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updated 4/25/2006 10:45:32 AM ET 2006-04-25T14:45:32

Associated Press photographer Efrem Lukatsky has visited the Chernobyl power plant and the highly contaminated zone dozens of times since a 1986 reactor explosion caused the world’s worst nuclear accident. He reflects on the catastrophe that continues to haunt him and his nation.

The first advice we got after the Chernobyl explosion was to take a daily drop of iodine on a sugar cube. We heard it on the Voice of America broadcasts we listened to clandestinely.

Local media, heavily under the Soviet thumb, told us there was nothing to worry about.

A few days after the explosion, my friend Viktor Ivashchenko called me and told me I should flee Kiev and never come back. Viktor’s words carried a lot of weight — he was an engineer at the Institute of Nuclear Physics.

But Kiev, the Ukrainian capital just 75 miles from the destroyed, radiation-spewing reactor, was home. My parents lived there, and leaving never occurred to me.

Staying meant living through tragedy
Staying meant that I eventually was able to go to Chernobyl dozens of times since the world’s worst nuclear disaster, whose 20th anniversary falls on April 26. There I would take photographs and feed my hunger to learn all I could about the catastrophe that had hit my country.

But staying also meant that I lived with gnawing anxieties and saw good friends die mysteriously or grow thin and sallow.

Some frightened people went overboard on the Voice of America’s advice. They drank half-glasses of iodine and ended up hospitalized with throat and stomach burns.

Later I would meet a biologist, Professor Vyacheslav Konovalov, who wore a lead undergarment for years after the explosion. He collected mutated plants, animals and human embryos, planning to create a museum to the perils of radiation, but ended up storing his specimens underground.

May Day, the biggest Soviet holiday, fell just five days after the explosion and those who trusted the authorities’ reassurances took part in rallies and parades. I was one of them, carrying a portrait of Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who had taken the helm of the Soviet Union a year earlier promising reform.

Many of us felt a tickle in our throats that day — apparently a sign of radioactive iodine — and decided not to linger outdoors to watch the bicycle race.

Living with radiation gauges
News of the explosion didn’t surprise me. Four years earlier I had visited Pripyat, the city where most Chernobyl workers lived, and had seen trucks spreading soapsuds on the asphalt. There were rumors of a radiation leak.

But after the explosion we were worried enough to get hold of a military radiation gauge and check ourselves, our homes and loved ones. Some of the readings were high, especially aboard city buses which had been used to evacuate residents from Pripyat and Chernobyl.

My neighbor, Bohdan Semenov, a bus driver, told me that since his passengers didn’t have protective masks, he wouldn’t wear one either. His wife told my mother that he ordered her to throw out every stitch of clothing he wore on those trips. But she refused — they couldn’t afford to replace them.

A week later this athletic man in his 30s was dead of a heart attack. At his funeral, shocked mourners whispered that it was because of Chernobyl.

Kievans panicked. They jammed the railroad station trying to send their children as far away as possible. Many refused to eat dairy products and berries, relying instead on canned fish.

The health effects of the radiation that the blast spewed over a wide stretch of the Soviet Union are still hard to assess 20 years later. A consortium of U.N. agencies said last year that about 4,000 people eventually are likely to die from Chernobyl-caused illnesses; Greenpeace International this month said the death toll will be 10 times higher — around 93,000.

Digging into the mystery of what happened
Back in 1986, anybody’s guess was good, and I was dying to know the truth about what happened at Chernobyl. But at that time I was working as an underwater welder at a scientific institute and had no official justification for going to the power station. I tried to meet with Volodymyr Shevchenko, who was making a TV documentary about Chernobyl, but he died — another victim of a mysterious heart ailment.

A few months later, I managed to get into the “exclusion zone.” I was amazed by the dedication of the “liquidators” — crews of soldiers, workers, coal miners who had been drafted to cover the destroyed reactor in a coffin of steel and concrete.

It was too hot to breathe, so disregarding safety rules, they tore masks off their faces and dug tunnels with shovels to pour concrete under the reactor.

Hundreds of concrete mixers, trucks with sand, and excavators crawled around the plant. Later, I saw them in a graveyard of highly contaminated vehicles a few miles away.

Sergei Chashchenko worked as an engineer on a diesel locomotive that brought building materials to the sarcophagus under construction. He picked up a wrench from the ground and burned his palm. Four years later, he was suffering from leukemia.

People stole anything that might come in handy or make a souvenir. Years later I saw the destroyed reactor’s control panel. The buttons were gone.

I met some of those souvenir-hunters in hospitals. They had leukemia.

I made repeat visits to Chernobyl and took photographs. Some of them appeared in the magazine Ogonyok, which at that time was in the vanguard of the Soviet Union’s newly assertive news media. In 1989 The Associated Press hired me.

The nuclear specter lingered: I’m 49 and in good health, yet an AP colleague who had never been to Chernobyl was operated on for thyroid cancer, one of the diseases most closely tied to the disaster.

Outrage leads to calls for change
Meanwhile, signs of big change were afoot. In the spring of 1989, the Soviet republic of Ukraine had its first-ever protests. Thousands rallied in Kiev to demand the “truth about Chernobyl,” carrying handmade yellow radiation warning signs.

On the waves of Chernobyl rallies, a powerful national movement grew stronger. Millions demanded independence.

In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, with some politicians saying the Chernobyl accident speeded the breakup.

In 1992, Kiev, now the capital of an independent Ukraine, saw the first rallies of widows carrying portraits of their husbands and sons who died after being exposed to radiation while participating in the desperate cleanup effort at Chernobyl.

Chernobyl has always stayed with me — a great tragedy compounded by a shameful coverup whose lesson was to always seek the truth with my own eyes and camera.

A look at the sarcophagus
Shortly before Chernobyl’s last operating reactor was closed in 2000, I went there for AP and got a look into the sarcophagus over the destroyed unit.

I put on two layers of thick white cotton clothes, protective rubber boots, a special hat and a helmet, padded jackets, gloves and a face mask.

I covered my camera with plastic as thoroughly as I could, and followed the guide through high-security checkpoints into the sarcophagus.

My guide’s flashlight picked up the sparkle of dust slowly whirling around us — just a speck of radioactive dust could be lethal if it enters the body. We tried not to take any deep breaths as we wove our way through dark, wreckage-strewn passages.

We reached the old control room, long and poorly lighted, with its damaged machinery, the place where the Soviet engineers threw a power switch for a routine test at 1:23 a.m. on April 26, 1986, and two explosions followed one after another immediately.

We bent our heads to get through the dark, narrow labyrinth leading to the center of the sarcophagus. The walls were covered with lead plates intended to decrease radiation levels. There were piles of lead and boron powder dropped by helicopters to suppress the nuclear reaction.

My Geiger counter registered about 80,000 microroentgens an hour — 16,000 times the safe limit. It was time to leave.

Tragedy still haunts
The nearby city of Pripyat is now a ghostly ruin. The only signs that anybody has been there recently are graffiti drawn by Dutch artists, and compositions of dolls, gas masks and yellowed newspapers placed in a deserted kindergarten to communicate how tragedy still haunts the land 20 years later.

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