Chernobyl: The secrets they tried to bury - how the Soviet machine covered up a catastrophe
Experts say only 49 people died during the Chernobyl explosion. Others closer to the disaster put the number at a devastating 150,000. In a new book, Kate Brown goes behind the scenes and discovers widespread cover-ups
At 01:23:48 on 26 April, 1986, 17 employees of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant were on shift. To carry out a routine experiment, they turned off Reactor No 4’s emergency system, which was, in any case, too slow to prevent an accident. As the operators finished the test, they planned to take the reactor offline for several weeks of routine maintenance.
But on shutdown, the chain reaction in the reactor core went ‘critical’, meaning operators no longer controlled it. The reactor’s power surged. The operators would remember how the thick concrete walls wobbled, plaster rained down and the lights went out.
They heard a human-sounding moan as the reactor bolted and then popped. The blast tossed up a concrete lid, the size of a cruise ship, flipping it over to expose the molten-hot core inside. A few seconds later, a more powerful second explosion sent a geyser of radioactive gases into the Ukrainian night. Plant worker Sasha Yuvchenko felt the thudding concussions and looked up from the machine hall to see nothing but sky. He watched a blue stream of ionising radiation careening toward the heavens. ‘I remember,’ he later reflected, ‘thinking how beautiful it was.’
Photojournalist Igor Kostin risked his life to take photos of men in lead aprons, shoulders down, rushing to extinguish the radioactive inferno. Kostin’s black-and-white images do not show the men’s spooky pallor. High doses of radiation cause spasms in surface capillaries of the skin so that faces look strangely white, as if powdered for the stage.
The accident drew hundreds, then thousands, and finally hundreds of thousands of people towards the disaster zone. Helicopter pilots navigated overhead, dropping 2,400 tons of sand, lead and boron on the reactor to try to snuff out smouldering embers. One helicopter clipped a crane and crashed, killing four men. Soldiers took turns racing on to the roof of reactor No 3 to shovel off the graphite innards of the blown reactor.
Miners tunnelled 90ft under the melted core to build a protective wall. Construction workers created dams to hold back the radioactive Pripyat River. Suspecting sabotage, KGB investigators rifled through filing cabinets, computer records and the minds of survivors dying on their hospital beds. On 27 April, army officers escorted 44,500 residents from the nearby city of Pripyat. In the next two weeks they resettled 75,000 more people from a surrounding 18-mile belt, which was renamed the ‘Zone of Alienation’.
But General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and his advisers did not warn people to stay indoors during the emergency. Photos of families in Kiev, 95 miles south, enjoying the sunny May Day holiday a week after the accident now appear cruelly sardonic. The day before the holiday, radiation levels spiked suddenly in Kiev to 30 mSv/hr (microsieverts per hour), which was more than 100 times higher than pre-accident background levels.
The festivities went ahead as planned on orders from Moscow. The parade lasted all day, as flank after flank of schoolchildren marched, keeping step to the music of brass horns. They carried portraits of leaders they were taught to venerate and trust. The newsreels of the May holiday did not record the actions of two-and-a-half million lungs, inhaling and exhaling, working like a giant organic filter. Half of the radioactive substances Kievans inhaled were retained by their bodies. Plants in the lovely, tree-lined city scrubbed the air of ionising radiation. When the leaves fell later that autumn, they needed to be treated as radioactive waste.
On 6 May, Soviet officials broadcast to the world they had put out the raging fire in the reactor core. ‘The danger is over,’ they announced. That was not true. Classified records show that radioactive gases poured from the disaster site for another week, spiking on 11 May. Soviet officials estimated that three to six per cent of the core vaporised into the air and dropped about 50 million curies of fallout on the surrounding environment. A later study conducted after the USSR collapsed estimated that 29 per cent of the fuel burnt up in the fire for a total closer to 200 million curies of radiation dispersed into the environment. The radioactivity released was 400 times greater than from the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Three months after the accident, the Ukrainian Ministry of Health issued 5,000 copies of a pamphlet addressed to ‘residents of communities exposed to radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl atomic station’. The pamphlet, speaking directly to the reader (‘you’), begins with assurances.
Since the accident at the Chernobyl power plant, there has been a detailed analysis of the radioactivity of the food and territory of your population point. The results show that living and working in your village will cause no harm to adults or children. The main portion of radioactivity has decayed. You have no reason to limit your consumption of local agricultural produce.
If villagers read beyond the first page, they found that the confident tone trailed off:
Please follow these guidelines:
– Do not include in your diet berries and mushrooms gathered this year.
– Children should not enter the forest beyond the village.
