Chernobyl and the Ukraine Crisis

Photo on behalf of the EBRD on Flickr
Since the autumn of 2013 and the protests and demonstrations taking place at Maidan, the Square of Independence in Kiev, the unrest of Ukraine has only increased. Barely had the, by media more than slightly exaggerated, uprisings at Maidan calmed down before the Crimea crisis occurred and these days we are looking at something very similar to a fully fledged civil war going on in eastern Ukraine, and a question to be answered is how this all may affect Chernobyl.

Recent news indicate a fear concerning what would happen in case of a Russian invasion as the nuclear power plants of Ukraine are said to be a highly potential target. On March 25th, the at the time acting minister of foreign affairs of Ukraine, Andriy Deshchytsia*, said that "At present, there is no immediate danger [regarding the nuclear power plants]. However, if the situation aggravates Ukraine may be in need of international assistance to protect these facilities." Further on Deshchytsia said that two possible options for Ukraine remained, as well as two possible options from the outside world of how to act and react: 

"First, there are already political voices in Ukraine calling to resume production of nuclear weapons as the only means to protect ourselves from any outside aggression. From the Ukrainian government's standpoint, this option is not on the table. We remain committed to the NPT as a non-nuclear state."

The second option for Ukraine is to seek collective security. It is less expensive and more effective. We shall explore all possibilities in this regard, starting with our association with the European Union." 

Ukraine got rid of its nuclear warheads twenty years ago and five years later, all of the said was destroyed. About five months have passed since Andriy Deshchytsia made his statement and things haven't exactly been brightening up for Ukraine, but does it really face a Russian invasion? That remains to be seen, but there is no threat concerning the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. One of the most urgent questions at the moment may have been whether money will be taken from the Shelter Project in order to finance the national defense in case of Ukraine getting involved in war but the answer is no: The Shelter Project is mainly financed by EU and the U.S and the funds cannot be extracted, however Ukraine's already limping economical situation may cause the project further delays. Chernobyl itself will of course not be a direct target in case of a Russian invasion, but national resources may be drawn from the Shelter Project in order to support the national defense. The annual amount spent on the Shelter Project and Chernobyl is about 5-7% of the Ukrainian budget.

"Any unrest affects a country's economy, and remediation is not a profitable activity. To carry it out, we need funding from the state budget. The less money we have the less could be done." those are the words of Oleg Nasvit, a nuclear physicist at the National Institute for Strategic Studies in Kiev. However, the International Monetary Fund has pledged $17 billion in order to keep Ukraine's economy relatively stable over the coming two years and this far there are no signs of withdrawing the Chernobyl budget. It's a project concerning nuclear safety, which exceeds the borders of politics and all current peaceful nuclear activity in Ukraine is under a strict IAEA supervision.

*You may read Andriy Deshchytsia's full statement here


Day of the Liquidators

Today, the 14th of December, it's the official day of the liquidators.
In 1986, over 650 000 people, most of them men, helped in trying to alleviate the effects of the Chernobyl disaster, working to avoid that the effects grew into larger, uncontrollable proportions and to clean up the big mess afterwards. Many of them died a slow, painful death. 

So let's all spend our thoughts on, and give our thanks to all those men without whom we would live in a very different world.

To all the brave firefighters, soldiers, pilots, drivers, sanitary workers, people who worked on the roof of the fourth reactor, those who built the sarcophagus, and to everyone else participating (no one shall be forgotten); there are really not enough words to express the importance of your work, but the whole world owes you a big



Letter from Europe

Scanned image of the letter,
from the website of the 
Ukrainian Association of Chernobyl
You can only discuss the matter of Chernobyl to a certain point before the political aspect becomes inevitable. 

Ukraine's Chernobyl victims are already more than familiar with the fact that their own government will not come to their aid, and have thus began to turn elsewhere in hope of gaining support. 

On the 22nd of October this year, when the outlook on a, much discussed and debated, future cooperation between Ukraine and the European Union were still relatively bright, Volodimyr Proskurin and Natalya Tselovalnichenko from the Ukrainian Association of Chernobyl Veterans wrote an eight pages long letter to the EU Delegation of Ukraine in which they explained the worsened situation of the victims of Chernobyl, [i.e the liquidators, soldiers and others who are incident to the low pension issued by the government] which was followed by an almost direct plea to the European Court of Human Rights to take on their case against the Ukrainian government, as they reckon the situation to only become worse.  

