Twenty years ago today, Konstantin Tatuyan, a Ukrainian radio engineer, was horrified when Reactor No 4 at Chernobyl nuclear power complex exploded, caught fire, and for the next 10 days spewed the equivalent of 400 Hiroshima bombs' worth of radioactivity across 150,000 sq miles of Europe and beyond. He was just married, and he and his young family lived in the town of Chernobyl, just a few miles from the reactor.
Like 120,000 people, the family was evacuated, but Tatuyan volunteered to become a "liquidator", to help with the clean up, believing that his knowledge of radiation could save not just him but many of the 200,000 young soldiers and others who were rushed in from all over the Soviet Union. "We felt we had to do it," he says. "Who else, if not us, would do it?"
Candles burn in front of a Chernobyl monument during a remembrance ceremony at Mitino cemetery outside of Moscow April 26, 2006. Mourners bearing candles marked the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster on Wednesday, honouring those who died from its effects as leaders pledged to ensure it would never happen again. REUTER/Thomas Peter
Tatuyan spent the next seven years in charge of 5,000 mostly young army reservists - drafted in from Azerbaijan, Lithuania, Chechnya, Kazakhstan and elsewhere in what was the Soviet Union - working 22 days on, eight days off, digging great holes, demolishing villages, dumping high-level waste, monitoring hot spots, testing the water, cleaning railway lines and roads, decontaminating ground and travelling throughout some of the most radioactive regions of Ukraine, Belarus and southern Russia.
He survived the worst environment disaster in history, he says, because he knew the danger and could monitor the radioactivity that varied from yard to yard and from village to village depending on where the plume descended to ground level, and on where the deadly bits of graphite from the core of the reactor were carried by the wind.
He took precautions but he also kept meticulous - albeit illegal - records of his own accumulating exposure. Every year the authorities told him he was "fit for duty", and when he left Chernobyl they gave him a letter saying he had received just under the safe lifetime dose of radiation. He knew he had received more than five times that amount.
What he saw in those years, he says, appalled him: young men dying for want of the simplest information about exposure to radiation; the wide-scale falsification of medical histories by the Soviet army and the disappearance of people's records so the state would not have to compensate them; the wholesale looting of evacuated houses and abandoned churches; the haste and carelessness with which the concrete "sarcophagus" was erected over the stricken reactor; and, above all, the horror of seeing land almost twice the size of Britain contaminated, with thousands of villages made uninhabitable.
It was sometimes surreal, he says. He had people beg him to leave their homes or villages contaminated because that would guarantee them a pension; he recalls how several carriages of radioactive animal carcasses travelled for five years around the Soviet Union being rejected by every state, returning to Chernobyl to be buried - train and all. He helped fill a 4 sq mile dump with radioactive lorries, cement mixers, trains and helicopters. He knows where the Chernobyl bodies are buried, he says, because he was the grave digger. "We made up the response as we went along," he says. "It was hell."
Tatuyan has now retired, an invalid. He says he surely saved many lives and made great parts of the Ukraine semi-habitable, but the price is a heart condition, an enlarged thyroid, diabetes, pains in the right side of his body, breathing difficulties and headaches. But he is optimistic and, like several million people across Ukraine, Belarus and southern Russia, says he now looks at his life in terms of the time before and after Chernobyl. Most of his team of liquidators are dead; the rest, like him, are ill.
Tatuyan is now 56, and his children and country are proud of him. For him, the effect of the radiation on the environment was shocking. "The first thing we noticed was that many miles of trees in the forest turned red," he says. "They had to be cut down and buried. All the animals left. The birds did not come back for four years. It was strange not hearing them.
"In the winter of 1986/87, there was an infestation of mice because the crops had not been harvested. So the population of foxes increased. Most of them had rabies, and hunters were called to come and kill them. The wild pigs came back first. Then the wolves. Because people were evacuated, thinking they would be gone for only a few days, they left their dogs. But the dogs then crossed with the wolves and were not afraid of humans. It was very dangerous."
Today, the forest is moving in on the modernistic town of Pripyat, built for the reactor workers just a few miles from the plant. According to ecologists, weathering, decay and the migration of radionuclides down the soil have already led to a significant reduction of the contamination of plants and animals. Some scientists are upbeat. Biodiversity, says the Institute of Ecology in the Ukraine, has increased due to the removal of human influence. Moose, wild boar, roe and red deer, beavers, wolves, badgers, otters and lynx have all been reported in the area, and species associated with humans - rats, house mice, sparrows and pigeons - have all declined. Indeed, of 270 species of birds in the area, 180 are breeding.
