SINGAPORE – Sergei Belyakov, a scientist who helped clean up debris after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, is worried about Japanese workers now risking their lives to contain the aftermath of core meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
“I really feel sorry for the situation in Fukushima, honestly,” the 55-year-old “jumper” in Chernobyl said.
Jumpers were the workers who risked their lives by “jumping” into highly contaminated zones at the damaged nuclear station in Chernobyl, rarely spending more than seconds in the danger zone before jumping back out to safety.
Now a U.S. citizen and scientist working for Albany Molecular Research Inc. in Singapore, Belyakov recalled his 40 days in Chernobyl in 1986.
“The reason why I am so affected (by the Fukushima disaster) is that I feel for these guys who work at the station as jumpers because every day goes by they will have much more effort to clean it up and more health and lives will be lost.”
Belyakov has been monitoring the developments at Fukushima every day since the plant was struck by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
He added that he believes the Japanese government should have immediately sought assistance and advice from those who had direct experience in dealing with the Chernobyl catastrophe.
“To me it is quite unexplainable that Tokyo Electric Power Co. and, obviously, the Japanese government do not tap into the pool of knowledge of people who went through Chernobyl and can lend them a hand with a lot of help,” he said.
In July 1986, Belyakov, then a 30-year-old chemistry professor at a university in Ukraine who was married and had a 6-year-old child, went to Chernobyl as a volunteer to help clear debris at the plant.
With his qualifications as a professor, he was discouraged from deploying to the plant, but as a military reservist in the chemical defense brigade, he volunteered, even though the decision upset his family.
He stayed in Chernobyl more than a month.
“I was there (at the facility) 23 times . . . on the roof, the longest for two minutes and the shortest for 36 seconds,” he said, referring to the rooftop of a reactor adjacent to reactor No. 4, which had exploded.
The adjacent reactor, about 20 meters from No. 4, was not destroyed, but it was heavily contaminated with radioactive debris.
“You enter the door, you jump, you toss a couple of pieces down, and you already have to come back” (out to apparent safety), he said.
“The level (of radiation) on the roof was every time, every day different. Because the reactor was breathing, it was puffing. Sometimes the radioactive level at the roof was so high, you couldn’t even go out of the door,” he said.
The jumpers relied on a rough map drawn on a wall provided by a civilian who had worked at Chernobyl before the disaster to get around the nuclear plant.
At any one time, up to 900 people would be waiting in line for their turn to jump, which could take hours.
“So it was a never-ending line of people, going up, up to the very top level, inside, and then going down, and it was just a regular stairway . . . what I called a stairway to hell in my (forthcoming) book (‘The Liquidator’).”
“Everybody freaked out . . . in a war, you see bombs, you see planes, you hear explosions, know where to go and what to be afraid of. There, people seemed to get scared for nothing,” he said.
“My way to deal with (the fear) was to break the task into smaller pieces, my whole idea was to run to that level a couple of times, just to make sure that I get to that point.
“I told myself I got to go five steps in that direction, make a couple of steps left or right because it is an area that is indicated by flags, that it is highly radioactive stuff. Once you do that, you take one step at a time.
“What’s wrong with stepping two steps to the ladder and then while you are there nothing happens, what’s wrong now with climbing up, and you go round the corner, you see that reactor open, nothing, you are still alive, that’s physically how you do it,” he explained.
“I am not a brave guy, honestly. It just happens I have been perhaps in the right place with the right set of emotions and the right set of my own personal beliefs. And then, at the time, we believe we are saving the country,” Belyakov added.
“Because of the intensity, it was very hard to work because of adrenaline, because of the action of radiation, it drains your power, you get wasted completely and much, much faster than you do in normal circumstances.”
They ended up, with the lack of sleep and food, more like “bio-robots,” he said. “Once we came back to civilian life, that pressure, that stress you had for days, all of a sudden it starts killing you because you don’t feel anything in your real life now is worthy.
“I had a hard time to walk, my breathing was very short, I wasn’t able to walk for maybe 100 to 200 meters without sitting down because I was always blacking out.
“Obviously, I was really, really sick, as most of us were — exhaustion, exposure to radiation, malnourishment because obviously we didn’t eat well,” he said.
Doctors, Belyakov added, predicted those jumpers who were exposed to the radiation on the rooftop would probably not survive more than 20 years after Chernobyl.
“I am in my 25th year now. I am five years in heaven. I am not joking, every day I wake up and feel blessed,” he said.
More robots eyed
Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa expressed willingness Tuesday to introduce robots capable of operating in a highly irradiated environment to help with the nuclear emergency at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.
“Japan has been called a robotics superpower, but we have depended on U.S. robots” at Fukushima, he told a news conference, stressing the need to “equip the Self-Defense Forces with robots so they can provide help in emergencies at home and in neighboring countries.”
A senior Defense Ministry official said the ministry will seek funding this year to study the feasibility of using robots and drones.