The men who died to save the world

Editor’s note: This article is also available in Romanian.

The nuclear crisis which continues to plague Japan and the world has received scant attention from mainstream media. Given the potential magnitude of the threat posed by this disaster, it would seem there is an agenda to redirect the world’s attention. The question of who is being served by that agenda is one readers are encouraged to ponder further.

It is difficult to know precisely what is occurring now at the Fukushima reactor site. Certainly clean-up efforts are underway – equipment and technicians and workers are working – but how far the long-term damage to the world will reach, in lives, lifestyles and financial costs, as well as geography, is a matter of conjecture. The Japanese government’s new fascist whistle-blower law may ultimately ensure that the entire body of truth never comes out, an outcome which will no doubt benefit bureaucrats and corporate officials alike.

In spring of 1986, Gorbachev’s USSR faced a similar crisis at the Chernobyl power plant – an explosion and meltdown coupled with the major risk of a subsequent catastrophic nuclear event which would have leveled cities hundreds of kilometers away and left Europe and much of Russia uninhabitable due to high radiation.

An eye-opening feature-length documentary, The Battle of Chernobyl, provides harsh details. Although initially the usual tactics of obfuscation and truth-avoidance were wielded by the state and its institutions, eventually the scale of the crisis, along with pressure from other countries, overcame the predictable bureaucratic waffling and butt-covering. There stirred the first real inklings of perestroika, although incomplete, in the cause of launching an all-out fight to save the world from catastrophe.

And the world WAS saved.

The people who saved it were the firefighters who tackled the initial blaze without protective gear. They were the soldiers evacuating citizens from the nearby town of Pripyat. They were the specialists, summoned by Gorbachev, who lived on site while analyzing the monster and planning their strategy. They were the helicopter pilots who flew into a 180 °C column of poisonous radioactive air directly above the blown reactor, and the people in those choppers who dumped hundreds of tons of lead, and sand laced with boric acid, onto the melting pile. They were the 10,000 young miners who dug tunnels by hand under the reactor in massive heat and radioactivity without protection or ventilation.

They were the engineers and technicians who installed a giant refrigeration unit beneath the reactor to cool it down. They were the ‘liquidators’ who went out into the highways and byways and washed every room, every  building, every road, every structure, clear of the built-up radioactive dust the explosion had left behind, and then turned their efforts to the reactor itself, where they could only survive a few minutes of exposure. They were the construction workers who erected the enormous concrete and steel sarcophagus which now entombs the toxic ruin. They were the ‘bio-robots,’ the human beings who stepped in when the real robots broke down under radioactive assault.

Many of these people died. They died of horrific skin lesions that rotted flesh down to the bone. They died of cancer. They died of burns. They died of bone marrow deterioration and thyroid disease and the host of other ailments caused by exposure to lethal levels of radiation. They died in their tens and their hundreds and their thousands.

Who were these people? Many were unwitting, as the risks of the work involved were likely never fully disclosed. They were citizens, they were Russians and Soviets and Ukrainians, they were military and civilian, they were (and remain) unsung, unacknowledged and unappreciated by the people whose lives and countries they saved. They were, of course, heroes.

Unsurprisingly, they were not bureaucrats, nor were they women’s studies academicians, nor egalitarians, nor social construct theorists, nor equal rights lobbyists, nor gender-quota HR specialists, nor feminists.

Who were these people? The answer is as simple, as bleak and disturbing, as it is timeless: they were men, all of them – men who died to save the world.

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