Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Panoramas from the Chernobyl Zone

A colleague sent me the link to a wonderful website today. Check it out!

The incredible images were captured by a photographer named Michael Rothbart. He is currently working on a photo project documenting how people cope while living in radioactive areas of the former Soviet Union. He just got back to the US after spending eight months in Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

Seeing these panoramas really makes me feel like I'm back in the Exclusion Zone... creepy.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Chernobyl Fungus Feeds On Radiation

The fungus Cladosporium sphaerospermum can use dangerous radiation to grow.

Read about it here.

Crazy stuff! Like something from a science fiction novel. But then again, I guess I shouldn't be surprised. When I went to Chernobyl, everything reminded me of something from a science fiction novel.

I'm surprised the article didn't mention whether or not the radiation-munching fungi could potentially be used to clean up contaminated areas. That was the first thing that popped into my head when I read it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

More over, Pixar: Chernobyl 3D movies

Some wonderful videos about SIP:

Want to know more about the conceptual design and construction plan of the New Safe Confinement shelter? Watch here:

Want to know more about shelter stabilization? Watch here:

Parlez-vous Français?

$505 Million Deal for Chernobyl Shelter

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian officials signed a $505 million contract with a French-led consortium Monday for construction of a new shelter for the Chernobyl reactor, the site of the word's worst nuclear accident.

The project, financed by an international fund managed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, will be designed and built by the French-led consortium Novarka, which includes the companies Bouygues SA and Vinci SA.

The new shelter — an arch-shaped steel structure 345 feet tall and 490 feet long — will enclose the concrete sarcophagus erected hastily after the 1986 accident. That structure has been crumbling and leaking radiation for more than a decade.

"I am convinced that today, possibly for the first time, we can frankly tell the national and international community that the answer to the problem of sheltering the Chernobyl nuclear plant was found today," President Viktor Yushchenko said at the signing ceremony, according to the presidential Web site.

The plan is to eventually dismantle the sarcophagus and the exploded reactor inside the new shelter. Chernobyl's reactor No. 4 exploded on April 26, 1986, spewing radiation over a large swath of the former Soviet Union and much of northern Europe. An area roughly half the size of Italy was contaminated, forcing the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of people.

Ukraine has repeatedly asked for money from the European Union and other Western sources to fund a new shelter.

Anton Usov, a spokesman for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, said it will take about 1 1/2 years to design the shelter and another four to build it.

The entire project of sheltering the reactor, which began in 1997 and also includes strengthening the existing sarcophagus, monitoring radiation and training experts, is estimated at $1.39 billion, Usov said.

Officials also signed a $200 million contract with New Jersey-based Holtec International for decommissioning the power plant. The project includes building a storage facility for spent nuclear fuel from the plant's three other reactors, which kept operating until the station was shut down in 2000.

That undertaking is also financed by international donors in a fund managed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

"The successful implementation of the project depends not only on the progress of the construction work, but also on the continued commitment of both the Ukrainian authorities and the international community," European Bank for Reconstruction and Development President Jean Lemierre said in a statement.

In the first two months after the disaster, 31 people died from illnesses caused by radioactivity, but there is heated debate over the subsequent toll.

A 2005 report from the U.N. health agency estimated that about 9,300 people will die from cancers caused by Chernobyl's radiation. Some groups, such as Greenpeace, insist the toll could be 10 times higher.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Collateral damage

There have been some interesting articles recently about the effects of Chernobyl in Scandinavia.

Evidence of Chernobyl nuclear accident still in Finnish fish and mushrooms

"The toxicity of predatory fish and mushrooms still exceeds the EU recommendations in Western Finland. The fish and mushrooms tested in the southwestern town of Vammala still exhibit elevated levels of the radioactivve isotope caesium-137 and mercury, even 20 years after the Chernobyl nuclear accident."

Is Chernobyl behind academic slump in Sweden?

"It is 21 years since the nuclear plant at Chernobyl went bang, and the extent of the damage wrought by the radioactive fallout is still becoming clear. According to a report in Chemistry World, US researchers have discovered that Swedish children who were in the womb at the time of the accident might have been mentally damaged by their exposure. The findings, which suggest the developing foetus may be more sensitive to radioactivity than previously thought, are based on a survey of the academic achievements of more than 560,000 Swedish children born between 1983 and 1988. "
It's truly disturbing how widespread the affects of Chernobyl are. Clearly, Ukraine and Belarus are not the only countries suffering from the disaster.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Back in the swing of things

Since I'm back at Duke, I probably won't be able to update this blog as frequently as I used to. But I will certainly be continuing to write about my research and any interesting things I find related to Chernobyl. For example, check out the following links (provided to me by a photographer friend who is creating a photo documentary on Chernobyl):

A site that provides background to the graffiti on Pripyat's walls: http://www.26-04-1986.com/

Photographer Igor Kostin's work on the Chernobyl accident, published in a German Newsmagazine:

Two photographers' sites dealing with radiation victims:

Anton Kratochvil's work on the Belorussian children: http://www.viiphoto.com/detailStory.php?news_id=481

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Farewell, Ukraine!

