Chernobyl survivor tells of nuclear experience

It isn't lost on Victor Kiritchenko that the nuclear crisis in Japan is taking place almost 25 years to the month after a reactor at Chernobyl melted down on April 26, 1986, causing the worst nuclear power plant accident in history.

Victor Kiritchenko

Victor Kiritchenko

It isn’t lost on Victor Kiritchenko that the nuclear crisis in Japan is taking place almost 25 years to the month after a reactor at Chernobyl melted down on April 26, 1986, causing the worst nuclear power plant accident in history.

As a government-employed broadcast journalist based in Kiev, 95 kilometres from the Chernobyl nuclear plant, Kiritchenko lived with his wife and two young children. Despite their close proximity to the nuclear plant, the family and the other three million residents of the Ukrainian city continued on with their lives as normal as possible with brief evacuations their only defence.

Kiritchenko says residents weren’t advised by the communist government of the accident until May 2, a full week later, when radiation was at its highest.

“But I still have my full head of hair,” said Kiritchenko with a thick Ukrainian accent. “Whenever I tell people I was just 20 miles from the radiation zone, they expect me to be bald or sick. The truth is, I’m as healthy today as ever.”

On May 10, 1986, he turned 31 years old alone, because his family had been sent away for two months to avoid the radiation. He stayed to work.

“I remember that day well because it was my birthday,” said the Re/Max real estate agent. “It was the day the reactor was expected to really melt down, possibly destroying Kiev, but as it turned out it didn’t.”

Kiritchenko makes light of the situation now — “People ask me why I have so much energy and I tell them I’m radioactive” or “I glow in the dark and save money on energy bills” – but Chernobyl did steal away people he loved.

His brother-in-law was tasked with checking radiation levels on roadways close to the plant. He died at the age of 32 from cancer. His mother, who lives less than 100 kilometres from Chernobyl, has swollen legs and feet and can’t walk due to radiation poisoning. She was once a medical doctor.

His father, who fought in the Second World War and later worked in coal mines for 30 years, scrimped and saved to build a tiny cottage on a sandy lot with a garden on the shores of Kiev Lake. That lake is now off-limits, poisoned with radiation for thousands of years.

Seventy plant workers died in the days following the meltdown. Estimates range from 4,000 to one million people who died or became sick in the years after due to radiation.

In his opinion, Kiritchenko, who worked within Chernobyl’s 20-mile nuclear zone, says there is little reason for B.C. residents to be concerned about radiation from Japan causing harm here.

Twenty-five years after Chernobyl, Kiev still has a radiation level twice that of Tokyo, according to Ukrainian Fact newspaper. People now live and grow food well within the nuclear zone, and the area has even become a tourist attraction.

 

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The Japanese plant was heavily damaged March 11 after an 8.9-magnitude earthquake struck the country’s northeastern communities.

As a result, people in B.C. are stocking up on iodine potassium tablets out of fear of radiation arriving here. Provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall said there is no immediate health threat.

“Based on present information, we do not expect any health risk following the nuclear reactor releases in Japan, nor is the consumption of potassium iodide tablets a necessary precaution,” said Kendall, adding that the tablets can protect human thyroid glands from radiation poisoning.

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control is currently monitoring radiation levels. It is estimated that it would take almost a week for any radiation to arrive in B.C., and based on current levels it would dissipate to non-threatening levels if it did.

Kiritchenko said as a witness to Chernobyl, he felt compelled to share his story and information with people in Nanaimo to provide perspective.

“We are, what, 8,000 kilometres from Japan?” said Kiritchenko. “And the uranium is not leaking like it was at Chernobyl. This is a completely different situation and I’m not sure people understand.”

– with files from Black Press