The news reports about Japanese reactors start drawing parallels to the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. I was there then and I was ten. The memories still bring sense of dread every time I think about it. The Japanese have suffered a lot; I pray that they be spared anything like Chernobyl.
I lived with my parents at the top tip of the Kiev’s star on the attached map.
The map shows four zones: (i) the exclusion zone where people were given several minutes to collect their essential belongings before they were forcibly evacuated; (ii) zones 2 through 4 that had checkpoints set up for testing and decontamination, each zone with its own regime.
In the early morning of April 26, 1986, during routine testing or “experiment”, the operators of the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station (as the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was known at the time) lost control of the reactor #4 (“block” or unit #4), which exploded in a series of explosions and caught fire. The fire spread to the roof of the nearby reactor #3. Seventy people were killed or severely injured. Unlike the reactors in Fukushima, none of the four reactors at that plant had a containment vessel. It was basically a reactor housed in a regular building.
The firefighters from the nearby town of Pripyat were called to help putting out the fire. They did not know that this was their last mission. The explosions and the fires sent dust from nuclear fuel and radioactive debris high into the atmosphere. The winds carried the radioactive cloud across hundreds and even thousands kilometers (apparently Swedes detected elevated radiation coming from the Soviet Union).
Also unlike the events in Japan, no media outlet carried the news of the explosions. The population peacefully carried on with their lives. 100 miles away, in Kiev, there was even a bicycle race with people standing on the streets cheering.
I learned about the explosion probably much earlier than most people. I lived in a small community in the woods on the road leading north out of Kiev. At night, large groups of military vehicles were moving north but such unannounced troop movements were not uncommon in the Soviet Union. The next morning, I was standing at a bus stop waiting for the bus to go to school. A column of military vehicles approached. The officer from the first vehicle asked for directions to the Chernobyl nuclear power station. He explained that there was “some kind of an accident” and they were ordered to assist. Nobody at the bus stop heard about the Chernobyl power plant. Some adults suggested that they proceed to Vyshgorod and ask someone around the Kiev hydro power station.
The Soviets did not acknowledge the accident until after the Swedes detected radiation at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden, 1,100 kilometers from Chernobyl. In the afternoon of April 27, the residents of Pripyat (the closest town) and Chernobyl were evacuated.
Our life was disrupted. Indirect death toll was estimated by some at half a million people. However, a UN study put the number at “only” 4,000. The UN was accused of sugar-coating the aftermath for political reasons.
These are my thoughts as I watch the unfolding drama in Japan and fervently pray that the people of Japan be spared of another Chernobyl.