Scientist tells of harrowing experience cleaning up after the world’s worst N-disaster
ON April 28, 1986, Dr Sergei Belyakov was enjoying a serene Saturday fishing by Ukraine’s Dnipro River when he and his two friends noticed its water level plummeting. As the area had been hit by a handful of industrial accidents before, the chemistry professor guessed that something was amiss, forcing the authorities to shut all dams to the river to avoid contaminating one of Ukraine’s main waterways. A keen scan of all the Soviet radio stations, however, drew a blank. Then he stumbled onto a Swedish channel. “I couldn’t understand a word of Swedish but the commentator seemed very excited, and every second sentence, he said the word ‘Chernobyl’. “That was when I knew something had happened at the nuclear power plant about 300km away,” he says.
Two days earlier, on April 26, Chernobyl’s reactor No. 4 was split wide open when a series of powerful blasts blew off the reactor’s lid, spreading radiation over a large swathe of the then Soviet Union and much of Europe. An area roughly half the size of Italy was contaminated, forcing the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of people. Then a young professor at the Ukrainian University of Chemical Technology in the city of Dnepropetrovsk, the 30-year old felt that his knowledge of radiation protection and decontamination, which he gained as an army reservist, would prove helpful in the clean-up efforts.
“I volunteered because I know how to work safely with radiation, and educate others on how to do it,” he says. And the fact that his father, a retired army officer and decorated war veteran, also wanted to volunteer steeled his resolve. He eventually worked at Chernobyl between July 31 and Sept 8. His father, then 64, was considered too old to participate. “When I announced I was volunteering, people there looked at me as though I was crazy.”
He was among a reported 700,000 workers – many of them called up as army reservists under the Soviet government – who cleared a 30km area around the radiation-seeping plant in order to entomb it. As Senior Lieutenant, commander of Reconnaissance Squad, 25th Brigade of Chemical Defence, USSR Army reserve, his job was to map and measure contaminated spots and to organise the clean-up. But he also rolled up his sleeves with his men over the next five weeks. He worked in all the “hot” spots of the station, including six shifts on “The Roof” – the damaged portion of the roof between reactors 3 and 4. The area was so badly contaminated that the actual allowed daily dose (2R, Roentgen – a measure of radiation exposure) had limited such shifts to a matter of minutes or even seconds. One day, he recalls, his shift up there lasted only 36 seconds.
When the explosion happened, the sheer heat of the fire and nuclear fission had melted the roughly 30cm-thick asphalt roof into a molten asphalt lake. Pieces of graphite and other radioactive fuel spat out from the core of reactor 4, adding to the toxic soup which had rehardened and had to be manually broken up and removed. Radiation levels there reached levels of 1,500R and beyond in some places, he says. These levels led to the painful deaths of several firefighters who tackled the first fire on the roof. Each shift, a production line of 900 men waited in the 27-storey-high darkened stairwell leading to the roof – sweltering in the summer heat exacerbated by the windowless tower – for their turn.
They were armed with axes welded to heavy metal rods and dressed in boots, respirators and heavy suits with pieces of lead strung together over their chests and back to offer some protection against radiation. Then, when it was their turn, the teams leapt out through a door separating safety and danger, much like paratroopers from a plane, to do their shift. It was a battle against time as they ran to their designated spot, struggling over debris kept constantly wet by helicopters, to chop up whatever asphalt they could, while a “counter” shouted out how many seconds they had spent outside. Then they charged back into the stairwell. “It was a never-ending conveyor belt of men who did this. It was the epitome of our work in Chernobyl,” he says. “We had a saying, ‘Who says the staircase to hell goes down?’”
Other work involved cleaning the area in eight-hour shifts by digging up contaminated rubble, as well as building a barbed-wire fence around the whole station as a security measure. Amidst the drudgery, he was acutely aware of the importance of basic safety measures and tried to get his radioactivity levels tested whenever possible. He points to a white spot on his neck the size of a five-cent coin where radiation had killed the pigment in his skin. He and the others lived 50 to a tent and every morning when he awoke, he remembers seeing clumps of hair on his pillow, also the result of radiation exposure. Other experts had also gathered there to study the effects of radiation. “We were essentially lab rats in a living laboratory, because doctors and scientists had an unprecedented opportunity there.”
