Tuesday, March 22, 2011

My memories from the Chernobyl disaster

Reports about the nuclear disaster in Japan bring back my memories from what I experienced 25 years ago.

25 years ago I lived in the city of Zhitomir, a city of 250.000 inhabitants, which lies west of the capital of Ukraine, Kiev. One more detail on the geographical location of Zhitomir: it is located about 90 km south of Chernobyl, a town of the famous nuclear station. This geographical fact became extremely important in April 1986.

The reactor exploded during the night between 26 and 27 April. However, we learned the details of what exactly  happened only one week later. I remind you that the year was 1986: those are the first months of Mikhail Gorbachev in power. There are still no reforms in the Soviet Union, no openness, no "glasnost" and "perestroika".The Soviet Union at its best. With this in  mind, it was quite obvious that the media reported nothing. Business as usual.
 It was our neighbor , the wife of an officer, who told my mom that at night all the military officers stationed in the city were urgently called and sent to Chernobyl because "something has exploded." And at the school the next day - I was then 13 years old - children of the officers who were sent to Chernobyl, were proudly telling that their fathers went to "a secret mission." 

Two days after, the rumors spread widely, and fear flooded all the cities in the region. New and frightening details were told by those officers who started to return from Chernobyl for short vacations, and talked about the "cloud", the radiation, the death. But the Soviet government and its media kept silence. Newspapers continued to report on successes of the socialist economy and about the preparations for the celebrations of May 1.

Celebrations of May 1 were supposed to take place as planned, even in the city of Pripyat', the closest to the Chernobyl station.  But then suddenly the truth was revealed. In Pripyat' there were hundreds of people who suffered from radiation. Neighboring countries, Finland and Sweden, asked for explanations from the Soviet Union about the radioactive cloud coming from there. And radio stations "Voice of America" and "Voice of freedom" informed their listeners in the Soviet Union that terrible disaster happened at Chernobyl and that the Communist regime tries to hide the truth.

Suddenly the reality became unbearable. The terrible panic spread in Kiev and nearby cities. What to do with the kids? What to do with schools? And the most important question: in what direction the wind will blow?

The rest is well known. The wind was blowing to the north and hit hard in many areas of Belarus and Russia. To the relief of those who lived south of Chernobyl, like us, these clouds passed over us.  The population of Pripyat' was completely evacuated and the 30-km zone around the station was established. The "liquidators" - a nickname given to people who worked on sealing the reactor, have become heroes, many of them post-mortem. The "sarkofague", a strange and unheard-of word, entered the lexicon on the regular basis, and we all wanted the liquidators to complete its construction.

 To this day Ukraine is dealing with this disaster. And for hundreds of years, the area around Chernobyl will remain closed. This disaster also had many implications in the shorter term. The  policy of openness of Gorbachev was declared a few months after the disaster, and in fact was the direct result of the intolerable situation created during the disaster when the government hid the truth from citizens and left them to deal with uncontrollable rumors and fears. There are also those who claim that the fall of the Soviet Union began with Chernobyl disaster which showed to the world, but especially to the citizens of the Soviet Union, that their government can not rule the country and is in fact afraid of its own citizens.

The Fukushima disaster is of historic scale, and its impact on Japan and the world will be profound and far-reaching. I hope that the Japanese people would cope better with this disaster.  The way the Japanese people and their government are dealing with it gives us real hope for that.

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