'Child Of Chernobyl' Reflects On Disaster

A reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine exploded 25 years ago today, spewing nuclear fuel and radioactive smoke into the air. Michele Norris speaks with Olga Belogolova, staff writer for the National Journal. She wrote the article "Child of Chernobyl, 25 Years Later" posted today on The Atlantic website.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

On this day 25 years ago, reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded. A radioactive cloud spread across Europe and sparked mass evacuations and health concerns.

Olga Belogolova's family lived nearby, in Kiev; she wasn't born yet. Today, she published a story on The Atlantic's website about the difficult decisions for families after the disaster at Chernobyl.

In her mother's case, one of those decisions came when she discovered she was pregnant. Belogolova learned in researching the article that she was that child.

Mrs. OLGA BELOGOLOVA (Author, "Child of Chernobyl, 25 Years Later"): Right after the radiation spread throughout the Soviet Union and Europe, my mother was worried that perhaps it was unsafe to have a child.

She wasn't really sure who to talk to. The Soviet government wasn't really giving that much information. And she just spoke to a friend, who told her that perhaps it might be OK to have a child and the sooner the better. And so she kept me.

NORRIS: That's you. That she decided to hope against hope.

Ms. BELOGOLOVA: Yes, and I'm glad she did.

NORRIS: What did they tell you about what life was like, about fleeing Kiev, heading to an area near the Black Sea, staying away from the city while your grandparents were still back in Kiev?

Ms. BELOGOLOVA: Well, I also spoke to my grandparents, who stayed in Kiev, and the primary concern was to make sure that children weren't affected because they're most susceptible to the radiation. And so the children were the first to go.

And so my parents took my sister away, whereas my grandparents stayed in the city and worked. My grandmother told me that, you know, the city looked beautiful, but it was very haunting to see because she usually saw - in Kiev, there are children running to school, and she didn't see any children anymore.

NORRIS: And your parents were sending care packages back to your grandparents.

Ms. BELOGOLOVA: They were. My mother was collecting berries or buying them in the market when she was out in the countryside and making jam out of berries and closing the jar very tightly so that it would not be affected on its trip and sending it to my grandparents, along with some other things that they were able to buy outside of Kiev.

NORRIS: Your grandparents eventually fell ill. And I'm wondering after all this time if your family will ever know if their illnesses were a result of the exposure.

Ms. BELOGOLOVA: My grandmother had thyroid cancer, and, immediately following the accident, my grandfather had hyperthyroidism, which means the thyroid produces too many hormones. And it's possible that it's related to Chernobyl, but we still don't know to this day.

NORRIS: Olga, the decision about whether or not to have a child is deeply, deeply personal. How did this come up? How and when did your mother decide to share that story with you?

Ms. BELOGOLOVA: After the Fukushima nuclear accident, I was sort of more interested in learning about my family and this experience that we had. And another thing that I learned that I had never known before was one of the reasons my family came to America was because of the radiation, as well.

NORRIS: Olga Belogolova, thank you very much for talking to us. All the best to you.

Ms. BELOGOLOVA: Thank you so much.

NORRIS: Olga Belogolova is a writer for the National Journal. She has a story on The Atlantic Online called "Child of Chernobyl, 25 Years Later."

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