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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Mark E. Spencer

My own memory of Chernobyl was that I was stationed aboard a sub tender homeported in La Maddelena, Sardinia, Italy. We had yellow poly sheeting all over the place, etc. Also, we were recording 1000 counts above normal background radiation in our filters. You figure that we were a good ways from where the disaster was and we were still picking up a goodly amount of radiation. The thing is that probably everyone alive at that time received some of the radiation from it, just like we are all probably receiving levels now from the Japanese disaster, albeit probably a very low dose and not likely to be a cause for concern. You figure that everyday we are exposed to some type of radiation, most of it cosmic. This is not a cause for stopping the building and running of nuclear power plants. Those who are pushing to utilize the renewable power (sun, wind, etc.) don’t really understand how unreliable and essentially uncostworthy such a plan is. Nuclear energy is not 100% safe, but it probably is a lot more cost effective, more likely to be reliable, and not a big strain on the environment as those who are screaming for the shutting down of these plants would have you believe. What happened in Japan was a totally unforeseen event. Even with what has happened in Japan, the situation could have been much worse than it was. It would appear that those plants were built very well to still be able to withstand the tsunami and still not be totally destroyed, causing far more radiation hazards than what has happened. The point is that fossil fuel will eventually peter out. Also, we are being held hostage by countries that hate us and our prices are being affected by those futures speculators who make money by making scary predictions and causing us to pay ungodly amounts for gasoline and other petroleum products. We have plenty of our own oil, if we would stop selling it to the overseas market, etc. Obviously, the oil companies are not hurting one iota. Look at the obscene profits they are making. Nuclear energy would loosen the strangle hold on us that these groups have on us and maybe make our wallets less thinner.


I was in Pittsburgh PA when Three Mile Island accident occurred,

I also arrived in Tokyo on the day the earthquake/tsunami hit.

I have to agree with Yaron’s comment about how well the Japanese government and the Japanese people are handing this disaster and everyone’s well-being. They were conservative but very open. This helped avoid hysteria (from misinformation) for all in Japan.

I cannot give the same praise to the international press and media outlets who were generally prone to “exaggeration” and sensationalism.