A brush with Chernobyl

The birthday of the world’s worst nuclear accident was April 26 and people remember it by a single word — Chernobyl.

Thirty-four years have passed since reactor No. 3 at Chernobyl blew in the middle of the night on that date in 1986, poisoning air nearby and far away as winds blew radiation into other countries and it fell to ground through dirty rain.

Slightly more than a year later, on a trip to the USSR for a conference where most American delegates were academics, a burly, blustery host official probably saved my life by quelling my journalistic enthusiasm.

In Kiev, I lobbied for a trip to the husk of the reactor, taking the Russians at their public international word that everything was safe again. Nyet, he told me, once, twice three times. On my fourth appeal, he gave me a firefighter.

About 10 minutes after the internal eruption began spewing flame and radiation, the Soviet Union began lying about what really happened and its consequences.

Even as officials sought to stifle news of reality, workers were being burned, infected by radiation, and dying. Outside the walls, local and regional firefighters rushed to the scene. They were the first responders.

Russia was still the Soviet Union and general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev was just introducing his policies of openness, but the rusted-out bureaucracy originally kept the truth from the world.

These decades later, a few documentaries have been filmed about the tragedy, in Russian, and in English, one of which received 19 Emmy nominations. In 2019, a remarkable book, called “Midnight in Chernobyl” by Alan Higginbotham was published.

It represents 10 years of research and draws upon private diaries, unclassified reports, interviews with those present, and unveils the pattern of the USSR lies that no doubt cost many lives.

The “official” death toll is 42, but the spread of radiation in the air, infecting so many innocents, is blamed for potentially thousands of deaths from long-term illnesses.

The adjacent community of Pripyat, where those with jobs at the power plant led the good life, was shuttered, too radioactive for habitation again. Eventually, 100,000 people were evacuated from that city and elsewhere for their safety.

Viktor Melnikov went the other way, to the fire. He was called on short notice for the emergency, rushed to the scene as one of the first 250 firefighters. An interview with Melnikov through an interpreter was my consolation prize.

Given the coverup nature of the seriousness of the situation, if I had traveled from Kiev for an up-close view of Chernobyl, I likely would have been exposed to excessive radiation. Instead, I heard what the horror was like second-hand.

Melnikov did his duty, spraying water on the fires while being immersed in radiation.

“I first became scared about 24 hours later,” he said. “Only after we got to the hospital we really started to think about it. I think my health is recovered completely, but I still get very tired.”

Melnikov, then 28, spent months in the hospital, and had been hailed as a hero for the risks he took. He didn’t feel so special, he said, when he visited with widows of other firefighters.

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