Death Hangs Over Homecoming at Chernobyl
It was almost 6am on April 26, 1986, when Alexey Breus left his flat in Pripyat and headed towards Chernobyl’s infamous reactor number 4, unaware that it had been five hours since his workplace had witnessed the beginning of the world’s worst nuclear disaster: "Only when I arrived with the bus I saw the destruction," he told IPS. "My hair stood up."
Alexey knew something had gone terribly wrong. What he didn’t realize was his relative luck: all those whom he replaced on that morning shift, 15 operators and six firemen, lost their lives.
"I spent the entire day running around the control room, trying to throw water onto the reactor. I felt nausea, others vomited around me." At around 4pm, his boss decided the effort is futile and ordered everyone to leave: "I was the last person who was pressing buttons and switches to try to fix things," he says.
When Alexey went to change his clothes, he noticed his skin was tanned, but still had no idea of the gravity of the situation. Before going home that day, he stopped by the shop to buy bread.
The explosion at reactor four of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant released radiation levels 200 times greater than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs, causing at least 4,000 deaths, leaving 40 percent of European territory contaminated, and leading to the evacuation of up to 400,000 people.
The damaged reactor was covered by a concrete structure known as the sarcophagus, which still contains highly radioactive nuclear fuel and which will be replaced soon by a newer construction.
Most of those working at the plant and their relatives lived in Pripyat, a town of 50,000 people which, being a kilometre away from Chernobyl, had to be permanently evacuated.
Twenty-five years after, Alexey is walking the streets of Pripyat looking for Lenin street, where his long-time friend Konstantin Rudya, a former Chernobyl engineer, used to live with his wife and daughter. With him is Konstantin’s daughter Alina, who now studies photography in Berlin and returns to the city she was evacuated from in her mother’s arms.
Konstantin passed away five years ago from a sudden and ruthless cancer to the spine which doctors could never truly explain. He was 47. In little over a month, he went from feeling a pain in the back to being unable to move his torso which, according to those who moved him around on his last days, produced a chilling noise of broken glass. His autopsy revealed part of the spine had turned into calcified sponge, while the rest of the bone had literally disappeared.
Alina, who at the time studied in Budapest, says: "It was only then that I realized what Chernobyl means."
Pripyat is being slowly devoured by an indifferent and aggressive vegetation, with trees growing even on the inside of buildings. What had once been a futuristic city filled with promising youngsters has turned into a poignant monument to the extinct soviet civilization.
Alina looks anxiously for her father’s apartment. She goes past the rusty mailboxes and the semi-open doors of the elevator to take the steps. She enters one apartment after the other, taking care not to step on the rotten wooden floor which threatens to collapse after years of water infiltration.
There are no familiar objects in the many empty apartments: pillagers have over the years emptied Pripyat of its treasures. But Alina knows she is home when, on the curb of a window of the fourth floor, she sees herself as baby smile in an old portrait purposefully left there by her father.
Her mother Marina refuses to return to Pripyat, but she still remembers the surreal days that followed the accident. Konstantin came home, had the windows closed and gave iodine to both her and Alina. While everyone in Pripyat knew something had gone wrong, that day there were still people swimming in the nearby river.
Soviet authorities had ordered the closure of all communication lines. There was no way to make telephone calls or to take transportation in or out of Pripyat, until loudspeakers announced the forceful evacuation of the city, 36 hours after the explosion at reactor four. "I had friends who packed just a small suitcase for a week, I never imagined we would never return," Marina told IPS.
Marina prefers not to think about the risk she and her daughter still face after having been exposed to potentially lethal doses of radiation: "Those who thought about death all the time died first," she says. Both Marina and Alina were told to undergo yearly medical tests. Alina confesses she avoids them out of fear.
The suffering of the Rudya family has not shaken their belief in nuclear energy, shared by the majority of Ukraine’s population and by its government, which plans to build 22 new nuclear reactors until 2030.
In Marina’s apartment in Kiev hang countless pictures of the deceased husband, posing inside the Chernobyl nuclear plant with a smile. Konstantin got many offers from abroad, but always chose to stay in Ukraine to work in Chernobyl in a job that involved frequent incursions into the deadly sarcophagus.
"He never thought of leaving Ukraine, he was a patriot, he wanted to stay in Kiev, that’s why he kept working in Chernobyl," Marina told IPS.