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 work of 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.
Nikolai Vsisovich shows a picture of the protective face mask he wore during the working at the Chernobyl plant after the accident. (Vladimir Borodin/The epoch Times) 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.
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
In the first days of the cleanup, many staff members experienced a strange condition that kept them awake. “We had such euphoria that did not allow us to sleep—that excited us very much.”
However, he said then he learned that his body temperature had dropped to 35 degrees. “I felt like a boiled crayfish,” he recalled, adding that when he came home for a vacation after a month of work, he slept for about 20 days without getting out of bed.
Vsisovich, now 56, describes the litany of chronic ailments he suffers, about 20 in all. Most of his fellow workers suffered from heart problems and cancer—some suddenly died years after the disaster.
“I am the only one from my team of 18 people who is still alive,” he says.
Vsisovich thinks workers at the Fukushima plant will also likely suffer health problems. “There are no doubts,” he said.
The Chernobyl disaster and the crisis in Japan have changed his views on the safety of using nuclear power. He thinks the costs are too high and now stands for developing other sources of energy.
Vsisovich doesn’t agree with opening the Chernobyl power plant and the ghost town of Pripyat as a tourist destination. He believes the radiation levels are still too high and that the sarcophagus under the fourth reactor is weak, fragile, and full of highly radioactive dust.
Tours to Chernobyl started in February. The website says it is safe, if you follow the guide’s instructions, and do not “make contact with objects that easily adsorb radiation.” They also advise visitors to wear closed shoes and clothes that fully cover the body.
In the 1990s Vsisovich started helping the victims of Chernobyl by organizing philanthropic events and is working on creating an international fund in case of another Chernobyl, or indeed Fukushima.