Kamis, 28 April 2011

Pictures: "Liquidators" Endured Chernobyl 25 Years Ago

A red flag flies from the chimney of reactor number three.

A Signal at the Summit

Photograph by Igor Kostin, Sygma/Corbis
The liquidators were ordered to mark the end of the cleanup operation on the roof of reactor number three by attaching a red flag to the top of the 255-foot (78- meter) chimney overhead.

Initially, the crew tried to carry out this operation by helicopter, but two efforts were fruitless. So workers climbed to the summit by a spiral staircase, despite the dangers posed by the heavy radiation levels.

Radiation expert Alexander Yourtchenko carried the pole, followed by ValĂ©ri Starodoumov, with the flag, while Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Sotnikov ascended with the radio. The whole operation was timed to last only nine minutes to reduce their exposure. At the end, the three were rewarded with a bottle of Pepsi—still a luxury in the 1986 in the Soviet Union—and a day off from their labor as liquidators.

A Chernobyl worker is examined by a doctor

A Lifetime of Examination

Photograph by Igor Kostin, Sygma/Corbis
Nine months after the Chernobyl accident, a liquidator is examined by a doctor at a  Moscow clinic that specialized in treatment of radiation victims.

Several international studies have reported that the workers and others exposed to radiation from Chernobyl had anxiety symptom levels that were twice as high as in the general population, and were more likely to report multiple unexplained physical symptoms and poor health.
Several years ago, some of the surviving liquidators even went on a hunger strike to protest their low disability payments. Many said they suffered from chronic headaches, heart trouble, hypertension, and other health problems.

Relatives of Chernobyl cleanup workers hold portraits during a memorial rally

Keeping Alive Their Memory

Photograph by Gleb Garanich, Reuters
Relatives of the Chernobyl liquidators hold portraits of their deceased loved ones at a rally held in their memory in 2002.

A monument to the liquidators in the city of Chernobyl remembers the firefighters who initially rushed in after the explosion as those "who saved the world." But over the years, the health benefits they were promised have eroded both due to inflation and cutbacks.

Four United Nations agencies have launched an  International Chernobyl Research and Information Network (ICRIN) to help better inform the communities in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia that were most affected by the Chernobyl disaster. The stated goal is to translate scientific information on the consequences of the accident, to offer practical advice for those affected, and to help communities "return to normal" over the next decade.
A Chernobyl cleanup worker sits aboard a helicopter

Pondering the Consequences

Photograph by Igor Kostin, Sygma/Corbis
Alone with his thoughts, a liquidator sits aboard a helicopter heading out on a mission to a cooling reservoir at the Chernobyl site. The door to the worker’s right is reinforced with a lead plate.

Many of the liquidators developed radiation-induced cataracts in the first few years after the accident. In fact, studies of these workers have revealed that cataracts can result from much lower radiation doses than previously expected, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Besides the workers, the group for which Chernobyl’s impact is most clearly understood is the children and adolescents who were living in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, and who unknowingly drank milk with high levels of radioactive iodine that had fallen on the region after the explosion. By 2005, more than 6,000 thyroid cancer cases had been diagnosed in this group.

In the long run, up to 4,000 people could eventually die of radiation exposure from the Chernobyl accident, an international team of scientists assembled by WHO, the IAEA, and other United Nations agencies  concluded.  But the environmental group Greenpeace has challenged that estimate, putting the potential toll at closer to 100,000.
A liquidator wearing protective clothing pushes a baby carriage.

A Rescue Amid the Fallout

Photograph by Igor Kostin, Sygma/Corbis
A liquidator, clad in a gas mask and protective clothing, pushes a baby in a carriage who was found during the cleanup of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. The infant had been left in an abandoned house in the village of Tatsenki; the worker found the child when he was measuring radiation levels.

The village is inside the exclusion zone, an area within a 19-mile (30 kilometer) radius of Chernobyl that remains abandoned today. About 116,000 people were evacuated in the spring and summer of 1986, and 220,000 more were relocated in subsequent years.

The people who lived near the plant were not informed of the accident until days after the explosion. Only when radiation detectors were set off at nuclear power plants in Europe did the world begin to learn what had happened in northern Ukraine.
A team of cleanup workers at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant

A Call to Duty

Photograph by Igor Kostin, Sygma/Corbis
A team of liquidators lines up in preparation for cleanup runs to the highly radioactive rooftop of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, in a photograph taken five months after the initial explosion.

Veterans of the liquidators corps received medals from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on the eve of the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl. But in press accounts of the Moscow ceremony, some found it difficult to hide their continuing pain over their ordeals. Vladimir Kondrashov told the news agency AFP that his initial feeling of heroism soon faded: "Now I receive a measly 23,000 rubles" ($825) in total monthly income.

The workers received generous state health benefits at first, but the payments were later cut back.

Cancer and death-rate studies have shown no direct correlation between radiation exposure among the liquidators and increased cancer or death rates, says IAEA, although the agency says post-traumatic stress among the cohort is clear.

