Hard duty in the Chernobyl zone

Life as a liquidator after the 1986 nuclear disaster

Cathie Sullivan, a New Mexico activist, worked with Chernobyl liquidator, Natalia Manzurova, during three trips to the former Soviet Union in the early 2000s. Natalia was one of 750,000 Soviet citizens sent to deal with the Chernobyl catastrophe. Natalia is now in her early 60s and has long struggled with multiple health issues. She was treated last year for a brain tumor that was found to be cancerous. A second tumor has since been found and funds were recently raised among activists around the world to help with the costs of this latest treatment. Natalia and Cathie together authored a short book, “Hard Duty, A woman’s experience at Chernobyl” describing Natalia’s harrowing four and a half years as a Chernobyl liquidator. What follows is an excerpt from that book with some minor edits.

By Natalia Manzurova

When I tell people that I was at Chernobyl they often ask if I had to go. My training is in radiation biology and I was born in a city that was part of the secret Soviet nuclear weapons complex, much like Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the first A-bomb was built. People from my city considered it a duty to go to Chernobyl, just as New York City firefighters went to the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Because of the radiation danger to women of child-bearing age, those under 30 did not go, but being 35 in 1987, I began my 4.5 years of work at Chernobyl. Chernobyl depressed me so much when I first arrived that for almost three days I either wept or tried hard not to. We were short-handed and had to work 12 hour shifts. Several workers shared one room in a hostel, each with a bunk where he or she slept during his/her shift period. During the next shift other people slept in the same bunks. Before leaving for a break we put our clothes into plastic bags and stored them.

Alcohol was forbidden and we were checked when we arrived or left the 18 mile exclusion zone around the plant. Liquor soon crossed the fence, however, and became like money. There were no groceries available and meals were served in a large mess hall. Cooks put our food on trays moving on a conveyer belt and the joke was that Chernobyl’s Liquidators and Soviet cattle got their food in the same way. 

Working in an empty city

The evacuation of Pripyat, the city built for Chernobyl’s workers, inflicted misery on everybody. Authorities told people they would be able to return home in three or four days—a cynical promise at best. Evacuees left all their possessions behind except family documents, the clothes on their backs and some food for the bus trip. Families were separated: very young children went to one place but older children somewhere else. People became distraught not knowing where their loved ones were. The concrete wall near the Chernobyl headquarters in Kiev carried photos and pleas: ‘Does anyone know where ——– is?’ The search for family members went on for several years. 

pripyat abandoned jose franganillo

The evacuation of Pripyat inflicted misery on everybody. (Photo: Jose Franganillo/Creative Commons at https://bit.ly/2Sf5fis)

Evacuees from Pripyat were given free apartments in Kiev. This angered local people who had been waiting years to get an apartment of their own. The unwelcome evacuees had their windows broken, their children beaten up and their cars vandalized. Additionally, illnesses from stress and radiation exposure were beginning to take their toll. Over time, new villages were built to house people from Pripyat and the government paid them to relocate. 

In the fall of 1987, maps of the area’s contamination made by scientists from Ozyersk convinced authorities to permanently forbid human habitations within the 18-mile diameter ‘Exclusion Zone’ around Chernobyl (an area of about 255 square miles). The map also helped decide which villages would be bulldozed —whole communities with yards, trees and gardens were razed and, along with the contents of homes, buried. The radiologically contaminated contents of buildings in the towns of Chernobyl and Pripyat went to the same grave.

Sad experiences

In 1987, when I first arrived at Chernobyl, my group of about 20 scientists from the Ozyersk radio-ecology lab started a Department of Environmental Decontamination and Re-Cultivation. We used a 10-acre greenhouse complex for our plant studies, built before the accident, and for office space we used an empty, nearby kindergarten. 

I was amazed by the luxury of that kindergarten when I visited it to look for furniture I could use in the new lab and office. There were Chinese rugs and different matching color schemes for curtains and bedspreads in each sleeping room and a sea of stored toys, visual aids and games. New bed linen, towels, aprons and white dressing gowns were neatly piled and hung up. Looking at the rows of children’s slippers and photos of their owners on the wall, I wondered where they might be now and how they were doing.


