When Chernobyl Came to Sweden

I believe that I may refer to many of you, my readers, as friends that I have not yet met, because according to the Blogger statistics, I can see that many of you are returning to this place and that some of you have even used the information here as a source of reference (this honors me), so I hope that the reason why you keep on coming here is that you find my blog interesting and resourceful, or more important - that you find the topic of Chernobyl interesting. 

Should you have any questions on any of the subjects brought up in this blog or anything related to the Chernobyl disaster, please feel free to drop me a line at projekttjernobyl@gmail.com.

Anyway, enough ranting. Let's get down to business. 

As I have brought up in previous blog posts, such as in 86.04.26 - 01.23.49,  Breaking the News in Sweden, and
Breaking the news in Sweden - page 6, the Chernobyl disaster was initially exposed in Sweden. As the fallout was discovered and charted, it didn't take long for the public to get anxious and frightened of this matter and thus it didn't take very long for those in charge to come out with information about it all. At least it was due to November 1986. In my home, my parents probably took care of the information pamphlet and I don't remember even having a look at it, so I never knew it even existed.  About two years ago, a friend actually gave me a copy of that very pamphlet, so after having dedicated my two latest posts to recent events, it's now time for another walk down the memory lane.

Click on the headlines for full sized pictures. If you have a slow connection, please be patient, as the images are pretty large.

"The reactor accident in Chernobyl was a disaster that shook our entire world. We now know that the consequences for the people located nearby the site. The Soviet government doesn't seem to  be planning to return the evacuees of Pripyat back to their town. Even aside of this, the consequences for the people of the Soviet Union are very large. 
Of course, we were all alarmed, when it appeared as clear, that Sweden was one of the most exposed countries outside the Soviet Union. 
As we received the readings [of radiation], the image cleared. But still, we don't have all the information. We will receive further details through the research that will be performed many years ahead. Comprehensive actions have been taken in order to prevent unnecessarily high ingestion of radioactive caesium from food and drink.
No one in Sweden is expected to receive other than just a little addition, from Chernobyl, to that dose of radiation that we all receive from natural sources. Equal or larger doses come from other sources, such as x-ray examinations and the radiation of houses. 
The worries of big risks can be still. Most people do not have to make any big changes in their ways of life. Big changes may sometimes even increase the unwelcome risk. For example, children need a well composed food intake and of course they should be allowed to drink milk.
In this pamphlet we above all recommend the following:
*Large consumers of reindeer meat shall plan their consumption carefully. 
*Pregnant women in the most exposed areas shall most carefully follow the advice of the NFA, in case of consuming a lot of products from forests and lakes.
In this pamphlet, You get the facts directly from the government. It summarizes the information that has previously reached you through newspapers, radio and TV. 
I ask you to read this pamphlet. It may help You and Your family to look at the Chernobyl disaster with rightful respect, but without unnecessary fear."

These were the printed words of Gunnar Bengtsson, the director-general of the Swedish Radiation Protection Institute. I will not translate all of this 12 pages long pamphlet, but only summarize the content of the pages. Further down on page one, "Differ between activity and dose" you learn how to differ between radioactive activity and received doses: Activity is measured in bequerel (Bq) and received doses in sievert (Sv) [previously the equivalent unit was Roentgen]. The more activity you're exposed to, the higher dose you receive, naturally. Further, the text explain that the coherence between activity and dose is complicated. "Calculating it all, you need to take various physiological and biological factors into consideration."

A summary of the fallout in Sweden; information about the weather conditions of the time of the disaster; the levels of radiation and the attributes of the radioactive elements iodine-131, caesium-137, ctrontium-90 and plutonium-239.  Over Sweden, were spread a few grams of iodine-131, about 1,5 kilograms of caesium (5% of the total caesium fallout) and just a little plutonium. No strontium at all, it seems. Also it's pointed out that. "The five tons of plutonium that were spread throughout our atmosphere during the 50's and 60's, due to nuclear warhead detonations, is completely dominating our share of the Chernobyl fallout". All true, still admitted that radioactive atoms were everywhere. Please note that they were only atoms. 