But it is not as simple as that. Other scientists report mammals experiencing heavy doses from internally deposited Caesium-137 and Strontium-90 radioactive fallout. One study has found mutations in 18 generations of birds; another that radioactivity levels in trees are still rising. Contamination has been found migrating into underground aquifers.
Levels of Caesium-137 are expected to remain high all over Europe for decades, says the United Nations. In parts of Germany, Austria, Italy, Sweden, Finland, Lithuania and Poland, levels in wild game, mushrooms, berries and fish from some lakes are well over a safe dose, as they are in all the most affected regions of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. In Britain, there are still restrictions on milk on 375 hill farms, mainly in Snowdonia and the Lake District. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of square miles of agricultural land still cannot be used for farming until the soil has been remediated.
Humans have fared badly. In the past few weeks four major scientific reports have challenged the World Health Organisation (WHO), which believes that only 50 people have died and 9,000 may over the coming years. The reports widely accuse WHO of ignoring the evidence and dismissing illnesses that many doctors in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus say are worsening, especially in children of liquidators.
The charge is led by the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences, which last week declared that 212,000 people have now died as a direct consequence of Chernobyl. Meanwhile, a major report commissioned by Greenpeace considers the evidence of 52 scientists and estimates the deaths and illnesses to be 93,000 terminal cancers already and perhaps 100,000 deaths in time. A further report for European parliamentarians suggested 60,000 deaths. In truth no one knows.
More than 500km from Chernobyl, the peasant farmers of the village of Boudimca, one of the most affected in Ukraine, refuse to leave, despite the fact that many of their children are suffering from acute radiation diseases. Every child in Boudimca has a thyroid problem - known as the "Chernobyl necklace". The villagers are attached to the land. "We would prefer to die in our own land rather than go somewhere else and not survive," says Valentina Molchanovich, one of whose daughters is in hospital in Vilne with radiation sickness. "We understand the paradox, but we prefer to stay."
Though they live simple lives - each family has a cow, ducks and a few chickens - they suffer all the ailments of stressed out western executives: high blood pressure, headaches, diabetes and respiratory problems. They know that the berries and the mushrooms they have always lived on are contaminated. "We are just so used to living here," says Molchanovich. "My parents lived here. We build our houses together. We are a very tight community."
But others are, literally, dying to leave the village. Mikola Molchanovich, a distant relation, is the father of Sasha, a 12- year-old girl who this month was also being treated for constant stomach aches in a children's hospital in Rivne. He says: "My wife is in hospital giving birth, my son is in another hospital being treated for radiation sickness. My sister has 30,000 becquerels [units of radioactivity] in her body. Some people have 80,000, or more.
"This is our community; my parents lived and died here. We used to be able to collect 100kg of mushrooms a day - the whole village would collect them. Some of our cows have leukaemia. The people who moved away from the village are healthier and better. I would go if I had the chance. But I am trapped. I cannot sell my house because it is contaminated. People are becoming weaker. We cannot feel it, we cannot see it, yet we are not afraid of it.
"Everyone who helped on the clean up is now ill," says Tatiana, a senior doctor at the Dispensary for Radiological Protection at Rivne. "The situation is worsening. In 1985, we had four lymph cancers a year. Now we have seven times that many. We have between five and eight people a year with rare bone cancers, when we never had any. We expect more cancers, and ill health. One in three pregnancies here are malformed. We are overwhelmed."
A doctor in the local region's children's hospital says: "The children born to the people who cleaned up Chernobyl are dying very young. We are finding Caesium and Strontium in breast milk and the placenta. More children now have leukaemias, and there has been a quadrupling of spina bifida cases. There are more clusters of cancers. Children are being born with stunted growth and dwarf torsos, without thighs. I would expect more of this over the years."
Tatuyan is now an environmentalist, convinced that nuclear power is no answer. "I go to the forest with friends to care for the deer," he says. Tonight, he and the other liquidators will meet and celebrate the 20 years. "When we meet we make the same toast. We say: 'Let's meet again alive.'"
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