One of my last activities in Kyiv was watching the local Premier League team, Dynamo, play Karpaty (from Lviv). I'm not usually keen to watching soccer, but this game was incredible. The final score was 7-3, with Dynamo clinching its first victory of the season.

I am writing this post from JFK after a long but uneventful flight from Kyiv. It's wonderful to revel in the American-ness of this airport after being abroad for so long. Look, there's a Starbucks! Someone reading US Weekly! Little kids dressed in colorful plastic Crocs! Fat people!

It's lovely.

Since my connection to Norfolk, VA, has been delayed for over an hour (that's JFK for you, I guess), I think now is a good time to update this blog about my last few days of research.

On Monday, after interviewing some liquidators, I walked over to the dosimetry department to undergo a full body radiation scan. It was an interesting experience, to say the least. I had to lay prone in a small, metal-lined room for half an hour. There was a web cam installed inside, which is how I got this picture:

Fortunately, I came out as clean as a whistle. My Cesium-137 level was only 30 (I think the units are Beckrels? It's hard to tell because my form is in Russian). The average healthy Kyiv resident carries a load of about 400. The dosimetrist actually expected to see a much higher reading considering that I had been eating a lot of local produce, but I guess five weeks just isn't enough time to acquire any sort of irradiated dose.

On Tuesday, I arrived at RCRM at 10 AM, hoping to interview a potential Ark worker who was in the hospital for check-in control. I ended up getting more than I bargained for; in addition to an interview, I got to watch the man go through the entire process of becoming an ICARR participant. It went something like this:

Step 1: The worker is offered the ICARR consent form.

Step 2: The worker reads and signs the ICARR consent form. He is given a copy for his records.

Step 3: An official at RCRM prints out a full page of identical bar code labels from her computer. These bar codes are the participant’s unique ID number, and they allow ICARR scientists to identify him anonymously. One of the bar code labels is stuck to the signed consent form.

Step 4: The worker is brought to another room, and scientists take from him what looks like a lot of blood. It ends up being only 40 ml, separated into 4 or 5 test tubes, each of which is labeled with a bar code.

Step 5: The worker is paid his "incentive" of 100 Hryvnas (= 20 USD). He is given a receipt for the exchange, which is stored in a binder along with his consent form.

Step 6: An official at RCRM sits down at a computer and logs on to ICARR’s online information exchange system. She enters the participant’s bar code into the system, along with a few other descriptive data points (male or female, etc). From now on, the worker is officially in the ICARR system, and scientists from the US or Ukraine can use the online data exchange program to enter or retrieve his health data. There are drop-down menus where various medical reports (cardiology, gastroenterology, etc) can be made about him in the future.

Step 7: An official at RCRM takes the participant’s blood samples to a laboratory in the immunology department. There, DNA, plasma, etc. will be extracted.

Step 8: Eventually, the biological materials will be divided into two, with one copy staying in Ukraine and the other being shipped to the US for research.

After witnessing the ICARR procedures, I interviewed four more liquidators and called it a day.

It was bittersweet saying goodbye to my Ukrainian friends and colleagues at RCRM and RTI. This trip has been such an incredible experience, and I will miss Kyiv a lot. But, I’m sure we will all keep in touch, and I am ready to go home and start school again. It’s been a long summer!

I'll leave you with a photo from the Kyiv zoo:

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Catching up on last week: My trip to Crimea

On August 12, I decided to take a short break from Chernobyl research to experience a new part of Ukraine. (I had interviewed just about every liquidator in the hospital at that point, so I had no pangs of guilt about leaving for a few days.) So, Reid and I hopped aboard a Yak-42 airliner (one member of Donbassaero's impressive fleet of Antonovs and Yakolevs...) headed towards the Black Sea.

Crimea is an interesting place. It is far more "Russified" than Kyiv, which is understandable given the fact that a much higher percentage of its population is ethnically and culturally Russian. Everyone speaks Russian, all of the signs are in Russian, and there are still many Russian flags flying above Crimean cities. I honestly felt like I had left Ukraine for its neighbor to the east, without having to pay $100 for the visa.

In fact, it was a surprise to many when Crimea became a part of independent Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The event led to tensions between Russian and Ukraine, and since the entire Soviet Black Sea Fleet was still stationed on the peninsula, there were worries of armed skirmishes. Crimea went through a period of self-government in 1992, but eventually agreed to remain a part of Ukraine, provided the Kyiv government expand its already extensive autonomous status. Today, Crimea has the special status of "Autonomous Republic," operating as a parliamentary republic with no president.

Reid and I went to two different cities in Crimea: Yalta and Sevastopol. Yalta was a wonderful, bustling place chock full of Soviet kitsch.

The views were gorgeous. It's no wonder the tsars liked to take their vacations here. There aren't very many places on earth where you can be at the mountains and the sea at the same time.