The question is about whether people may still eat vegetables and drink milk provided in the food stores. A few days after the Chernobyl disaster, the Swedish government recommended farmers to keep their cows indoors in order to protect the cows' milk from getting contaminated by iodine-131.  The government decided on a maximum level regarding how high an amount of caesium-137 is acceptable in food and drink distributed to the public. The bags on the picture make a comparison between the amount of Bq of 2 kilograms of food purchased in Gävle and Malmö and the text inform that in both cases, the radioactivity of the groceries are far below the allowed maximum level. Only if you'd eat a lot of products coming from  of contaminated areas, you should have to restrict your intake of unchecked meat of reindeer, lamb, cheep and moose; a lot of freshwater fish and a lot of mushroom and berries from the forests.

Guidelines for activity in foodstuff

This piece of text explains that the goal of the NFA is to keep the levels of food contamination to an equivalent of a maximum of 1 mSv received per year. 1 mSv gives 75 000 Bq of caesium-137 or 50 000 of the less frequented caesium-134. However, the total received dose is not supposed to exceed 5 mSv per year, so you can see there is quite a margin there. 
Completing information, "Examination of foodstuff" tells about how the process of checking foodstuff was carried out.

Here it's stated that different kinds of foodstuff has absorbed different amounts of radiation. The amounts vary with foods and area and again it is assured that the levels are below the recommended, and repeated that you should not eat a lot of freshwater fish, meat from reindeer, lamb and cheep or mushroom or berries growing in the wild. 

Does it seem like the Swedish government was trying too hard in order to calm the citizens of the country? Actually they didn't try hard enough, because still to this day there are Swedes who fear the Chernobyl fallout. 

This you can do by yourself 

If you're hunter, fisher or someone who likes to collect mushroom and berries from the forest, here's information of where to turn if you're insecure whether your area is safe. 

Shows a chart of how local foodstuff has been affected by radiation. 
Water: nothing significant. Left to right: 

Milk: some of the caesium is transferred to the milk as cows cover large areas when eating grass.

Wild berries and mushroom:  grow on grounds poor of nutrition, are thus more prone to pick up caesium than their fertilized equivalencies.

Plants: meaning crop, potato and vegetables that are growing on fertilized, calcium enriched, grounds only take up a small part of the caesium.

Meat: in some cases levels over the recommended have been discovered. Pigs eat fodder containing a small amount of caesium, thus pigs' meat has low radioactivity. Meat from lamb and cheep from contaminated areas may contain very high amounts of caesium as they feed on growth close to ground surface. 

Reindeer and game: Move around contaminated areas and find their food on similar places as the above. 

"The amount of caesium an animal ingests, will in time be secreted from the body. Half of the amount is gone in 1-2 months. The amount of caesium in an animal is thus determined how much caesium it ingests and how much that is secreted" - And the metabolism plays a role as well, just as for us humans. 

Fish: Sea fish have been affected to a barely notable extent. In lakes and rivers suffering the heaviest fallout, there are locally levels exceeding the recommended. Algae and plankton have taken up radioactive substances. As fish eat these things, and as fish have a very low metabolism, the local problems may thus remain for years.

"In some cases significant amounts of radioactive stuff were collected from the [Chernobyl] fallout, in filters of large airflows, for example in industrial facilities, and large office complexes and housings.
Changing those filters, the normal protection used against dust and small particles is enough in order of protection"
Concerning sludge from sewage treatment facilities, there has been raised levels detected, but you can still work in the sludge for a few hours a day, without any increased threat to your health.

How our health is affected

About how large amounts of radiation may cause cancer damage on fetus and infants, including matter of mutation, but that no one in Sweden has to worry about that. 

Every number that you read is measured in mSv/year.
Shows how much radiation we receive from cosmos and our sun; the natural decay of the ground; our bodies; from radon in houses (!); in hospitals; other artificial sources and... After Chernobyl: The summary is that we in Sweden got an extra 0,3 mSv per year, including the food, which was people's main fear at the time. It also repeats that you may control your intake of foodstuff and thus regulated the amount of the caesium intake. 

Remember that this pamphlet was written and published when there was still not much information concerning the full picture. Please search the tags for more detailed references. 

