Heroism at Chernobyl: a reprise in Japan

One of Russia's heroes came to Seattle for a bone-marrow transplant. Anatoly Grishchenko's example is something to remember as we watch Japan's efforts to bring its nuclear-reactor crisis under control.

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A memorial to the people at Chernobyl who sacrificed their own safety to protect the world from greater danger.

One of Russia's heroes came to Seattle for a bone-marrow transplant. Anatoly Grishchenko's example is something to remember as we watch Japan's efforts to bring its nuclear-reactor crisis under control.

The Japanese nuclear power plant problems invite many comparisons to Chernobyl, but the only comparison that is truly apt is the heroism of the people who worked at Chernobyl and who are now working at Fukushima, risking their lives to head off a horrible tragedy.

The type of reactor that blew up in 1986 in Chernobyl, in what was then the Soviet Union, was a far different design then the plants now in trouble in Japan. Graphite was the means of temperature moderation at the Chernobyl plant, while water is the medium for the plants in Japan. In addition, the Chernobyl design did not include a containment vessel as do the Japanese plants. So, when the plant exploded on April 26, 1986, the core was immediately exposed and the graphite, which is highly flammable, created a hot fire that further served to distribute radioactivity across the world.

Firefighters arrived at the Chernobyl immediately and the blaze was out by the early morning. Those firefighters became some of the 250 or so people who would be affected by acute radiation sickness. 

Even with the fire out, the colossal open sore at Chernobyl was releasing enormous amounts of radioactive gases and particles. The authorities decided the only choice was to smother the pile.

A cadre of helicopter pilots, including one who would later come to Seattle for treatment of leukemia, flew mission after mission dropping sand, lead, boron, and cement in an effort to entomb the blazing pile of melting uranium. In the first desperate hours, there was no specific protocol for radiation control. The pilots flew directly over the blaze, hovered, then dropped their cargo into the white light.

Later, they would land their choppers in a field near the town of Priyapit, where they would be completely washed and cleaned and the men would shower and change all their clothing before picking up another load and flying 100 meters above hell once again. At night, they would watch soccer on television. 

The doses they took would kill nearly all of them — some in a few weeks, others over time. By May 1, they had dropped 4,500 tons of sand and another 2,500 tons of lead onto the pile.

Despite the efforts, the temperature of the pile was still 1,500 degrees centigrade, and engineers feared it would melt through its concrete pad and fall into a steam cooling pool below, surely resulting in a massive explosion. In the face of this threat, another group of people offered up their lives. The pool controls had been broken in the first explosion so, with the catastrophe raging above them, four men swam through the radioactive water in their rubber suits, released a control gate under the surface, and drained the pool. 

The desperate engineers also conceived another idea. They would pump huge amounts of liquid nitrogen into the ground, freezing it underneath the concrete pad and creating a giant heat exchanger, carrying away the heat. For fear of disturbing the slab with heavy equipment, they had to dig tunnels under it by hand, employing groups of soldiers shoveling for a desperate few minutes until the maximum dosage level for each was reached. He could then be replaced by a fresh man and a new shovel.

After three weeks, by mid-May, the temperature of the core was a relatively stable 270 degrees centigrade, the fire was out, and the process of temporarily sealing the core in concrete was underway.

Four years later, in April of 1990, Anatoly Grishchenko, one of the helicopter pilots, came to Seattle for treatment of his severe leukemia. At the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Grishchenko  was given chemotherapy and other treatment in anticipation of a bone-marrow transplant. 

The Soviet Union was about to collapse, but Grishchenko was a military man, a product of the Cold War and a Soviet patriot.  At a press conference, asked about his being helped in America, he responded with a Russian proverb: "When I arrived here at Seattle, I felt I was home. A Russian proverb tells you that when you are at home, even the wolves can help you!"

One Saturday at the Pike Place Market vegetable stand I go to, I looked up and found myself standing next to Anatoly Grishchenko, a somewhat tall man and big, wearing a leather jacket with a surgical mask stretched across his nose and mouth. 

I knew pretty much everything he had done and understood that whatever he had done in the rest of his life, I was standing next to a great and courageous man. The only words I could muster were “Hello, sir,” and I stuck out my hand. 

Underneath his mask, he smiled and shook his head “no,” pointing with both index fingers at his mask. 

Grishchenko died in Seattle on July 2, 1990, from a lung infection, which The Seattle Times reported at the time had been present before the transplant but became critical afterward.

Remembering Grishchenko makes me think of all the yet-to-be-told selfless acts that have happened or will happen as the Japanese face their greatest challenge of this horrible disaster. Let us thank them for what they will do and, 21 years late but still from the bottom of my heart, thank Anatoly Grishchenko.


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