• The rockets fell into the radioactive waste Zaporozhye nuclear power plant.
  • Monitors warn of a “serious” crisis with the potential for catastrophic consequences.
  • Ukraine is still reeling from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, when a Soviet-era reactor exploded and spewed radiation into the atmosphere in the north of the country.
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Anastasia Rudenko holds in her hands a shiny gold medal awarded to her by the late Victor for her work in the accident zone at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

He died in 2014 of bladder cancer – possibly as a result of radiation, she believes. Now she mourns his loss in the Ukrainian village of Vyshetarasivka, across the river from the Zaporizhzhya NPP.

Kyiv and Moscow accuse each other of shelling near the facility. Missiles fell into a radioactive waste storage facility, and observers are warning of a “serious” crisis with the potential for catastrophic fallout.

Across a 14-kilometer stretch of the Dnieper River, the station’s bulky silhouette is clearly visible from the village, where Rudenko is working on documents that prove her partner’s fateful role in the worst nuclear disaster in history.

“We may face the same fate as the residents of Chernobyl,” a 63-year-old man told AFP.

“There’s nothing good about what’s going on, and we don’t know how it’s going to end.”

in the “zone”

Ukraine is still reeling from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, when a Soviet-era reactor exploded and spewed radiation into the atmosphere in the north of the country.

Russia seized the site when it launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February, raising security concerns, but it was abandoned weeks later when Moscow failed to take Kyiv.

The Zaporizhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine was also occupied in the early days of the war, but has since remained in Russian hands.

Ukraine says enemy forces are attacking the facility – Europe’s largest – and its own troops are unable to return fire.

The escalating situation has dark echoes from the past for those with close ties to Chernobyl.

Anastasia’s husband Viktor worked as one of the 600,000 “liquidators” who were tasked with carefully decontaminating the “Chernobyl exclusion zone”, where high levels of radiation forced the evacuation of the civilian population.

The official death toll at Chernobyl remains at just 31, but this figure is hotly contested, with some estimates suggesting that thousands of liquidators may have received lethal doses of invisible radiation.

In total, Viktor drove the “zone” in a truck for 18 days. The gold service ribbon of the Chernobyl Union of Ukraine depicts atoms circling the “Chernobyl bell”, a symbol that has become a resounding reminder of the event.

A delicate document from the archives of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine confirms Viktor’s work and the radiation dose he absorbed – 24.80 x-rays.

“When I see my husband’s papers, it hurts me,” Anastasia explained. “Many people died or suffered permanent injuries.”

“When the Zaporozhye plant is shelled, we can see it clearly,” she added. “People have rumors that something is leaking, but they shy away from it publicly.”

Live liquidators

Vasyl Davydau says that three “liquidators” still live in the village of Vyshetarasovka, a bucolic collection of garden-fenced bungalows with a hazy view of Zaporizhia Station’s six reactors and two cooling towers.

He is one of them. For three and a half months, he worked on Chernobyl decontamination, made 102 trips to the “zone”, used a dosimeter to measure radiation levels and razed damaged houses.

In his garden, the 65-year-old unpacks his own service medals on a sided fridge used as a makeshift table. One depicts the figure of Atlanta holding the world, the image of the globe displaced by the Chernobyl station.

There are also pictures. Davydov as a handsome soldier in uniform poses with his comrades and in front of a patriotic sign: “Soldier! We will revive life on the territory of Chernobyl.”

“I was there. I saw it all, and I saw the scale,” he said.

Just a few days after Russian troops seized the factory, according to Davydov, iodine tablets were distributed in the village to block a certain type of radiation.

But the time spent working in the “zone” seems to have taught him to fear living in front of the Zaporizhzhia plant, even in a moment of crisis.

“If you believe everything, you can go crazy,” he said. “So you filter everything through your experience.”

– What will my fear do? he asked. “How can it help me?”

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