"According to reports from the Soviet Union, technicians performed an experiment the night between the 25th and 26th of April 1986, at the 4th reactor of Chernobyl. This was due to the yearly inspection of the reactor. As the reactor was on low effect, they performed a test with an electric generator.
Those performing the test violated the safety precautions. Systems normally supposed to stop the reactor is case of error had been disconnected. The result was that they lost control of the reactor.
The reactor went wild and a few moments later, too hot steam had accumulated. The pressure caused the reactor hearth to explode. Explosions destroyed the reactor building. Parts of the destroyed hearth were [by the explosion] launched 1200 meters into the sky. The most of the parts landed close to the reactor. 
Reactors of this type contain graphite. The graphite caught fire. The graphite-fire spread even more radioactive substances to the envornments. Only after ten days the fire and emissions were under control. It's been calculated that a few percents of the total contents of the reactor were committed into the air. The wrecked reactor is currently being covered in concrete. 
According to the Russian investigation of the accident the disaster was caused by several violations of security. The fast and violent was connected to the construction of the reactor. Nuclear Power Plants with reactors of this construction only exist in the Soviet Union. I most other countries, the reactors are confines in buildings of concrete and steel.
The consequences concerning Soviet has been immense. About 30 people have died. Over 200 have been severely damaged by radiation. Circa 135 000 people have been forced to leave their homes. Unknown, whether they'll be able to move back.
The accident will also have long term effects. They're counting on an extra of ten thousands of deaths the coming 50 years."


Shows how the radioactive wind blew through Europe between the 26th oh April and 1st of May 1986.

The RPI and the Swedish Defence Research Agency put up a number of radiation measuring instruments in order to receive  an early image of the damage done. 

More about half life 

Iodine-131: 8 days
Caesium.134: 2 years
Caesium-137: 30 years

The list based on potential threats to Sweden, due to the Chernobyl disaster, which is why they left out information concerning strontium-90 and plutonium-239.
If the summary of this pamphlet has left you with unanswered questions concerning radiation, I recommend that you to read those of my posts posts regarding effects of radiation:   About Radiation Pt1 ARS - Acute Radiation Syndrome1, About Radiation pt 2 - How it may affect the human body and About Radiation; part 3 - Closing up 

Page 12 - Our readiness for nuclear accidents

"The Rescue Services Agency  is leading and developing its services in the entire country, especially in areas where there are nuclear power plants. That is in the counties of Malmö, Kalmar, Halland and Uppsala. Around every Swedish nuclear power plant there is a 12-15 kilometers inner readiness zone. If something happens that causes large emissions of radioactive substances, the population within this zone will be alerted through sirens and telephones.
The sirens give the signal "Important message - listen to the radio". Information concerning what happened and what you're supposed to do should be given by the County Administration in radio P3.
The County Administration is controlling the Rescue Services Agency where the fire brigade, the police, the municipality, health care services and coastguards are included.
The Radiation Protection Institute and the nuclear inspection, that are state regulators, are a part of this orgnisation. They have an educated and trained organization that was the base of activity after Chernobyl.
The signal "Important message-listen to P3!" can be distributed in most cities and towns all over the country.
The signal is tested at 15:00 hrs the first Monday of March, June, September and December.
The accident in Chernobyl has showed that we need to increase our readiness for nuclear accidents in Sweden. Therefore the current readiness organization will be looked over, and a certain amount of readiness for nuclear accidents will be established in all counties. The nationwide radiation measuring system that already exist, will be expanded. There will be international agreements concerning a quick distribution of information, in cases of nuclear accidents."

The grey box on the top right of this last page, tells that the pamphlet is also available in English, German, French, Spanish, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, Greek, Arabic, Italian, Finnish, Turkish, Icelandic, Kurdish, Persian, Romanian, Tigrinya, Hungarian, Vietnamese  and in simplified Swedish.  No Russian? Well, those were the days of the cold war, weren't they. Lastly, on this 12th page, you are informed about where to turn if you have any ideas or questions. 

As you can see, the Swedes had no real reason to worry about the Chernobyl fallout, and thus the initial fear was quickly dealt with. Does it seem like the Swedish government was trying too hard in order to calm the citizens of the country? Actually they didn't try hard enough, because still to this day there are (a luckily enough very small amount of) Swedes who fear the Chernobyl fallout and who obviously feel "violated" by the fact that they had to be scared for a few days in May 1986, something which is shared with a number of Americans, as a small number of radioactive particles were detected in the atmosphere over Northern America. People who have nothing to fear often try to find something to be afraid of, whilst those who indeed have something to fear, tend to endure. 


The Means of Mutation

Chernobyl forest winter time. On courtesy of bbc.co.uk
Is the exclusion zone a radioactive death trap or a haven for wildlife?
Performing a simple internet search on Chernobyl wildlife, you will undoubtedly find many article praising the Zone for its richness of species, but taking a closer look at it all, it is not at all what it seems. 

