Seeking closure after Chernobyl

[Read the story as published in Russian in Reklama, as a collaboration with Immigrant Connect]

The after effects of Chernobyl are still felt by Jacob Zakon, who immigrated to the United States from Kiev in 1989.  He does not hesitate to make the connection between his health problems and his exposure to nuclear radiation 25 years ago when he worked as an emergency liquidator after the Chernobyl explosion on April 26, 1986.

Zakon was among the initial teams of 350,000 liquidators, comprised of construction workers, firefighters, soldiers and volunteers, brought in from across the Soviet Union, to clean up debris from the explosion. The number of estimated liquidators has grown to 700,000, including those who still work to contain the nuclear waste in the 19-mile “exclusion zone” around Chernobyl.

Mr. Zakon at the time he was employed as a Chernobyl liquidator

Rumors of an explosion

Shortly after the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl, Zakon speaks for one of the first times about his memories of working at the reactor site.  We’re inside an office building off of Devan Street on Mother’s Day, rays of sunshine peek through the window’s plastic blinds, brightening up a room lit by fluorescents.

Throughout the interview, Zakon repeats the same phrase, sometimes in Russian, sometimes in English, “they didn’t tell us anything,” always slowly shaking his head.

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This story is part of a unique collaboration with nine Chicago area ethnic news media exploring some of the health care options and risks for immigrants who live here. The stories were released in June 2011 by Extra (Hispanic), Reflejos (Hispanic),  Pinoy Newsmagazine (Filipino), Al Moustaqbal – Future newspaper (Arab), India Tribune, Korea Daily News, Draugas – The Lituanian World-wide Daily, Reklama (Russian) and the Urdu Times (Pakistani). Click here to access the other stories: Tobacco repackaged: Paan Parag and hookah and their unappreciated risks, Seeking closure after Chernobyl, Medical tourism lures Korean immigrants home, Lithuanian patients have a hard time letting go of the past, The silence of diabetes threatening the health of the African community, Promoting healthy eating from the ground up in Little Village’s Hispanic community, Community programs needed to fight obesity among Latinos, Filipino elders find “family” in caretakers, A look into the complexities of refugee and immigrant health care coverage, and Is the South Asian vegetarian diet bad for the immigrant heart?

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Irena Weiss, who was also from Kiev, was only twelve at the time of the explosion.  From her home near the North Loop, she too remembers the silence and ineffective response of the Soviet government.

Weiss and her family first found out about the explosion from her grandparents who had immigrated to the United States in the 1970s.  A few days after the explosion, “they called us and were like, is everything okay?!”  She recalls her parents’ shock and concern upon hearing news of the Chernobyl explosion for the first time.

“We went to school and work, 27th, 28th, 29th, 30th…” Weiss says as she counts the days on her fingers.  “There were some rumblings about some fire at a factory, but no one told us anything,” even though they were in Kiev, a scant 2 hours away from Chernobyl.

Weiss’ mother remembers seeing officials and their children leaving, but never thought to make the connection between their exit and a massive nuclear explosion.  The officials were likely professors at Kiev University, made aware of the explosion by their colleagues, many of whom worked as physicists at the Chernobyl plant, the general public still unaware.

In fact, Moscow only made a brief announcement on April 28, two days after the explosion, after Swedish authorities reported unusually high levels of radioactive material in the air.  While the village of Priypat where all of the former Chernobyl plant workers lived, was evacuated a day after the explosion, it was nearly a week before the majority of Soviet citizens knew widely of the accident.

Five days after the explosion, May Day celebrations proceeded in Kiev as planned with massive outdoor parades and picnics.  Both Weiss and Zakon remember an exceptionally beautiful day with the perfect amount of cloud cover to tempt families out of doors in the summer weather.  Looking back, they both contend that the clouds were rife with radioactive material.

Slightly over a week after the explosion, back to school and work as normal, Weiss remembers an official government announcement on television.

“They still didn’t tell us much, just that there was an explosion at a nuclear plant and to take precautions.”  But the precautions were impractical at best, “stuff like ‘don’t spend a lot of time outside, wash your floors, wash your hair more often,’” she recalls.  We still didn’t realize how massive it was.”

