The Untold Truth of Chernobyl

Radioactivity sign on a shelter door closeupYury flopped open a mini date log, pointing to the black marks he scrawled to count his helicopter trips over the still-smoldering Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Early morning April 26, 1986, the facility’s reactor number 4 exploded, heaving tons of uranium, cesium, plutonium and other radioactive poisons three miles into the atmosphere.

In the weeks following the disaster, the Soviet powers ordered Yury, a Russian video journalist, to film aerial scenes of the crippled Ukrainian facility. Yury and his copter pilots hovered eerily over the molten mess again and again. Odin, dva, tri, chetire, pyat’ . . . the numbers in Yury’s flight manifesto seemed inconceivable.

“After those flights, my hair started to fall out,” Yury explained in solid English. “At first I thought it was from a lack of eating vegetables.” As the driver of my U.S. humanitarian team to Chernobyl’s 18-mile radius Exclusion Zone, Yury seemed anxious to dialogue on that brisk day in January 1991. Our Jeep lurched and pounded on the outlying ruts, kicking up choking dust billows. Compared to the sickening cloud of radionuclides from the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe, the grimy travel debris seemed trivial.

A quarter-century after I became one of the first Western journalists into the Zone, it is time that I disclose the truth. Not about humongous-eyed aliens, but the truth behind a hush-hush secret that grieves me to think that I schlepped along in silence myself for decades. People tend to confess things to me. Addictions. Affairs. Crimes. Like them, Yury’s private mystery long wadded into the core of his nightmares needed space to thud to the surface. After showing us his Chernobyl flight record, Yury stared at the Jeep’s steering wheel before continuing his memories.

That April Saturday in 1986, Yury captured video of his family throwing an outdoor party not far from the doomed power plant. The media cameraman filmed the springtime flowers and squealing laughter of the kids. He recorded the fresh gaiety of the afternoon, oblivious that all around invisible chemicals wafted in the breeze and swirled into streams. Deadly atoms gripped trees, grass and shoes. Ionizing particles floated inside nostrils and lungs.

While Yury kept the camera rolling on fun, firefighters and first responders at the Chernobyl facility raced to dampen the roaring reactor. No one could stop the radioactive fury. And no one told the public of the out-of-control monster fanning a lethal plume northward across Belarus and countries beyond.

Soviet Union leader Gorbachev and other members of the Politburo learned of the tragedy around 3 a.m. Saturday—about 1 ½ hours after the steam blast rocked a 1,000-ton lid from above the reactor’s fuel elements. Seeds of a global cover-up rooted overnight. What Soviet commanders knew and when is still debated. Some 36 hours after the explosion, residents of Pripyat, the power plant’s surrounding “atom town” received first official details of the meltdown: “Attention comrades, an unsatisfactory radioactive situation has occurred at the Chernobyl power station. As a temporary precaution, it has been decided to evacuate citizens of Pripyat.” Three hours later, with the aid of 1,200 buses from Kiev, the community of roughly 45,000 turned eerily empty.

Somewhere in the panic and precaution, Soviet authorities learned of Yury’s idyllic spring day video. Moscow aired clips of his film on state television. The communist powers distorted Yury’s truth of the clear landscape and jovial people into a half-truth for the world to see. Da, April 26 was a bright, sunny day. See the local children giggling and romping, the adults toasting and feasting. Yury’s video footage proved all was well for USSR citizens. Or, was it?

In control of our Jeep ride to the Zone almost five years later, this seen-too-much news professional could no longer control his dam of secrecy. Yury stammered with the sobering reality. “The government used my video to say that “Nyet, nyet, nyet, the Chernobyl plant is fine. Everything is fine. That video, it . . . it. . . how you say? It is a black spot on my heart. A black spot on my whole life.”

The civil authorities turned an innocent party into international propaganda. If Sweden hadn’t sounded the alarm, three days after the initial devastation, how long would have the Soviets remained tight-lipped? Authorities held back on the full effects of the radiation contamination for years. Children splashed in streams. Women gathered mushrooms in the forests. Men tilled their farmland.