At first glance, Sevastopol was less beautiful than Yalta. Set away from the Crimean mountains, it is a military town, home to both the Ukrainian and Russian Black Sea Fleets. However, once we started exploring, we found some amazing sights. The ruins of the ancient Greek city of Chersonesus were stunning:

And the nearby village of Balaklava offered some great views:

It also offered a once-top-secret Soviet submarine factory, which we were free to explore at a cost of 10 Hryvnas (=2 USD):

I wonder how many American spies would have given their lives to see this thing forty years ago?

Crimea was the most beautiful place I've ever seen, hands down. I'm so glad I went. It was a real adventure for me to travel through a vacation destination not for English-speakers, but for Russians. Dasvidaniya!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

My second excursion to Chernobyl, told through photos

I've decided to present the second Chernobyl trip a little differently than the first. There were simply too many fabulous photos to choose from, so instead of going through the trouble of uploading them all to Blogger (a slow and arduous process that I was not looking forward to), I've prepared a photo album of sorts with captions explaining each of the images.

To view it, just follow this link:

Чорнобиль (Chornobyl), Trip #2

And click on the first photo. To flip through the album, just click on the photo that is currently on your screen, or click "next" in the upper-right-hand corner of your screen.

I couldn't fit all of the photos in one album, so I had to create a second one on the same site. It's available at this link:

Чорнобиль (Chornobyl), Trip #2 (Continued)

The links to these albums (and others) are also available under the "My Photos" section on the tool bar to the right.

In case you're curious, the boy with me is my boyfriend Reid (also a senior at Duke) who was wonderful enough to come visit me in Ukraine for 10 days (and crazy enough to want to go to Chernobyl, too).

Friday, August 17, 2007

The world's most bizarre day trip: Chernobyl

I apologize for the blogging hiatus, but the past two weeks have been an absolute whirlwind. Since my last post I’ve taken two separate Chernobyl excursions, flown in a creaky, Soviet-era Yak-42 airliner, swam in the Black Sea, and explored a secret Soviet submarine factory. I’ve seen so much and done so much that I’ll never be able to sum up my array of experiences in a lifetime of blog entries... Still, I will try my best to give you an idea of what I did during this ultra-packed stretch of my Ukraine trip through words and lots of pictures.

Let’s start from the beginning. On August 8, I went on my first excursion to Chernobyl. RCRM booked the trip, so my companions were all scientists and doctors from the hospital. The excursion was arranged by the Chernobyl NPP, and our guide was a plant employee who spoke Russian.

My second trip came three days later, on August 11. This excursion was arranged by a great local travel agency called Solo East. It was less official than my other tour, and more geared towards English-speaking tourists. This tour was better in many ways because the guide took more risks to show us places to take photos. However, I had to pay about $145 for the Solo East tour, whereas the official tour was free. I will dedicate this first post to my official tour, and the next post to my Solo East tour.

The weather was appropriately dreary the morning of August 8. From the hospital, we packed into a van and drove north for about 2 hours until we reached the first checkpoint.

This gate marks the entrance to the 30-km Exclusion Zone. A stone-faced guard examined all of our passports before granting us entry. From there, we drove for another 30 minutes until we arrived in the village of Chernobyl (not to be confused with the Chernobyl NPP, which is about 10 km away), where we stopped briefly for snacks. Chernobyl is a functioning town, but most of its inhabitants are NPP workers who only live there temporarily during working shifts. It’s technically supposed to be an evacuated village, but there are about 100 “self settlers” who returned after the accident against the wishes of the government.

From Chernobyl village, we made our way down the road to the Chernobyl NPP.

We drove around a bit to snap photos of the damaged reactor, above. Then, we pulled into the plant’s administrative offices (which were located in the same row of buildings as the damaged reactor… yikes) for a lecture.

In the model above, you can see the four reactors that were once operational at the Chernobyl NPP; all of them are contained in that long building in the center, with the damaged reactor #4 on the far right (encased in the black shelter).

After the lecture, and to my complete surprise, we drove right up to the damaged reactor.

There was a small museum there, which contained a very neat and painstakingly detailed model of the damaged reactor.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, the original reactor sarcophagus was only meant to last 20 years, so it has many structural problems today, 21 years after the accident. Our guide described some of the work that has already been done to stabilize the reactor. On the bottom half of the poster below, you can see two diagrams of the shelter wall: a “before” and an “after” shot.

As you can see from the drawing on the left, the shelter’s scaffolding was not supporting this particular wall very well, so the weak wall had to bear most of the weight of the roof. This situation was very dangerous since one heavy rainstorm could potentially increase the weight of the roof enough to crumble the wall. In the diagram to the right, you can see the changes they made to translate the weight off of the wall and onto the scaffolding. Fixes like this one are only temporary, however, which is why the Ark is being constructed.

Above is a wall poster from the museum about the SIP project, a.k.a. Ark building project.

