For the women working at the wool processing facility in Chernihiv, northern Ukraine, spring was always the busiest time of year. During the annual sheep shearing season, the plant processed over 21,000 tons of wool from farms all around the country. The months of April and May of 1986 were no different.
The employees worked 12-hour shifts sorting raw fleece heaps by hand before washing and baling them. The women, on the other hand, began to fall ill.
Some people experienced nosebleeds, while others experienced dizziness and nausea. When the authorities arrived to investigate, they discovered radiation levels of up to 180mSv/hr in the factory. In many regions of the world today, somebody exposed at these levels would exceed the entire annual dose considered safe in less than a minute.
However, Chernihiv was thought to be well outside the hurriedly erected exclusion zone around the crippled plant, and radiation readings elsewhere in the town had indicated it to have relatively low levels of radiation.
The Chernobyl nuclear power plant was 50 miles away. On April 26, 1986, the power plant’s reactor number four exploded, exposing the core and releasing clouds of radioactive material into the surrounding area as a fire burnt out of control.
Sweden was the first nation to detect radiation within their borders, which quickly gave up the attempt to cover up the disaster on the Soviet Union’s part. Many nations, including the United States began to watch and monitor their own airspace, as it was feared that radiation could spread as far as the California coast.
Throughout the investigation, and up until the fall of the Soviet Union, the number of reported deaths remained at 50, however the United Nations believed those numbers to be much higher.
In an attempt to clean up as much as possible, both volunteers and conscripts were sent in to handle the radiation issue. These people – who became known as “liquidators” due to the official Soviet definition of “participant in liquidation of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident consequences” – were given a special status that meant they would receive benefits such as extra healthcare and payments. Official registries indicate that 600,000 people were granted liquidator status.
President Luke is set to give a speech reflecting on the disaster this evening at 8pm central, located on the KBRN YouTube channel.