15 years on, Chernobyl survivors relive the nuclear nightmare

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Wednesday, April 25 11:09 AM SGT

15 years on, Chernobyl survivors relive the nuclear nightmare KIEV, April 25 (AFP) - Many of the Ukrainians who survived the world's worst ever civilian nuclear accident will spend Thursday's anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster reliving a 15-year-old the nightmare.

"The walls began to shake and the concrete itself made a kind of creaking noise. That's when I realised something terrible had happened," Boris Stolyarchuk told AFP.

Stolyarchuk, a former engineer at the Chernobyl plant, is unlikely ever to forget the nightmare he lived through on April 26, 1986, when reactor number four exploded, contaminating three quarters of Europe.

An estimated 15,000 to 30,000 people have died as a result of the explosion, which spewed radiation into the atmosphere equivalent to 500 times that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

But for Stolyarchuk the night of the disaster was much like any other until -- seemingly without warning -- at 1:23 am, two blasts ripped through the heart of the doomed reactor.

Utter devastation, he says, is the only way to describe the scene in the reactor's control room in the immediate aftermath of the explosions as the plant engineers were blinded by a thick cloud of radioactive dust.

"'Quick, cool the system down! Open all the water gates,' yelled the assistant chief engineer," Stolyarchuk recalls. "The control panels were flashing like mad and spinning round and round. But none of the controls responded when we pressed the buttons.

"Leaning out of a window, I saw the scale of the damage. The reactor was nothing more than a huge gaping hole."

The few radiation monitors available to measure the radiation level were all jammed with the arrow pointing to the maximum and beyond, he adds.

However, no order was given immediately to evacuate the 500 people working the Chernobyl night-shift at the time of the accident.

Stolyarchuk and his boss stayed put for almost three hours in the control room "microwaved" by the potentially fatal rays.

"Technically speaking, there was nothing else to do. Each minute seemed like an eternity," he says.

Even so, both men suffered dreadfully in the wake of their ordeal. Vomiting fits became a fact of life as did severe headaches, while their skin turned lobster red.

Miraculously, Stolyarchuk survived, but his older colleague was not so fortunate.

Outside the control room, a strange luminescent glow emanated from the huge crater in the middle of the stricken plant that was otherwise plunged into darkness. It was like something out of science fiction, according to witnesses.

Nearby the roof of the reactor was ablaze, recalls firefighter Leonid Shavey.

He and about 30 others fought an agonising battle with the flames in a bid to stop the fire spreading to the other three reactors that were still intact.

Six of the firefighters perished from radiation in the weeks that followed.

Chernobyl's number two reactor was shut down in 1991 following another fire. Its number one reactor was taken out of service in 1996.

Reactor number three, the last one still in operation at Chernobyl, was shut down for good last December amid much international hoopla and a huge sigh of collective relief from the West, which put up three billion dollars as part of the shutdown deal.

But Stolyarchuk continues to mull over his walk-on part in the catastrophe.

The day before the disaster, the plant's bosses had decided to carry out a test on reactor number four -- without the permission of the then Soviet authorities, Chernobyl's former director Viktor Bryukhanov says today.

Even so, the real cause of the tragedy has never been fully explained, and would appear to be a combination of human error and Soviet-era design faults that led to the explosion.

Right up to the last moment, the Soviet hierarchy sought to conceal and then to minimise the extent of the Chernobyl disaster, regardless of the consequences to millions of people, and in utter contradiction of then president Mikhail Gorbachev's avowed policy of "glasnost," or openness.

For example, the village of Chernobyl itself, 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the epicentre of the blast, was not evacuated until May 5, 1986 -- 10 days after the disaster.

Today, thousands of young people in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia suffer from thyroid cancer caused by their unwitting exposure to radioactivity in those first cruel moments after the explosion.

At a closed trial held in 1987, Moscow pointed the finger at the Chernobyl plant's bosses, six of whom were sent to prison for up to 10 years.

But more than individual responsibility, the 1986 accident pressed home a collective truth that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Three quarters of Europe was polluted in the fallout from Chernobyl and the continent's "openness" to radiation helped to undermine not just Gorbachev's glasnost but the Iron Curtain culture of a closed society.


-- Carl Jenkins (somewherepress@aol.com), April 25, 2001


Important article for people to read now
that the energy crisis has renewed talk
of more nuke plants ::::-

-- spider (spider0@usa.net), April 25, 2001.

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