Chernobyl, looking back

  • 2006-04-19
  • By Elizabeth Celms

A DANGEROUS JOB: Abramenkovs (far right), who currently heads Latvia's Hazardous Waste Management Agency, has spent nearly his entire life working with toxic material.

RIGA - On May 13, 1986, Andris Abramenkovs and hundreds of other Soviet Army reserves were loaded onto a train headed for Chernobyl. Two days earlier, while enjoying breakfast with his wife and two-year-old daughter, he received an order from the Soviet Union's civil defense unit to lead a decontamination team in cleaning up what was already rumored to be the world's worst nuclear disaster.

Abramenkovs returned to his home in Riga three months later. But to say he returned to the life he left behind would be succumbing to the cloud of denial that surrounds Chernobyl.


At 1:23 a.m. on April 26, 1986, a series of explosions destroyed Reactor No 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Republic of Ukraine. Witnesses described it as a horrific, yet ethereal sight - 120 tons of uranium and 900 tons of fatal graphite blasting into the atmosphere. A massive plume of contaminants, which included plutonium isotopes with a half-life of 24,360 years, hung in the sky for days, blocking out the sun like an omen of death.
Within hours, the cloud had bellied its way across Ukraine, Belarus, and into Europe. It would be three days before the Soviet government announced the disaster, and only then because the toxic plume had set off radiation alarms in Sweden. The pollution would eventually travel across the world, depositing radioactive material in the far corners of Japan and Ireland.
Chernobyl was, and still is, the greatest man-made disaster in history, and more than half a million men and women, "liquidators" and "decontaminators," were called to clean the mess up. Hundreds of them died, while thousands more suffered from cancer, early heart attacks, paralysis, thyroid disorders and chronic illness. Their children were born deformed, sickly or with cancer, if even born at all. Today, 20 years after the Chernobyl disaster, the suffering continues.

Some people's voices say more than words. Abramenkovs is one of them. I wasn't able to meet the Latvian in person, as he was spending Easter weekend with his family, so I spoke with him over the phone. He told his story without emotion, but in his voice hung sadness.
"I was very lucky," Abramenkovs says slowly, letting the words sink in. "I only had health problems for three or four years. I went through intensive care. I got better."
Two years after returning from Chernobyl, the nuclear chemist developed signs of cancer. Although he shied away from giving me medical details, the incongruous words he tossed out in a hasty attempt to change the subject revealed enough.
"I discussed my condition with radiologists in Latvia. They said I had been affected by alpha radiation 's large amounts. I had many infections. Blood, bones… other things. My temperature was 39 degrees Celsius for many weeks. I was taken to the hospital. It stabilized."

Over the next several years, Abramenkovs underwent intensive chemo- and radiotherapy. Eventually, his symptoms subsided and the cancer went into remission. Today the 50-year-old says he feels fine.
Abramenkovs attributes his "not so serious" health problems to his profession.
"You see I was an expert in nuclear chemistry," he says. "While I was working in Chernobyl, I could measure the toxins in my body and knew how to keep the level down. If I hadn't had this expert knowledge, my health conditions would have been far more serious."
He pauses after saying this, and I wait for him to mention the possibility of death. He says nothing. A few seconds of dead silence linger over the phone.Abramenkovs' health conditions are minor only when compared to the fate of others who helped "decontaminate" Chernobyl's toxic wasteland. Those who knew the power plant best died first 's agonizing deaths in Kiev's radiation ward. But for the majority, the consequences of radiation came later.
"It was a terrible situation [the decontamination mission]… so many young men in their twenties or even younger. They began to feel their life was close to its end," the nuclear chemist says, reflecting on the time he spent in Ukraine. "They gave up on the idea of a family, a future. They left it all in Chernobyl."

Several men in Abramenkovs' unit died at the site. They were brought home in body bags.
"These boys were young and naive," he says. "They weren't qualified to detoxify such a potent environment. They had no clue how to handle radioactive material. I had a taxi driver in my unit, sailors, fishermen, an 18-year-old student. They were all sent."
While Abramenkovs would meticulously measure the toxins in his environment and monitor the radioactive level in his system, most of his team was careless. They ignored instructions, he remembers, removing their protective masks to stay cool in the summer's sweltering heat and nonchalantly eating apples from trees. Whether it was from ignorance, apathy or youth's blind notion of immortality was hard to judge.
"They thought it was a joke. Just as they couldn't see the radiation, they couldn't see the consequences. But later, they came."
Soviet regulations didn't help the situation. Only officers were given equipment to measure the area's radiation, and the doses sent in for analysis were roughly calculated.

Therefore, it was little surprise that so many men developed terminal heath problems. The most tragic, Abramnekovs says, were the psychological consequences.
"We lost members." His throat tightens on the words.
"After we came home, my team started drinking. They told me their life seemed so close to its end." He pauses.
"Two of my men - health servants, twenty-seven years old - killed themselves. Two others hung themselves. It was so


It is nearly impossible to know just how many people have suffered because of Chernobyl. Accurate statistics are difficult enough to collect without a government that deliberately distorted the evidence. In the months that followed, Moscow kept the health reports of the liquidators who helped clean up confidential.
Even today, when hundreds of Ukrainians and Belarusians, all who live within the explosion's toxic wake, are diagnosed each year with cancer, Russia fails to blame Chernobyl, just as the Soviet government refused to accept the disaster on day one.
Janis Berzins was working at Latvia's Salaspils Nuclear Research Facility in April 1986. At the time it was the most reputed nuclear research center in the Soviet Union. From their science lab, Berzins and his team watched as a plume of toxins gradually infiltrated Latvia's skies.

"At first the sight wasn't too shocking," the researcher says. "But slowly we realized that the deposit was very big, and that the catastrophe was huge."
The facility's radiosensitive meters detected a growing amount of cesium and uranium in the air, along with several other radioactive elements. After two weeks, the levels were alarming.
"We sent the results to Riga immediately, and asked them to pass the information on to Moscow," Berzins recalls. "They said Moscow didn't want our information. They threw all of our work out. They discarded all of our tests."
It would be three months before Chernobyl's environmental effects were made public. And the news was devastating.
There were toxins in the ground, in the water, dappled on flowers in the form of dew, sprinkled over trees, gardens and homes, radiating from the earth, hanging in the air. Soviet and European society became paranoid. Mothers warned their children from playing outdoors and panicked if they came home wet from swimming in the local river.
"We were lucky it didn't rain," Berzins says. "Since the weather in April and May was so dry, the cloud just floated by. If it had rained, all of those toxins would have poured down onto us."

Both Berzins and Abramenkovs were surprisingly phlegmatic when describing how the Soviet government dealt with the disaster. They spoke as if Moscow's incompetence in handling the mess and negligence for human life was expected. And perhaps, for them, it was. After all, these men had lived under the Soviet system - with all its shortcomings - for nearly their entire lives.
But when it came to the disaster itself, they spoke with frightening severity.
"In the case of Chernobyl, the price of nuclear power was too high," says Abramenkovs, who now works as the director of Latvia's Hazardous Waste Management Agency. "That tragedy - losing my team, transporting the dead bodies back to Riga - it was too much."
Before ending our conversation, I asked the nuclear chemist what he felt, looking back at Chernobyl 20 years on.
"I want to forget."