Yuri Andreyev has seen it all before. The plume of smoke belching out of the reactor, and the ominous crackle of the Geiger counter, the reassuring words of politicians, and the suicide squads of volunteers. The reports coming out of Japan remind Andreyev, once a supervisor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, of the accident 25 years ago that exposed hundreds of thousands of people to high levels of radiation and led to tens of thousands of deaths.
On April 25, 1986, Andreyev had just finished work when colleagues initiated an experiment to test a new voltage regulator in Reactor No. 4. They switched off the emergency cooling systems, deactivated the automatic emergency shutdown for Reactor 4, and triggered a chain reaction that soon spun out of control. At about 1:24 a.m. on April 26, Reactor 4 exploded.
The blast ripped a protective plate weighing more than 1,000 tons off the top of the reactor, and the shockwave obliterated the roof, exposing the melting core and blowing radioactive fission products several kilometers up into the atmosphere.
Because Yuri Andreyev's shift had ended at midnight, he was home when the explosion occurred. Andreyev lived in Pripyat, a city visible from the nuclear power station. When he realized what had happened, he hurried back to his workplace in the control room of Reactor No. 2. The aim was to keep the first three reactors under control, and thus prevent a catastrophe from becoming apocalyptic. Andreyev, like his counterparts in Fukushima 25 years later, remained at the power station, and risked his own life to save those of millions of other people.
Radiation: A Slow, but Reliable Killer
Andreyev and his colleagues improvised. There were no procedures for dealing with emergencies on that scale. They spent weeks desperately battling to regain control of a situation that would eventually cost many lives.
Yuri Andreyev's was not one of them. Indeed he survived the disaster relatively unscathed. Today he lives in Kiev, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the ruined power plant, and earns his living as the president of Chernobyl Union Ukraine, an association of Chernobyl veterans. He is now the spokesman for some 220,000 sick, disabled and dying people. "There used to be 356,000," says Andreyev, sitting in his office. Radiation is a slow, but reliable killer.
Day after day, veterans come to see him in his office to demand their rights. People like Nadia Petriona, a woman in her mid-50s wearing a blouse buttoned high on her neck. She sits in the waiting room outside Andreyev's office. She, too, lived in Pripyat within sight of the plant. She had moved there six years before the accident when her husband had got a construction job at the reactor. They had been happy to move there. Her husband's new position brought them more money, and they were given a decent apartment. Petriona and her husband had hoped for a better life.
The morning after the explosion, reports on the radio warned people not to leave their apartments, and to keep their windows closed. They were told this was only a precautionary measure, and that they were not in any immediate danger.
Evacuating an Entire City
The following day, the radio broadcast announced that the city would be completely evacuated. By nightfall, all 50,000 inhabitants had been bused out. It was reportedly only a temporary measure, with a return planned for three days later.
The Petrionas took their children, their passports and food for three days, and boarded one of the buses. They never returned.
Today, Nadia Petriona lives in Kiev. Her now 31-year-old son suffers from memory loss and occasional paralysis. Sometimes he loses his voice for days on end, sometimes he can hardly see. Her husband has a weak heart and is unfit for work. Her daughter is disabled. Nadia Petriona herself has to keep her neck covered to conceal the scars and pits three operations have left behind. She has thyroid cancer, which has returned twice despite the operations. Her doctors say it is likely that her cancer will return again. At night, when everything is quiet, she listens to her body, trying to sense whether anything is growing that doesn't belong there.
Endless Case Files
When the doors of the ceiling-high cabinets at the veterans' association are open, you can understand the scale of the suffering the disaster has brought. The cabinets are packed with row upon row of files, each filled with applications for pensions, compensation, and with notarized statements and copies of medical records.
Here, too, condensed into a few pages each, are files on the thousands of people ordered to go to Chernobyl to decontaminate roads and buildings.
There are also reports on the young men and women who were born after the disaster; the offspring of parents who had lived through the tragedy. Often enough, the documents include photographs. These show serious faces, but the attached papers speak of brain damage, paralysis and weak hearts.
Many of the applications were made years ago, and have yet to be decided. According to the staff at the veterans' association, the authorities believe many of the people filing these claims aren't really ill, and simply want to get a pension they aren't entitled to.
Victor Lubyanski can't stomach such suggestions. He, too, has come to the veterans' association because of a problem with his claim. In 1986 he was one of those who moved to Chernobyl out of a sense of duty. For him, it was important to show solidarity with the people who had been exposed to radiation. He wanted to give them an opportunity to return to their hometowns. That was one of the reasons he helped decontaminate cars, buses, and trucks in Pripyat.
But he insists he would refuse to help if a similar situation arose today. He says he was treated badly after the disaster, first by the Soviets, then by the current government.
Lubyanski knows exactly what is happening in Fukushima. Everyone in the region knows it. But their feelings have less to do with empathy for the Japanese, than they do with pity for their own situations, and anger that the Soviet regime kept its people in the dark for so long.
Checkpoints and Geiger Counters
Those trying to approach the site of the Chernobyl accident today are greeted with a fence and a checkpoint. The ruins of the nuclear power plant lie at the heart of a 30-kilometer (18-mile) exclusion zone that can only be entered with permission from the relevant government ministry.
Beyond the checkpoint, a two-lane asphalt road winds through birch forests towards the reactor. Ten kilometers (6 miles) from the center of the exclusion zone there is a second checkpoint. A ministry official gets into the car with a Geiger counter in his hand. The device ticks quietly, and shows that radiation levels are approximately three times the normal level of background radiation measurable outside the prohibited area.
Two giant chimneys, towering above the treetops, are the first visible section of the power plant. Then, further along the road on the left, one can see a cooling tower and eventually the power station itself, a collection of jagged, angular blocks as tall as cathedrals. The ill-fated Reactor No. 4 is surrounded by cranes and scaffolding. After the disaster, a concrete sarcophagus was hastily erected around the reactor. It was supposed to hold for 100 years, but it is already crumbling and unstable. Steel construction props up one of the outer walls.
By the fence surrounding the building site, the Geiger counter shows radiation levels eight times what they were at the checkpoint. If you cross through the corridor in which the radioactive fallout passed immediately after the disaster, the reading leaps to 700 times normal background radiation levels within the space of a few meters.