We next made our way to the abandoned city of Pripyat, located 2 km from the plant. This was my favorite part of the trip. Pripyat had been a bustling young town of about 50,000 people (mostly NPP workers and their families) when the Chernobyl disaster occurred. After the accident, it was completely abandoned. During evacuations, people were told to bring with them only their money and important papers as they would be returning in 3 days. Thus, everything was left in Pripyat as it had been in 1986; only Mother Nature and a few looters have disturbed the town since then. It was a haunting site.

One of the women in our group was a Pripyat evacuee in 1986. We explored her old apartment together:

We also went into the city’s cultural center. It was disturbing to see the amount of destruction 20 years can do.

When I was in Pripyat, I couldn't help imagining myself in a sci-fi scenario. I felt as if I had been thawed after being frozen for thousands of years, only to find that humans had mysteriously disappeared during this time, leaving just the ruins of human civilization in tact. I wonder how many more decades it will take until Pripyat is completely unrecognizable - 100 years? 500 years? It was a bizarre, unforgettable experience to be in Pripyat.

Before leaving the Exclusion Zone, we all endured a frightening few moments as we stepped into a body dosimeter. Fortunately, all of us registered "clear."

Stay tuned - I have a whole other version of this story to tell in my next post.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Musings about the liquidators

As you can see from the interview summaries I posted last week (here, here, and here), the Chernobyl liquidators share many of the same grievances. Namely, they feel cheated by government officials, whom they think ought to provide them with more social benefits for the sacrifices they made in the Exclusion Zone.

The liquidators are certainly entitled to such benefits. In fact, they are essentially war veterans because, whether they had a choice about it or not, they willingly faced an insidious force to protect their country. Just like war veterans, they sacrificed their own well being for the well being of their countrymen. Nevertheless, I see two factors that complicate the situation regarding their social benefits:

1. There have been few scientific links made between illnesses of the liquidators and ionizing radiation.
As you can see from the interviews, almost all of the liquidators attribute their current state of health to radiation exposure. But, you must also keep in mind that these men are growing older, and illness is a natural part of the aging process. Ultimately, the liquidators are not that much sicker than other Ukrainians in their age bracket. From the International Atomic Energy Agency:

The cancer and death rate studies that have been conducted among samples of the recorded liquidators have shown no direct correlation between radiation exposure at Chernobyl and increased cancer or death rates. The correlation between psychological problems and the status of liquidator is more clearly drawn, although the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic troubles in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus may also be factors for psychological stress.

2) Ukraine is a poor and - to be quite honest - somewhat corrupt country. It’s not as if the liquidators are the only deserving group to not receive enough benefits from the government. Seniors, children, invalids, veterans, etc. are also struggling to live on the meager hryvnas given to them by the Ukrainian government. Now, I don’t want to downplay the heroism of the liquidators, and they are certainly entitled to public funds, but are they more entitled than sick children? Veterans of the Afghan War? The elderly? Their plight is a valid one, but it also one that is shared by every Ukrainian claiming public benefits.

Lately, I have been learning a lot about the economic situation in Ukraine from real Ukrainians, and the picture they have painted for me is not a very happy one. Jobs are scarce, especially outside the cities. Wealth is distributed very unevenly, leaving virtually no middle class. Politicians and a few businessmen possess the bulk of the country’s money, so it’s hard for Ukrainians too pull themselves up without 1) doing something illegal; 2) making connections with the politicians; or 3) some combination of both (as is often the case). There is a sense of hopelessness among some Ukrainians, who realize that no matter how hard they try, and no matter how educated they are, they will never be able attain a certain standard of living. It’s depressing to see and learn these lessons, and it makes me appreciate how lucky I am to have been born in America, where the prospect of upward mobility is such a given in our culture that it is often taken for granted.

Ukraine wants to join the EU. But, until it works out its economic and political problems, I don’t think that will happen anytime soon. Somehow, the country needs to remove corruption from its government and create more jobs for people. I’m not an economist, but it seems to me that these are two quite hefty tasks.

Monday, August 6, 2007

More sightseeing in Kyiv

Well, I had another interesting weekend of sightseeing in Kyiv! My first stop was the Chernobyl Museum, located in the quaint mercantile quarter of Podil:

The museum did a great job of presenting its collection of historical artifacts (ID cards, newspaper articles, even a gilded church alter that was salvaged from an evacuated village) in a symbolic and very dramatic way. For example, in the exhibit below, you can see an apple tree (the museum’s symbol for the Chernobyl disaster) growing through a cradle. Surrounding the cradle on the floor are photographs of Chernobyl evacuees. Very moving.

Above is a picture of my English-language tour guide pointing out the boundaries of the Exclusion Zone. I was surprised to learn that such a small museum offered an English-language tour, until I realized that the majority of it patrons seemed to be American tourists. My theory is that this is because the museum is prominently featured in Lonely Planet’s guidebook on Ukraine, which is pretty much the only English-language travel guide available about the country. Turns out, most Ukrainians haven’t even heard about the Chernobyl museum (including the doctors at RCRM, who treat Chernobyl victims on a daily basis…).