Residents and radiation disperse

About a week later, in mid-May, both Zakon and Weiss left Kiev.  As a liquidator in his forties, Zakon moved closer to Chernobyl.  As a teenager, Weiss was sent away to summer camp, in Kharkov, about a 10-hour train ride from Kiev, removed from the worst of the radiation.

During his interview, Zakon’s frustration is palpable as he emphasizes that he had little choice in working at the destroyed reactor site.  His options were unemployment or Chernobyl.

In 1979, seven years before the explosion, he and his family had tried to emigrate from the Soviet Union.  However, they were denied the right to exit, and were labeled “refusniki,” traitors to the Soviet government that made finding employment difficult at best.  After several turbulent years, Zakon thought himself lucky to get a construction job in Kiev, until he and his co-workers were told that they were going to work at Chernobyl over a 6-month period.

“They told us ‘we have to help the country,’ and ‘the country is our mother,’” remembers Zakon.  Had he refused to go to Chernobyl, he would have been labeled a state traitor again, and left jobless again.

Zakon, however, found no glory in his work, rather he considers it “stupid.”  Stupid because he and his fellow workers were repeatedly exposed, in plain clothes, to areas he remembers that made “radiation detectors ring constantly” from the high concentration of radioactive particles.  The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates that initially, Zakon among them, each received approximately 100 millisieverts (mSv) of radiation—one millisievert is equal to approximately 10 general chest x-rays.

Bound to a tainted city

In an effort to protect children’s more vulnerable immune systems, the Soviet government had organized evacuations for nearly all primary and secondary school students to leave the area for the summer.  Nearly one generation of Kiev residents was sent to various locations throughout the Soviet Union.  Weiss remembers missing her mother that summer; it was the longest she had ever been away from home.

But through the eyes of the teenage Irena, everything seemed to return to normal in September when the students trickled back into Kiev, though outdoor activity was more difficult than it had been before the explosion.

“I remember being tired.  People would start coughing when they went running outside, and then they decided that maybe we shouldn’t be exercising outside,” remembers Weiss.  “It was pretty scary, but then life settled in.”

Unsurprisingly after his summer moving between the exclusion zone and Kiev, Zakon fell ill.  For his recovery period, he went to a health spa near Kiev, paid for by the Soviet government.  However, despite a different surrounding he was not able to escape the reality of Chernobyl.

Zakon vividly remembers meeting a nurse on a bench at the spa in mid-fall nearly half a year after the explosion

I asked her why she was crying, he recounts, and all I remember her saying was “go away from Kiev immediately.”  She had been working at the hospitals between Chernobyl and Kiev, he explains, and was frustrated to tears by the hopelessness of the situation.

However, Zakon was not able to take her advice.  He was bound to the area by a lack of alternatives and a sense of loyalty to his friends and family.

Zakon’s eyes moisten as he recalls co-workers who lost their eyesight, or whose bodies were ravaged by cancer.  His own mother died in winter, only six months after the Chernobyl explosion.  On paper the cause was heart failure, though the doctors disclosed in whispers that it was a fast spreading strain of leukemia.

“When my mother died, I asked the doctor why,” Zakon remembers.  Cancer was not something they could announce, but they knew it was true.  “Many people died from radiation in Kiev—everything had radiation.”

A new life in Chicago

Twenty-five years later, both Zakon and Weiss, who have never met before, are glad to have found a new home in Chicago.

In 1989, Weiss moved to the United States with her brother; her parents had arrived several months before to set up their new home.  Her mother’s thyroid was removed shortly thereafter.  She is now dependent on medication for the rest of her life to regulate her thyroid levels.

While this health care would have been possible in both the former Soviet Union and present-day Ukraine, the family is now removed from contaminated areas, and is at a significantly lower risk of contracting other forms of radiation-related illnesses.  The IAEA estimates over 4,000 cancer-related deaths were caused by direct exposure to the Chernobyl region, and an additional 5,000 deaths in surrounding populations, though a Greenpeace report disputes these lower numbers and estimates cancer deaths at nearly 93,000 in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia alone.

