KIEV If there is one person outside Japan who knows what the crisis workers at the Fukushima nuclear plant are going through now it is 64-year-old Andriy Chudinov.
One of the first Chernobyl trouble-shooters to get to the disaster site of the world's worst nuclear accident in 1986 and a rarity in that he survived, Chudinov looks back on those traumatic events with calmness, sadness and resignation.
He generously applauds the workers who are fighting to bring Japan's quake-damaged nuclear reactors under control.
"These are good guys. After all, they have had it even worse than we did. They had a tsunami first and now there are several reactors with problems. That's a nightmare for any atomic worker," he told Reuters on Wednesday.
It remains to be seen whether the Japanese drama will take on the proportions of Chernobyl, when tonnes of nuclear material were spewed across Europe after an explosion and fire at the plant's No. 4 reactor.
The world was different then. It was the Cold War when Ukraine was part of the secretive Soviet Union and Moscow withheld the truth about the disaster for three days.
Chudinov was one of a huge army of workers -- many of them soldiers -- whom Soviet authorities sent in to tackle the Chernobyl disaster which resulted from a test of cooling systems at the plant.
The experiment, which involved demobilizing safety systems, went horribly wrong and a series of explosions in the early hours of April 26, 1986, blew the concrete roof off the reactor and sent radioactivity billowing across Europe.
Those drafted in to handle the crisis at risk to their own lives became known as the "liquidators."
Chudinov was a senior operator at reactor No. 3 -- next to the stricken reactor -- at the plant at Prypyat on Ukraine's northern border with Belarus.
"We got to the plant in the morning after the explosion. The unit (No. 4) was destroyed and burning. But there was no reason not to go," he said in a telephone interview.
"We did basically the same as the Japanese are doing now. We tried to stop the reactors. If the fire had spread, the plant would have been uncontrollable," he said.
"From my shift there was not one of my friends who refused to go. It was a question of duty. We knew it was dangerous but we were brought up differently and we didn't even think of not going," Chudinov added.
Back then, there was little protective clothing to hand to shield against radiation. "We wore normal clothes and a face respirator. As we went in to the reactor we were given an iodine preparation which was normally the first emergency aid," he said.
The official short-term death toll from the accident was 31 but many more people died of radiation-related sicknesses such as cancer. The total death toll and long-term health effects remain a subject of intense debate even 25 years after the disaster though a U.N. 2008 report concluded that only a few thousand people had died as a result.
On pension now and suffering from a blood condition which he attributes to radiation effects, Chudinov says: "I lost many, very many, friends. I haven't counted but an awful lot of them are no longer here. I don't know why I survived. Radiation reacts differently on different people," he said.
Nadezhda Mironenko's husband, Valentin, was then a 38-year-old carpenter whose firm worked at the Chernobyl plant.
He went to the plant to help in the clear-up operation a month after the explosion and remained working in what is now a 30 km (18 miles) exclusion zone around the site until 1992.
He died 5 years later of brain cancer at the age of 49.
"I knew when I accompanied him to work that there was no alternative. One had to go and do one's job. We had that expression -- duty to the Motherland," Mironenko, 62, who now lives on pension in Kiev, told Reuters.
Chernobyl 'liquidators' and their families have benefited from tax breaks, cheap re-housing, enhanced pensions and other privileges over the years.
But the Japanese drama, evoking memories of 1986, brought 200 or so Chernobyl protesters out in Kiev on Wednesday to complain about government neglect.
Mikola, 64, was a Soviet army officer drafted in with his unit to help the Chernobyl clean-up and was one of a group of protesters outside the Ukrainian government building.
"The general came and said: 'I would rather have 2,000 poisoned (with radiation) if it allows 200 million people to live. We have been sent to work at the reactor'," he said recalling the day he learned he was being sent to the Chernobyl plant.
Half of his military unit died from the consequences, Mikola said.
Another protester, Vladimir Danilenko, 65, who worked as a fireman at the stricken plant, complained bitterly about the government.
"They canceled our free treatment. They canceled our free medicine. They have thrown us aside and don't care. That's the big difference between us and Japan."
(Additional reporting by Sergiy Karazy)
(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk; Writing by Richard Balmforth; editing by Janet McBride)