"We ask for actions to be taken against the Ukrainian Government in order to restore the legal order of Ukraine, in respect of the people who are suffering from the Chernobyl disaster, according to the Law of Ukraine." wrote Proskurin and Tselovalnichenko, pointing to the decreasing support from the government, who are not fulfilling their part or even acting according to Ukrainian law. 

Volodimyr Proskurin and Natalya Tselovalnichenko received a reply to their proposal today, written by delegator  Jan Tombinski. The response to a letter written in the official language of Ukraine (which is Ukrainian, naturally) came in English and read such as follows:

"Dear Mr. Proskurin 
Dear Ms. Tselovalnichenko 

Thank you for your letter to the EU Delegation to Ukraine in which you raised the issue of the problems with respect of social rights of person who suffered from the Chernobyl disaster. We have taken note of your information and regret about the difficult situation of those people.
Please be informed that the European Union has repeatedly and regularly asked the Ukrainian side to fulfill ECHR judgements. 

The EU has always and will continue to keep the respect of human rights and the rule of law in the focus of its relations with Ukraine. The implementation of the judicial reform aimed to bring the legal framework and functioning of the judicial system of Ukraine to European standards has been among EU's key conditions for deepening its relations with Ukraine, namely for the signing of the Association Agreement. Therefore Ukraine's further integration with the EU would certainly improve the situation in many spheres including protection of the rights of Ukrainians within the national justice system. 

Yours faithfully, 
Jan Tombinski"

What a splendid example of bureaucracy. And with another dash of "healthy sarcasm" I would like to point out the obvious, which is how Jan Tombinski more or less underlines that if only Ukraine's relationship with the European union deepens, there may eventually be support to expect in the future. However, he doesn't seem to have done his homework properly. Ukraine is a member state of the European Council since 1995 and thus entitled to approach the European Court of Human Rights with proposals. 

As I do not know anything about Mr. Tombinski's motives supporting his letter, I will refrain from trying to explain them, but indeed his writings can be interpreted in many different ways - none of them to the favor to the EU Delegation of Ukraine.


Unsweetened Truth

Here in “the west”, we have more or less always been spoiled with information and nowadays everything is revealed, even information that we neither want nor need, but the citizens of the USSR did for sure not enjoy the same luxury and even after the fall of the great union, it shall not be taken for granted that the old secrets are revealed. “What I am about to tell you, will never be published by any Ukrainian paper” says 46 years old Sergey Nikolaevich Bondarenko, a former liquidator who was one of the soldiers who participated during the evacuation of Pripyat. “Nor will they talk about it on television. The official truth is a sweetened up version presented with the courage  and pain of our people, but the real truth is too inconvenient for our government, and therefore it’s important not to shut up.”

S. Bondarenko with comrades.
Please do not copy. 
When the alarm sounded, at the Chernobyl Nuclear Powerplant in April 26th, 1986, Sergey Bondarenko was 19 years old and situated with his army unit, the special motorized military units MVD USSR in the Kiev Red Order Decorated Military District. At dawn, the unit №5403 SMCHS was alerted. The soldiers were put in fully armoured vehicles, each and every one of them carrying their private service weapons, gas masks, shields, helmets, vests and grenade This was all by the means of preventing riots and this was all that they knew for the first period of time. No one knew what was going on or where they were going, until the senior officers received their orders to without any delay set course to Chernobyl, a small town in the outskirts of the Kiev region. 

On their way to Chernobyl, the path of the 5403rd unit was crossed by other parts of the Kiev Garrison, which had also been alerted, and five hours after the first explosion at the 4th reactor complex, Bondarenko’s unit arrived in Pripyat. 

“The first day after the accident was a mess” says Sergey Bondarenko. “No one knew what to do and the residents of Pripyat were not informed about anything and thus suspected nothing. Only military chemists carrying dosimeters were silently scanning the neighbourhood to measure the radiation levels.”

