Opinion: What I learned growing up in the shadow of Europe's largest nuclear power plant

Opinion: What I learned growing up in the shadow of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant


Editor’s note: Sasha Dovzhyk is Curator of Special Projects at the Ukrainian Institute London and Associate Lecturer in Ukrainian at the School of Slavonic and East-European Studies, University College London. She holds a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Birkbeck, University of London. She divides her time between the UK and Ukraine. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. See more opinion on CNN.


What enemy did you fight in your childhood nightmares? Mine had no shape, voice, smell or taste, but it could slip under my skin and erode me from within.

Ever since I was 10, when I came across a book about the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, I had regularly had nightmares about radiation poisoning. My best friend and writing partner must have suffered from my renditions of these prose and verse nightmares throughout our school years.

Growing up in Zaporizhzhia, the city in southeastern Ukraine about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Europe’s largest nuclear power plant – now the site of Russian bombing and growing fears of disaster nuclear – we were no strangers to atomic anxiety.

After all, the Chernobyl disaster, which happened just two years before I was born, was a regular feature in the school curriculum.

Textbooks aside, my aunt was one of those Soviet citizens who unknowingly marched through central Kyiv during the May Day parade in 1986 when, some 110 kilometers (68 miles) to the north, the reactor 4 from Chernobyl was blowing radiation into the sky.

As the Western world mourns the death of Mikhail Gorbachev, Ukrainians remember the last Soviet leader for those festivities in irradiated Kyiv and his coverage of Chernobyl.

In our last year at school, we went on a trip to Enerhodar, a small town that is home to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. I was secretly disappointed by the orderly monotony of the station. Throughout the 2000s, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reportedly ranked the plant as one of the best run in the world.

The station looked clean, well organized, as did the thousands of employees in charge of its six nuclear reactors. My strongest memory of this trip is the bus breaking down in the fields on the way back.

Sasha Dovzhyk's aunt Tetiana Kulihina with friends in Kyiv, May 1986.

Now, two decades later, those fields are on fire, my hometown is in the throes of war, and the neat professionals at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant have been taken hostage by the occupiers and are working under enormous physical and psychological pressure. .

I wonder how tidy the station looks with almost 50 pieces of military equipment stored at the site from which the Russians regularly bombard the nearby Ukrainian town of Nikopol, launching up to 120 rockets a night. I doubt that the IAEA commission which is about to cross the front line and inspect the station will again class it among the safest in the world.

The Russian military captured the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in March, and personnel are believed to have operated at gunpoint. It happened on a rare night I spent alone in a rented apartment in Lviv. During these first weeks of the full-scale invasion, it was normal to share accommodation with many friends and strangers: Ukrainians from the east, south and north of the country were moving west, fleeing the troops invasion and bombardment.

Among them were my parents who had just left for Germany. My best friend, the faithful recipient of my nuclear-inspired teenage writing, was en route from Zaporizhzhia to Lviv with her young family. An alert woke me after half an hour of anxious sleep. I watched a video of the Russian army bombing the nuclear power plant that cast a shadow over my childhood. In my nightmares, people were smarter than that. It was not a dream. The reality turned out to be much more worrying.

The Russian soldiers bombing the reactors could be suicide bombers. Or, they might lack the basic training in radiation hazards that an average Ukrainian child experiences endlessly. The same lack of knowledge manifested itself in the invaders’ decision to dig trenches in the Red Forest during their aborted mission to Kyiv. Located in the heart of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the forest is one of the most contaminated nuclear sites in the world. It is impossible to imagine a Ukrainian disturbing this burial of radioactive waste.

The Chernobyl tragedy is part of the collective memory in Ukraine. It seeped into national literature and drove politics. Documenting the experience of survivors, Ukrainian writers such as Ivan Drach and Volodymyr Yavorivskyi became anti-nuclear activists, founded grassroots political organizations and campaigned for independence from Moscow – which had enabled the worst catastrophe nuclear history on Ukrainian soil and downplayed the consequences.

Indeed, the Kremlin’s cover-up of the disaster became a powerful cause that allowed environmentalists and Ukrainian dissidents to shake the foundations of the Soviet regime. Five years after the disaster, Ukrainians have spoken out against the Soviet Union. The independence of the modern Ukrainian state has a nuclear birthmark. This political association makes nuclear the subject of memory in Ukraine – and the place of amnesia in Russia.

In March, I hugged my best friend who was about to cross the border and seek safety for her children in Western Europe. As a souvenir, I gave her my favorite poetry book. It is with words as well as with weapons that Ukrainians are accustomed to fighting their enemies.

In case we faced an enemy that also couldn’t be fought, my friend gave me four iodine pills. I carried his parting gift in my wallet throughout the six months of Russian nuclear terrorism.

Sasha Dovzhyk with her aunt Tetiana in the Zaporizhzhia region, 1994.

Today, my aunt, who 36 years ago was summoned to march under the radioactive cloud of Chernobyl, is one of the residents lining up to receive government-distributed iodine in Zaporizhzhia. If the occupiers cause a radiation accident at the occupied nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, our hometown will most likely end up in a new exclusion zone – and the spread of radiation does not stay within zones and borders.

For the eight years that Russia has been waging its war against Ukraine, Ukrainians have warned the international community of the dangers of active fighting near Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. Their warnings went unheeded. The assailant was appeased.

It is now up to the international community to return control of civilian nuclear infrastructure objects in Ukraine to those who treat them with knowledge of history, respect for the past and responsibility for the future: to the Ukrainians.

The author uses the Ukrainian spelling of Chernobyl.

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