor. The small dosimeters were taken away three days later. Our management explained that they did not work, or they were damaged.
Every evening, we, the soldiers, wrote down the received radiation dose on special cards, 1.5-2 X-rays each. It is clear that the real dose was ten times greater. Also, we used shovels to throw sand, lead and the like from helicopters to extinguish fires. We used BRDM vehicles to transport workers to the station and back. They worked around the clock in three eight-hour shifts. Our unit also helped with the evacuation of local residents for some time.”
Locals and workers from the station occasionally treated us to alcohol. There were rumours that it helps with radiation. We literally drank 50 grams of alcohol as medicine before meals. Now, they say it’s a myth. However, I think it was for the best. Some soldiers drank milk, not knowing that it absorbs radiation into itself. It was much more harmful than drinking alcohol.
We knew almost nothing about radiation from a medical point of view. The only thing they ordered us to do was to wear gas masks all the time. We even slept in respirators and changed them every day after work. Our company worked in Chernobyl until May 20. Then, we underwent a medical examination at the Institute of Medical Radiology. The guys, who had signs of severe radiation poisoning, were immediately taken to a military hospital. The rest of them wrote some medical nonsense on their cards. Doctors were forbidden to diagnose “radiation sickness”.