[ RadSafe ] Personal accounts of Chernobyl

John Jacobus crispy_bird at yahoo.com
Thu Apr 27 08:49:20 CDT 2006

The following account was published in Nature On-line:
19 April 2006.  

I would not say his experiences to those who were
closer to Chernobyl, but it is interesting reading.  

The New York Times is also running a video article
about Chernobyl at

I found the personal stories of the Liquidators

Alex Orlov was 13 and living in Kiev, Ukraine, when
the Unit 4 reactor at Chernobyl exploded 130
kilometres away on 28 April 1986. He talks to Mark
Peplow about how his life changed after the accident,
and how his experiences are shaping his career as an
environmental chemist at Cambridge University, UK. 
"How did you hear about the accident?"

For a couple of weeks after the explosion there was no
information - no one knew what was going on. Children
were allowed to play outside as normal, even though
radioactive material was still coming out of

On 1 May, the authorities went ahead with the
traditional May Day parade in Kiev, and lots of people
attended when they should have been inside.

It was only later that we learned about the accident.
But even then there was a complete lack of
information, and most of what we heard was rumour.
About two weeks after the accident, most of the
children in Kiev, including me, were evacuated to
other parts of the country, and only returned at the
end of the summer.

"How did your family cope?"

My father was a scientist, so our family used a Geiger
counter to check the vegetables for radiation when we
went to the market. Long after the accident, food was
arriving in Kiev from farms in the north that were
closer to Chernobyl. Some of the vegetables were a
hundred times more radioactive than the background

My mother was a doctor, and she was posted to a
special hospital in the 30-kilometre zone to treat the
firefighters and police who were trying to make the
reactor safe. I think she got a heavy radiation dose. 

She has been classed as a 'liquidator of the Chernobyl
disaster'. Although she has no major illnesses, this
means she can retire ten years early. Some of the
firefighters who worked in the Chernobyl zone are
still her patients.

"The UN Development Programme has said that one of the
worst effects of the disaster has been the
population's fear of radiation, rather than actual
exposure. Do you agree?"

I doubt that this has been a major impact. Many people
were not afraid of the radiation - they didn't want to
evacuate, and some of them went back to their land as
soon as possible. There's a psychological resilience
about these people, who have lived through terrible
famines and wars.

Ukrainians have many other problems. Poor
environmental and socio-economic conditions as well as
heavy smoking have at least a comparable impact on the
health of ordinary people.

"How has Chernobyl affected your life?"

The Chernobyl accident was one reason I chose to work
in environmental science. Chernobyl was just part of a
wider neglect of the environment in the Ukraine. 
After graduation from a Ukrainian university I had a
chance to continue my education in the United States
and the United Kingdom, eventually getting a PhD in
chemistry under Professor Richard Lambert at the
University of Cambridge. 

The major focus of my work is developing materials to
clean up contaminated air and water. This has led to
practical consequences, notably an underground
photocatalytic reactor, currently being tested for
treating polluted groundwater at a site in Canada.

Chernobyl reminds us that local environmental
disasters have global consequences. And it teaches us
that environmental issues can only be resolved by
interdisciplinary approaches; you could call my field
environmental health, environmental engineering or
environmental chemistry.

"How do you now feel about nuclear power plants?"

The disaster has not made me completely against
nuclear energy. There are, of course, significant
concerns about Chernobyl-type reactors, and some of
them are still operational in the former Soviet Union,
notably Russia. 

But in general, safety is not a huge issue, because
the Chernobyl reactor was not the safest type, and I
think a similar accident is unlikely in more advanced
reactors. The biggest problem with nuclear power is
disposing of waste safely and inexpensively.

For example, there have been proposals to store
nuclear waste from other countries in the 30-kilometre
zone around Chernobyl. But I don't think it is safe to
do that, and it just shows that people are already
forgetting the effects of the accident. I'm not sure
if some people have really learned the lessons of

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this story.

Story from news at nature.com:

  © 2006 Nature Publishing Group

"A scientist's aim in a discussion with his colleagues is not to persuade, but to clarify." 
Leo Szilard
-- John
John Jacobus, MS
Certified Health Physicist
e-mail:  crispy_bird at yahoo.com

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