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'Voices From Chernobyl': Survivors' Stories

Twenty years ago this month, a routine maintenance test at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in northern Ukraine veered wildly out of control.

At 1:23 in the morning on April 26, 1986, there was a disastrous chain reaction in the core of reactor No.4. A power surge ruptured the uranium fuel rods, while a steam explosion created a huge fireball that blew the roof off the reactor. The resulting radioactive plume blanketed the nearby city of Pripyat.

The cloud moved on to the north and west, contaminating land in neighboring Belarus, then moved across Eastern Europe and over Scandinavia.

From the Soviets: utter silence. There was no word from the Kremlin that the worst nuclear accident in history was under way.

Then monitoring stations in Scandinavia began reporting abnormally high levels of radioactivity. Finally, nearly three days after the explosion, the Soviet news agency TASS issued a brief statement acknowledging that an accident had occurred.

The memories of survivors were collected for the 10th anniversary of the disaster in the book Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of the Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich. We hear some of their stories: those living with illness and fear, and those sent in to clean up the mess and monitor the damage.

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