Child of Chernobyl, 25 Years Later

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The Chernobyl disaster, which occurred 25 years ago today, caused global fallout and panic, but many of the most difficult decisions were made by the individual families affected by the explosion in the Ukraine

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There's a chance I might not have been born.

One year, two months, two weeks and one day before my birth, reactor number four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant experienced a surge in power. The consequent series of explosions exposed the reactor to the air, causing it to ignite and release radioactive material that spread over parts of the Soviet Union and Europe.

At the time, my family lived in Kiev, the closest big city to the accident. In the immediate aftermath of the explosions, my mother was outside with my older sister, Lena, who was one-and-a-half years old at the time. The city looked deceptively beautiful, with blooming flowers and budding chestnuts lining the streets and ushering in the Ukrainian spring. Dark or foreboding clouds were nowhere to be found; you could not see or smell radiation. A kind neighbor told my mother that perhaps it might be a good idea to go inside because she heard about a fire at a nuclear plant. That information was the extent of my family's knowledge of the Chernobyl accident for the next several days, as the Soviet government continued business as usual. Government officials merrily went on to celebrate May Day, or "The Day of Spring and Labour" just a few days after the explosion, while quietly making plans to get out of Kiev with their families soon after.

Basing their decisions on panic, rumors and a natural distrust for government officials, families such as mine began to leave for the countryside as well.

Train stations, bus stops, airports and any transportation outlet was crowded with people trying to get out somewhere, anywhere an available ticket would take them. My father stood in line for four to five hours at the airport to get tickets out to Crimea for my family. At the time, my parents had only been married for about two years and whatever savings they had, they blew them that summer.

Forced to take time off work, my parents took my sister away from the dangers of radiation to Yalta, a Crimean city on the north coast of the Black Sea. They stayed away for about four months, regularly sending uncontaminated food to my grandparents, who had to stay in Kiev at the time. The primary concern at the time was to keep children away from the radiation.

For the first time in her life, my grandmother saw a Kiev entirely devoid of children. It was unrecognizable; haunting even. My grandparents, along with many others, continued working in the city. My grandfather, who worked as a scientist for the government, brought home a Geiger counter. He walked into the yard behind our apartment building and looked down at the analog dial on its face. It was all the way to the right, at the peg. In Russian, it was "out of scale," off-the-charts. 

After insisting that the situation was under control, the city of Kiev finally issued a notice to its citizens (see above). It explained that all citizens should take warm showers often, keep windows closed, and regularly wash rugs, furniture and other household items, among many other instructions. My grandparents, parents and many of their friends regularly took iodine with their food in the months following the accident to counteract the effects of the radiation. The doses were self-prescribed, as they had no idea what they actually needed to do.

A month after the accident, my grandfather got sick and the doctors determined that it was hyperthyroidism, a condition in which the thyroid produces too many hormones. Exposure to radiation is one of the known causes, but to this day, my family has no idea whether it was a result of Chernobyl.

Not long after that, my mother found out that she was pregnant with me. According to scientists, pregnant women, fetuses, infants and children are at the highest risk of developing thyroid cancer as a result of radiation. She had to make a decision, but there was no one who could answer her questions. She called a doctor friend in Bulgaria and asked if she should keep her baby. The friend said yes, having a child sooner was better than later. My mother decided to keep me.

Other conditions emerged following the accident, including my grandmother's thyroid cancer about 15 years later, and we still don't know how much the nuclear accident had to do with it. As the full effects of the radiation are still being examined today, no one in my family is allowed to donate blood and we regularly have to check our thyroids.

After a few months, my mother and father returned to Kiev, but they were already thinking about moving. At the time, my father traveled to Moscow regularly to bring fresh and uncontaminated food to my two-year old sister, carrying bags upon bags of produce home every time. At bazaars and markets in Kiev, there were checkpoints to ensure food was not radiated. And then, in the midst of all this -- I was born.

When I was just over a year old, the Geiger counter readings from our yard were still off the charts. Two years later, we decided to emigrate to America. Though the decision was largely based on politics and religious freedom, radiation gave us a final push. My parents packed up everything and moved over 6,000 miles away from their home, the bravest and most life-altering decision of their lives. I grew up in Los Angeles.

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Images: 1. The concrete sarcophagus at Chernobyl/AP; 2. The notice posted by the government in Kiev/Courtesy of Olga Belogolova. 3. The author's family on their way to the United States/Courtesy of Olga Belogolova.

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Olga Belogolova is an associate editor at InsideDefense.com in Washington, D.C., where she covers the Navy. She was previously a staff reporter at National Journal, where she covered energy policy and other global issues.

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