20 Years Ago, A Plume At Chernobyl

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine -- Chernobyl still haunts, 20 years after that morning, April 26, 1986, when something went wrong in Reactor No. 4, and it exploded, sending a plume of debris and radioactive particles across the Soviet Union and eventually far beyond.

Memorial to the Chernobyl 'liquidators'

Some have said that Chernobyl - the human and environmental toll it caused, the obfuscations of a sclerotic state it revealed - hastened the end of the Soviet Union. Perhaps. It was certainly never the same afterward.

"What they described in newspapers and magazines - it was all rubbish," said Anatoly Rasskazov, the station photographer who was there that day.

"The ruins that I photographed from the ground and the upper part were retouched so it couldn't be seen that there was a ray coming from there, that everything was glowing," he said. "Just a ruin. So as not to get the public up in arms."

Twenty years later, the anniversary has occasioned new debate among those who have studied its consequences and those who have wielded the results as evidence of what a world in urgent search of energy should do with nuclear power.

A committee of United Nations agencies released a study last autumn concluding that the effects were not as dire as first had been feared. It suggested that only 4,000 would, in the end, die from diseases caused by direct exposure to the radiation. Greenpeace released its own response last week, saying Chernobyl would kill at least 90,000.

The answer may never be known, but the lasting impacts, physical and psychological, are evident in those who came to be known as "liquidators."

They were the hundreds of thousands of firemen, pilots, soldiers, scientists and experts sent to contain the damage, to evacuate the citizenry and encase the deadly ruin in a concrete sarcophagus whose stability appears precarious.

In interviews in Moscow, Kiev and Minsk, some of them recounted their experiences at the time and in the turbulent years that followed.

What they described sounded very much like war.

"Just like the Germans had come, this enemy had arrived," said Arkady Rokhlin, an engineer, who was 58 at the time and so old enough to remember that war. "And we had to defend ourselves."

And like war, it was disorienting. Fear and heroism mingled with bureaucratic chaos and surrealistic calm. "In a real war, shells explode, bullets fly, bodies fall, blood flows," he said. Then he remembered the summer of '86 in the most poisoned place on earth: sun, birds, gardens "bulging with fruit."

"You couldn't possibly have imagined that all this was death."

Source: The New York Times