The Republic’s calculated downplay of the Chernobyl melee cracked open in October 1990 when Byelorussia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Pyotr Kravchanka addressed the United Nations General Assembly. “I want to be completely frank with the Assembly,” Mr. Kravchanka said in issuing an appeal for international aid. “The bitter truth is that it is only now, four and a half years later, that we are finally and with tremendous difficulty making a breach in the wall of indifference, silence and lack of sympathy, and for this we ourselves are largely to blame.”

A few weeks later I was invited as a reporter to join a New York-based group delivering three ton of medicine and relief supplies to Belarus hospitals and orphanages. Our host, the Byelorussian Children’s Fund, escorted us throughout this troubled country where more than half of the unseen Chernobyl toxins showered unsuspecting citizens with a blanket of potential disease and death. I grasped the hand of a dying teen and cradled babies no body wanted. Seeing dozens of bald, chemo-sick boys and girls is still tough to form into words.

I sensed the country’s suffocating uneasiness as Yury drove us to the Zone’s checkpoint and armed communist guards herded us into an outdated bus to tour a number of desolate evacuated villages. At one point we ventured within four miles of the mangled energy plant and our cell phone-sized dosimeter soared to indicate dangerous radiation levels—10 times higher than what is considered safe.

I can still hear the haunting creak of dilapidated playground swings. Picture dirt-swept toys and dolls long abandoned in schoolrooms. Drawing close to Chernobyl’s Ground Zero, we met an elderly couple outside their farmhouse. “Why are you still here in this contamination?” I posed. The wife pointed to the sky and scolded me through our interpreter, “Neyt! Neyt! Neyt! We see nothing in the air!”

Denial can work for any of us, until reality snags our heels and hauls us down. An accurate tally of the ill and dead from Chernobyl may never be known—estimates still range from hundreds to hundreds of thousands. As celebrated author Mitch Albom notes, “One day can bend your life.” April 26, 1986, was that day for Yury and countless innocents like him.

Today the United Nations reports, “No established legitimate authority was able to immediately address the situation and provide answers for questions such as: Is it safe to leave the house? Is it safe to drink water? Is it safe to eat local produce?”
Thirty years ago in a Cold War culture, Yury did not know Moscow would manipulate his family-time video. Today we live in a world where employees (politicians, NFL players and more) refuse to submit evidence—delete the files, shred evidence or wipe the data—or become infamous whistle blowers. Was Yury an unknowing pawn on a convoluted global chessboard or merely a dedicated family man just doing his job? Yes. Both.

I imagine feeling radiation betray his own body and watching the same in others only added to Yury’s internal agony. Perhaps he wondered, Am I partially to blame for these hurting kids? Could I have spoken out against the mishandling of my video or alerted the outside world to the truth?

Brave and Resilient Tip #136: Always hold to the unarmed truth.

I cringe as I type. Sitting in that chilly Jeep in early 1991, was Yury attempting to alert the outside world through me?
In his UN plea, representative Kravchanka added this perspective. “The verdict of history has yet to be passed on those in our Republic who . . . hid the truth about the effects of the accident from our people,” the foreign affairs leaders said. “It is difficult to say why they did this, and to disentangle cause from effect: was the deception caused by secrecy, or was the secrecy the result of the deception? Either way, it was inhuman.”

Deception always hurts someone. In the case of the Chernobyl disaster, someone swelled to hundreds of thousands. Countless men, women and children lost homes. Lost hair. Lost lives.

I respect national security issues, but is there ever an appropriate time for governments to sequester the reality of a mistake, a manmade disaster, a tragic oops that injures and kills? Its no wonder distrust festers in the psyche of citizens on every continent.
I have no time for regrets. Neither does Yury, if he is still alive. I’m unclear how anyone can fly numerous times over a fuming nuclear reactor and live years later to tell about it. Of the first-on-the-scene photographers who snapped photos or recorded video on the ground and in the air that fateful Saturday, two are dead from radiation-related disease and one was constantly ill from the Chernobyl exposure for years before dying in a 2015 car accident.