The soldiers were given indicators to be carried, but these had expired and could not properly measure the airborne radiation. Sergey Bondarenko tells further from his memory:

“ On the night of 26 April 1986 the orders from the chief of intelligence were for our entire division to be taken 20 kilometers from the present location and to the forest of the river Pripyat, to rest. There on the river bank, we met with employees from the Chernobyl NPP, who as if nothing had happened, were fishing. To our questions about what happened in Chernobyl, they gave evasive answers, explaining that it is only just simply a standard situation and that the consequences were under special control.”

Shortly after that, Bondarenko and his comrades were forced to relocate again, as they were informed of that the levels of radiation on this site were too high. That evening the soldiers were given a not very solid dinner consisting of one can of minced sausages, two slices of bread and four sugar cubes. It became necessary to sleep but there were no place to sleep nearby the forest and there were no tents, so it was decided to sleep in the open air, fully exposed to the radioactive fallout. 

“Our camping place was in a radioactive forest, and 19 years old soldiers were washing themselves in a river contaminated by heavily radioactive metals”

Then the evacuation of Pripyat began. The instructions were to evict the population in six hours (the procedure demanded eight hours) and Pripyat was divided in different sectors, each to be taken care of by groups of soldiers wearing their usual uniforms. I ask Sergey Bondarenko why they weren’t wearing protection suits and his answer is very concise - if the military men would have been wearing protective suits or masks, the residents would have understood that something was wrong, and it was important to avoid outbreaks of panic.  Each entrance of each aparment block had its own bus waiting for the residents and the main task of the soldiers was to inform people to bring their documents and food enough to last for a few days. The evacuation would only be for three days, the residents were told. But when they left, their houses were immediately sealed.  Sergey Bondarenko recalls the horrible sight of watching the people leave their homes. Many were carrying for them important things, and even such things as TV-sets and carpets, but everything had to be left by their homes. Children were crying and people were upset - the evacuation of Pripyat was only relatively calm. 

“All through the night of April 27th, we guarded a deserted city” tells Sergey Bondarenko “My comrades and I were on patrol until the morning. The town was dead. Only single apartments were lit up and on some of the balconies, dogs were howling at the moon. We had to check up on these apartments. There were people who had permission to remain in the town - plant workers, policemen, doctors and military [officers]. We went to check on the rooftops and saw the ominous glow from the power station. It continued to burn even on this third day” 

The soldiers were almost completely cut off from the world outside what would become the 30 kilometers wide exclusion zone, but their pocket radio receivers still managed to receive transmissions from the radio program of Seva Novgorodtsev, “Seva Oborot”, which allowed them to take part of BBC transmissions in Russian in matters of new as well as music. And it was through the BBC that the soldiers first found out about what had happened at the ChNPP; days before it was officially announced on Soviet TV.  

On the 30th of April came the orders to leave the Chernobyl zone and return to Kiev.  Before the departure, the soldiers were shown formal gratitude for the evacuation of the village and protection of its inhabitants. After that, arrived a truck loaded with water tanks, so that 150 soldiers could wash up after their duty in the zone. Everything was polluted, and their uniforms were buried by the roadside. Documents and personal belongings were taken away and not to be returned until the arrival in Kiev. 

In Kiev the members of the units were set in quarantine. Visitors were prohibited. If parents or relatives still came to visit, they could do so from a two floors difference. The soldiers were not allowed to tell anything about where they had been or what they had done, and to make sure that no one made a slip of the tongue, there were intelligence officers surveiling it all Also letters were searched. Every day these liquidators had to go to leave blood samples at the hospital, whilst the doctors would not respond to any questions.  After three months, the quarantine was lifted. 

“Practically everyone who were in the zone developed dermatitis” says Sergey Bondarenko “There were cases of soldiers fainting, but that wasn’t paid attention to. On the identification cards (of the Soviet Armed Forces) they wrote the radiation doses received to 10 Roentgen for soldiers and 25 for the officers. In 1996 they wrote me up for 43,6 Roentgen. Whence this figure come, I do not know.”