– Limit fresh greens. Do not consume local meat and milk.
– Wash down homes regularly.
– Remove topsoil from the garden and bury it in specially prepared graves far from the village.
– Better to give up the milk cow and keep pigs instead.
The pamphlet is actually a survival manual, one that is unique in human history. Earlier nuclear accidents had left people living on territory contaminated with radioactive fallout, but never before Chernobyl had a state been forced to admit publicly to the problem and issue instructions on how to live in a new, post-nuclear reality.
Thirty years on, I picked my way around the ‘beware falling bricks’ sign and went into the Central Ukrainian State Archive in Kiev. Not a lot had changed in the archive since I had last worked there 20 years ago, researching my first book – the same worn, parquet floors, sickly green walls and oriental runner. I asked the woman at the reception desk for public health records on Chernobyl and she laughed. ‘Chernobyl was a banned topic in the Soviet period. You won’t find anything.’
Flipping through the large catalogue, I quickly identified whole collections labelled in plain Ukrainian, ‘On the Medical Consequences of the Chernobyl Disaster’. She didn’t know about these records because no one had ever asked for them before. The papers, hundreds of them, contained medical and farm records, statistical reports, transcripts of meetings, official correspondence, petitions and letters.
I soon came across a document that left me bewildered. It was a petition requesting ‘liquidator status’ for 298 people who worked in a wool factory in the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv. ‘Liquidator’ was a term reserved for people who received significant doses of radioactivity while employed to clean up the Chernobyl accident. I was confounded. How could wool workers, most of them women, in a quiet ‘clean’ town 50 miles from the accident have been liquidators? I drove to Chernihiv to find out more.
Chernihiv, a medieval city of golden cupolas sitting high on a precipice overlooking the Desna River, is too beautiful to be a stage for disaster. The wool factory, dedicated to sorting and washing wool, is another matter. The plant consisted of a dozen large, brick buildings shot through with railroad tracks. It looked like it hadn’t been touched up much since the 1930s.
I and my colleague Olha Martynyuk started asking questions at the manager’s office. The current factory owner called up a factory old-timer, Tamara Haiduk, a retired shift supervisor. She said that in June 1986, the factory was operating at full capacity. Every spring after the annual shearing, 21,000 tons of wool arrived at the loading dock from all over Ukraine.
To manage the deluge, she had three shifts going around the clock, everyone working 12 hours, seven days a week. ‘Very stressful work,’ Haiduk remembered. ‘Two hundred trucks and train cars would be backed up, waiting to unload.’
I asked about radioactive wool. ‘Some wool came in from contaminated areas,’ Haiduk said in a matter-of-fact way, ‘and two dock workers had nosebleeds. Another man, a buyer, felt nauseous. So we called up Moscow. Moscow sent a commission. They measured and we changed our process. After that, any wool that measured over [10 mSv/hr], we pulled off the line and stored it.’
Sometime in the autumn of 1987, Haiduk recalled accompanying a dozen drivers to bury the most radioactive wool in an evacuated village inside the Zone of Alienation. ‘That was it. After 1987, hardly any wool was radioactive,’ she said.
Others recalled it differently. When I asked if we could see the factory’s production line, a woman named Tamara Kot showed up to give us a tour. As soon as we were out of earshot, Kot started talking and her story differed disturbingly from Haiduk’s account.
‘I came to work here in 1986. A year later, my friend got diagnosed with leukaemia. She died soon after that. I think she got sick from the radioactive dust we breathed in. All the dock workers and the drivers, those guys are all dead. They got dosed.’
We climbed the stairs into a dark, cavernous room where women, in blue smocks and masks, stood over tables of wire mesh pulling apart great wads of dirty wool. The women stopped on seeing us enter and gathered around the list I held out. ‘That’s my name and this is Svetlana here. That’s Maria.’ They were the ‘liquidators’ I had found in the Kiev archives. Of 200 women on the list, these 10 were the only ones left.
The women described the slowly dawning realisation in the spring of 1986 that the distant nuclear accident had entered their lives. They first noticed a trickle of blood slipping from the mouth of a young female colleague. The women described how they started to feel dizzy and nauseous at their tables. They had to take breaks outside in the fresh air, away from the dusty loft.
Their boss, Haiduk, who gave fines to workers for being two minutes late, would goad them back to work. By the end of May, many workers suffered mysterious nosebleeds. They complained of scratchy throats, nausea and fatigue. In the sorting shop, the wool bales measured up to 30 mSv/hr. The wool workers did not know that picking up the most radioactive bales was like embracing an X-ray machine while it was turned on.