Maybe my silence has propagated Yury’s guilt, widened that dark spot on his heart. I’m truly sorry, Yury. I was so wrapped up in telling the rest of the Chernobyl story that I forgot to tell yours. To your homeland and mine, I say stop the sludge-flinging and blaming and cramming fault under calculated layers of classified deception.

A man who believed that the truth will set you free, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, espoused, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
The Soviet government hid the truth from its unsuspecting citizens and the entire planet, while we sometimes hide the truth from even ourselves. I challenge us all to hold to the unarmed truth and inspire others to do that same.

This one is for you, Yury. May your mind and heart live free. Da. Da. Da.

On April 26, 2016, the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, national published a condensed version of this article by Beth.

Fireside Chat

If you and I were sitting around a roaring fire and chatting about life and our dreams and aspirations for 2016, I would hope we’d find ourselves chuckling and at ease. But, I’d also want us to stay real and transparent that we don’t always have life figured out and wrapped with a sparkly bow. Life just gets messy at times, but thankfully we don’t have to stay in the mess.
In our little fireside chat, here are some things I’d like us to ponder.

  • Am I an approachable person?
  • Who do I allow to speak truth into my life?
  • What keeps me from receiving insight or correction from others?
  • What little things am I letting eat away at me?
  • How might I risk more authenticity in relationships?

IMG_4066After I added another log to the fire, perhaps I’d share a bit from my journal, which I write in here and there. On December 18, I recorded in my journal an
excerpt from the Our Daily Bread devotional that day, “Once you have become grateful for a problem, it loses its power to drag you down.”

I wonder what problems I’d share with you over the crackling embers. I just said “no” to a new collie puppy that just wasn’t the right fit for me. How long will I need to wait? Do I go back to an online dating service or go with a local professional match service? I recently lost a couple of main clients, how will I regain that income?

We’d probably banter back and forth about our everyday dilemmas and even bemoan political campaigns and ISIS threats, but then maybe we’d dig deeper in conversation.

  • What do you say to a friend who has a loved one who is terminally ill?
  • How do you keep trusting God when others think He’s rather removed from everyday involvement in our lives?
  • How do you stay sexually pure when the world says, “Huh? Why?”
  • Is it really possible to find joy in gut-wrenching trials? How?

Questions like this is where trusting camaraderie is forged. I’m glad we had this fireside chat. We may not have solved everything we’re currently mulling over, but I think we’re on a good start for the year. Here’s one final question for you.

What keeps us from being real and approachable with others? I’ll add another log or two while you send me your thoughts on this.

Brave and Resilient Tip #130: Risk being approachable. Risk being real.

Let’s Talk

Reframing and Changing Channels — Part 2

Q. Thanks for your last column on the general process of reframing. Could you give some actual examples, even for small children?

A. Let’s Talk! Yes! Whenever we suffer losses, changes, disappointments, fear, anger, and a host of other thoughts/feelings — reframing is a process whereby we can park those thoughts/feelings and get some insights to set our hearts free from the grip of that stronghold.

It REALLY matters what you are thinking, so it is a good thing to examine what’s going on in your head and heart. At the base of every behavior is a belief system in play, so it makes sense to look at your thinking/feelings. Great clues here!

This process can be easily taught to small children or adults. One may use paper to make the left- and right-hand columns or not use paper at all. The insights (in the right-hand column) also can come from various levels of truth-seeking: from what seems like truth for the situation or actually getting a download from Scripture or even hearing from God. It’s transformational.

This week I’d love to give you a reframing example I have used with small children, not even using paper because they didn’t know how to write yet. It’s a reframing chart of the imagination. During my years as an elementary school counselor, the first week of school was always a challenge. One of the most common challenges was responding well to students who were sure they weren’t going to make it home on the school bus! So, I used their left hand/arm to help them identify their fears. I didn’t tell them, “Do not to feel that way.”