Several months pregnant at the time of the interview, Weiss considers herself lucky to have the opportunity to live in a place where it is not a struggle to thrive.  Though she and her mother went back to Ukraine several years ago, she found it odd.  She is married to an American and considers herself an American as well.

While Zakon also considers himself, at least in part, an American, he still seeks acknowledgment from the Ukrainian government for the toll that Chernobyl took.  The Soviet government’s seemingly blatant neglect of its citizens’ well-being is a specter that still seems to haunt Zakon.  He wants some sort of apology from Ukraine for the sacrifices he made.  Instead, he is denied even his liquidator’s pension on a technicality.

As Zakon explains it, the post-Soviet state of Ukraine agreed to pay liquidators a small stipend, some 1,700-1,200 hryvna ($215-$150 USD), for their service to the Ukrainian people, but only if the liquidators hold Ukrainian citizenship.  Since Zakon left in 1989, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, he does not meet the qualifications necessary to get the pension.  The disintegration of the Soviet Union seemed to disperse, rather than address, the issue of culpability

Zakon, however, has made the trip back several times, and stays in touch with many friends in Ukraine.  They never talk about the explosion, however, and Zakon declines to talk about either his own health or theirs.

“They work there…monitoring the situation,” he says of his friends who still live in proximity to Chernobyl, keeping track of the radiation levels for the United Nations.  “I saw a lot of people there, but it is not real life.”

Never forgotten

Zakon’s handful of friends that live in the area are not alone.  The Ukrainian National Museum’s exhibit, “Chernobyl +25” attests to that.  Faces of present-day Chernobyl residents line one wall of the museum’s exhibit hall.  The most striking feature about this wall of photographs is how normal life looks.  It is easy to overlook the fact that these individuals are living in a radiation exclusion zone.

“Twenty-five years after, we start to forget,” Maria Klimchak, the museum’s curator says, fearful that Chernobyl will fade into memory, an accident of a now-extinct country.

With the Soviet Union long since dissolved, blame has been dispersed, and dealing with the nuclear reactor properly has been stymied by state corruption.

“Ukraine asked for money from different countries; they collected enough to build a sarcophagus, but that happened 10 years ago and 15 years ago.”  Klimchak wonders where the money went.

Around the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development pledged to give Ukraine $195.4 million to aid in the construction of a new sarcophagus.  The current plan calls for a 360 ft-high arched cover over the reactor site, which will cost a total of 2.27 billion dollars.

While Klimchak is hopeful that the site will be stabilized, she also has doubts after watching the process for the past quarter of a century.

“Today there is one president, tomorrow another but people still live, they have to respect each other and help each other,” Klimchak says.  “We have to be protected; it is not only Ukraine” that has faced and will continue to be confronted with, the effects of nuclear waste.

She points to the myriad of other nuclear disasters that occurred before and after this Ukrainian reactor exploded, ending on Fukushima.  Japan’s nuclear explosion occurred  nearly 25 years after Chernobyl on March 11, 2011, an eerie reminder of the dangers of nuclear power.  Fukushima is the only other explosion site to be rated as a “Level 7” nuclear disaster.

Klimchak is sure to qualify her comparison of the Soviet and Japanese governments’ respective reactions to Chernobyl and Fukushima, acknowledging the obvious differences in technology between 1986 and 2011.

She says that there have been many Japanese families visiting the exhibit as well, looking for answers about what might happen in their country.  But to Klimchak, it seems that Japan is far ahead from the Soviet Union.

“From the first hour, we knew what was happening, step-by-step, hour-by-hour,” she states.  The Japanese government responded and took responsibility for the explosion, a sea change from the Soviet government.

In response to the recent nuclear explosion at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, both Weiss and Zakon are confident that the Japanese government will continue respond far more effectively than the Soviets did some 25 years earlier.

If one good thing could come out of the explosion, says Zakon, it’s that “Chernobyl helped to prevent a new Chernobyl.”

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