As the days passed, workers’ complaints mounted. The factory director, Mikhail Shesh, called Kiev. Inspectors in Kiev didn’t believe his wool could be so radioactive, and alarmed, the inspectors called Moscow. The Moscow officials ordered a team of specialists to take a trip to Chernihiv. They swiped walls, equipment and clothing with tampons. The monitors found radiation everywhere – at the entrance to the plant, in managers’ offices, in the lunch room, in the drums of the washing machines, on the sorting tables, and hottest of all, at the loading dock. They measured the arriving bales. Ragingly hot radioactive wool came from northern Ukraine.
That is when the Ministry of Health learnt that officials in the Ministry of Industrial Agriculture had given an order to slaughter 50,000 sickly animals rounded up during evacuation from farms inside the Zone of Alienation, but the zone was just a circle drawn on a map. It didn’t stop radioactivity from crossing its borders. Farmers outside the zone also had radioactive sheep. As they sheared that summer, monitors measured the wool and found some to be very radioactive at 32 mSv/hr. Ministry of Agriculture officials kept that news to themselves and sent the hot wool on to the factory.
Once they recognised that the plant was contaminated, factory director Shesh put Haiduk in charge of managing daily radiation readings. The gamma rays in the warehouse measured from 0.1 to 180 mSv/hr. At 180 mSv/hr workers at the loading dock received in just one week seven times the annual dose recommended today for civilians.
After Chernobyl blew, Soviet leaders set a much higher safe radiation limit for citizens during the first year after the accident. Wool workers received that inflated annual emergency dose in the four busy summer months after spring shearing. But monitors started counting gamma rays after the most powerful isotopes of radioactive iodine had already decayed and they only counted external exposures. They did not include the dust that workers breathed in or ingested in the food and water, nor the radioactive isotopes they brought home to wool town (the neighbourhood where the workers were housed) in their hair and clothing.
More commissions from the Ministries of Light Industry, Health and Justice arrived in Chernihiv from Moscow and Kiev and drew up additional safety measures. Haiduk requested respirators and jumpsuits. Plumbers flushed out the factory’s pipes and fixed the drainage canals that flowed into ponds where kids played in hot Ukrainian summers. They set up a radiological lab. The visiting experts wrote new regulations to sort the wool, not by quality as before but by the amount of ionising radiation emanating from the bales. The bales radiating 0.1–10.0 mSv/hr were to be washed and measured again. After cleaning, the bales measuring below 0.1 mSv/hr were to be processed as normal wool. The most radioactive bales were to be fenced off with barbed wire and stored until further instructions.
From August 1986, time at the wool factory came to be measured differently – in the height and width of the mound of wool that grew by the day and in the power of the gamma rays pulsing from the heap. Most of the radioactivity they measured was ruthenium-106 with a half-life of 373 days, meaning it lost approximately half its radioactivity each year. I imagine the inspectors ordered the wool to be stored, hoping to wait out ruthenium-106’s half-life. By November 1987, 2,400 tons of wool had piled up in the open, uncovered, just off the loading dock, where workers warmed themselves in the sun on their cigarette breaks. Every day, the ruthenium and caesium particles decayed, emitting gamma rays that passed into and out of workers’ bodies.
The wool factory was just one of hundreds of agricultural processing plants in the Chernobyl territories. The point of the elaborate Zone of Alienation – the evacuations, fencing and guards – was to put a stop to the migration of Chernobyl radioactive isotopes to places where people were living. Yet Soviet leaders were loath to toss out contaminated agricultural produce. So after the accident, they wrote regulations stipulating that radioactive wool, hides, meat, fat, bones and milk were to be fed into production lines as usual with some new precautionary measures to process them.
And so, once inspectors discovered contaminated wool at the factory, business continued as usual. In the greater countryside, the sheep kept walking through the muddy spring, dragging their bellies across puddles swimming with radioactive particles. The wool in 1987 was only slightly less radioactive than the wool in 1986. For over a year, no one resolved the problem of the heap of the most radioactive wool near the loading dock.
‘Oh, we were full of radiation. Ping, ping, ping,’ the sorters remembered. ‘We took off our smocks and they balled them up and threw them away. We asked what kind of dose we got. They said, “You don’t need to know.”’
Hoping to get a better grasp of the wool factory’s problems, Olha and I stopped at the local archive, located in Chernihiv’s monastery, built in the ninth century. I scanned long lists of gamma readings taken around the city in the summer of 1986. The Chernihiv Department of Health recorded radioactivity in the schools of wool town, but had nothing to say on the contamination of the wool factory. The labour union did. A few documents contained transcripts of meetings where workers spoke about their health problems. But the workers’ complaints did not reach division chiefs or local leaders, much less Kiev or Moscow.
