Chernobyl was supposed to be a dream job
Former production manager returns after 23 years to look at his old home
By Sole Lahtinen in Chernobyl and Pripjat
Oleksi Ananenko hops out of the bus at the Boulevard of Peace and Friendship, and hurries to what used to be his home in Pripjat, near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
The visit is his first since the spring of 1986, when there was an explosion and fire at Ananenko’s workplace, the fourth reactor of the plant. Even brief visits to the abandoned city require a number of permits.
Poplars and horse chestnut trees provide shade along the route. Lilacs bloom, and the rosebushes reach all the way to the street. “My address was Sportivnaya Street 17, flat 4.”
At 50 years of age, Ananenko now works as a civil servant at the Ukrainian Nuclear Regulatory Authority. It is his job to see to it that events involving nuclear energy are reported quickly.
At the time of the accident, he was working shifts as the production manager of the third and fourth reactors.
The destruction of Chernobyl was the worst accident in the history of nuclear energy. The explosion released a thousand times more radioactive material than the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A radioactive pit was left where the reactor had been.
The explosions, and the graphite fire which burned for over a week, sent radioactive particles high into the atmosphere. Most of the particles fell on the best agricultural land of the Soviet Republic of Belarus.
Ukraine and Russia also got their share. The winds brought emissions all the way to Finland as well.
Estimates of the number of deaths caused by the accident and its aftermath continue to vary. A total of at least 56 employees died in the destruction and soon after.
For the young engineer, Chernobyl had been one of the best jobs in the Soviet Union.
“I graduated in Moscow, and came to work in 1983 at the age of 23. I immediately got my own unit. This was not very common in the Soviet times.”
In 1986 there were already four reactors, and two others were being built. The plant was to become Europe’s largest.
Pripjat was a full-service small town built for the people working at the plant. It had 48,000 inhabitants, 17,000 of whom were children.
“On April 25th I had a late evening shift. I came home at midnight, prepared some tea, and by one o’clock I was already asleep.”
At that time, a poorly-prepared test was initiated at reactor four. Everything went wrong. In a short time there was an explosion, and then another.
“In the morning the woman next door said that something had probably happened at the plant. I didn’t believe it, but I couldn’t check on it, as I had not yet acquired a telephone."
The May holiday period was about to start: May Day and the Soviet Army’s Victory Day were approaching. Seven weddings took place in Pripjat on the day of the accident, and allotment gardens were also busy.
Then soldiers started coming into the town, washing the streets. “Just a military exercise”, the townspeople were told.
When the next night shift started, Ananenko, who was responsible for reactors three and four, began to learn what was happening.
“We kept reactor three on the grid. We couldn’t use the elevators. We shared some equipment with reactor four, and we ran up and down the stairs to get from one device to another.”
When 36 hours had passed from the accident, the evacuation of the residents of Pripjat finally began. “People were told to take their passports, money, and clothing for three days”. More than 1,000 buses and dozens of lorries emptied the town in a few hours. The people from the power plant were given temporary shelter at a camp of the Young Pioneers. A total of 130,000 people were evacuated at a 30-kilometre radius from the plant. Later, another 200,000 left.
The fourth reactor burned for more than a week. Sand bags were dropped from helicopters, and mine workers were ordered to bring cement in mine vehicles to seal off the reactor core.
In November, the concrete bunker, the “sarcophagus”, was ready. Between 650,000 and 800,000 men were ordered to the site from around the Soviet Union.
There are varying estimates on the number of people who were died, or fell ill. The UN has confirmed that several thousand children in the nearby area got thyroid cancer.
Researchers at the Russian Academy of Sciences issued an estimate two years ago according to which as many as 210,000 people would have died prematurely because of the accident.
Experts in Ukraine emphasise that close scrutiny is now being paid to nuclear safety in the country.
Chernobyl was also the only “unstable” RMBK-type plant.
The other four were easier to control, and they continue to provide half of the electricity consumed by Ukraine.
Electricity production at Chernobyl came to an end in 2000.
In the words of Konstantin Sheferi, the deputy director of the power plant, “The EU forced us to close the plant”. He supervises the aftercare at the plant.
The aim is ultimately to put the plant in mothballs. The big electric plant currently only supplies electricity to the plant itself, which is still the workplace of more than 3,000 people.
A brief tour around Pripjat reveals that in spite of the carefully enforced ban on entering the town, the homes there have been looted and vandalised during the 23 years.
The way to Ananenko’s nine-story apartment house is nearly covered with vegetation. “I almost didn’t find the right house behind the trees.”
“The apartment was in about the same condition that I had expected it to be. It didn’t really feel like anything”, he says, and his voice drops to a whisper.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 24.5.2009
United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation: Exposures and effects of the Chernobyl accident (PDF file)
SOLE LAHTINEN / Helsingin Sanomat