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1986: Caught in the fall-out

The nuclear reactor at Chernobyl blew up on 26 April 1986 but news of the world's worst nuclear accident did not emerge until two days later.

Fewer than 50 people are said to have died from exposure to radiation after the accident but many others may have contracted cancer.

Twenty years after the disaster an area around the plant the size of Greater London is still considered uninhabitable.

Your accounts

I spent the day in the worst possible place: sunbathing on the roof of a student hostel in Minsk!

We first heard about the incident on the BBC World Service.

This was the pre-mobile phones era and finally the British Embassy in Moscow managed to contact us and order us to evacuate.

" We were Geiger-countered, blood-tested, weighed and measured in a Moscow clinic before British Airways agreed to fly us home "

Catriona Munro, UK

We had to contend with Soviet-style bureaucracy forbidding us to leave the city without a forest of paperwork, then suspicion from the authorities in Moscow who accused us of blatant political propaganda.

We were Geiger-countered, blood-tested, weighed and measured in a Moscow clinic before British Airways agreed to fly us home, having put our clothes in a hermetically sealed bag and dressed us in BA-issue grey tracksuits and socks.

Back in London was our Andy Warholian 15 minutes of fame - the paparazzi pressed their bulbs against the glass of the airport lounge.

And boffins from the National Radiological Board were crying with delight at the realisation of their life's work as they Geiger-countered us again, concluded our radiation levels were unacceptably high, then sent us home.

What we did discover was that the best practice for exposure to radiation was to run away from it, and our cue from the people of Denmark, which had sold out of iodine supplies, was correct too, if unpleasant.

Unfortunately the locals were not as lucky as us.

Those I retained contact with had heartbreaking tales ("We laughed at you for leaving, but now my children are constantly ill, we cannot eat the mushrooms in the forest and we cannot swim in the lake.")

I just like to believe that the only upside of this disaster was that it was the true catalyst for glasnost [openness] in the former Soviet Union.

It is likely that Gorbachev himself only found out about the accident when we did.
Catriona Munro, UK

I was in Chernivsti, which is in southern Ukraine, as an exchange student.

We heard rumours of something terrible, but the government maintained silence.

A friend of mine called from Minsk, Belarus, to say that a weird sleet fell in the evening and the next morning all the leaves on the trees were four to five times their normal size.

Later, children in Chernivsti started to lose their hair and parents were in a big panic, sending children to relatives in the countryside.

Also, we noticed that all trains coming from northern Ukraine were hosed down with men in chemical suits.

To this day, I often wonder what I was exposed to and if I will even suffer health problems from Chernobyl?
Thomas Heltman, USA

When it was announced that there had been an "accident" at a Soviet nuclear power plant we knew that the truth had to be at least 100% worse than the reports.

It was very scary.

No-one knew if there was any danger of radioactive clouds or if it was under control and we certainly couldn't believe what the Soviets were saying because they were downplaying everything.

The superintendent at the apartment complex we were living at scared the neighbors by saying the yellow powder falling on their cars was nuclear fallout from Chernobyl until we assured him it was just pollen from the pine trees.

" No-one knew if there was any danger of radioactive clouds or if it was under control. "

Anne, USA

We had to show him where the pollen was coming from on the trees before he believed us. I don't think he really believed us until it happened again the folowing spring!

The ones I really felt sorry for were the people around Chernobyl who were kept in the dark about the danger and ended up with radiation poisoning and numerous diseases resulting from their exposure.

People are still suffering to this day for the carelessness of the Soviet government which was only interested in covering up what was a very serious accident.
Anne, USA

I was a freshly graduated nuclear physicists in those days, so I was able to realise the genuine danger and not panic at the same time.

But preoccupied with politics, as everybody was in my country then, I realised what a horrible mistake Mikhail Gorbachev had made and that was beneficial to Central Europe.

His Soviet instinct of going into denial for almost three days, and blatant disregard for human life manifested afterwards, cost him [the support of ] Western greens and fellow travellers.

Today many do not know that [at that time] being anti-nuclear in the West was being pro-Soviet too because Soviet nuclear power was [considered] OK and the Western one was nasty.

The Western left wing were stunned in disbelief as everything that the most reactionary anti-Soviet propaganda had said was proving to be true.

We were under martial law following the 1981 revolution in Poland and a month [after Chernobyl] I realised that I was pretty safe in my counter-censorship underground publishing activities as Polish secret police lost any will to chase us.

