Chernobyl.


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I keep a medal in my desk at home. I didn’t earn it; it is only an eBay purchase, but it has a lot of philosophical value for me. It is constructed of brass with enameled areas and a cloth ribbon on the hanger. The central detail shows symbols for alpha, beta, and gamma radiation over a drop of blood, and the Cyrillic script around the central device reads “uchastnik likvidatsyi posledstviy avarii” or roughly “participant in the liquidation of accident consequences.” (Apologies to those readers whose Russian is certainly better than mine!) As any watcher of Cold War spy movies will know, in Soviet parlance, to ‘liquidate’ something meant to eliminate, mitigate, or clean up the consequences of something, whether it was a spy or an enormous environmental disaster.

The story behind this medal is one not commonly known in the United States, but it should be, because the story behind it is enough to send a chill down your spine.

The specific term ‘liquidators’ (ликвида́торы or ‘likvidátory’ in Russian) was coined in 1986 to refer to the Soviet soldiers, scientists and others who responded to the Chernobyl disaster—the April 26, 1986 explosion at Reactor 4 of the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine that blew a 1,200 ton reactor cover into the air and spread radioactive fallout, from dust to basketball size chunks of the reactor core, across the surrounding countryside. For my own part, I remember being very upset when the news of the Chernobyl explosion broke, because the news broadcast interrupted the Transformers cartoon I was watching – I was seven years old at the time and my priorities were in line with my age.

The Soviet Union being what it was, most large civil projects, from construction programs to disaster response efforts, were run more or less along the lines military campaigns.  As the Chernobyl disaster progressed, the military element became more pronounced, as the Soviet leadership spoke in wartime terms, of “mobilizing” and “sending troops to the front” —Mikhail Gorbachev himself usually referred to the Chernobyl cleanup as a “frontline action.” At one point, workers hoisted a red flag on top of the reactor building as a symbol of ‘victory’ after finishing a particularly difficult phase of the work. In light of the militarized character and massive resources devoted to the operation, one BBC documentary on the topic subsequently dubbed the Chernobyl cleanup “the Soviet Union’s last battle.”

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A view into the exterior of the exploded reactor.

Like any battle, the Chernobyl cleanup had its heroes and its casualties. Many of the first responders, from the plant staff and the local fire department, managed to prevent further disasters such as a giant steam explosion that could have blasted the reactor core completely out of the reactor building and scattered it like radioactive shrapnel for tens of miles. Men worked in areas that still have radiation levels in the thousands of rems (roentgen equivalent man, a unit of measure for radiation effects on the human body). Most of these men died within weeks of radiation sickness; some had to be buried in lead-lined coffins.  A moving essay on the experience of the Pripyat fire crews can be read here.

Memorial to the Pripyat firefighters.

As the scope of the disaster cleanup expanded, the Soviet government called in tens of thousands of men– recent military draftees, army reservists, and thousands of specialists from many fields, including firefighters, oilfield drilling crews, heavy construction workers, hundreds of engineers and scientists, medical personnel, helicopter crews from the Afghanistan war, coal miners, police and even janitors.  Most of these people not only had no experience or training in radiation matters or even in disaster response work, and the vast majority did not even know what they had been brought in to do.  Working conditions were harsh and most of the safety equipment was improvised on the spot, with lead aprons and trucks hastily plated over with hand-beaten lead covers.

The scale of the crisis was unbelievable- by one estimate it cost 18 billion rubles, when the value of a ruble was nominally equivalent to a dollar– and the atmosphere was one of desperate improvisation. The immense steel and concrete sarcophagus that encloses the reactor was designed and built in less than six months, but that was only the tip of the iceberg. The entire population of an area of nearly a thousand square miles—120,000 people—had to be evacuated in a matter of days.  The entire vast Red Forest, which earned its nickname from the color the trees had turned after being struck by fallout, was clear cut in order to bury the trees in massive concrete-lined pits, and to allow dust suppressants to be applied to the soil. Relays of army helicopters airdropped bags of lead, sand, and boric acid into the shattered reactor building to bury the burning core. Massive geoengineering projects were launched, including construction of slurry walls around the plant to limit the migration of contaminated groundwater, and a crew of coal miners tunneled out space for a massive cooling system –sadly never actually needed– beneath the exploded reactor itself, in order to prevent the molten reactor mass from melting its way through to the water table and triggering a steam explosion—the “China Syndrome’ in US slang. One civilian helicopter pilot, Mykola Melnyk, received the two highest awards of the USSR – the Order of Lenin and Hero of the Soviet Union– for daring precision flying to install radiation sensors on the reactor, flying for hours at a time through the radioactive cloud leaking from the ruptured reactor.  Mr. Melnyk passed away in 2013.

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The most dangerous part of the work, the shoveling of radioactive debris from the roof of the power plant building back into the reactor crater to allow construction of the sarcophagus, was done by army reservists in improvised protective clothing, working in relays for shifts less than a minute long, on what was still accounted a virtual suicide mission. A previous attempt to use bomb disposal robots to remove the debris had failed when the radiation levels destroyed the robots’ electronics, and the gallows humor of the Soviet military gave these men the morbid nickname of “bio-robots.”

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“Bio-Robots” at work on the roof of the reactor building.

In all, an estimated 600,000 men and women served as liquidators at one point or another, mostly in the summer and fall of 1986, and about a quarter million of them were exposed to their theoretical lifetime safe limit of radiation—or far more. Tens of thousands have already died, and tens of thousands more are disabled by health problems. In recognition of their services, liquidators were awarded the status of military veterans and were granted government benefits such as medical care, though these vary according to how badly the individual was exposed for and for how long, and these allotments may be more or less forthcoming at times, especially given that most of the disaster area and many of the former liquidators are now Ukrainian, and part of the exclusion area is now in Belarus.

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Next year, 2016, will be the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster; I don’t know what kind of memorial services are planned, but it surely deserves something.   In retrospect, the United States has never suffered a manmade disaster on the scale of Chernobyl– and we should count ourselves very fortunate.

And yes, I already checked– the medal isn’t radioactive.