COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The horrors of the world's worst nuclear accident greeted Natalia Manzurova when she arrived in the Ukraine after the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl.
Assigned by the Soviet government to study the accident's fallout, Manzurova visited an abandoned nursery school and found a bony dog sleeping on a child's cot. Its sagging, bleeding skin showed evidence of radiation burns. Through clouded eyes, the dog looked sadly at her.
"It loved children so much, that even when they had been evacuated, it stayed in a child's bed," Manzurova said during a visit to the University of South Carolina last week to remember the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident.
The sight of the sickened dog is one she can't forget, but one example of how a nuclear power accident can affect life, she said. And it's why the world should take care to avoid another Chernobyl, Manzurova said.
Speaking at USC at a time of increasing debate about nuclear power, the Russian scientist likened an atomic energy disaster to that of a war, with one major distinction. In war, the enemy is known immediately, she said. But with a nuclear accident, "We have an invisible enemy that can kill you many years later," she said, referring to the long-term health effects of radiation exposure.
In the case of the sickened dog, it had survived more than a year after the Chernobyl explosion and radiation leak sent area residents fleeing. But the animal had begun to succumb by the time Manzurova arrived in late 1987 to study the area. Many people who worked with her at Chernobyl died years later.
Manzurova, who was working at a secret Russian nuclear facility before Chernobyl, spent more than four years studying and helping with cleanup at the Chernobyl site. She was known as a "liquidator," one of thousands of people assigned by the Soviet Union to work at Chernobyl following the accident. Critics say liquidators were used by the Soviet Union to help cover up the embarrassing evidence.
Manzurova, through an interpreter, made her remarks at USC during a U.S. tour to raise awareness of nuclear safety issues and remember Chernobyl. Manzurova's March 29 talk not only recalled the April 26, 1986, Chernobyl accident, but it also occurred on the 32nd anniversary of the Three-Mile Island meltdown in Pennsylvania. She was accompanied by Russian anti-nuclear activist Natalia Miranova.
The tour, which included stops in Georgia, comes at a time of increasing discussion about nuclear plant safety in the aftermath of the reactor breakdown and radiation leaks in Japan following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Despite assurances from the nuclear industry that it is safe, the U.S. and the world should be careful about building more nuclear power plants, she said after the session at USC.
"There are no safe technologies," Manzurova said.
She said the people of Japan will feel the pain of nuclear disaster in that country. The impact will affect not just people's health, but the Japanese economy; rice from Japan could be harder to sell because of the threat of radiation, she said.
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred when a reactor exploded, spewing radiation over Europe. The Ukraine's health ministry estimates 3.5 million people have suffered some illness as a result of Chernobyl's contamination, according to the British Broadcasting Co. Some 2,500 deaths have been linked to the Chernobyl accident, the BBC reports.
During Manzurova's time at Chernobyl, cleanup workers buried animals and everyday items that had been inundated with radiation. Some houses were buried in the soil near the nuclear plant to minimize radiation risks. When she and others arrived at the site in 1987, they found a nearby town intact, but without anyone living there. All had been evacuated within hours of the accident. Clothes still hung on outdoor clotheslines. Dishes were still on kitchen tables. A Ferris wheel stood abandoned in the middle of town. The area today is overgrown, but many of the buildings remain.
"People who were evacuated had to leave everything in their houses, their pets -- everything," she said.
Many of the animals that had been domestic had become wild. In one case, a large boar suffering from radiation sickness attacked a car used by researchers at Chernobyl, Manzurova said.
Today, the effects of radiation are still seen on the landscape surrounding Chernobyl, in the Ukraine. Manzurova, 59, said she also has been affected by working at Chernobyl. She never was told by the government in Russia what amount of radiation she was exposed to but said doctors later determined radiation as the cause of thyroid problems she developed.
She bears a scar today on her neck from a thyroid operation. Manzurova said she would be reluctant to do the work again, if given the choice, because government compensation has been spotty.
"I wouldn't do that again. The state left us with no medical help, with no social help, no financial help."
(c) 2011, The State (Columbia, S.C.).
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