Chernobyl hero remembers the men who saved Europe
By Jeremy Page
20 years on, the first firefighter at the scene says the human cost is being whitewashed
IT WAS 1.40am when Viktor Birkun woke to the sound of his doorbell ringing.
He knew that something serious had happened as soon as he opened the door and saw one of his colleagues from the fire station. But it was only as they drove out of his home town of Pripyat, Ukraine, that he realised the scale of what is still considered the worst man-made disaster in history.
Fourteen minutes earlier, at 1.26am on April 26, 1986 — 20 years to the day on Wednesday — Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear plant had exploded, releasing 100 times the radiation of the atomic bomb that had exploded over Hiroshima.
“There was only the light from the fire — black and red flames and lumps of molten material everywhere,” Mr Birkun said.
“The reactor’s roof had blown off, throwing asphalt, concrete and graphite upwards and outwards. Where the graphite landed it turned everything to lava.”
As the plant managers and technicians fled or frantically tried to contact Moscow, the firefighters rushed straight into the inferno. With only a cotton uniform to protect him, Mr Birkun drove his fire truck over the reactor’s metal roof, now lying on the ground, and up to 15m (50ft) from Reactor 4.
Using his bare hands he lowered the engine’s siphon into the nearest cooling pool to suck up water for his colleagues as they battled 300 fires around the complex. Within seconds he began to feel the effects of the gamma rays that were bombarding his internal organs.
He started vomiting about every 30 seconds. He grew dizzy and weak. After two hours he could not stand.
Doctors later gave him a certificate indicating that he had received 260 ber (biological equivalents of roentgen), equivalent to 1,000 years of background radiation.
But experts estimate that the radiation that he absorbed was even higher, and enough to cause acute radiation sickness (ARS).
“I’m amazed he survived,” Michael Repacholi, the top radiation expert at the World Health Organisation, said.
“It was a hugely heroic effort, and I suspect anyone who understood how much radiation was there would never have gone in.”
Twenty years on Mr Birkun knows he is lucky to be alive and living in Moscow with his wife, Nadezhda, and his daughters, Lyudmila and Valentina.
Of the 134 “liquidators” with a diagnosis of ARS, 28 died in 1986, including at least six firefighters. Mr Birkun, now 56, is proud of the sacrifice that his team made to reduce the cloud of smoke that spread radioactive particles across Europe and even as far as Japan.
“These were the people who saved Europe,” he said, fingering a black-and-white photograph of his former colleagues. “If they had not done what they did, the fire would have spread to Reactors 1, 2 and 3.”
But he and many others among the 600,000 liquidators who cleaned up Chernobyl are infuriated by what they see as official attempts to whitewash the human cost of the disaster.
Last year the United Nations issued a report saying that the number of deaths caused by Chernobyl was fewer than 50 — far lower than previous estimates. The report by the UN’s Chernobyl Forum said that the eventual number of radiation-related deaths among the 600,000 liquidators would be about 4,000.
In the West the report has restarted a bitter debate over the dangers of the nuclear industry. Greenpeace, the environmental group, accused the UN this week of whitewashing the disaster.
It issued its own report, based on statistics from Belarus, predicting that the number of terminal cancer cases caused directly by Chernobyl would be 93,000.
And it extrapolated from demographic statistics that 200,000 people had already died of radiation-related illnesses in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Nuclear power is now far less controversial in those countries; Russia is planning to build 40 reactors by 2030.
But the UN report has stimulated debate about how the governments of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus are compensating the victims of Chernobyl.
Liquidators say they were promised cash rewards, free medical care, new flats and other perks when they finished clearing up the site and encasing the smouldering reactor core in a concrete “sarcophagus”. But many say that they lost benefits after the Soviet Union’s disintegration.
Others, like Mr Birkun, were granted some compensation but lost out last year when the Russian Government replaced free medical care and other benefits with cash payments.
President Vladimir Putin has paid tribute to the liquidators. This month he awarded medals to 18 of them. Russian officials, however, argue that the health problems caused by Chernobyl have been exaggerated.
Igor Lingue, director of Russia’s Institute of Nuclear Problems, said: “Compared with the radiation caused by Chernobyl, the other factors triggered by the accident such as psychological stress, the disruption of their lives and financial losses proved to be greater problems for the population.”
Leonid Ostapenko, a radiologist who heads the Centre of Medical Rehabilitation of Chernobyl Invalids, said that it was impossible to tell if Chernobyl veterans’ illnesses stemmed from the accident. “It’s possible only to count people who died of ARS. There are many others who had a small dose of radiation, and their problems are like ordinary illnesses. How do you tell if someone died from natural illness or radiation?”
Mr Birkun is a case in point. He was rescued by colleagues, taken to a clinic in Pripyat and flown to Clinical Hospital No 6 in Moscow. He was released after five months but has checks there twice a year. He has diabetes, cataracts, heart problems, nervous disorders and dozens of other ailments.
Now retired, he is entitled to a pension and other state benefits totalling 5,500 roubles (£110) a month. He is claiming an extra 10,000 roubles a month in compensation from his former employer, the Interior Ministry. But the ministry is disputing his claim.
For Mr Birkun, the consequences of Chernobyl are far from over. “Back then nobody was thinking about rewards,” he said. “All I could think about was that my daughters were at home and the town asleep.”
DISASTER BY NUMBERS
300,000 people were evacuated from the surrounding area.
An initial containment effort used helicopters to drop bags of sand, boron and lead on to the reactor. These were then covered in a concrete sarcophagus.
20 days after the accident the temperature of the core was 270C (518F).
Some Welsh sheep farms still have their meat subjected to radiation inspections, because of the fallout.
Number of years for which the reactor core will remain dangerous.