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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chernobyl Lessons: Has Russia Learned?

Seven years after the world's worst nuclear disaster "Russia has not learned from Chemobyl", according to the general who was in charge of cleanup after the accident.

"We have just experienced Tomsk and who knows what may follow", said General Nikolai Tarakanov, referring to the explosion earlier this month at the Tomsk-7 nuclear reprocessing plant in Siberia.

"Chernobyl is still in operation today and if we are not careful, we may experience the same disaster all over again", he said in an interview Monday on the seventh anniversary of the accident.

Tarakanov went to Chernobyl in June 1986, two months after the accident, commanding 3, 500 soldiers. For a period of two weeks, he said he gave orders for the cleanup of highly radioactive particles which lay on the roofs of blocks three and four of the site.

Due to the high background radiation, each soldier only worked two to three minutes. Wearing special protective clothing, the volunteers would run onto the roof, pick up a piece of contaminated debris and run back to safety, the general said. Immediately after their heroic feat they were given 1, 000 rubles as a reward.

"That may have been worth more then than today, but it was still nothing compared to the risk the men faced", Tarakanov said emotionally, seated in his office on Novy Arbat.

He said he met earlier this month with President Boris Yeltsin, who signed a resolution April 15 granting victims medical care and medals for their heroism.

One of the people involved in the cleanup, who declined to be named, said he still could not forgive and forget. Wearing a Chernobyl pin on his coat on the April 26 anniversary, he spoke slowly and emotionally about the accident.

"We were blatantly lied to", he said, explaining that he was in charge of the many trucks which drove contaminated soil to different dumping sites.

"They told us we faced no health risks, but I have been to the hospital every year ever since. We were given several privileges like 50 percent off rent and a free public transportation card. But they have robbed me of my most important asset -- my health -- something I can never get back".

One of the leading experts who studied the reasons and aftermath of the Chernobyl accident, Zhores Medvedev, said that dangers still persist today.

Medvedev and 20 other international scientist groups are currently working on designing a new sarcophagus to cover the fourtn block of the Chernobyl plant, where almost all of the contaminated debris has been stored.

The Ukrainian government, which is sponsoring an international competition, has promised $10, 000 for the best project. The construction is designed to allow robots to remove and seal the waste, so that it can be buried elsewhere.

"We are trying to build a complex engineering system which has never been built before", Medvedev said in a telephone interview from London. "The sarcophagus which is now covering the site is unsafe and cracks in its walls have been found".

Ukraine cannot finance the $l-bil-lion project and it is unclear where the funds can be obtained.

"The collapse of the Soviet Union has made the situation even more difficult", Medvedev added. "No one wants to assume responsibility".

At a recent press conference Vasily Voznyak, head of Goskomchernobyl, the State Chernobyl Committee, said that to this day, exact details and numbers about the aftermath of the disaster remain confusing.

Voznyak said it is believed that 56, 000 square kilometers containing 2. 6 million inhabitants were contaminated. Only 5, 000 people have been resettled to cleaner areas, he said, adding that about 5, 000 people brought in to help remove and bury the lethal debris have died as a result of this exposure.

Vyacheslav Grishin, president of the non-governmental Chernobyl Union, said 5 to 10 percent of Chernobyl victims suffer psychological disorders. He added that suicides among those contaminated increase every year.

Tarakanov said he was exposed to 120 rem, a measurement of radiation exposure. The permissible annual limit for workers in the nuclear industry is only 5 rem with a lifetime limit of only 25 rem.

Tarakanov said that last year was the first time since the accident that he has not been treated for radiation sickness.

He blamed Chernobyl's operators for the disaster. "It's definitely the Soviet people and the Soviet government who had no idea what they were doing", he said loudly, slamming a box of staples on his desktop out of anger.

"And now people like Chernomyrdin are still making the same mistakes", he added, referring to Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's decision to continue building new nuclear plants in Russia.