`OK, Mr Barber, we'll burn those jeans for you'

Ten years ago, when the Chernobyl reactor exploded, Tony Barber was visiting a friend nearby. Only on his return to Moscow did he slowly discover the truth about the blast and its effects. This is the story of his weekend break in the wrong place at the wrong time ...
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Ten years ago, the world's worst nightmare came true: an explosion and fire at a nuclear power station, spreading radiation over an immense portion of the planet and condemning thousands of people to a slow and miserable death. It was a personal nightmare for me, too.

In April 1986, I was a 26-year-old correspondent based in Moscow for the international news agency Reuters. I had recently become friends with an adventurous, redheaded Scottish woman who had taken a job teaching English in Kiev, capital of what was then the Soviet republic of Ukraine.

We agreed that I should fly down from Moscow for a weekend break. The weekend we settled on was Friday 25 April to Monday 28 April - the weekend that the fourth reactor at the Chernobyl power station, 80 miles north of Kiev, blew up.

As far as I am aware, I was the only Western reporter in Ukraine that weekend. There were no resident Western journalists in Kiev in those days. If you were based in Moscow and wanted to visit Ukraine, or any other Soviet republic, you had to give 48 hours' notice to the Soviet foreign ministry. Sometimes they refused you permission to travel, giving no reason in particular. I rather wish they had done so 10 years ago.

Instead, I landed safely in Kiev on the Friday afternoon, took a taxi from the airport, and checked into a hotel just off the city's main thoroughfare, Khreshchatik. My friend, Rhona, lived in somewhat cramped accommodation provided by Kiev University. We spent the evening with a Ukrainian student friend of hers.

Eighty miles to the north, a drama of immeasurable dimensions was gathering shape. For reasons best known to themselves, technicians at the Chernobyl plant had been conducting experiments involving the deliberate switching off of safety systems.

That night, power in the fourth reactor rose to 480 times the normal level. Steam reacted with the graphite moderator in the reactor core. The inevitable explosion happened at 1.23am on the Saturday morning.

Back in Kiev, I knew nothing of this. Nor did any of the city's 2.4 million people, except perhaps the most senior Communist party and KGB officials and a few scientists and doctors. Thanks to the deeply entrenched Soviet habit of restricting information and suppressing bad news altogether, ordinary folk were kept in the dark throughout the weekend.

As the deadly radiation began to spread out from Chernobyl over other parts of Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and beyond, I spent the Saturday and Sunday touring Kiev in the open air. It was my first visit to the city, and I admired the spacious parks and public places.

It was an oft-repeated Soviet boast that Kiev had more greenery than virtually any city in the world. Many of those trees, bushes and grassy hills were now being poisoned by the fumes of Chernobyl, but the people of Kiev went about their business in happy ignorance of the terrible, invisible truth around them.

Open-air refreshments were not exactly a prominent feature of Soviet life, and so it was a pleasant surprise on that warm spring weekend to discover that Kiev's streets were sprinkled with cafes and stalls where snacks were on sale for a handful of kopecks. Little by little, that food was starting to be contaminated.

On the Sunday evening, more than 40 hours after the accident, Rhona and I went for a meal and a drink in the hard-currency section of a hotel. Then we went for a walk in the cool night air before sitting down on a bench to wait for a tram that would take us to Kiev University.

The next morning, I took a taxi to the airport and flew back to Moscow, where I arrived about lunchtime. I had noticed no unusual activity either on the streets of Kiev or at the airport, although it subsequently emerged that the Soviet authorities were organising an emergency evacuation of thousands of people from areas close to Chernobyl.

When I went into the Reuters Moscow office, which was located about 15 minutes' walk from the Kremlin, a colleague named Oliver Wates looked up at me and said: "How was Kiev? By the way, did you see anything funny going on when you were down there?"

"No," I replied.

"OK. It's just that the Swedish embassy just called us and asked us if we knew anything about a nuclear disaster in Ukraine."

Soon, the unimaginable facts began to trickle out - but not from the Soviet authorities, who maintained total silence on the accident until that Monday evening. First word that the disaster was extraordinarily serious came from Sweden and Finland, where radiation-tracking devices had detected radioactive clouds heading towards Scandinavia.

At first, I was in two minds about what to do. On the one hand, it seemed advisable to find out whether I had been irradiated as a result of my innocent weekend excursion. On the other hand, I felt fine and I wanted to help to cover this enormous story that had appeared from nowhere.

