Anton’s Story—Intro: A New Disaster at Chernobyl
Written by Val Stutz, edited by: Clary Estes
Chernobyl—a name synonymous with Ukrainian history.
The 1986 nuclear disaster was a tragedy that shocked the world, and its impact on the surrounding regions and communities is still felt today. The nuclear meltdown that happened at the No. 4 reactor was one of only two nuclear disasters rated at seven—the maximum severity—on the International Nuclear Event Scale, next to the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011. Local settlements in the vicinity of the power plant had to be evacuated, most notably the town of Pripyat, and many Ukrainians and other Soviet citizens suffered from illnesses caused by radiation poisoning as a result. The environmental consequences in the surrounding areas were severe and left large swathes of land virtually uninhabitable for humans.
“To date, epidemiological studies [in the region of the Chernobyl disaster—as far as even Belarus] reported increased long-term risks of leukemia, cardiovascular diseases, and cataracts among cleanup workers and of thyroid cancer and non-malignant diseases in those exposed as children and adolescents.” The cleanup effort following the disaster lasted from 1986 to 1989. During this time, the Soviet government mobilized hundreds of thousands of “liquidators'' to reduce the environmental consequences of the explosion, and prevent any further disasters from occurring as a result.
Chernobyl is once again making international headlines in the wake of Russia’s sudden and violent invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, 2022. On the morning of the invasion, Russian troops attacked Ukraine on multiple fronts. They entered the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone through Belarus, and seized the nuclear power plant and the surrounding area by the end of the day.
Many people are under the impression that Chernobyl and its surrounding area are an abandoned wasteland, frozen in time, but this is not the case. Even though the communities around Chernobyl had been abandoned, human activity is still common within the exclusion zone. Maintenance personnel, Ukrainian national guard soldiers, researchers, firefighters, and tourists make up the vast majority of people in and around the infamous power plant—there is even a small community of babushkas that refused to leave and who the government has allowed to stay. Since the decommissioning process at Chernobyl began in 2000, the power plant has required constant maintenance and a crew of workers to ensure that the decommissioning of the retired reactors is carried out—a process that is expected to take several decades. The image of Chernobyl as a forgotten ruin is a false one, and thousands of skilled workers make a living there.
At the start of Russia’s invasion on February 24th, there were approximately three hundred people within the exclusion zone, including nuclear staff, medical personnel, national guard soldiers, firefighters, and a few tourists. Thanks to our citizen journalist and correspondent Eugene, we had the opportunity to meet Anton, a staff member at Chernobyl who worked in nuclear waste management. Anton was working the night shift before the invasion started, and was among the power plant staff that were held hostage by occupying Russian forces. The story of Chernobyl did not end in 1986, rather it has continued to develop over the decades since that fateful explosion of reactor No. 4.
In 2022, Chernobyl still resonates with the world as it was one of the first territories captured by the Russian army, and Russian shelling around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant as well as the largest one in Europe, poses a threat of a new nuclear disaster that the world has not seen since Chernobyl. The heroism of Ukraine’s defenders, as well as the maintenance staff and engineers at these nuclear power plants are integral to the continuous story of Chernobyl and its legacy.
This is Anton’s story. Throughout this series, Anton talks about his work in nuclear waste disposal at the site, and how it led to him getting wrapped up in the Russian occupation of Chernobyl in the early days of the invasion.