Above, another dramatic exhibit.

After visiting the museum, my Ukrainian friend insisted I try some real Ukrainian fast food:

The name of the restaurant, “Smacha Kartoplia,” means “Tasty Potato” in English. To order, you pick two salads from a display, which are then plopped into the middle of a twice-baked cheesy potato. We got crab salad and mushroom salad in ours. (Note: In Ukraine, the word “salad” by no means denotes a healthy bed of mixed greens – as you can see, it’s always some combination of meat, pickles, and mayonnaise.)

After gorging on tasty potatoes, we worked it all off by climbing Andriyivsky uzviz, or Andrew’s descent, to St. Andrew’s Church:

The bronze people I am clutching above are characters from an old film called Za Dvoma Zaytsamty. The title means “chasing two hares” and comes from an ancient Ukrainian proverb. In the movie, a poor Ukrainian barber in late-19th-century Kyiv puts on airs to woo two wealthy women but is exposed for his duplicity.

Above, statue of Cossack hero Bohdan Khmelnytsky.

Since it was Saturday, the brides were out in droves again. Here is a young couple posing for a photo in front of some statues of great Slavs. I think they represented Princess Olha, St. Cyril and St. Methodius (the founders of the Slavic alphabet), and Apostle Andriy.

We took the “funicular,” or cable car, down the steep hillside back to Podil.

I love this city! Next post – as promised – my take on the situation of the liquidators.

Friday, August 3, 2007

The Chernobyl liquidators: incredible men with incredible stories (Part 3)

This weekend, I will write an analysis of what I've learned so far from the liquidators and about the liquidators. But for now, here are a few more interview summaries:

Liquidator #7 - bus driver and strawberry wine enthusiast

Liquidator #7 was working for a construction organization in 1986. He remembers that it was a religious holiday (probably Orthodox Easter) when he first heard about the accident. His family had gone to church, and on the way back, they saw many buses headed to Chernobyl.

He also remembers that he had a garden full of strawberries. He was told not to eat them after the disaster because they were contaminated, but he had also been told to drink one glass of red wine every day as protection against radiation. So, he picked the strawberries and stored them in the sun until they became like wine. Since strawberry wine is red, he and his family and friends drank it all month, just like the officials said. The wine was very good, and he was very happy about this.

Liquidator #7’s job in Chernobyl was as a bus driver. He transported people to and from the clean part of the Exclusion Zone to the "dirty" part, where the Chernobyl NPP was. In 1986, he did this in Chernobyl for only one day. Then, he did it again from 1988 to 1990. It was one of the best paying jobs in Chernobyl at that time. He could spend 2 weeks at home and 2 weeks at work, and the payment was 4 times as big as it was in Kyiv. He chose to go to Chernobyl for the money.

There was nothing to be scared of, in his opinion. He changed his clothes often, and he cleaned himself a lot. His bus was quite contaminated, so he had to wash it many times.

He has had health problems since 1990, and he is ready for death. He does not know if radiation caused his illnesses – but half of his friends are now dead. They were liquidators, too.

If he could go back, he would make the same decision to go to Chernobyl. This is because he has children and grandchildren, and they have to be saved.

He does not think the Ukrainian government has treated him well at all. In his opinion, the politicians think only about themselves, not about the Ukrainian people. In his own words, “damn the government.”

Liquidator #8 - gas, oil, and kerosene delivery man

Liquidator #8 was born in the Luhansk Oblast in 1951. He heard about the accident at home, from his friends. He had no reaction to the news.

He was called to liquidation by the military department of his city in 1987. He had no choice about going there. His name was put on a special list. Everyone on this list was given a medical exam, and the next day they were all sent to Chernobyl.

Liquidator #8 was a driver in Chernobyl, transporting gas, oil, and kerosene. He was in the Exclusion Zone for 3 months. He had some problems with his health while he was inside the Zone – headaches and a cough – but when he left, everything became okay for a while. He was not informed about the risks of working in Chernobyl. He was only told which roads he was supposed to drive on. He was not scared.

Liquidator #8 has had very big problems with his health since 1987. He has not been able to work since 1990. He has problems talking and writing, and he has very bad headaches. He received an official irradiated dose of 8.149 roentgens; however, he thinks that his actual dose was higher. He thinks radiation caused his health problems.

He is very sad about the situation he is in. In his mind, he was “broken” during his time in Chernobyl, but he has received no benefits for the work he did there.

Given the current level of attention he receives from the Ukrainian government, he would not have agreed to be a liquidator if he could go back in time. The pension he receives for his lost health is too small. He would like to receive more social benefits from the government, such as a bigger pension and a better apartment than he has now.