Three years later the communists in Poland were the first to give up power in Europe.
Stanislaw Semczuk, Poland

At the time of the accident, I was working as a contractor in the Netherlands, living and working in Eindhoven in the south of the country.

I can clearly remember (before knowing the accident had happened) very heavy, dark clouds appearing in the sky in the early evening.

I went to the gym for a couple of hours and when I came out, decided to walk home. The rain started, accompanied by vivid, blinding sheet lightning inside the clouds that lit up the sky.

I remember it being unseasonable weather, and I got soaked to the skin as I walked by the incredibly heavy rain, looking up at these strange atmospheric effects.

I recall feeling pretty uneasy about it at the time: I showered again when I got in for some reason. The next day - when the news broke - I was pretty scared.

I was convinced I had been soaked in radioactive rain.
Rob Schofield, UK

In 1986, I lived in Trencin, a city of about 50,000 in western Slovakia.

In the days following the radiation-spewing accident, my family and I were in the process of moving, spending a lot of our time outside.

Initially, the Czechoslovak government issued no warning. It was several days later, and with horror, that we heard the news on an Austrian broadcast.

That same year, a neighbour of ours was summoned for military training taking place in eastern Slovakia/Ukraine. A few years later he was diagnosed with leukaemia.
David, Canada

I was studying for O-levels at the time of the Chernobyl accident.

Our physics teacher brought out the same Geiger counter each year when covering radioactivity, and was surprised to find the background level that year (in Surrey) strangely higher than normal.

The explanation became clear a day or two later of course.
Charlie Wartnaby, UK

I lived in Kiev for a year spanning 1999/2000.

The local health advice at the time, on the occasions that Chernobyl's many fires reignited, was to drink plenty of red wine and wash your shoes when you get home!
Louise Collett, UK

I was six years old when the disaster happened.

But by this age I was familiar with nuclear power and could explain the basic principals to my primary school teacher.

I watched as the news reports showed helicopter footage of the exposed reactor core and the people around it trying to contain the radiation with sandbags.

Now when I look back on it, I realise that the helicopter pilots and crew, the soldiers with their sandbags, the power station staff, the fire crews, the ambulance crews, and everybody else, are most likely dead.

I find it quite chilling to think that those people probably all knew they would die as a result of the accident.
David Storey, UK

I can remember going on holiday to the Lake District and being warned about not drinking the spring water coming out of the fells as we climbed them. I was only 11 or so at the time.

I can also remember the reports about grass being contaminated in the same area and cattle and other grazing animals not being allowed to be slaughtered or milked.

I find it fascinating the contamination came so far.
Abbie Thoms, UK

More Memories
I was living in Poland at the time, in Warsaw.

I was a student and I was renting a room in a house where a high-ranking military person lived.

One day there was a call to the house from the military base saying to close all windows and not to go outside for at least 24 hours.

A soldier was despatched to the house with some medicine which was supposed to be an antidote. We all had to swallow a spoonful of the disgusting mixture to prevent side-effects of radiation.

I don't remember the name of the medicine.

I was not allowed to make a call to my family to warn them, only military personnel were told about the disaster to begin with.

A day or so later the news was made public.

One of my friends has suffered a stillbirth shortly after that - she was in Russia at the time of the disaster.
Maria, UK

The greatest mistake in the Chernobyl disaster was not the meltdown itself but the ensuing secrecy. It was not until weeks had passed that the government of Bulgaria, of which I was a resident at the time, announced the disaster and warned the public about the danger.

Millions of people had in the meantime been exposed to radioactivity, much of it in the food, especially fresh produce. Had the authorities admitted the disaster immediately, many thousands would have been spared the resulting horrible ailments - often fatal.

It is tragic when abstract ideas, such as national pride, come before human life.
Vassil, Bulgaria/California

I well recall the events surrounding the Chernobyl disaster in April 1986.

It took an unwarranted amount of time for the German authorities to react.

We were not told enough about the accident until nearly a week after it happened.

In the meantime it had rained, which meant that warnings had to be given out for children not to play in sandboxes, for any vegetables growing above ground to be avoided (eg lettuce and in particular mushrooms), and for people to avoid drinking fresh milk after April 30.

This led to curious consequences in restaurants, where frozen produce was suddenly more popular than fresh.

It was a terrible feeling, knowing that that rain had brought down so much radioactive material.

The immediate worry was radioactive iodine, but many parts of South Germany are still suffering the consequences of radioactive caesium.

Wild mushrooms, very popular here, are still a dangerous source of radioactivity and should not be enjoyed too often.
Douglas Fear, Germany

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