Life goes on in Chernobyl 35 years after world’s worst nuclear accident
The clean-up effort was officially called “Liquidation of the Chernobyl Accident Consequences,” and the workers were called liquidators. They had an impossible job. The radioactive particles are invisible and tasteless and odorless, but in hot spots they have contaminated everything from bricks to cattle to leaves to the ground. These particles cannot be destroyed; all the liquidators could do was intercept them or try to seal them somehow. Some have worked around villages bulldozing crops, chopping down forests, and even burying the top layer of the earth itself.
Around the nuclear power plant, some work – like lifting highly radioactive debris or pouring concrete to seal the reactor – was so dangerous that humans could absorb lethal doses of radiation within minutes. Estimates of the number of liquidators vary widely as there is no official record of everyone who participated, but the number runs into the hundreds of thousands, and probably over half a million. They came from all over the former USSR and most were young men at the time. Perhaps 10 percent of them are still alive today. Thirty-one people died as a direct result of the accident, according to the official Soviet death toll.
Evgeniy Valentey has been a computer scientist here for 10 years, but disaster is never far from his mind: “I think of the people who were really victimized in the liquidation process. In the Soviet Union, the method was to cover everything with human lives. “
Life in an abandoned city
Elena Buntova, along with other scientists, answered Chernobyl’s call for a completely different reason than the liquidators. As a doctor of biology, she came after the accident to study the effects of radiation on wildlife. She never left.
“In the first years after the accident, the best scientists from all over the USSR came to work in Chernobyl, so it was really interesting to cooperate with them,” Buntova said. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and also where she met her husband Sergei Lapiha. He grew up near Chernobyl and they met in a cafe inside the exclusion zone.