Tuesday, April 26, 2016


Today is the 30th anniversary of Chernobyl, the worst nuclear plant disaster in history.  I was stationed in Leningrad at the time, while my future wife, Tanya, was living in Kiev. The disaster had profound effects on both of us, though in different ways.  Here is an excerpt on Chernobyl from my draft chapter on Leningrad 1985-1987.

During my first year in Leningrad, the official visits came thick and fast, and the Consulate’s resources were often stretched to the limit.  I began to wonder whether they would ever end.  I got my answer in April of 1986, the day after Chernobyl blew up.  It had been a deceptively quiet weekend.  Our Consul General, Charlie Magee, was on leave and I was in charge, but nothing much was going on, and I was looking forward to a slow few days.  The weekend had passed by pleasantly, until noon on Sunday, April 27, when I got a disquieting call from my opposite number at the Swedish Consulate.  “Jim,” he said, “have you heard about any kind of radiation accident in Russia?”  It seemed that on Sunday morning radiation alarms had gone off at Swedish nuclear power facilities.  A quick check revealed that there had been no nuclear accident in Sweden, and immediately suspicion began to focus on the Soviet Union

I hurried to the Consulate and called a quick meeting with Ned Alford, our Administrative Officer, and a couple of communicators who were in the office that afternoon.  We dragged out the Department of Energy Atlas of the Soviet Union and located all the nearby nuclear plants.  The closest was the Leningrad AES, a large nuclear facility at Sosnoviy Bor, a militarily-closed area.  The bad news was that Leningrad was downwind of the plant.  The good news was, if there had been a serious nuclear accident there, we would have probably already found out about it.  There was another small facility at nearby Gatchina, but as it was an experimental reactor we doubted that it could cause the kind of radiation leak that had been detected in Sweden.  We cast further afield, and found another large nuclear facility at Ignalina, in Lithuania

I called back to the Swedes and said we hadn’t heard anything, but if there had been a nuclear accident, the most likely candidate would be Ignalina.  I then called Dick Combs, who was DCM in Moscow, and asked him what was going on.  Dick said he had heard nothing about a possible nuclear accident, but we both agreed to call the Operations Center in the Department and alert them to the problem.  In the meantime, I started talking to contacts.  All had picked up rumors, but no one knew anything for sure. 

Shortly thereafter, I got a NIACT from the Operations Center asking me to check on the status of the Leningrad Nuclear Power station.  This was easier said than done, since in those days asking about nuclear reactors was frowned on, to put it mildly.  I couldn’t drive out there, since the area was closed for military reasons, so I did the next best thing and started calling around.  Calls to the Leningrad City and Party authorities got the cold shoulder, so I decided to call the Leningrad AES directly.  I got a friendly Oblast operator on the line, who, after a little cajoling, dialed around, and eventually got the duty shift supervisor at the plant.  He calmly came on the phone and said, “No, everything is fine.  We just shut down reactor number three, but that was for normal maintenance.”  He sounded so sincere, I believed him, and fired off a NIACT to the Department reporting that all seemed OK at the Leningrad facility.  So the location of the nuclear accident was still a big mystery.

This was where matters rested until the following Monday, when a short announcement was made on the 9pm Vremya news program, acknowledging that there had been an accident at Chernobyl.  I immediately rechecked the DoE map.  Chernobyl was over a thousand miles south of Sweden, so far away that I had not even considered it as a possibility.  Now it was clear that the accident must have been enormous.  In point of fact, the accident, which occurred at 1:23 am on Saturday, April 26, 1986, had released many times more radiation than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs put together.  Cesium-137, Iodine-131 and Strontium-90 had irradiated thousands of square miles around the reactor.  Even areas as far away as Scandinavia were experiencing pockets of radioactivity 100 times background, and I later learned that the Gatchina reactor near Leningrad had registered radiation levels at 37 times background in the days following the accident.

Tourists were beginning to panic.  There were about 800 Americans in our Consular District, and our Consular Section began making arrangements to evacuate them all on charter flights.  Trains were arriving from Ukraine and Belarus full of children who had been evacuated from the irradiated areas.  Word went out to the local markets not to accept any produce “from the South.”  Rumors were flying, but Leningrad’s population seemed to be taking the situation calmly.

The EPA sent out teams to evaluate the situation in Leningrad and Moscow, arriving only a few days after the accident.  In our case, they passed out Iodine tablets (too late for the current accident, but useful in case the Leningrad AES ever blew up).  They also provided us with Geiger counters, MicroRem meters and personal dosimeters.  Over the next few weeks, I would regularly stick one of the micrometers out the window, seeing what it would register.  Generally, the levels were high (about ten times normal background radiation), but not dangerous (about 2000 times background was necessary to pose an immediate health threat).  The Department began shipping in supplies so we didn’t have to rely on local markets, and I found myself eating out of cans for the next couple of months.  Still, the situation was under control, and things gradually settled down to normal in Leningrad.  The city had been spared the worst, and in the end, we had even decided against drawing down our own personnel.

For us, the crisis had passed.  The same could not be said, of course, for the citizens of Belarus and Ukraine.  My future wife Tanya, who was just a young child at the time, was living in Teremki, one of Kiev’s suburbs, when Chernobyl exploded.  Her mother had just obtained an apartment and was afraid that she would lose it if she and the children were evacuated, so they all stayed.  The authorities told the local citizenry nothing, and there was tremendous ignorance about the radiation threat.  Many citizens of Kiev marched as usual in the May Day parade, increasing their exposure.  Nonetheless, there were rumors running through Kiev as early as the morning after the accident, and Tanya remembers that the streets were uncharacteristically deserted the weekend Chernobyl blew up, although she didn’t know why.  She also remembers other parents remonstrating with her mother, asking why her children hadn’t been evacuated to Crimea.  Tanya and her twin brother Timur were particularly vulnerable as children.  Tanya recalls that for months, she had severe nosebleeds.  Her thyroid gland would swell and she would suffer bouts of nausea and weakness, sometimes passing out.  She and Timur did not sleep well for years, and were afflicted by migraine headaches.  Tanya’s mother would go to the river Dnepr to draw water for the children, since it was common wisdom that radiation was only transmitted through the air and not the water (it was also common wisdom that vodka would ward off radiation effects, the more the better).  Tanya says that nearly everyone who stayed in Kiev during this time suffered similar symptoms, with children faring the worst.  The authorities were of little or no help. People never quite trusted the local Communist authorities again, and I can't say that I blame them.

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