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Chernobyl's Cleanup Crew Pay a Steep Price, 25 Years On

A sign on the perimeter of the 30-kilometer evacuation zone around the Chernobyl nuclear plant reads
A sign on the perimeter of the 30-kilometer evacuation zone around the Chernobyl nuclear plant reads "Stop! Radioactive Zone." (VOA - Taras Burnos)
Taras BurnosErika Iskakova

The nuclear accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan has focused attention on a small and often heroic group of people: those who risk their lives by going inside the facility to contain the damage.

Perhaps no one knows this better than those involved in the 1986 cleanup effort at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine, scene of what is still considered the world’s worst nuclear accident. Taras Burnos and Erika Iskakova of VOA’s Russian Service spoke with several of these workers.

On April 26, 1986 a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl plant caught fire and exploded, sending radioactive debris high into the sky. Aleksey Breus was an engineer at Chernobyl at the time of the explosion. He worked four straight days inside the plant after the explosion. He wore protective equipment, but still received a large dose of radiation.

According to Breus, all “lucheviki” – the Russian word surviving cleanup workers use for describing one another – have been left with one thing in common: illness and a lack of money to pay for medications.  He says virtually all of them live in poverty.

Another Chernobyl worker, Aleksander Kramer, says he was one of the first to go into the plant after the explosion.  Kramer, who now lives in Germany, remains angry at how he was treated by authorities in what was then the Soviet Union.  From the very beginning, he says, the authorities doubted those claiming they were part of the clean-up effort.

And the suspicions have lingered. In 1993, Kramer says former rescue workers had to prove to Ukranian authorities “that their documents were not a sham and that their health problems were real.”

Not all of those who took part in the cleanup effort are bitter. Anatoly Gritsak considers himself a happy man. But his life is undeniably difficult. He worked at the plant 12 years and over time contracted several radiation-related diseases, including one that led to the amputation of his legs.  

“My biggest issue today,” he says, “is to get new teeth. Because I don’t have legs I can’t get to a doctor on my own and there is no one to help.”  

But he is still alive. So many other lucheviki have died; most of them, he believes, for reasons related to Chernobyl.

The anniversary of the Chernobyl accident is an especially hard time for him. That is when the lucheviki call one another and reminisce about the day that changed their lives. With each passing year, Gritsak says, he gets fewer and fewer phone calls.

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