Reuters is the world's largest news agency, but it only had five Moscow correspondents in those days. We all had work to do. I decided to leave the medical check-up until the next day.

Almost 68 hours after the explosion, the official Soviet news agency, Tass, finally reported that an accident had happened at the Chernobyl plant. But it did not say when the disaster had occurred, or why, or how many casualties there had been, or what measures were being taken to contain the damage.

What Tass did do, immediately after issuing this report, was put out another article alleging that there had been 2,300 nuclear accidents and breakdowns in the United States in 1979 alone. During my three-year assignment in Moscow, I saw some hypocritical and disgusting propaganda spew out of the Tass machine in our office, but that one beat the lot.

Tuesday 29 April. It was time to be tested for radiation. I phoned the British embassy and asked if they could help.

"We can't do anything at the moment, but we may be flying in some monitoring equipment later in the week, so if you'd like to hang on ..."

It was not quite the reply I had hoped for. I then phoned a friend at the US embassy, who sounded interested and put me on hold while he transferred me to "one of our guys here".

To this day, I do not know the identity of this man, but what he said was: "Mr Barber, we're sending over a car to pick you up. Bring all the clothes you were wearing in Kiev."

I did as told, and when I arrived at the embassy I was escorted into a remote part of the building where I was startled to see, of all things, a Geiger counter. The embassy had not had time to import this machine since the Chernobyl accident. Clearly, US diplomats had been under instructions for some time to monitor radiation levels in the Soviet capital.

The check was over in no time at all. It detected no abnormal radiation on my body, but when it came to the clothes I had worn in Kiev it was a different story.

As the machine moved close to the seat of a pair of jeans I had worn that Sunday, it emitted a series of shrill squeaks. The US diplomat next to me said briskly: "OK, Mr Barber, we're gonna burn those jeans for you."

It was not a dangerously high radiation reading, but that noise was the most frightening I have heard in my life. I followed the diplomat outside, where he threw the jeans into an incinerator.

He then asked me to retrace my movements in Kiev to see if we could account for the radiation on the jeans. The most likely explanation, we decided, was that the radiation had settled on the bench where Rhona and I had waited for the tram on Sunday evening.

My feelings at this point consisted not so much of relief at a narrow escape, but of admiration for the way the US embassy had dealt with my predicament so efficiently. However, it was not all over yet.

First, there were the corny jokes to endure. My Reuters colleagues, aware of one of the chief purposes of my trip to Kiev, inquired with straight faces whether Rhona and I had "glowed in the dark". There were references to "the big bang in the Ukraine".

Meanwhile, the Soviet authorities were acting in public as if the Chernobyl disaster was nothing more than a minor local incident. Thursday 1 May was a public holiday, the day of the traditional May Day parades in Moscow, Kiev and all other Soviet cities.

In Red Square, thousands of citizens marched past Lenin's mausoleum with slogans including several that accused the United States of "nuclear madness". The real madness lay in the Soviet system, which had drilled its citizens to believe that accidents were things that only happened in the West, and as a result was trying to cover up the fact that the world's worst nuclear accident had occurred on Soviet territory.

In 1987, I made two more visits to Ukraine. The first was in April, for the first anniversary of the accident. This time, there was a checkpoint at Kiev airport, where a guard ran a radiation-monitoring instrument over my taxi.

The whole atmosphere was different. In April 1986, I had known nothing about a gigantic disaster that had occurred only 80 miles from me. In April 1987, Kiev state television screened a blow-by-blow account of the events surrounding the accident.

My second visit was to the town of Chernobyl itself. The Reuters bureau chief, Bob Evans, assigned me to cover the last day of the trial of six power station staff who were officially blamed for the accident.

I had reservations about going to Chernobyl, even though (or perhaps because) the Soviet authorities assured me it was safe. "Don't worry," Mr Evans said breezily, "you were probably done for last year anyway."

The Chernobyl six, who included the plant's director, were jailed for breaking safety rules. But the authorities had allowed Western reporters to attend only the first and final day of the trial - a sign that there were still limits to Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost.

In the end, the truth about Chernobyl did come out. But some things never change, it seems. Last November, the hermetic seal was broken on fuel rods after they were removed from one of Chernobyl's two working reactors.

An employee at the plant was irradiated.

Comments