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We spent six months in a radiation level 22 times higher than oral X-ray

The recently-aired HBO miniseries, “Chernobyl”, advised the world in graphic detail what really happened in the worst nuclear disaster the human type has ever faced; Estonian World brings you the first-hand account of an Estonian Chernobyl veteran who was pressured by the Soviet authorities into the disaster zone to help with the clean-up efforts.

“Chernobyl”, the critically-acclaimed miniseries, produced by the American Residence Box Workplace and the British Sky networks, has been seen everywhere in the world and for the first time, a dramatisation of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe has delivered to lots of of hundreds of people the truth about what occurred on 26 April 1986 in Ukraine. The show emphasises on the lying character of the Soviet Union, and asks the necessary query – what is the price of lies?

On 26 April 1986, the fourth reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, situated near the town of Pripyat in northern Ukraine, exploded during a safety check. Regardless that the radiation shortly unfold everywhere in the area, reaching Western Europe and Scandinavia, the Soviet authorities didn’t disclose what had happened and stored lying to its own residents and the world concerning the extent of the radiation, and in addition the fact that other Chernobyl-type nuclear power crops had the identical potential hazard of exploding.

Army reservists deployed with out telling them where they have been going

Estonians have been fortunate to stay close to Finland and lots of came upon about what had occurred from Finnish radio and TV news. Once the knowledge from western sources had spread across the Soviet Union, especially the affected areas, the Soviet authorities have been pressured to finally admit what had occurred.

The work unit on a break. Photograph from Väino Liimann’s personal assortment.

But the story didn’t finish there. The clean-up efforts in Pripyat and elsewhere in Ukraine and Belarus demanded the work of 800,000 individuals, and these individuals needed to come from someplace. So the Soviet authorities used army reservists, amongst others, to assist in the clean-up course of – and these reservists have been sent to Ukraine with out, a minimum of initially, telling them the place they have been being deployed.

Estonian Väino Liimann was one in every of these reservists. A senior lieutenant in the Soviet Military, 37 years previous, he was despatched to the disaster area in 1988, two years after the disaster had occurred.

“I worked at Tallinn University of Technology at the time. I was invited to the war commissariat (what the recruitment office of the Soviet Army was called at the time – editor) some eight to ten times – every time I was ordered to reappear in seven to ten days,” Liimann recollects.

“The last order to appear was for a Sunday. On Sunday, they put us on a bus and took us to Riga (the capital of Latvia – editor) where we were given uniforms and only there did we find out that we were going to Ukraine, to clean up the consequences of the disaster.”

Replacing roofs, chopping ground floor and replacing fences

The Estonian reservists have been stationed in the village of Aliaksandraŭka, Belarus, near the Ukrainian border. “The village where we worked, Poliske, was at the edge of the closed zone, with the perimeter of 80 kilometres (50 miles – editor) from the nuclear plant,” Liimann says. “Our job was to clean the Poliske village because it was inhabited. For example, on the first day, our job was to clean up a children’s playground. We also replaced roofs of buildings and cut the ground surface where the radiation was higher than normal. We also replaced fences.”

The three musketeers: the three Estonian officers helping with the clean-up efforts. Photo from Väino Liimann's private collection.

“But despite replacing all items with higher radiation than normal, the people were still evacuated two years later, because the reactor was still constantly leaking, and the radiation level of the village rose to the pre-clean-up level. So our efforts were only a temporary remedy.”

Since Liimann was an officer, he went to measure the radiation on the playground after washing it. With the DP5 dosimeter that the Soviet Military used, he measured tree leaves on the ground across the playground and sand, which had the radiation level of 30 milliroentgens and extra, however the playground after the wash was 12-15 milliroentgens.

“In Aliaksandraŭka where we stayed, the radiation level was 16-18 milliroentgens an hour. That means that the average background radiation level in an hour was 22 times as high as a dental X-ray, and we lived in that level for six months in a row,” he notes.

Liimann recollects that as an every-day impact of the excessive radiation, he was continuously drained and all free time he had, he simply slept. “Also, everybody coughed. It wasn’t that prevalent in open air, but when we went to the movies or the sauna, it was pretty awful to hear. And it was peculiar to taste copper all the time. These are the things you sense and feel in a highly radiated area; radiation doesn’t have a smell or a colour.”

The reservists working to clean up a village in Ukraine. Photo from Väino Liimann's private collection.The reservists working to wash up a village in Ukraine. Photograph from Väino Liimann’s personal assortment.