The signs of devastation were everywhere. Near the plant, the pine forest turned red as the trees died, while other crops mutated and grew huge in the months after the accident. “I saw watermelons the size of coffee tables, apples the size of a child’s head. But we couldn’t touch them.” Cement plants also mushroomed in the aftermath of the disaster, spewing out tonnes and tonnes of concrete to entomb everything which had been contaminated and erect a concrete sarcophagus over reactor 4 by December that year. But Dr Belyakov had to leave after just 40 days as he had, on paper, reached the maximum allowed exposure – 25R. He believes his dose was at least three times higher. There were not enough dosimeters – instruments measuring radiation – for individuals. He estimates that each day he was in Chernobyl, he was hit with 50 years’ worth of the daily dose of radiation an X-ray technician receives; or 600 times more in total than a uranium miner is allowed to receive within a year.
The former semi-professional basketball player lost 16kg and was unable to walk 100m without feeling exhausted. His kidneys and joints were affected, but he says he escaped more serious harm because he knew how to protect himself from accidental exposure, by making sure he got tested as often as possible, for instance, and discarding any contaminated clothing or items immediately. And he was back to playing sports after about 18 months. “We were all advised not to have any children, because of what we could pass on to our children,” says Dr Belyakov, who had a six-year-old daughter at the time, his only child.
Thirty-one workers died in the immediate aftermath of the accident. Nobody knows how many have died of radiation-related illnesses since then, but studies by organisations such as the European Commission, International Atomic Energy Agency, World Health Organisation and United Nations estimate that 9,000 to 33,000 will die from radiation exposure due to the accident within the next 70 years.
In 1995, Dr Belyakov emigrated to the United States with his wife and daughter, and became an American citizen. He now works in Singapore as a section head in the medicinal chemistry department of AMRI (Albany Molecular Research Inc) Singapore Research Centre. Although the memories remain painful, he says he wants to share his experiences to alleviate the fear and panic surrounding the current accident in Japan. “It was the most intense memory of my life. “I hope that by relating my experience,
it may help people to understand the meaning and the place of nuclear energy in modern days and in the future.” Asked if he still believes in nuclear power, he nods. “As a scientist, I believe there is no other option for mankind. It is so efficient, so clean, so powerful. But plants must be well organised and run according to strict safety measures. That is really the only option.” He adds: “People need to educate themselves to separate fact from fiction, rather than panicking needlessly about the current situation in Japan when they are miles away.”
What did being exposed to radiation feel like?
Well, it can’t be seen, smelled or tasted, which is what makes it all the more dangerous. But after a while you develop a sense towards it. When I enter a radiation field, my eyes become sensitive to light and objects appear to glow. At higher ranges, I get a metallic taste in my mouth, and when I breathe, it feels almost as though I’m smoking. Then at extremely high levels, my nose gets clogged up as though I’m having an allergy attack. The moment you leave the area, these symptoms dissipate.
How did your participation in the clean-up efforts affect you?
A doctor specialising in radiation whom I met in Chernobyl said that anyone who set foot on the roof (the most contaminated spot on the site) would not live beyond 20 years. It’s been almost 25 years now. So for every day that I can wake up and walk around, I thank God for that. My memories are still as vivid as though it happened just yesterday. I saw a threat of planetary magnitude, a beast which caused so much harm and could have caused far more if not for the people who stood with me, shoulder to shoulder, to stop it.
If I tell you that I wasn’t scared, it would be a lie. If I had known at the time it was going to be that bad, I would have thought twice. But I’d still have gone. I came back a mess, like a soldier from war. But it also made me a man. I can eat pressure for breakfast.
How did the man on the street react to the disaster?
The people in the Ukraine call it a war. They divide time into before, and after, the disaster. The liquidators were given benefits when they returned, such as free public transportation, better food and housing subsidies. People soon forgot what we had done and seemed resentful of us, maybe because they found the accident so shameful. The looks they gave me were full of disgust and soon I stopped using my Chernobyl veteran’s pass.