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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 April 2006, 17:26 GMT 18:26 UK
Chernobyl voices: Olexiy Breus
Olexiy Breus

Olexiy Breus
Former operator at Chernobyl reactor number four
Now a journalist and artist

On 26 April, I was meant to go to work on the fourth unit, after some days off. I drank coffee in the morning and got on the bus.

I didn't know there had been an accident, even though the power station was visible from my flat.

Driving up to the atomic station I saw the destroyed unit, and for the first time in my life I understood the meaning of the phrase "hair standing on end".

Olexiy Breus in the control room at Chernobyl, 1984
Chernobyl is in me forever, and nothing will wash it out
The destruction was so great, it seemed to me it had to be a mass grave, that most of the night shift must have died. It was unclear to me why they had brought me there, what could possibly be done. But then, when I entered the station, I noticed that water was being poured from above, and I understood that I would also have to supply water to the reactor, to cool the reactor.

I was next to the reactor for no more than a few minutes, literally. Four of us entered a room called level 27, the furthest part of which had been destroyed, on the reactor side, and we opened taps on pipes that led to the reactor. Then we returned to the control room.

I did not know the precise level of radiation. Next to the control room was a puddle of water. I was told that the level by this puddle was 800 micro-roentgen per second. This was exactly 1,000 times greater than the permitted dose intensity.

That is a lot, but I calculated that it was less than four roentgens per hour, which is bearable. The permitted dose for personnel at that time was around five roentgens per year. After that I heard no more about radiation levels.

I worked two more days on the third unit. Then I was withdrawn from the zone of ionising rays. In short, I was forbidden from working.

Radioactive home

In autumn 1986, all evacuated staff from the Chernobyl nuclear power station were allocated flats in Kiev.

MORE CHERNOBYL VOICES

People had been waiting for these flats for years - about 7,000 of them - and they were taken away. This provoked a degree of hostility towards the power station staff, but in a sense, the Kievans were lucky to lose them.

For example, my house was being built in spring and early summer of 1986. At the time of building, naturally the floors of the building were open, there were no windows, there was rain, there was radioactive fallout.

In September my daughter was born in Leningrad. Before bringing her to Kiev I decided to check the flat carefully.

I got a radiation meter and measured every square centimetre of the floors and walls, the windows. I checked everything and in various places the contamination was so high that it went off the scale. This was not an everyday domestic tool, it was calibrated for nuclear power stations.

I took up the linoleum, scraped, got an old vacuum cleaner from a colleague, and sucked up what I scraped with this vacuum cleaner. Then I gave it to the environmental health authorities to dispose of.

Art manifesto

My colleagues also checked their flats, many of them. Some of them found that the dirtiest place was the windowsill, under the paint. They removed the paint. Others had it under the wallpaper. They changed the wallpaper, and cleaned the walls.

Olexiy Breus
Chernobyl inspires Olexiy Breus's art, but he avoids disturbing images
But most people moved in without checking the rooms. You could call in a dosimetrist from the housing department. The dosimetrist came and measured the situation as a whole, the gamma background. He measured it and said: "Your flat is within the norms." My flat was also within the norms, as a whole. But the contamination in some places was very high.

I have been an artist all my life, but after the accident there was a period when journalism squeezed out everything, and I did practically no drawing.

Then, later, I met a group of artists who created an association under the name Strontium-90. They already had a manifesto, describing their art as a call not to forget the lessons of Chernobyl. I joined up with them, and have already been working with them for several years.

As someone who has gone through Chernobyl, I cannot erase it from my life. It is in me forever, and nothing will wash it out. It is not impressions or memories, it is more, it is deeper, it is deep in the soul.


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