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The Heroes Of Chernobyl Would Do It Again

Much like Japanese workers brought in to fight the Fukushima nuclear emergency, the so-called liquidators were called on to put out the fires after the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Despite subsequent health consequences, many say they'd do it again.

Chernobyl monument to firefighters (Andrzej Karon)

Like thousands of other Soviet citizens, Lew Falkowsky risked his life to work in Chernobyl. It was June of 1986, six weeks after the number four reactor had exploded, with a radioactive cloud moving towards Europe, and Falkowsky was one of the so-called "liquidators' sent to the contaminated area at the Soviet nuclear power plant.

Since the crisis, Falkowsky, now 73, has fought serious health problems. But, like many other liquidators who survived Chernobyl, he says that he would expose himself to the danger again.

"I do not regret that I went there," he says. "I regret that I sacrificed my health, but it was my job, and I don't regret doing it." Falkowsky has had heart problems ever since his time as a liquidator.

His doctors believe that many of his health problems resulted from the strong medications he was given to protect him from high radiation exposure. "At Chernobyl, the liquidators were exposed to a radiation dose that was far above the normal value," says Falkowsky.

Following the most serious nuclear disaster in history, Falkowsky and the other workers were faced with an impossible task: they were to "liquidate" the radioactive material released through the explosion. To do this, they were asked to build a protective shell around the radiating block of the plant and decontaminate the surrounding region of Ukraine, much of which is still cordoned off today.

For their selfless efforts, the Likwidatori (as they are called in Russian) are celebrated as heroes. But they have also had to fight for the financial aid needed to pay for their medical costs. On Wednesday, March 16, dozens of people demonstrated in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev against the government's plans to cut benefits for liquidators. Though precise numbers are not available, experts estimate that tens of thousands of relief workers have already died as a direct result of their work at the plant.

In Japan, the hope of an entire nation rests on the more than 50 technicians currently struggling against the power plant disaster at the Fukushima plant. It is noteworthy that this new nuclear accident comes just weeks before the 25th Anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster.

Unlike the Soviet liquidators, the Japanese workers at least have a chance to save their own lives. But of course, wherever a technical device fails because of high radiation exposure, the health risks to the technicians will become greater. What harm the radiation will cause to the workers can only be guessed.

But there are still more Japanese citizens that are willing to put themselves in danger. The Japanese operating company of the plant is desperately seeking 20 volunteers to help manage the crisis. And some applications have already been received, according to the news agency Jiji..

Among them is a 59-year-old who is about to retire. His daughter wrote on Twitter: "I fought back tears when I heard that my father, who is to retire in six months, declared himself ready to assist."

Igor Ostrezow understands very well this desire to help. "Of course I would return," says the 72-year-old, who, like Falkowsky, was a liquidator at Chernobyl. He says that he was well aware of the high radiation exposure that he was exposing himself at the time.

"Before I went there, I read everything I could about the subject and tried to take all possible precautions," he says. He still retains the small laminated card that granted him entry to the restricted zone. He also was diagnosed with cancer. "I regret nothing," he declares. "I'm proud of everything. "

One thing did change with the disaster, however, was his view of nuclear energy. "Nuclear energy should not exist in the modern world," says Ostrezow. "I hope that the events in Japan will shake people awake and make them realize the true dangers of this technology."

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