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Meet your neighbor Trenton Davis … local environmental health scientist visited Chernobyl two years after the nuclear explosion

By Paula Walter

Trenton Davis has long called Tennessee home. Although he and his wife, Kay, now live in Johnson County, Davis was born in Greene County and grew up in Limestone. After receiving his bachelor’s degree from East Tennessee State University (ETSU) in health education and general service, he went on to Tulane in New Orleans, Louisiana, earning his masters in environmental health. He completed his education at the University of Oklahoma, earning his PhD in environmental health. After teaching at ETSU and East Carolina University, Davis and his wife made their way back to the mountains of northeast Tennessee and settled in Johnson County after his retirement.
In May of 1988, Davis, who was then the acting dean of East Carolina University, was invited to be a part of a delegation of 60 scientists from 19 countries to attend a Soviet Union sponsored international convention in Moscow on hazardous waste management and environmental issues. Those in attendance were able to take in some of the sights in the Soviet Union, including a ballet and the Moscow Circus.
“The trip was outstanding,” Davis said. “We got to see a lot of the countries. They made sure we saw the sights.” According to Davis, they were fed well, including several meals served with caviar. “They were trying to impress us,” he said.
The group not only traveled to Moscow, but also made the trip to Kiev. It was during this visit to the Soviet Union that Davis and the delegation were invited to visit Chernobyl, the site of a nuclear accident that occurred in April of 1986. “I didn’t know we were going to Chernobyl,” he said. At the time of the explosion, Chernobyl was a town in northern Ukraine, and was still part of the Soviet Union. The nuclear explosion in Chernobyl occurred on April 26, 1986. According to Davis, one of four nuclear reactors at a power plant near Chernobyl exploded during testing, sending out highly nuclear radioactive materials. Davis explained that a nuclear test in progress that went out of control led to the explosion that actually occurred in the town of Pripyat.
“The people in Chernobyl, 20 miles away, were the first ones to be affected,” said Davis. At the time, the Soviet Union estimated there were approximately 20 who died in the explosion. There were also approximately 120,000 people evacuated from the area surrounding the site of the explosion. Those who were impacted the most were the fire fighters who arrived at the scene without any protective gear. According to David, the radioactive materials affected the children in the area.
“There is a lot of thyroid cancer,” he stated.
Davis was able to meet with the director of the power plant while visiting Chernobyl. “People did not deserve what happened to them,” Davis stated.
According to Davis, the cleanup at Chernobyl was minimal. Waste was buried in holes dug in the ground, using no precautions to safeguard the nearby residents from the radiation. Trees were buried, thousands of acres of were stripped, and approximately 100 villages were destroyed. It was reported that nearly 80,000 head of cattle were also evacuated from the area, and of those, more than half were destroyed.
According to Davis, the Soviet Union set up a registry to track all the individuals who had been evacuated from the surrounding areas around the nuclear explosion. “After the wall fell, Moscow wouldn’t fund it and Ukraine couldn’t afford it,” he stated. “We would have known so much more about the effects.”
According to Davis, the scientists the group spoke with were very open, however the officials themselves were very guarded. Davis made sure to stay close to the technician who constantly measured radiation levels in the area.
“Who would have thought an old country boy from Greene County would have had the experience of seeing the site at Chernobyl and meeting the scientists involved?” Davis said.