Instead, I listed their fears audibly from what they told me (i.e., “I’m so scared I won’t get home, etc.”). Then I would list on their right hands/arms what was true (i.e., “The truth is, there will be three men on your bus, they have walkie-talkies and telephones, you will have a name tag on, etc.”). Then I stressed to the children to keep their thoughts on the right-hand side and camp there whenever they got scared again. Throughout the day I would see these students, and they would lift their right hand victoriously and smile wide that freedom had come. Yay!!!!!!!!

Next week I will share an example of a spiritual model in bringing truth into the right-hand column of your reframing chart.

For Deeper Reflection

Isaiah 61: 1-3 “. . . He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners. . . to comfort all who mourn . . . giving them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting. . . .”

Ephesians 4:23 “. . . and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind. . . .”

Helen B. McIntosh has a doctorate in counseling psychology and is a national board certified professional counselor and certified in reality therapy. An educator for 19 years, Dr. McIntosh is an author, a highly demanded national speaker and inventor of the Peace Rug®, an international curriculum for conflict resolution.

You can contact me confidentially at



Start with Hope

IMG_3972A few years ago I watched an episode of House M.D. in which Aussie Dr. Robert Chase shares some wise counsel with medical student Martha Masters (Amber Tamblyn). Masters known for her more matter-of-fact communication with patients, asks Dr. Chase how be gentler in her bedside manner, especially with terminal cases. Dr. Chase recommends, “If it comes down to brutal truth and hope. Start with hope.”

Start with hope. These three words offer sage direction for our new year, especially when we have plenty of “brutal truth” to absorb. In the blur of school starting again, gifts to return, Christmas decorations to store, a gym membership to use, and more fruits and vegetables to eat, we could all benefit from less harshness and more hope. Less setting unrealistic goals and more hope. Less targeting the faults of others and more hope. Less giving up and more hope.

I would define hope as “expecting and looking eagerly for something to improve or change for the better.” This expectancy may be an uptick in our health, our marriage, our family, our friendships, our finances, our jobs, or our outlook on the months and year ahead.

A friend gave me this “She was full of hope” art piece for Christmas. The wall art hangs by my computer where I can view the words several times a day. As 2015 unfurls, let’s keep hope alive as we look beyond the present to the possibilities ahead. And in each new day, let’s start and end with hope and intentionally mix hope throughout our minutes in between.

Brave and Resilient Tip #91: Intentionally mix hope throughout each day.

Let’s Talk


Q. Could you please share some thoughts on denial?

A. Let’s Talk! Denial comes in many subtle but destructive forms when something in our lives is too painful or messy to deal with that we choose instead to go to a place of minimizing, ignoring, fantasy thinking, or rebellion.

Denial is one of numerous defense mechanisms that attempt to help block out or lessen one’s present difficulty. Layers of denial then begin to build, and the person in difficulty becomes out of touch with where his or her car left the track. It’s a slippery slope of one failed attempt after another to deal with one’s present reality.

You’ve heard of a house of cards, and this is what a system of denial looks like: one lie on top of another, one misdeed on top of another, etc. Maybe the beginning was minimizing, saying to oneself, This isn’t so bad. Maybe it was ignoring poor choices and failing to assume personal responsibility for wrongs done. When one’s house of cards is falling, fantasy thinking reigns.

The way out of this house of cards is the opposite of a lattice of lies: it’s truth. Facing the truth. If you are a friend or a family member of someone in denial, the kindest and most loving gift is to help give truth—void of anger and condemnation. On some level, the truth will bring great relief. It takes enormous energy to keep up a house of cards. But on another level, it is also painful for denial to be exposed, even though it is the right thing to face the truth. Until denial is exposed, a person can’t fully move forward.

Resisting instruction in life, which is a type of rebellion, is also a form of denial we’ll talk about next week. Denial has its consequences also, one of which is poor self-esteem. I leave you with the below verse to think on until we chat again.

For Deeper Reflection

Proverbs 15: 22 “He who resists instruction despises his own soul.”

Helen B. McIntosh has a doctorate in counseling psychology and is a national board certified professional counselor and certified in reality therapy. An educator for 19 years, Dr. McIntosh is an author, a highly demanded national speaker and inventor of the Peace Rug®, an international curriculum for conflict resolution.