Working for pennies

“The nature was lusher because radiation helps plants grow,” he additionally remembers. “But you need to avoid eating berries, apples or mushrooms. I measured the radiation level of mushrooms; it was three times higher than normal.”

Liimann was also sometimes taken to the closed zone. “A couple of times we went to the city of Chernobyl and in some other towns as well, because the roofs, the surface and the fences we had removed were taken to nuclear repositories and burial grounds and officers had the duty to sometimes accompany the driver,” he remembers.

The soldiers participating in the clean-up efforts weren’t even paid a wage. “We got the regular army wages – a private got 3.80 roubles a month, officers some 20 roubles or so,” Liimann says.

The reservists working to remove the radiated ground surface. Photo from Väino Liimann's private collection.The reservists working to remove the radiated ground floor. Photograph from Väino Liimann’s personal assortment.

For comparison, the typical wage in the Soviet Union in 1985 (they usually didn’t change that much) was around 190 roubles; the minimal pension 50 roubles. The rouble’s parity to the US dollar from 1961-1991 was USD1=SUR0.9, regardless that it doesn’t really mean anything as a result of the price of dwelling was utterly totally different in the US and the Soviet Union. But a month-to-month public transportation ticket value three roubles in Tallinn in the 1980s, in order that places the personal’s SUR3.80 month-to-month wage into perspective.

In search of the birds

The troopers with whom Liimann served have been from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Kaliningrad oblast, a Russian region situated between the Baltic Sea, Lithuania and Poland. All the lads have been 25-40 years previous. “There were three officers from Estonia, and under my command about 60 reservists from Baltic countries, among them about 10 from Estonia,” he recollects, adding that the army trade of the reservists was either a chemist or a driver-chemist.

The unit leaders. The unit commander was a captain by rank, Senior Lieutenant Väino Liimann (in the middle) his deputy, and three group commanders. Photo from Liimann's private collection.The unit leaders. The unit commander was a captain by rank, senior lieutenant Väino Liimann (in the middle) his deputy, and three group commanders. Photograph from Liimann’s personal collection.

“How many of these men are still alive? I have no idea. I would guess about 10 per cent.”

How did spending six months in a radiation zone have an effect on the lads’s well being? “They told us that it could affect chronic diseases, but I didn’t have any back then. Now I have rheumatoid arthritis. Psychologically? Can’t say any. When we went there, I was a little afraid and looked around whether there are birds in the sky – but there were and that calmed me down a little. We were ordered to wear respirators, but we only wore these when we were dismantling something so that we wouldn’t inhale the radiated dust. The summer was hot and to wear the respirator all the time was difficult.”

Väino Liimann in Dortmund in 2018. Photo from his private collection.

By the time Liimann was sent to the catastrophe zone, he was already pretty knowledgeable about what had occurred. “We first heard about it from the Finnish radio and on 9 May 1986, after rainfall, I took a dosimeter and measured the radiation level at the parking lot of the Tallinn University of Technology. The highest level of radiation was probably nine micro-roentgens an hour (Estonia’s natural is six). So, when I went to affected area two years later, I had already read the Soviet official report about the catastrophe and I was informed about what had happened. But I had no idea how the radiation had spread there.”

Up to 200,000 individuals misplaced their lives

The whole variety of the casualties of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe still stays a disputed difficulty. The United Nations has estimated around four,000 individuals died; nevertheless, Greenpeace has claimed up to 200,000 individuals misplaced their lives. In the course of the accident, steam-blast results brought on two deaths inside the facility: one instantly after the explosion, and the opposite compounded by a lethal dose of ionizing radiation.

Over the approaching days and weeks, 134 servicemen have been hospitalised with acute radiation syndrome, of whom 28 firemen and staff died within months. Additionally, roughly 14 radiation-induced most cancers deaths among this group of 134 hospitalised survivors have been to comply with inside the subsequent 10 years.

Among the wider population, an excess of 15 childhood thyroid most cancers deaths have been documented as of 2011. Further research is required to definitively decide the elevated relative danger of most cancers among the many surviving staff, people who have been initially hospitalised with ARS, and the inhabitants at giant.

The official Soviet dying toll of the catastrophe was 31. This number has stood unchanged ever since 1987.

Cover: Sarcophagus overlaying Chernobyl nuclear energy plant’s exploded reactor four in 2010. Photograph by Piotr Andryszczak, shared underneath the CC BY-SA licence.