The popular idea of that the Chernobyl area has turned into a large natural zoo of eastern Europe may derive from repeated sightings of wolves, boars and wild Prewalski's horses because it is indeed true that these creatures roam freely in the zone but if spending just a brief thought on it all, it only means one thing; that wild animals tend to seek places uninhabited by humans. It doesn't mean that they're not affected by radiation. 

After the Chernobyl disaster, different kinds of research have been performed, in order to determined exactly how the fallout has affected flora and fauna but even to this day, 28 years later, it is not fully known how. As I have written in previous posts, we don't even know enough about how concentrated amounts of radiation affect living organisms to be able to understand the full extent. 

A relatively common belief is that the shorter the life span of a species, the faster it adapts to changed environment but if so would indeed be the case, all the insects, rodents and smaller birds of Chernobyl would be fully adapted by now, but obviously they are not. We find an example in a study made by made by a team of researchers from Norway, France and the US (led by Professor Timothy Mousseau from the University of South Carolina, US, and Dr Anders Möller from the University of Paris-Sud, France.), concerning small birds of Chernobyl. The study was performed on 550 individuals from 48 different species of birds and the result showed that the average size of the brains of those birds was about 5% smaller than those of birds not residing in the exclusion zone. The conclusion was that this was a direct effect of radiation, and this divergence was especially significant concerning younger individuals. Stressed birds have the ability to change the size of some of their organs in order to become less sensitive to difficult environmental conditions and especially migrating birds that travel long distances often shrink certain organs as they use up energy. The brain is however the last organ to be sacrificed, according to Möller and Mosseau, which pretty much leaves increased background radiation as the only plausible reason. 

However, the research of Anders Möller and Timothy Mosseau doesn't stand uncontradicted. The Ukrainian biologist Sergey Gaschak who was a former colleague of Möller and Mosseau, implies that their research is all wrong. "You can measure an animal 10 times and 10 times you can get a different result" Gaschak said in an interview for the magazine "Wired" in 2011. Further on, Gaschak claimed that his data was distorted and misinterpreted by Möller and Mosseau, but there was no description of how, other than that Möller stated that Gaschak didn't want his name published on the paper. We face something implying a personal drama between the researchers, so I'll leave the part of Sergey Gaschak with the words that his dream concerning the Zone turning into a permanent healthy wildlife reserve may, due to radiation, be quite impossible in the near future. I will get back to Gaschack once I've investigated him further. 

Let's get personal for a brief moment. During my stay in the zone, I noticed that the mosquitos seemed to be significantly larger than average mosquitos, but also that their bites barely itched at all. Mind you, these are subjective observations so I cannot grant the accuracy of this, but still - may it be that radiation has affected the substances of the female mosquitoes' saliva that normally cause an itch? Personally, I cannot tell whether it's like that or not, but one thing I know for sure is that getting bitten by a Chernobyl mosquito won't hurt you more than getting bitten by a "normal" mosquito. The exposure to radiation has hurt the species rather than turning them into mutated threats to other species. So no - Spiderman could not happen in real life. 

Other studies, performed by Timothy Mosseau has shown that the forests around Chernobyl aren't decaying the way they should. We're talking about the same forests that suffered heavy fallout; that were cut down, but still grew back, heavily radiated. The reason why the process of decay has become inefficient is, according to Mosseau, that even the decomposers, insects, microbes and fungi, are affected by the increased levels of  radiation.

The Red Forest is now composed largely by dead trees, but they are not decaying:  
“Apart from a few ants, the dead tree trunks were largely unscathed when we first encountered them. It was striking, given that in the forests where I live, a fallen tree is mostly sawdust after a decade of lying on the ground.” 
Timothy Mosseau with his samples. From this article. 
says Timothy Mosseau in an interview with the Smithsonian. You may read the full article here.
Mosseau takes up a direct problem regarding the Zone, as well as he takes us back to an old question: Exactly how has the high levels of radiation affected the flora of Chernobyl, in other matters than killing and deforming them? Cases of gigantism of trees, mushrooms and berries have been reported, but how does that correspond to the truth? We do know that flora reacts differently to radiation than fauna. We know that for example soybean plants in the zone do not only produce fertile seeds, but has evolved to protect themselves against radiation and by now we also know that  at least some kinds of fungi are highly capable of feeding on radiation. Plants and fungi may have an innate defense or ability to cope with radiation, but of that we still know too little about these things to get to proper overall conclusion. Effects are probably varying from species to species concerning flora, and only further research will make us wiser.


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.