In 1996, Sergey Nikolaevich Bondareko was taken in for the first of the operations on his thyroid glands. There was a tumor detected, as a long term result of the exposure of radiation. Bondarenko was given a so called Group-2 pension for disabled, and granted 2000 Ukrainian gryvnas per month (approx. €180), which is barely enough for a month’s supply of food if you have a family.  These are horrible conditions to live on, especially if facing a permanent health condition. Many liquidators were initially offered a large pay, good pensions, cars and other bonuses if they took on the life demanding tasks of cleaning up after the disasters, but they received nothing; their own country turned its back on them and they’re still struggling to be allowed to live a decent life.

Sergey Nikolaevich Bondarenko, speaking for
the liquidators. Please do not copy.
Much more remains, of what Sergey Bondarenko told me, and much remains to be said and done about the situation of the surviving liquidators and about those who are gone. But let us focus on those who are alive.  Sergey Bondarenko is still fighting for the rights of the liquidators. To be treated as the human beings they are. 


That is not dead, which can eternal lie

"I am aware of that this blog may be dying" read the beginning of a sentence in a comment recently posted as a response to my previous blog entry
  Yes, the speed of my project slowed down from that of a cheetah, to that of a sleeping tortoise, but no - it cannot die, not until it reaches its end and I am not done by far. 

It's not the first time I receive positive comments about my blog and research, but recent events have finally made me realize the importance of this project, not only for those who are interested in learning more about the disaster, its factors, aspects and consequences, but also for those who were there, fighting the battle against an invisible enemy and who are still fighting, now to be acknowledged as human beings. We need to make them aware of that they are not forgotten and I want to help by telling their story, for more people to gain knowledge on a closer level, not only limited to the pictures painted by mass media. I'm not after romance or tragedy - I need the truth to be told and and spread, and before that has been achieved I will not be able to rest. Even if I wanted to, I would not possibly be able to: Chernobyl doesn't leave me. It's always there, hiding in the background, even if I do not think about it; even during the long time during which my project was slumbering, never further away than just around the corner. 

Thus, I can reassure you all that neither the blog nor the project are dying. You can not be expecting me to write here every day, or even several times a week, but you can be sure that I will write. This far, this blog has had over 45 000 views since its start. This means that over 45 000 times people have had a reason to read my writings and I want that number to increase, because for every time it (hopefully) means that someone has become a little more aware.

Finally: I'm not a musician, but last summer I recorded the following track, about that dreadful morning of April 26th, 1986:  


How To Dismantle An Atomic Disaster

Photo: SSE ChNPP
Whenever looking at a photo from Chernobyl, it's there - the 75,5 meters tall, 9 meters wide stack of the fourth reactor's block, and constant reminder of the perhaps biggest distaster of human kind. But very soon it will be gone.

In the end of October the dismantling procedure, carried out by the Ukrtransbud Corporation, was initiated and the parts separated from the stack were temporarily resting in the turbine hall of block 3,  before  being transported to a specially prepared site where they will be taken apart. 

The reason behind this operation is the New Safe Confinement. The arch formed outer construction, under which the dismantling of the entire fourth block will take place, is being built on the side of the reactor building and will on railway tracks eventually be slid over said building and encase its radioactive content, and in order for that to work out, the stack naturally has to be removed. 

For those of you out there, who against most odds may not know about the New Safe Confinement (NSC, previously known as "The Shelter Project") it is being constructed to cover up the leaking Sarcophagus which started breaking apart only 10 years after having been built. Within the no longer overly protective walls of the Sarcophagus hides several tens of tons of radioactive waste being the result of the active fuel of the fourth reactor decaying. If the 2000 tons heavy reactor lid, now resting as a half closed eyelid on top of the reactor, would crash down as a consequence of not only the decaying of the Sarcophagus, but also the very building it contains, it would most likely lead to a collapse of the entire structures and those tens of tons of radioactive waste would all of the sudden lay open to be swept away by the winds in all possible directions. However, the NSF can not do anything about the radioactivity other than preventing it from being spread further. 

Dismantled stack parts. Photo: SSE ChNPP.
During the dismantling of the stack of the fourth unit, frequent monitoring of radiation levels are performed and the entire dismantling work is calculated to be done by the 10th of December this year.