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have conducted assessments of the liquidators using a technique called FISH, or fluorescence in situ hybridization, which was developed at the lab. The technique measures chromosome damage by detecting the number of reciprocal translocations, or broken pieces of chromosomes, in lymphocytes that rejoin in a mismatched way. The Chernobyl liquidators they studied appeared to have radiation exposure equivalent to roughly 10 years of aging, or smoking cigarettes regularly.

The Lawrence Livermore scientists note that the expected health consequences from such an exposure are small, but it is impossible to determine the risk faced by any individual.  Workers' exposure varied due to their varying work assignments. And personal habits such as smoking, drinking and diet further confound any effort to trace ills back to Chernobyl.

(Related blog: "Japan's Nuclear Crisis--Now a "Major Accident"--Could Have Been Worse")
Workers in a helicopter above Chernobyl power plant
The Aftermath, Seen From Above
Photograph by Igor Kostin, Sygma/Corbis
Workers measure radioactivity levels from a helicopter flying low above the crippled Chernobyl nuclear plant in the aftermath of the accident 25 years ago. Four radiation experts teamed up on this flight, and five such flights were carried out each day after the explosion.

The workers would gauge the level of radiation in various parts of the reactor, which would change due to weather and wind patterns. Their reports would be used to plan the duties of the other liquidators in the plant below.

(Related Story: "Japan Tries to Avert Nuclear Disaster")
Cleanup workers on a rooftop at Chernobyl

The Rooftop Runs of the "Biorobots"

Photograph by Igor Kostin, Sygma/Corbis
Some of the highest doses of radiation were sustained by the workers enlisted to clear debris from Chernobyl’s rooftops. After the explosion, the facility was covered in pieces of highly contaminated graphite, the substance that had been used instead of water to cool the reactor and slow the fission reaction in the Chernobyl plant design.

(Related: "Is Armenia’s Nuclear Plant the World’s Most Dangerous?")

Initially, authorities tried to use robots to do the job of removing the dangerous debris, but after a few days the high levels of radiation damaged the electronic circuitry of the machines.

The job had to be done by human hands, and so a subset of the workers who became known as "biorobots," were deployed to the rooftops. They would run up to the rooftop for minutes or less, removing just a few shovels of waste before a new crew of liquidators would take their turn. Workers recall feeling pain in their eyes and a lead taste in their mouth due to the high radiation levels.
This photo from the rooftop of reactor number three, like most of those in this collection, was taken by Igor Kostin, who worked at Novosti Press Agency at the time and became the best-known of the Chernobyl disaster photographers. He has said that the white streaks at the bottom of the photo were due to the high levels of radiation below. Indeed, some of his early photography after the accident was damaged beyond recovery.
Chernobyl clean-up workers attach lead sheet aprons over cotton work suits

With Thin Lead Shields

Photograph by Igor Kostin, Sygma/Corbis
This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visitThe Great Energy Challenge.
Before the Fukushima 50, there were the Chernobyl liquidators.

After the nuclear reactor explosion 25 years ago today that rained down radioactive material over Ukraine, Belarus, and western Russia, a corps of plant employees, firefighters, soldiers, miners, construction workers, and volunteers were called in to clean up the mess.

The government of the former Soviet Union called them "liquidators," meaning those who eliminate the consequence of an accident. But from early on, it became clear that they could not eliminate, but only contain, the damage from what still stands as the largest nonmilitary release of radioactivity in history.

At the peak of the cleanup, an estimated 600,000 workers were involved in tasks such as building waste repositories, water filtration systems, and the "sarcophagus" that entombs the rubble of Chernobyl reactor number four. They also built settlements and towns for plant workers and evacuees.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says some 350,000 of the liquidators in the initial plant cleanup  received average total body radiation doses of 100 millisieverts. That’s a dose equal to about 1,000 chest x-rays and about five times the maximum dose permitted for workers in nuclear facilities.

The Soviets did not have adequate protective uniforms, so those enlisted to enter highly radioactive areas cobbled together their own shields. Some workers, like the ones shown here, attached aprons made of lead sheets just 2 to 4 millimeters thick over their cotton work clothing. Authorities agree that 28 workers lost their lives to acute radiation sickness, while another 106 of the liquidators were treated and survived. But the health toll for the survivors continues to be a matter of debate. One advocacy group, the Chernobyl Union, says 90,000 of the 200,000 surviving liquidators have major long-term health problems.

Some liquidator advocates see renewed awareness in the wake of the earthquake-and-tsunami-triggered disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, and the attention to the perils faced by the cleanup workers there (sometimes called the "Fukushima 50," although their numbers are likely far greater.)

"Thanks to Fukushima they paid attention to us," Vyacheslav Grishin, head of the Chernobyl Union, told the news agency AFP, as a ceremony was held in Moscow to honor the liquidators on the eve of the Chernobyl accident’s 25th anniversary.

(Related: "Pictures—A Rare Look Inside Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant")

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