By Brigid McCarthy
As Japan struggles to contain a nuclear crisis, it's prompted memories of Chernobyl, the world's worst nuclear accident. On April 26, 1986, an explosion at one of the reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine sent radioactive clouds over the Soviet republics of Ukraine and Byelorussia, which then blew across northern and western Europe.
Unlike the situation in Japan, Chernobyl was caused by operator error and a flawed reactor design. But the scale of the disaster was magnified by Soviet secrecy and a lack of preparedness.
Oleg Zhuk was a witness to that. He was a conscript in the Soviet army back in l986. He had just two days left in his military service when he and 10 other men from his unit were sent to Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. It was April 26th, the day of the accident.
They drove from Kiev about an hour north to Chernobyl.
"We were told that a small accident has happened, that just there was some kind of fire, and that the radiation was not very high," Zhuk said.
They stopped at a Soviet military base near the nuclear power plant and picked up dosimeters to measure radiation levels nearby.
They quickly realized this wasn't a small accident.
"It wasn't true. We had special equipment and we saw that the level of radiation was very high," Zhuk said.
Then they walked over to Prypyat, a town of about 50,000 people just a mile and a half from Chernobyl.
"There a lot of people just walking around. I saw children," he said, and lots of young couples pushing baby strollers.
"It was Saturday and the weather was very good, and people were just calmly going around. They saw this smoke and were standing nearby and watching it. Nobody warned them that it's dangerous for them to stand there," Zhuk said.
In fact, Soviet authorities said nothing for days. They tried to keep the accident a secret. They only began evacuating people 36 hours after the explosion. And they didn't tell them why.
But here's what happened: Shortly after midnight on April 26th, operators at the power plant conducted a safety experiment. They cut the electricity to test whether the water pumps that cooled the reactor would keep working until the plant's back up generators kicked in. But when they switched the electricity back on, it caused a massive power surge. Pressure built up inside the reactor and it exploded.
"This is a real conventional explosion, but in which it essentially threw a lot of radioactive material up into the sky," said David Hoffman, who wrote about Chernobyl in his book, "The Dead Hand," which won the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction last year. "It blew the roof off of the place," Hoffman said, "but the thing is that the reactor caught fire, and it burned for 10 days."
It continued to spew radioactive particles into the atmosphere. Hoffman looked through documents in the Soviet archives to piece together what happened next.
"I found a piece of paper that was a report by a fellow named Vladimir Gubarev, saying that there was nothing but chaos and confusion," Hoffman said.
Gubarev was the science editor of Pravda, the official communist party newspaper. He arrived on the scene eight days after the accident, and was shocked by what he saw. He wrote that there were no emergency measures; no one knew what to do. "Soldiers were sent into the danger zone without any protective gear," Hoffman said. "The sluggishness of local authorities is striking. They were waiting for instructions from Moscow."
But Soviet leaders in Moscow were relying on reports from local authorities, who assured them that everything was fine; they'd put out the fire, and there was no need to evacuate the population.
But in fact, the fire was raging out of control.
At first they sent local firemen from Prypyat to the roof of the burning building to douse the flames with hoses. Most died almost immediately from acute radiation poisoning. Then they sent in helicopters, according to Oleg Zhuk. He said that most of the pilots were hurling parachutes filled with sand and boric acid into the burning reactor. They were forced to work until they fainted.
One pilot later recalled,"it was like flying on top of a frying pan."
A senior officer approached Zhuk's group and ordered them to help the pilots fill the parachutes.
"And I took my special equipment to see the level of radiation, and just about 100 meters from those helicopters and parachutes the level of radiation went up dramatically," said Zhuk. "So my officer said that his soldiers won't go there."
Oleg Zhuk was allowed to leave Chernobyl after 10 days. Over the next several years, Soviet authorities sent in 600,000 rescue workers, mostly military conscripts like Zhuk, to decontaminate the surrounding area and seal off the damaged reactor.
Today, Chernobyl is ringed by an 18-mile uninhabitable zone.
A 2006 report prepared by several U.N. agencies and the three most affected countries found that roughly 50 people had died as a direct result of Chernobyl. But the report also stated that "it's impossible to assess reliably…numbers of fatal cancers" due to the accident. And there's still huge debate over the long term health effects. David Hoffman said that one estimate is that an additional 4,000 cancers may have resulted among the 600,000 people exposed to higher levels of radiation.
That's actually much lower than health officials had predicted.
But many Ukrainians, including Oleg Zhuk, are convinced the real numbers are much higher. And there almost certainly have been other, non-cancer health impacts.
Oleg Zhuk is in his 40s now. When asked whether he's suffered any health affects from Chernobyl, he said, "I don't know. I'm ill from time to time."
But he pointed out that his commanding officer tried to protect his team at Chernobyl.
"Our officer really cared about us. Probably, he saved our health; maybe our life."