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Chernobyl disaster liquidators recall horrors of nuclear accident

World's worst nuclear disaster occurred on April 26, 1986 in Ukraine as result of catastrophic explosion at fourth reactor

Jeyhun Aliyev   | 26.04.2021
Chernobyl disaster liquidators recall horrors of nuclear accident


The eyewitnesses of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in modern-day Ukraine, also known as the "Chernobyl liquidators", recalled the horrors of the nuclear plant accident on the disaster's 35th anniversary.

The accident known as the world's worst nuclear disaster, occurred on April 26, 1986, at the fourth reactor in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, 16 kilometers (10 miles) apart from the city of Pripyat -- which was built in the 1970s to house workers at the plant -- in the north of the Ukrainian SSR.

The catastrophic explosion -- linked to inadequately trained personnel -- at the fourth reactor exposed the core and threw clouds of radioactive material over the surrounding territory.

The Chernobyl liquidators were the civil and military personnel who were called upon to deal with the consequences of the nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union on the site of the event starting from 1986, whose efforts to a big extend limited both the immediate and long-term damage from the disaster.

Olexandr Lyashenko, 57, who now lives in Voskresenovko village in Ukraine's Dnipropetrovsk region, said he spent exactly 30 days in liquidation works since June 1986.

Serving as a chemistry specialist in the military, Lyashenko said he worked in a total of 12 rounds in the plant area for one month, adding that it was impossible to work longer at the high radiation areas due to health issues.

"Unlike others, being a chemistry specialist, we knew what we were going for and knew what the consequences would be if we didn't do it," Lyashenko told Anadolu Agency in an exclusive interview.

Recalling his military service years 35 years ago, Lyashenko said he was sent on June 10 to the disaster zone as a liquidator to mitigate the consequences of the accident, adding that their military unit was based 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) apart from the disaster zone.

At the disaster area, he said, radiation reconnaissance work was being done along with determining the duration of time a liquidator could spend at the radioactive spot.

"We were involved in cleaning and deactivation works of the fourth power plant. Every time after the work, we were having a bath, passing through the deactivation process, and we're receiving new clothes before leaving to the military unit to rest," he said.

Lyashenko said the first batch of people were dispatched to the disaster zone on April 26, while the second batch reached there on June 10 and was replacing the firstcomers.

"We were collecting the radioactive soil and taking it to the special area, collecting the pieces of Uranium scattered after the explosion, cutting down the forest that was exposed to radiation, covering the fourth plant with Lead rolls to reduce the radiation spread outside," he said.

He underlined that for the whole work period, the allowed radiation dose that people could have been exposed was supposed not to exceed 25 Roentgen.

"But, in fact, the radiation dose that everyone was exposed there was much higher."

Lyashenko said out of 400 liquidators from his neighborhood who joined the cleaning works in Chernobyl till 1988, only 120 remained alive.

He recalled that while working in high-radiation areas, the liquidators were given special military protection uniforms and respirators, however, those working in the "lower-dose areas" were working just in an ordinary military uniform.

Asked about the health consequences of the radioactive mission, Lyashenko said he is still having lots of "post-Chernobyl" health problems and disability.

Mobile roadside workshops

Ivan Bokun, 72, said he had been a liquidator of the Chernobyl disaster aftermath from October 19, 1987, and until March 6, 1988.

Bokun said that working as a mechanic, he was involved in a process in which people were collecting the soil from the territory adjacent to the nuclear power plant, and taking it to the nearby five quarries, and then bringing back "fresh" soil to cover the territory for deactivating the radiation.

"All these procedures were being done by the trucks. I was on military service in a unit that was doing repair work of these trucks and special vehicles. On the highway from the nuclear plant till the city of Pripyat, there were mobile workshops engaged in repairing those vehicles," he said.

He explained that before the repair works, the vehicles were being checked for the level of radiation, and based on that level, the time allowed to spend on the repair works was calculated.

Everyone had a personal radiation dosimeter, he said.

"Our task was to make a fast repair of the vehicles. But, sometimes, we were finding out some hidden breakdown that was not noticed beforehand while preparing the repair time schedules. Therefore, the repair team was working until all breakdowns are solved, thus the level of radiation was exceeding the permissible radiation level."

Bokun said their team was wearing masks and an ordinary work uniform, and no special uniform against the radiation was provided.

"Once reaching the military unit, the uniforms and vehicles were being cleaned with the means we had that time. The vehicles with overdose radiation were being taken to be stored in deep quarries, and then they were being buried by covering them by sand," he said.

He went on to say that the radiation left "big consensuses" for all liquidators.

"All of us were officially recognized as disabled people. Within a month, five people from the same shift working with us passed away. Strong headache that I had after the Chernobyl disaster remains up to the current day," he added.

Friendship of nations

Kamal Aliyev, 59, a liquidator who joined the Chernobyl teams from Azerbaijan, said he spent nearly a month until June 1986 at the disaster zone, where he was dispatched following his military service.

"We were working in the city of Pripyat in a concrete factory. There was a total of four concrete factories built in the area during a short period of time. The concrete produced in the factory was used to cover the areas exposed to radiation," he said.

"Sometimes there were areas with extreme radiation level where people in special uniform were allowed to work no more than 75-80 seconds at once and were coming back then," he said.

Aliyev emphasized that special trucks and even helicopters were dumping concrete and sand on the area to bury the poisoners' radiation elements and contain the contamination.

"We were staying in a building 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) apart from the disaster zone. I still remember the friendship of nations. People from many nations across the Soviet Union hand-by-hand were working together to eliminate the disaster aftermath."

He also highlighted that in a short period of time, people were evacuated from the area, adding that initially, the Soviet regime -- which invested heavily in nuclear power following World War II -- was trying to hide the disaster but was unable to do so due to the scale of the catastrophe.

After first denying any accident, the Soviets finally made a brief announcement on the nuclear accident on April 28.

The USSR management evacuated around 335,000 people, establishing a 19-mile-wide "exclusion zone" around the reactor.

Aliyev said more than 7,000 people from Azerbaijan actively participated in the mitigation of the consequences of the accident, adding that around 5,000 persons are currently suffering from the consequences of the Chernobyl accident in his country, while approximately 2,000 people affected by the Chernobyl accident have since passed away.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, 400 times more radiation than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was released into the atmosphere with the Chernobyl disaster.

Around 5 million people still live in areas with radiation risk in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.

The power plant is expected to be completely eliminated by 2065.

Today, Chernobyl, although a close area, beckons to tourists who are intrigued by its history and its danger.

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