Liquidator #9 - wall destroyer

Liquidator #9 was born in the Sumy Oblast in 1958. He heard about the Chernobyl disaster on the television. His reaction was negative, but he had no anxiety about it.

The military asked him to go to Chernobyl in 1987. His name was on their “list.” He had no choice in going; in fact, he feared that he would go to prison if he refused.

Liquidator #9’s job was to remove the old, bad layer of matter from the reactor walls. He was not told about the risks. Since he had no choice about going to Chernobyl, it “did not matter whether he was scared or not.” He was called there for 180 days, but he ended up being in Chernobyl for only 42 days.

He received an irradiated dose of 9.1 roentgens. Since 1987, he has had headaches, back pain, and leg and hand pain. It seems to him that his irradiated dose caused these problems.

Even for a lot of money, he would never go back to Chernobyl.

He does not think that the Ukrainian government cares about the liquidators.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Chernobyl liquidators: incredible men with incredible stories (Part 2)

Hallway in the radiation clinic at RCRM, where liquidators come for medical treatment

I've been working furiously to transcribe the rest of these liquidator interviews. Below are three more. I think you may find them even more interesting than the first three. (Liquidator #6 was especially chatty.)

Liquidator #4 - delivery driver

Liquidator #4 was on vacation in his dacha in 1986. He had no reaction to the news of the Chernobyl disaster. He did not think it was serious.

He was a delivery driver in Chernobyl. He made his first trip to the site on the 5th of May. He took part in the transport of wares, water, and food. He was ordered to Chernobyl by the government. He did not have a choice in going there.

He was aware of the risks of working in an irradiated environment, but he was not scared. He was in Chernobyl until the end of summer, making delivery trips every other day.

Liquidator #4 has had problems with his vessels and thyroid gland recently. He also has had some back pain. He does not know if radiation exposure caused his health problems. However, he recalls that when he was making trips to Chernobyl, he had medical exams every month. The doctors did not find any problems with his health (although they did tell him it would be best for him to stop making trips to Chernobyl).

His car was cleaned many times while he worked in Chernobyl, because it was quite contaminated with radiation. In fact, it was once cleaned so well that the paint was stripped off. He never had to destroy it.

On a scale of 1 to 5, he rates his care from the government at a 2. He has concerns that some of the money that is allocated to Chernobyl liquidators and evacuees is being laundered by politicians.

If he could go back to 1986, he would not be a liquidator.

Liquidator #5 - special structures expert

Liquidator #5 was a military specialist in “special structures” in 1986. The Soviet Army gave him only 30 minutes to report to the Chernobyl site after the accident happened. He did not have a choice in going there.

He was not scared, and he said that he was informed of the risks of working in an irradiated environment. According to him, under the Soviet Union, all children studied radiation in school. It was part of the civil defense program.

Liquidator #5 was in the Chernobyl zone for 75 days, nonstop. He took part in the building of roads to the reactor and to the Chernobyl station. He received an official irradiated dose of 18 roentgens, but he is not sure if this number is accurate.

Liquidator #5 has had many health problems since 1986. In his own words, his “organism” is destroyed. He has ulcers, big problems with the vessels in his legs and head, hypertension, and so on. He thinks that his irradiated dose caused his health problems because he was healthy before the Chernobyl accident.

He cannot even estimate the help that the government has given him, because it is so low.

Knowing what he knows now, he would go to Chernobyl again. This is because the health of his children and his family must come first; his own health comes second in such a situation.

Liquidator #6 - upstanding Communist

Liquidator #6 heard about the Chernobyl accident while traveling to Russia to visit his parents. He was driving through Kharkiv, Ukraine, when the road police stopped his car. They asked him if he knew about the accident. He did not, so they told him the details. At first he thought that the news was not true, because he knew that nuclear reactors had seven levels of defense. But the road police insisted that it had happened, and they went on to measure his car for radiation (which was present).

In 1986, Liquidator #6 was working for the same construction firm that had built the destroyed reactor in Chernobyl. In fact, he was secretary of the Communist Party within this organization. When he and his fellow workers were asked to volunteer to be liquidators, he saw that no one wanted to do it. Because he wanted to set a good “Communist” example for them, he was the first to say, “I will go to Chernobyl.” He was quite surprised by the second person to volunteer: it was a Latin American worker who had been educated at Patris Lumumba University in Moscow. It was funny to him that this Latin American man was so willing to go to Chernobyl for the defense of Ukraine.

Officially, all liquidators were supposed to be 35+ years old and to have had their children already, but his group consisted of three quite young men. He was the oldest. They were taken by car to Vyshhorod. A group of forty people was formed there, and all of them were taken by bus to Chernobyl. His job was to supervise the transport of inert materials such as sand, bitumen, and gravel. In one day, he remembers transferring 20,000 cubic meters of material.

In his opinion, no one was scared to work in Chernobyl because no one knew anything about radiation. He personally was not scared because he had been in Syria in 1973, when it was attacked by Israel. There, he took part in the evacuation of 7,500 people. Driving an Italian bus, he evacuated women and children, and bombs were dropping constantly. In Chernobyl, there was nothing to be scared of – no noises, no smells, no heat. He had no reason to be scared.

