KYIV, Ukraine—Nikolai Vsisovich worked as a liquidator inside the Chernobyl nuclear power plant after the No. 4 reactor exploded 25 years ago. He is the last surviving worker of the 18 men. With the Fukushima crisis still not resolved, Vsisovich shares what he sees as too high a price to pay for nuclear power.
The Chernobyl disaster occurred about 75 miles from Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and the accident was classified as level 7, the highest rating on the International Nuclear Event Scale. The International Atomic Energy Agency has rated some individual reactor accidents at Fukushima as level 5, but the Institute for Science and International Security, founded by a former IAEA inspector, says taking the plant as a whole, the level should be 6.
April 26, 1986, seemed like a normal Saturday. “Some men were drinking beer or sodas sitting near their home; children were playing in the yards. It was Saturday and a sunny day,” says Vsisovich.
The only surprising thing, he said, was that residents in the satellite town of Pripyat continued to behave as though nothing was happening after tanks and people wearing special uniforms entered the town to measure radioactivity levels.
The accident had occurred in the middle of the night, just before 1:30 a.m. During a systems test, there was a power surge, and everything went out of control, leading to a series of explosions at the No. 4 reactor. The explosions caused a fire, creating a highly radioactive plume of smoke. The amount of radioactivity released was roughly 400 times more than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, according to the IAEA.
“Safety measures were ignored, the uranium fuel in the reactor overheated and melted through the protective barriers,” according to the IAEA.
Shortly after Pripyat was tested for radioactivity, and 36 hours after the accident, Soviet authorities began evacuating the town of nearly 50,000. Pripyat lay less than 2 miles from Chernobyl and had been established in 1970 to house workers when construction of the plant began.
In the ensuing weeks and months, some 200,0000 people were permanently relocated because of the accident.
Vsisovich and other members of plant staff were asked to stay behind because nobody knew the facility better than they did. “Even the leaders of the country came to ask us to stay, although we were supposed to be taken away from the plant because we already received the maximum exposure,” he says.
Plant staff worked together with soldiers who had the most dangerous job of clearing the exploded roof of the reactor.
“For that job soldiers were taken out of the army and paid 1,000 rubles as a bonus, and were allowed to leave military service for good. I don’t know, they might have already died a few years after the explosion,” said Vsisovich.
Vsisovich said soldiers were used as “live robots” to clear the roof because mechanical robots quickly became nonfunctional in the high radiation.
The 31-year-old Vsisovich went back and forth at a distance of about 500 feet from the exploded reactor, wearing a simple uniform and a facemask.
Read More…First Days of Clean Up