A young Natalia Manzurova, working as a Chernobyl liquidator.

I came across a sick dog in a child’s bed in one of the napping rooms. This was the only bed that looked dirty— so perhaps it was the bed of a child this dog especially loved. She could hardly crawl towards me and I was horrified by her appearance. Hair was missing from her paws and lower legs and her flesh was bleeding, her eyes were clouded and saliva streamed from her mouth. She had external beta radiation burns from hunting for food in contaminated grass over the year since the accident and she must have had internal contamination from eating the flesh of field mice and other rodents that live close to the ground. 

I saw her one more time when a colleague and I were looking for equipment in an empty hospital. The dog was lying, dead, in a bed in a children’s ward. She had not decomposed, but was mummified, possibly due to receiving such heavy radiation. The dog was devoted to children until the very end.

manzurova hospital

At the time of our work, our focus was on external radiation but perhaps only after death will our internal doses be known.

One time when I touched a table in the kindergarten, I felt a jolt of pain in my thumb. I had probably touched a ‘hot particle’, the same type of large radioactive particle that injured Chernobyl’s first liquidators through inhalation and skin burns. It hurt immediately and my finger swelled, turned a blue-lilac color and later the skin peeled off.  

Work in the ‘Exclusion Zone’

Our team took many samples of soil, water, snow, trees and shrubs inside the 18-mile diameter Exclusion Zone, the area of heaviest contamination. In general, sometime after returning home from sampling trips in the Exclusion Zone we would begin to feel ill. This is a good time to mention the issue of our radiation detectors. These instruments could not be read by the people using them – they were, instead, turned in after work to be read by a radiation specialist. We were not told what our doses were. We also used cassette dosimeters that only recorded small external doses – doses outside their range could not be detected at all.  In 4.5 years I never saw “pencils”, the pen-like dosimeter you clip in your pocket, that directly tells the user the dose accumulated over the shift time. For lack of detectors we could read directly we had no way to avoid working in high radiation fields. At the time our focus was on external radiation but what were our internal doses?  Perhaps only after death will our internal doses be known.

The health price we paid for Chernobyl

With training in radiation and biology I was often asked about the health effects of radiation. Men wanted to know if their virility would be affected and if drinking plenty of vodka would clean out internal contamination.

At 1,000 men for every woman, life was difficult for women at Chernobyl. And, at certain times, a heightened level of environmental radiation seemed to stimulate sexual drive, including for older women. Some people became what we what we called ‘shift families’ – couples who lived together during the weeks they were on duty. Some of these relationships lasted for years, as long as the couple worked in the exclusion zone. The authorities felt shift families reduced worker stress and gave them the privacy of separate rooms in the hostel.

But Chernobyl ruined many marriages. After a few years in the exclusion zone, many liquidators developed nervous system problems and/or depression that drove men into alcoholism. Their drinking then drove their wives and families away. 

Like many liquidators I ‘wear’ a ‘Chernobyl necklace’, the scar on the lower throat from thyroid-gland surgery.* While working in the exclusion zone I experienced slurred speech, memory loss and poor balance. One of my bosses and I realized that we were forgetting appointments and obligations and agreed to help each other remember who, what, where and when. I had severe amnesia for a time and read letters I wrote my mother to help fill in forgotten years. 

The Chernobyl accident is not over, in fact its damaging effects on people and the land will only taper off slowly for generations—lingering harm that is almost certainly unique to nuclear accidents.

Natalia Manzurova, with fellow Russian activist, Nadezhda Kutepova, was awarded the 2011 Nuclear-Free Future Award in the category of Resistance.

Print copies of Hard Copy are available from Cathie Sullivan. Please email her at: cathiesullivan100@gmail.com.

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One Comment on “Hard duty in the Chernobyl zone

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