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Yuri Korneev - the liquidator

Background - 27 March, 2006
The men and women who were sent in to the closed zone of Chernobyl to deal with the aftermath of the disaster are called 'the liquidators'. The stories of these estimated 600,000 workers could provide the scripts to many a Hollywood movie. The liquidators flew straight into the radioactive clouds to battle the fire and extinguish it. They destroyed and buried contaminated villages, put new tarmac on the country roads and sprayed down the roofs with special chemicals. They evacuated the inhabitants, transported the cows and pigs to new stables and they took care of a whole range of other jobs that had to be done. Very often they had no protection against the deadly radiation.

Yuri Korneev is the only one still alive from the group that was on night shift at Block 4 on the night of the Chernobyl accident. He had radiation induced cataracts but his eye sight was restored. "The real hell was hospital in Moscow, not Chernobyl. I have seen many friends die there'.

His shift had started at midnight. Yuri Korneev worked atreactor block no. 4. He showed up at work as usual, not knowing that during the night of April 26th 1986, the nightcrew had received special instructions from Moscow to conduct anexperiment. They had to check if the turbines could provide enoughpower to keep the cooling system running in case of a power cut. Beforethe experiment started, all safety systems were switched off. The chainreaction that followed could not be controlled. "There was a very loudbang," Korneev remembers. "We didn't know what had happened." Theexplosion was so powerful it blew the 1000-ton roof off the building.Large quantities of radioactive elements were launched high up into theatmosphere and spread across the entire northern hemisphere.

Korneev stood transfixed, hypnotised by an amazing light: "It was abeautiful fire, incredibly brilliant". The fire damaged his eyes, butat first he didn't notice and continued his work as if switched onautomatic pilot to be able to cope with the crisis. "We had to get ridof the helium in the building and prevent the oil from catching fire."His report is modest but colleagues explain how Korneev prevented aneven bigger disaster by putting out the flames as the supply pipesleading to 38 tons of fuel were already on fire. It didn't last long:"I could hardly see and then I started feeling very weak." He ended upin a chaotic medical unit: "There were people throwing up everywhere.They went on until they had nothing left in their stomachs." These werethe clear symptoms of acute radiation disease caused by an overdose ofgamma radiation. Ambulances were racing back and forth. In ChernobylKorneev waited patiently until it was his turn to be transported tohospital. In his quiet voice with a minimum of words Korneev relatesthe events of that catastrophic night: "There was a doctor. I got aninjection. I was taken to bed and I fell asleep."

The morning after the accident, Yuri Korneev woke up in Pripiyathospital: "I felt much better. The weather was fine. The people seemedhappy and we even got beer handed to us through the open windows, butlater that day the night crew that had been present during theexplosion was transported by buses to Kiev's Borispol airport. "Theyflew us to Moscow; the Tupolev 154 that took us was packed." AroundKorneev there was a buzz of people chatting about what had happened andhow on earth it could have happened? Korneev doesn't remember much. Hekept falling asleep. "I was tired. I was so very tired."

"Real hell didn't start until Moscow," says Yuri Korneev in Kiev almosttwenty years later. "My friends were dying around me. I had worked foryears with many of them." Some of the men were buried in lead-linedcoffins against the radiation. From Hospital no. 6, Yuri Korneev triedto send a message to his wife: "But she had already been evacuated fromPripiyat; she had been told that I had not survived."

Korneev had new lenses implanted after his vision deteriorated further.

According to the Veterans' Union Korneev is the only one still alive ofthe group of workers on duty in Block no. 4 when the explosionhappened. His radiation dose is considered too high for him to everagain set foot onto the premises of a nuclear plant: "It can be acutelyfatal." He tried to find work, but as soon as his medical files wereplaced on the table, the interviews swiftly ended. Korneev, by now, isnot strong enough any more to do any physical work. He just carries onwaiting and wondering if that time bomb set inside him will go off: "Igo to my farmhouse, grow my own vegetables and eat some honey."

All Chernobyl reactors were decommissioned after all, so sometimes Yuri Korneev wonders: "Was it really worth our efforts?"

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The above text is an extract from the forth-coming book;Certificate no. 000358/Nuclear devastation in Kazakhstan, Ukraine,Belarus, the Urals and Siberia. © (Photography) 2006 Robert Knoth, ©(Text) 2006 Antoinette de Jong.

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