19 days, multiple countries, a missed delivery and two post offices later, history has come to live with me. The contents of this package cannot be understood until I explain why they exist. There have only been two Level Seven Events on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale in nuclear history. The first occurred on April 26, 1986, during a systems test of the Unit 4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
The experimental test led to a catastrophic surge in power, which ended in an explosion. Upward and sideways, the chemical explosion would hurl debris, both nuclear and structural. The pieces that landed on the roof of the turbine hall started a fire. Nuclear material was everywhere, and the massive amount remaining in the reactor vault would spur the creation of a crater, reminiscent of a volcano.
Aerial emergency personnel poured sand and boron down into the fiery debris; sand to strangle the fires, boron to stop any further nuclear reactions. Anatoli Zakharov, one of the fire fighters at Chernobyl, said “If we’d followed regulations, we would never have gone near the reactor. But it was a moral obligation – our duty.”
Lieutenant Volodymyr Pravik, who commanded the fire fighters who would arrive first on the scene, would die on May 9th, 1986, of acute radiation sickness. He was only one of many deaths in the wake of the reactor explosion. Two personnel had died in the explosion. Twenty-seven emergency personnel (fire fighters and clean up) would die within three months, all of them from Acute Radiation Syndrome.
They weren’t the only people exposed that night. The town of Pripyat is only three kilometers from Chernobyl. It was the night after the explosion, that the buses for evacuation would arrive. 36 hours after the explosion, Pripyat’s population was told to pack for a three day evacuation. Over one thousand buses from Kiev would remove them from the area, bus after bus taking them away for what would be far longer than three days. They were deposited six kilometers outside the 30 km safety zone. Inside the exclusion zone, their houses, apartments, and abandoned belongings remain.
The dangerous work to subdue Chernobyl’s explosion continued at the reactor site, during and after the evacuations. Alexei Ananenko, Valeri Bezpalov, and Boris Baranov would enter radioactive water to avert a steam explosion risk in the bubbler pools. When they emerged, they were greeted with cheers. They had managed to open the sluice valves. The three of them would later die of radiation sickness.
In the wake of the explosion, more than 240,000 cleanup workers would play a part in the post-explosion cleanup, averting the unthinkable risks of further explosions or continued spread of radioactive material. In English, they are known as the Liquidators. They were medical personnel, pilots, engineers, scientists, emergency response teams, police, military personnel, janitors, construction professionals, transportation personnel, even coal miners who applied their pump expertise to the contaminated water pumping.
Many of the Liquidators were also part of the construction of the “sarcophagus,” a massive cover that was placed over the ruined reactor. Many of them would go on to bear the “Chernobyl necklace,” a scar at the base of the neck, one that marks them for their missing thyroid, which had turned malignant after their radiation poisoning.
It is a scar that takes a very long time to fade.
The death toll of the Liquidators fluctuates across documents and agencies, a complicated picture to decipher in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union. The death toll is still in motion, as the long term consequences of their radiation exposure come to surface in their bodies. Those who live are accorded something akin to a veteran status, eligible for government benefits, but this support has been complicated by bureaucratic steps and court appeals for many.
Inside my package from Belarus, is a badge. I opened the envelop in the post office parking lot on Saturday, carefully unwrapping it and pouring it into my hand. Illustrations of alpha, beta and gamma rays dance across turquoise medal, surrounding a single drop of blood. Someone who contributed to saving Europe—and the world—from nuclear catastrophe, was awarded this badge.
I have no way of knowing who they are.
Chernobyl happened when I was two. But I’ve known the story of Chernobyl since I was a child. I would press my head against my father’s arm when he would come home from work, and I would play the dosimeters attached to his badge as he ate dinner, and I asked him to tell me about science I wouldn’t understand till I was much older. As a teenager, I would wipe his face with a wet wash cloth, listening to his shallow breathing as he retold the story of Chernobyl to me, a horrifying event that happened a world away from us, while my father was working at a reactor considered far safer.
I don’t know if the person who once held this badge in their hand had children, or if they’re even alive. But for them, and my scientist father, for history and past sacrifice, the badge now lives in my home. So someone who can remember, will remember. Always.