In that way, the factory management kept health problems under wraps. They certified in a report to Kiev, which the factory’s chief engineer Maria Nogina signed, that the factory staff had no illnesses in connection with radioactivity. Nor, they wrote, had any workers suffered from any occupational health problems in the previous four years. Union records flatly contradict this statement; from 1987 to 1989, union representatives grew anxious about the ‘worrisome’ increase of illness at the factory. In regional farms, doctors reported a peculiar ‘guttural swelling’ among shepherds. Thirty years later, the women sorters and Nogina fingered their throats and described to me problems with thyroid disease, adult-onset diabetes and cancer. They mentioned other symptoms that sounded strange – aching joints and ‘legs that don’t go’, migraines, fainting spells and painfully twinging nerves. They attributed these unspecific health problems to Chernobyl.
I was at a loss with what to do with these associations. Maybe, as critics would charge in the debates over Chernobyl health effects, the wool workers attributed normal symptoms of ageing to radiation. On the other hand, the sorters knew more about radiation than the average person. They grasped that some radioactive isotopes, such as ruthenium-106, settle in bone marrow, whereas others, like caesium-137, target muscle tissues, and radioactive iodine-131 gathers in the thyroid. They visualised the isotopes in their bones, joints and crumbling teeth.
These women with no more than high-school education described to me how radioactive wastewater draining from the plant’s giant washing machines poured into a pond, and from there it was recycled into the municipal water-treatment facility to either return to the factory or float down the soft, brown currents of the Desna River. I corroborated this account of contaminated wastewater in the records. No manager I talked to remembered that detail.
It would have been easy, the sorters reasoned, to have avoided the contamination of the plant altogether. ‘They should have never unloaded that wool here,’ one worker pointed out. ‘They could have measured it on the trucks first.’ The women knew the places around the factory that were the most radioactive – the loading docks and their own sorting tables – and they understood the significance of the mountain of radioactive wool. ‘Why,’ the sorters asked, ‘did that wool sit there for so long?’
That’s a good question. The wool piled up for 18 months, six months more than the half-life of ruthenium-106. Nogina recounted that the officials in Moscow and Kiev stalled, refusing to give them permission to throw out the wool as radioactive waste. ‘They made us document it all, every bit – radioactivity, weight, value,’ she said. ‘They even sent in a prosecutor to investigate possible corruption for attempting to dump good wool.’
Finally, just before Christmas 1987, Haiduk supervised 10 drivers who worked round the clock, loading up the wool and stashing it in pits inside the Zone of Alienation. After a year and a half, the radioactive bales were finally buried. For their trouble, the drivers got a bonus of 50 roubles (worth 57p today). The sorters received three extra roubles in their monthly pay cheque. Later they were awarded status as liquidators, which enabled them to retire early, have extra medical check-ups and longer holidays, and ride the city bus for free. Before we left town, Olha and I made a last visit to the wool factory.
In their stained smocks, the sorters looked over the liquidator list again. ‘After Chernobyl, a lot of us are gone,’ one woman sighed. ‘They didn’t all die in one day,’ she continued. ‘They took sick and passed away gradually, from heart problems, from cancers.’ Another woman added, a finger on the list, ‘Look, none of these drivers are alive. They died when they were just 40 or 50. Volodia is gone. Victor too. And Kolia.’ They went on like that, sounding out the name of each dead comrade.
Post-Chernobyl analyses are riddled with many understated quantities – from the number of hospitalisations to the estimated average dose of radioactivity people received. But the fact that some international experts continue to proclaim the ‘worst nuclear disaster in human history’ amounted to only 49 deaths and 6,000 cases of ‘easily treatable’ thyroid cancer stretches credibility the farthest.
The Ukrainian state pays compensation to 35,000 people whose spouses died from Chernobyl-related health problems. This number does not include the mortality of young people, infants, or people who did not have records to qualify for compensation. The figure is only for Ukraine, not Russia, or Belarus, where 70 per cent of Chernobyl fallout landed. Off the record, a scientist at the Kiev Institute of Radiation put the number of fatalities at 150,000 in Ukraine alone. An official at the Chernobyl plant gave the same number. That range of 35,000 to 150,000 Chernobyl fatalities – not 49 – is the minimum. What is clear is that underestimating Chernobyl damage has left humans unprepared for the next disaster.
Extracted from Manual for Survival by Kate Brown, published by Allen Lane on Tuesday. Buy now for £16.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844-871 1514
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