The news concerning the initiated dismantling have been greeted in different ways. Many draws a sigh of relieve, reassured that there will be something covering up all that radioactive matter, whilst others belive that it's all just a curtain to cover up the disaster itself, but the question is whether it at all is possible to forget, or even ignore, such a breakdown as that of Chernobyl; one that will affect parts of the world for hundreds, even thousands (Plutonium-239 has a half life of 24,100 years, remember) of years to come?

No it isn't. It's easier to forget those who helped preventing it becoming an even greater disaster ...isn't it?


Till the End of the World

I still don't know how far I can take this project; maybe I am already close to an end. Maybe there is no more historical research to be made, but time to turn to the pure scientifical and environmental questions, or maybe it's just time to quit; gather what I have, start writing that book and occasionally visit the zone for as long as that will be possible. Still there is of course work to be done but I don't know for how long that will last.

I am in Moscow, the capital of Russia and once the capital of all the USSR. Here were held secret meetings in Kremlin about the disaster in northern Ukraine 26 years ago; from here spread the news of a minor accident in the fourth reactor and that the situation was under control, but at the same time almost 30 men were fighting a futile fight against death at the Hospital no. 6.

Hospital no. 6, present time.
Only a little information is to be found about this hospital but once I had found the essential clues, the hospital itself wasn't at all difficult to find. I travel on the Taganskogo-Krasnoprenenskaya metro line to the station Shutinskaya. Having spun off from the question about the seven known nuclear reactors operating in Moscow, it has also come to my knowledge that there is yet another working reactor in the neighborhood. This one is a research reactor belonging to the FMBT institute (Federalniy Meditsinsky Biofizicheskiy Tsentr), which is located in the northeastern part Shutin, nearby a hospital. -A hospital that of course is the Hospital no. 6.

I am hoping to recognize the pace as seen as documentaries but trees and bushes hide much of the structure and therefore it's impossible. Yet to this day this is an operating hospital; the Stalin era building reaches high and I would like to take a look inside and find out more, but it's Saturday and no one there that I can talk to.

They were there. When it was realized that there was nothing to be done at the Pripyat hospital, they were flown here by helicopter. The firefighters.

A part of the Chernobyl memorial and
graves at the Mitino graveyard in the
outskirts of Moscow.
"Where are they now?" asks my companion silently.
"I don't know." For some reason I find it difficult to hold back the tears.
"Certainly not in hell." he replies himself.
It's the 2:nd of September and we stand by the Chernobyl memorial at the Mitino graveyard just outside the border of the Moscow region. The autumn has arrived early and rain falls cold from grey skies. They're almost all here, it seems, and a strange feeling starts spreading within me as I walk among the still stone faces that mark the graves of 28 diseased, not only firefighters. There is Boris Baranov, one of the two divers who neutralized the risk of another hydrogen explosion in the fourth reactor. Leonid Toptunov, junior engineer at the NPP at the night of the accident, has fresh flowers on his grave, and so has his superior Aleksandr Akimov. The two who for a long time were blamed for causing the disaster lay almost side by side. Then the firefighters. Titenok, Ignatenko, Tishura and others. Kibenok - hero of Ukraine and finally Lt. Vladimir Pravik. His place is covered by plastic flowers. Tasteless may seem, but they last longer and the bright colours light up the grey. The purple-white flowers that I left at the feet of the memorial sculpture will unfortunately soon fade. The feeling I sense is that I already knew all these people and that I in a morbid sense have finally met them. Maybe it's because of this or maybe because of the tragedy itself, but regardless of which, I am crying. 

We leave in silence and my last thought before running to the marshrutka is whether they're really there. The bodies. Are they really there or is the place just a symbol? Perhaps this is not even important in any other aspect than the pure greed of knowledge, because wherever they are, they are -as my friend said- certainly not in hell. 

It's been almost exactly six months since it came to my knowledge what happened to the last firefighter helmet. As you may all remember, this helmet came to have a story of its very own and people from three different countries were engaged in finding out what happened to it after our find in Pripyat in May 2011. That this last helmet finally was completely lost without trace is no news, but that goes only for parts of the helmet. The highly radioactive inlets were found thrown in a bucket in -if I remember it all correctly- the Pripyat hospital and now someone has a new souvenir, probably without the slightest thought of the real price of this trophy. 

Thanks to jsbid for the information and photos.