You can contact me confidentially at

Let’s Talk

Fear in the Waiting Room

Q. Why does fear show up when we are waiting for something or someone?

A. Let’s Talk! Fear is an unwelcome guest in the waiting room of life as we face unknowns, for sure! Fear is never invited and stays longer than we’d like. There are ways to lessen its grip on us, though. Fear feels really big, but it is really a “lack of.” Let’s do talk.

Fear shows up when there is a lack of trust, a lack of information, a lack of faith at the moment, or a lack of remembering what’s true. We do have a choice when fear creeps in. We can let fear consume and control us, or we can choose to think on all the things we do know that are true about the situation. We can change that channel!

I had a fear test days ago myself. My little dog, Millie, underwent extensive oral surgery and the waiting-on-the-vet-call was excruciating. At one point in the LONG wait I realized I had let fear control my thoughts. I had let my guard down. But then I reached for my sword of truth (my Bible) and the darkness faded immediately. The grip released. I remembered these truths: Millie was in competent human hands, God was there and could handle any outcomes, and I did not want fear to rule me. When I changed the channel to what I could bank on as true, fear lost.

We can defeat fears that bully their way into our thoughts and emotions. Let’s talk more next week about ways to counter fear as we wait.

For Deeper Reflection

2 Corinthians 10:5 “We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ . . . .”

Isaiah 41:10 “Do not fear, for I am with you; Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.”

Helen B. McIntosh has a doctorate in counseling psychology and is a national board certified professional counselor and certified in reality therapy. An educator for 19 years, Dr. McIntosh is an author, a highly demanded national speaker and inventor of the Peace Rug®, an international curriculum for conflict resolution.

You can contact me confidentially at

Let’s Talk

Talking About Difficult Subjects
With Loved Ones

Q.  What are some ways to discuss difficult subjects with my family and friends?

A. Let’s Talk! We always want to share truth with others, but that is often challenging to do, to hear and receive at times. But, there is a mental outline I’d love to share with you as you make that brave choice.

Like many things, we learn best from mistakes. I had a doozie of a mistake years ago, but the outcome was The Sandwich outline the Lord gave me that I shall gladly pass along to you. The doozie was a parent-teacher conference that went south. Caving to time pressure, I shared with a mother the concerns I had for her child at a high rate of speed. Her response was, “Doesn’t he do anything right?” I was halted in my tracks, deeply grieved for my speedy delivery void of empathy. I knew better and apologized profusely to this mother. That night I cried out for God to show me a way to better share difficult material. The mental download was The Sandwich.

Picture a big burger. Let’s say the meat itself is the challenging message we want to give, but we first start the conversation with the top bun—sprinkled with as many sesame seeds (or honest kudos) as possible. Top bun language yields sincere sentences in soft words that will preface the difficult message. In the example of the parent-teacher conference, I should have said: “Your son has brought much joy to the classroom and is strong in these ways . . . and I also need to share a behavior of concern.”

Then, you slide down to the bottom bun and say something soft like, “but I know we can work together to make things better.” Then I should have asked if I could share the concern with her. Yes, that was the purpose for the meeting, but it is more respectful to ask. I have never had anyone refuse my sharing a “concern” when I asked if I could share it. That’s when you share the concern, or the meat of the sandwich, after which you can reiterate the bottom bun message.

This is just one way to share a hard comment in a loving but firm way. Said another way: tell the absolute truth in loving-kindness. The message is hard enough, but a smooth delivery helps it go down better!


For Deeper Reflection

Ephesians 4:15  “. . . but, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow in all aspects of
Him into Him . . . .”

1 Corinthians 13:1 – 7  “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

You can contact me confidentially at

Helen B. McIntosh has a doctorate in counseling psychology and is a national board certified professional counselor and certified in reality therapy. An educator for 19 years, Dr. McIntosh is an author, a highly demanded national speaker and inventor of the Peace Rug®, an international curriculum for conflict resolution.