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In the zone: Chernobyl still dying after 30 years via The Irish Times

As new shield for wrecked nuclear reactor in Ukraine nears completion, some people who lived or worked in contaminated zone find themselves unable to stay away

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Debate

About 30 people perished in the explosion and emergency response, but debate rages about the overall number of people who have died as a result of the incident, with estimates ranging from a handful to many thousands.

The World Health Organisation recognises a “dramatic increase in thyroid cancer . . . among those exposed at a young age” to the nuclear fallout, and “some indication of increased leukaemia and cataract incidence among workers” in the clean-up operation.

Returning to Pripyat from his shift, Breus noticed that his hands and face were red and parts of his body had taken on a strange brownish hue that took several days to clear.

Breus received a radiation dose of 120 rem (a unit that measures exposure to ionizing radiation), when the permitted annual limit for Soviet nuclear workers was just 5 rem, but he has never been given full access to the results of his numerous medical tests from the time.

Soviet officials sought to impose secrecy over all aspects of the disaster: the KGB blocked phone calls from the power station to the rest of the Soviet Union; telegrams from Pripyat were censored; and state media issued a first brief and vague news report about the accident only on the evening of April 28th, after the billowing radiation cloud triggered sensors at an atomic power plant in Sweden.

Pripyat was not evacuated until 36 hours after the disaster, and residents were told to take only a few clothes, important documents, some money and a little food, because they would be back home in a matter of days. But they never returned.

After the evacuation, when the last of the seemingly endless lines of buses had departed Pripyat, Breus and about 1,000 colleagues remained in an eerie ghost city.

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The explosion at Chernobyl released 400 times more radiation than did the US atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, and contaminated more than 100,000 sq km of territory, with Ukraine, Belarus and Russia worst affected. But the greatest concentration of heavy and highly hazardous particles fell near the plant.

In some people, however, a fierce craving for home, and for Chernobyl’s quiet forests and meandering streams, overcame all fears, road blocks and official bans.

“Where will I live in the world besides here? What will I do with myself? That’s what I thought as I left after the accident,” says former metalwork teacher Yevhen Markeyevich (79) in the front room of his small house in the town of Chernobyl.

“The area was officially sealed, but I’m a smart guy, and I managed to keep getting back into the zone. One day I met a man who was doing radiation tests at the power station, so I asked him for work and he gave me a job fixing the dosimeters.

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Undisturbed

The forest is slowly reclaiming the remote village of Paryshev, its branches reaching into wooden cottages where birds’ nests sit undisturbed among the rafters.

“More than 1,000 people used to live here, but now there are only six souls,” says Ivan Semenyuk (81), a former collective farmer who lives in a cabin with his wife, Maria, while a cat, a few chickens and an unruly piglet share the yard outside.

“There is supposed to be a bread delivery every Thursday, but often it doesn’t come. We rely on forestry workers to bring us a few things to help keep us going. But if something grows here naturally, we eat it. We think this is a clean area, and we’re not scared.

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