The men who saved us from Chernobyl

 

The men of the Fire Department of New York who sacrificed their lives for others in the collapsing World Trade Center on 9/11 will never be forgotten. For generations to come, the FDNY will have a place in the Western canon of heroes and icons, writes Kathy Sheridan.

The contrast with the fire-fighters of Chernobyl is stark. The men called upon to contain the fires and lethal toxicity of the blazing nuclear power plant at Chernobyl 19 years ago are a mystery to us.

As are the miners, drafted in to tunnel beneath the convulsing reactor to prevent the core reaching critical mass and rendering Europe uninhabitable. As are the human "bio-robots", the young men substituted for the German and Japanese robots which had been brought in to remove the highly radioactive graphite from the reactor's core but were rendered useless due to the levels of radiation.

As are the many other young men charged with the soul-searing task of clearing beautiful, ancient, contaminated villages of their inconsolable inhabitants before returning to shoot the family pets. There are no special plaques, no honour wall on which these 800,000 names are recorded. They are known simply as the "liquidators".

Many of them received more than 10 times the recommended maximum lifetime dose of radiation in a few minutes. They fought 300 fires which ignited as explosive chunks of the reactor were hurled all over the site. They lifted radioactive graphite with their bare hands. What protective clothing they had was either hopelessly impractical or inadequate. Many had none.

On the night of the explosion, about 600 liquidators were on site, mostly plant workers and firemen. One roof fire blazed directly over the exploded area, which was "cut open like a wound", recalls Vitaly, a former liquidator, in a forthcoming book by Adi Roche. They had between five and 60 seconds to work at any one time, so had to do it literally at a run. The protective lead pants cut their legs while they ran so they decided not to wear them. Then came the breathing difficulties, the dizziness, the vomiting. "Some of the men were taken away and we heard rumours they were in Moscow for treatment. I don't know the truth. We never saw those men again," says Vitaly.

Within three months, 28 were dead from acute radiation sickness, suffering their final agony thousands of miles from home in Moscow Hospital No 6.

A well-meaning nurse offering a brutal warning to a wife grieving by her dying husband's bedside: "You are young, what are you doing? What you have there is not your husband, the man you love, but a reactor. You will both burn to death."

A man who volunteered for love of his country, recalled his role in the village clearances: "It was awful. Like what you see in movies of the Great Patriotic War, except this time the village clearances were not being done by Nazis; it was us. We hated ourselves for that."

Another who handled the "liquidation" of five villages was still dreaming about it every night, years later.

"We would arrive at 6am, call to all the houses, reassure the people they would be returning, and tell them to leave everything behind. But still they cried, they wailed like at a funeral, as if they knew they would never return."

Like others - including this reporter - who have come upon those heart-stoppingly lovely, deserted villages, this man remembers the houses as being "like works of art, decorated in the most beautiful, alive, bold colours . . . Empty now. The shadow of madness was on all of us."

Of the 800,000 liquidators, it is estimated that 25,000 have died since 1986 and a further 70,000 are permanently disabled. A fifth of the dead are said to have been suicides.

As for succeeding generations, the returning liquidators were merely told not to have children for five years. According to Roche, all health information was officially classified. "In July 1987, the authorities gave an order that acute and chronic diseases of liquidators, who were exposed to less than 50 rem, must not be attributed to the effects of radiation."

The genius of this directive, of course, was that most of these men could not begin to guess the true extent of their exposure. They had dug holes under the convulsing reactor, shovelled hot waste off roofs, stripped contaminated land, much of this with minimum protection. But by many accounts, officials ignored radiation levels during the clean-up and even obstructed efforts to monitor the doses that workers were receiving. Geiger counters given to liquidators were confiscated by the KGB to maintain secrecy.

In 1993, Roche visited Oksakovshchina, near Minsk, a former luxury bolt-hole for the Communist party elite, now known among survivors as the "liquidators' place". There she came upon a row of young men, all ill or dying, amid a "terrible sense of abandonment, isolation and despair". A soft-spoken, shy man in his late 20s told her how he and his friends had been used as human Geiger counters for map-making purposes, sent into fields so radioactive that the radiation levels went off the scale. Areas where this happened were officially designated as the most radioactive, and were mapped in the colour purple. Their job done, the men were told to take off their clothes and have a good scrub in the shower.

Afterwards, they were rewarded with plenty of vodka and a special card calling them "good patriots". They were promised weekly medical check-ups during the decontamination work, but none happened. When those whose blood was finally tested registered frighteningly high radiation levels, the testing was stopped to prevent panic among the men.

A doctor at Oksakovshchina, who described himself as a "liquidator" because he had worked with the men in the reactor, recounted how he had seen the authorities tamper with the Geiger counter readings to ensure that the levels appeared reasonable. Those altered levels became known among the workers as "administrative doses".

Roche records that they smiled briefly for her camera, holding up their special "liquidator" identification cards declaring them to be national heroes. As Roche points out, the story of the liquidators would never have reached the foreign press but for the heroism of scientists such as Vladimir Chernousenko, who himself received massive doses of radiation in his efforts towards the clean-up, before losing his job at the Kiev Academy of Sciences and fleeing to Germany.

In the meantime, little has changed in what US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week described as the "last true dictatorship in the centre of Europe". The Lukashenko regime has refused to consider the evidence of scientists who have maintained that the affected area in Belarus - about 1.2 million hectares of southern Belarus - is actually spreading as a result of forest fires and dust. Instead, it has consistently maintained that the contaminated area is diminishing as a result of the "natural" breakdown of radio-nuclides, a claim belied by the half-lives of the most prevalent elements, Strontium-90 and Cesium-137, of 29 and 30 years respectively.

Nonetheless, in May 2003, the government cancelled additional payments to around 1.5 million people living in the region on the grounds that the worst of their suffering was over.

Those who take issue with the Lukashenko interpretation take their lives in their hands. Some 30 opponents have disappeared, with scientists particularly vulnerable. Yuri Bandazhevsky, the nuclear scientist and former director of Gomel Medical Institute (in southern Belarus), was one of 18 scientists put on trial in 1999, in his case accused of bribing students, around the same time co-incidentally as he published a study arguing that relatively low doses of Cesium-137 could cause serious pathologies.

"Bandazhevsky's studies had a significant impact for the long-term impact of the Chernobyl disaster: rather than an improving situation, thehealth picture, in his view, was getting worse," commented Prof David Marples of the Jamestown Foundation. "The scientist's conclusions run counter to the political interpretation adopted by the government, ie that Chernobyl is in the past and that its consequences have been overcome. The reality is that by encouraging communities to reside in highly contaminated regions the regime has exacerbated an already appalling health situation in the republic."

Meanwhile, Bandazhevsky continues to serve a two-year period of "conditional freedom" in a corrective labour settlement, following several years in prison. His health continues to deteriorate. He has been visited by the French and German ambassadors, and the European Parliament has demanded his immediate release. No one seems to expect progress any time soon.