Officially, his group of three was supposed to be changed after 7 days because they were working 800 meters from the NPP. However, they were not changed, and they ended up working a full month under the reactor.

He remembers that on May 20th, more than 4,000 people from all over the Soviet Union were in Chernobyl. Almost all of them wore white lab coats lined with 250 mm (EDIT: the translator probably meant µm) of metal. The Soviet government thought that such coats would protect people from the radiation. However, in his opinion, the lab coats were an insufficient defense.

Liquidator #6 has had lots of health problems since 1990. He had prostate surgery in 1999 and a stroke in 2000. Before that, he had a stomach ulcer, hypertension, pancreas problems, blood pressure issues, and so on. He received an official irradiated dose of 26 roentgens, but he thinks that this number is wrong.

He believes that radiation caused his health problems. He was very healthy before the Chernobyl accident; he worked a lot and had a very strong “organism” and immune system. But after the accident, he began to recognize big problems with his health. He has calculated that he has a total of 16 chronic diseases now. In his own words, there are no organs that work well in his body.

He regrets his decision to go to Chernobyl. The “Chernobyl situation” (the liquidator problem) is very bad now. Liquidators need 26 million hryvnas per year to cover the cost of living and receiving health care, but they only receive 10 percent of this sum from the government. He has no money in his family budget to cover his health costs.

He is angry with the Ukrainian government. Since they destroyed his health, he thinks that they should pay for it. He needs 300 or 400 hryvna per month to cover his disease treatments, but he officially receives only 12 hryvnas per month. He has had to ask the president of the Chernobyl Union for money.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Chernobyl liquidators: incredible men with incredible stories (Part 1)

Memorial to Chernobyl liquidators at Mitino Cemetery, Moscow

The past two days have definitely been the most interesting for me research-wise since I arrived in Ukraine. I've been interviewing Chernobyl liquidators non-stop, and it's amazing to me how brave, how open, and just how damn interesting they all are.

So far, I have finished transcribing three of the interviews from my audio recordings. Thus, without further ado, let me introduce you to Liquidators #1, #2, and #3:

Liquidator #1 - physics teacher

Liquidator #1 was a physics teacher in the Zhytomyr Oblast in 1986. His workplace was 22 km from the Chernobyl NPP. He recalls that the reaction to the accident in his village was not very serious. Most people did not understand what had happened. However, as a physics teacher, he understood the severity of the disaster better than most.

Liquidator #1 voluntarily took part in the evacuation of his region, helping evacuate children in particular. One of the things he did was help children find their parents in the event that they were separated.

He lived in the Zhytomyr Oblast until 1998, at which time he moved to the Carpathian region (in the west). It was a little scary for him to work so close to the NPP after the accident happened. Evacuations were not well organized at all; people were told that they could return later, which was a lie. Old people in particular resisted.

We talked about his many health problems – cardiovascular diseases, pyschological diseases, neurological diseases. Liquidator #1 thinks that his health problems are partially due to radiation exposure, since his parents and grandparents all had unusually clean bills of health. Since 1988, not a year has passed where he wasn’t hospitalized.

Still, Liquidator #1 feels better now than he did 12 years ago. He has quit smoking and drinking, and he has started seeing a neurologist and a psychiatrist. He noted that under the Soviet Union it was frowned upon to see such doctors. People did not want to be categorized as psychologically-ill. Today, there is more freedom to choose the physician you need.

If he could go back in time, he would not change his decision to be a liquidator. He thinks that people need to help each other. He does not consider what he did to be very “special.”

He thinks that the care he receives from the Ukrainian government could be better.

Liquidator #2 - Metrostroy operator

Liquidator #2 was a Metrostroy operator in Kyiv in 1986. Metrostroy was the construction agency that built the Kyiv Metro. He and his colleagues were asked to go to Chernobyl soon after the disaster. In fact, they were the second group of workers to go there. (The first were the firemen.) Their job was to seal the floor of the reactor with metal insulation and concrete so that irradiated matter would not seep into the groundwater.

He agreed to go to Chernobyl out of patriotism. In his own words, if he did not do it, who would? He compared his choice to the choice of Soviet soldiers in WWII.

Liquidator #2 was informed of the risks of working in an irradiated environment. He was not frightened. Still, he received an irradiated dose of 28.2 roentgens over the three days he worked in Chernobyl. After recording this dose, he was forced to stop working at Chernobyl because the legal maximum dosage in 1986 was 25 roentgens. (Today, the official dosage limit is 2 roentgens per year.)

He has had health problems since 1986, which he partially attributes to his irradiated dose.

If he could go back to 1986, he would make the same choice to go to Chernobyl. In his own words, “this is our country, and somebody has to do it.”

