Chernobyl and Eastern Europe: Interview with a Chernobyl Liquidator: Sergei B - Part I  

Chernobyl Liquidators on Roof Reactor 3 An accident on April 26, 1986 destroyed Reactor 4 at the V.I. Lenin Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in northern Ukraine. The disaster released huge amounts of radiation into the atmosphere and forced the evacuation of over 100,000 people.

During the summer of 1986, Sergei B. was a 30 year-old army reservist who volunteered to go to Chernobyl in late July as a participant in cleanup operations. Sergei worked as a liquidator at the Chernobyl Plant through early September, visiting the facility 23 times. He worked on "special projects" at the plant and made six trips to the roof of Reactor 3, where liquidators worked quickly to remove highly-contaminated rubble from the accident.

Sergei wrote a novel, "Likvidator," about his Chernobyl experiences. The story was originally published in Russian on the Russian literature site Samizdat (self-publishing). One day, Sergei hopes to translate his novel into English and publish it in the United States.

Sergei now lives in the US and I had the good fortune of coming into contact with him In early 2008. He was happy to spend time answering questions about his experiences and thoughts about issues related to the accident, the Soviet Union and his life.

Recently, Sergei graciously consented to my publishing our interview on this site. To protect Sergei's privacy, I have decided not to publish his full name and have eliminated any references to his current residence, other than to say that he lives somewhere in the United States.

Without further ado, I am proud to present my two-part interview with former Chernobyl liquidator, Sergei B:

1. Where were you living/stationed at the time of the accident?

My brigade was headquartered nearby the village named Oranoe.

2. Why did you volunteer to go to Chernobyl?

I felt that I possessed the necessary knowledge and skills to do the work required - I had my secondary (military) education as an officer-chemist. At that time, in 1986, Ph.D. scientists had "carte blanche" - they had a power to decline the draft call (army reserve); around may-june of 1986 there was a massive call-on for mid-rank officer staff because of the high personnel rotation in early "liquidation" campaign, and Ph.D. scientists were sort of "untouchables". But I volunteered anyway.

3. How old were you when you volunteered?

I was 30 years old.

4. What were you doing at the time (job)?

I was a Lecturer/Scientist at the Institute of Chemical Technology, Dnepropetrovsk.

5. When you volunteered, did you have any idea how serious the situation was, and that you would be risking your life? If not, when did you realize the situation was really bad?

As probably all of us, liquidators, I did not have a clue what was going on in until I've got there. Even after first couple of weeks it was hard to get a real picture, a grasp on the scale of operations and money tossed in the fix-up efforts. Only sometime early August I realized that this is far beyond one country problem - it is global... However, it wasn't a feeling of the doomsday, it was an appreciation of what we are going to do, an understanding that it has to be done no matter what. Tremendous boost of the confidence. That helped to curtail the "I do risk my life here" precautionary sense.

6. You were in the Zone for just over one month - was the short time frame due to your accumulated radiation exposure, or was it planned to be that length when you first arrived?

Yes, it was because I had accumulated the sacred number - 25 Roentgens. In reality my dose was at least trice higher (according to my estimates) - during my time in the Zone, we did not have individual dosimeters whatsoever, the dose was calculated based on the "average" working irradiation measurements, 6-8 check-points on the perimeter/mid-section of the operational field, surface, etc. Based on the "level", the squad leader such as myself determined the average time of work, considering daily dose of 2.5 Roentgens (not higher) per person.

7. What was your accumulated exposure?

(see q. 6)

8. By any chance, do you recall the highest radiation level you encountered? If so, do you recall the measurement and where was it (location)?

The roof of 3rd reactor building tops everything (figuratively) - levels of 1,500 R and higher were in a couple of spots on level "G", as far as I remember. However, on some Station grounds ("Object Pikalov", as they called contaminated soil scraped to the corner of the 3rd reactor), I once witnessed 1,200 R measurement...

9. Do you recall the lowest radiation level you encountered? If so, what was the measurement and where was it (location)?

Pretty much all the Station grounds around main building - including backyard behind it - were around 100 to 500 milliRoentgen at my times. The space was kept wet all the times, so it was an unbelievable swamp-like dirt layer in front of the main building, where Lenin's stela [statue] is.

10. I have read that the Soviet government kept liquidators in the Zone beyond what was considered safe limitations of radiation exposure. Do you feel that happened in your case, and if so, why?

Yes, it happened in my case and in many other cases - countless, actually... - for several reasons. One was that there was not enough of individual dosimeters available during spring-summer of 1986 for everybody; only "civics", engineers and scientists, had them. We. "military", army reservists, did not. Shortage was a common word. Another reason was that it was not enough subs/rotation available, particularly of mid-rank officers, so doses accumulated by many of us during July-August-September of 1986 were artificially lowered in the paperwork.

On the other hand, the margins of "safe limitations" are still unknown. But this is totally different subject.

11. During your time in the Zone, you made 6 trips to the roof of Reactor 3. What did you do while on the roof? How long were you on the roof each time (estimate in minutes)?

Time on the roof varied from as short as 45 sec. to as long as 3 min depending on the current radiation level and place you have to work on. Sometimes, especially after helicopter's treatment (they have used special solutions to suppress the radiation/dust by dumping tons and tons of de-activating solution very early in the morning, before we start working there), levels were not as high, so you we were able to work a bit longer. We chopped asphalt which contained pieces of highly radioactive solids sunk into molten asphalt on the explosion day (the asphalt solidified over them after the initial fire was put down...) and tossed them down on the ground, over the roof edge. Last couple of raids I primarily guided my squad/troops, simply because my cumulative dose was already too high and I was not "allowed" to accumulate more than 1.5 Roentgen per trip... which was a travesty anyway.

12. Can you describe the protective clothing you wore on the roof of Reactor 3? Was it easy to move around in it?

We had parts of General Military Protective Kit (boots, gloves, head gear...), a heavy industrial respirator, and a unique "protective piece" of two thin (about 1/8 - 1/4 in.) rectangular led plates, about 1.5 by 2.0 ft, covering front and back. They were tied together.

13. What type of work did you do during your other trips to the Chernobyl station?

I had to lead and to be responsible for a safe and efficient operation of troop squad ranging from 10 to 25 soldiers (army reservists). The rotation of the troops was unbelievable: there was not a single day - and I had 15 trips/days in the row during one stretch in August... - when I had more than 2-3 guys from the previous day with me. I barely remembered their names, forget faces - just because most of the time we were wearing masks/respirators, so it was really hard to recognize a person.

To answer shortly, I was involved in all major clean-up operations ranging from the roof of 3rd reactor (highest radiation levels) to corridors of 1+2 reactor building clean-up (lowest, probably, at the time). We also had a task to build a barb-wire fence around the whole station at some point, just to increase a security level. Different story.

14. What was your pay as a liquidator? Were you paid extra due to the dangerous work environment? Yes, I was paid after I've got back, but strangely enough, it was a pay-off by my Institute, not by the government. Ukrainian Government picked up the tab of my pension - which wasn't that big after initial hefty paycheck after the USSR had collapsed (initial payment was about 5 times my monthly salary for those 3+ months I was in Chernobyl... this was specific extra pay for "dangerous environment work")... it was always a very pitiful feeling to go and get my pension. After first year people quickly forgot about who we are and what we did for them... became intolerant of our (liquidator's) benefits. I have heard a lot of angry mumbling behind my back when I used a certificate - which I did quite seldom anyway...

Interview - Part II

Photo: © Igor Kostin/NOVOSTI - Liquidators on the roof of Reactor 3