We discussed the amount of attention the Ukrainian government gives liquidators. Liquidator #2 thinks that it is not enough, but it is still a little bit more attention than is given to pensioners, children, etc.

Liquidator #3 - mechanic

Liquidator #3 was a mechanic in the Poltova Oblast in 1986. The Soviet Military Office drafted him to Chernobyl, where his job was to remove irradiated matter from the third reactor’s roof. He had no choice about going there; he had to be a liquidator.

He was never officially told about the risks of working in an irradiated environment.

He received an irradiated dose of 25 roentgens over the two and a half months he spent in Chernobyl. Since this was the maximum limit in 1986, he had to leave the site after recording this dosage.

Liquidator #3 thinks that his irradiated dose has caused his many health problems.

He does not think that the Ukrainian government has taken good care of him. He wishes they would give him more “human attention.” He has been forced to figure out his problems for himself, even though he served his country in Chernobyl and in the Afghanistan War.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

So, would you like to work on the Ark?

Check out that Ukrainian sky...

Reproduced below is a list of the risks faced by personnel who are working on the Ark:
Potential radiation risks of the "Shelter" personnel are the following:
  • Job activities inside the 'hot cell' (the "open" plutonium area);
  • External exposure;
  • High risk of radionucleotide inhalation;
  • High risk of radionucleotide absorption through cuts and/or wounds;
  • High risk of a combination of severe injuries and intensive contamination of open tissues or inhalation of radioactive materials;
  • Influence of high temperatures, hypoxia, and heat stress; and
  • Synergism of radiological risk within general industrial risks.
The additional hazardous factors are as follows:
  • Aggressive chemical aerosols, including welding aerosols;
  • High humidity and uncomfortable temperatures at any time of the year;
  • Absence of a forced exchange ventilation system inside the Object Shelter;
  • Insufficient and artificial illumination;
  • Presence of "confined spaces" in most of Object Shelter's rooms;
  • Work at heights;
  • Presence of debris and difficult access to workplaces in elevated ionizing radiation fields;
  • Influence of personal protective equipment; and
  • Probable synergistic effect of numerous hazardous factors.
Also, personnel will be exposed to factors stipulated by a shift type mode of work in the Exclusion Zone - shift in dietary regimen and type, accommodation in hotels, regime-stipulated restrictions in the Exclusion Zone, etc.

Not the most pleasant job, eh? In my interviews, I've been asking ICARR scientists what they thinks motivates the Ark workers to seek jobs in Chernobyl. So far, the answer has always been, "They can't find a job anywhere else."

This week I will be interviewing Chernobyl liquidators. These people were drafted to the Chernobyl site immediately after the disaster and helped to clean up the plant premises and the surrounding area. Generally, they were men aged 20 to 45. They were mostly plant employees, Ukrainian firefighters, plus many soldiers and miners from Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and other parts of the then Soviet Union.

The exact number of liquidators is unknown as no completely accurate records were kept of the people involved in the clean-up. However, more than 700,000 people who were involved (both on- and off-site) in tackling the accident’s aftermath were eventually granted the status of liquidator, and were provided special government benefits.

Ukraine spends about five percent of its annual budget on benefits for Chernobyl liquidators, which include a housing subsidy and free public transportation use. They come to RCRM for health care.

I'd like to know just how informed they were about risk when they went to work at the Chernobyl site... Also, why did they decide to go there? (or did they even have a choice?) Here are some of the questions I plan to ask them:
  1. Where were you when you first heard about the Chernobyl disaster?
  2. What was your reaction to it? Did you think it was serious, not serious?
  3. Who asked you to be a liquidator?
  4. Why did you agree?
  5. Did you want to go to Chernobyl?
  6. Did you have a choice about going there?
  7. Were you aware of the risks of working in Chernobyl? Did anyone tell you about the dangers? (If no: Would you have agreed to be a liquidator if you had known about the risks?)
  8. Were you scared about going there?
  9. What did you do as a liquidator?
Etc, etc. I think the liquidator interviews will be very relevant to my project because I should be able to draw parallels between their situation and the situation of the Ark workers today.

Unfortunately, since the men won't speak English, I'm sure the language barrier will be an issue. (It's even an issue with the scientists who speak decent English.) I will have a translator with me - probably one of the RCRM people - but I've noticed that some questions just don't translate well. Here's to hoping the big ideas get through, at least.

On a lighter note - I did some more sightseeing this weekend:

Statue at the Dnipro metro station.

Incredible Chimera building, now used as a presidential administrative office.

A close-up of one of the chimera.

Friendship of Nations Monument, celebrating the 1654 "unification" of Russia and Ukraine.

At the Pyrohovo Museum of Folk Architecture & Everyday Life. It's an open-air, living history museum (think Williamsburg, VA) that is divided into seven "villages" representing different regional areas of Ukraine.

There were lots of windmills on the property.

This was taken in the Carpathian village, I think.

If you'd like to see more pictures, I've posted the links to my online photo albums on the bar to the right.