Skip to content
Published May 10, 2019

Please note that due to the complexity of this subject, this is a two-part episode. Click here for Part One.

Pripyat was once called the City of the Future, but now it is a ghost town. It was abandoned suddenly and completely, almost fifty thousand people evacuated in the space of just a few days. It now stands within a government-designated Exclusion Zone, a toxic land crossing the borders of Ukraine and Belarus, an area where nobody is supposed to live.

It has been this way since 1986, when Chernobyl became a byword for nuclear catastrophe.

A radioactive sign hangs on barbed wire outside a café in Pripyat. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Those who worked at the power station were quite lucky. They had respectable positions in a well-paid field; they lived in a modern, purpose-built city with an average age of just 26 years, where it was generally quite easy to get produce that would be highly sought-after in other areas of the country, and where they had a range of modern essential, cultural, and recreational facilities.

As April 1986 drew towards its end, many were thinking about planting potatoes, getting ready for the May Day holiday, or fishing in the Pripyat river.

Then, in a flash, their lives changed.

Pripyat, 1986. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lyudmila Ihnatenko (Ignatenko) would remember that moment.

“In the middle of the night, I heard some noise. There was shouting. I looked out the window. He saw me and said, “Shut all the windows and go back to bed. The power station’s on fire. I won’t be long.”

I never saw the explosion itself. Only the flames. Everything was kind of glowing. The whole sky… There were these tall flames. Lots of soot, terrible heat.”

Her husband Vasily was a firefighter, and he was one of many called upon to respond to the situation. What the residents of Pripyat didn’t know was that a steam explosion in one of the reactors had in turn caused the reactor itself to explode; radiation was spilling out into the atmosphere, and her husband was about to walk straight into it. At around two am, he was on the roof of Unit 3, adjacent to the unit where the reactor had exploded, walking across burning bitumen which covered the roof, kicking pieces of radioactive debris off the roof so it couldn’t start new fires, and trying to keep the disaster from spreading to the plant’s other reactors.

After only about half an hour on the roof, he and his colleagues descended, and were sent to hospital. His wife didn’t know he was there until seven in the morning; even then, a police cordon kept her and the other firefighters’ wives from entering. However, Lyudmila persuaded a friend who worked at the hospital to let her in.

“So I saw him. He was all puffed up and swollen. His eyes were almost hidden… Later, lots of the doctors and nurses in the hospital, and especially the orderlies, came down sick. They died. But back then, nobody knew that would happen.”

That evening, they were kept out of the hospital. Vasily managed to call out from a window that they were to be taken to Moscow. All the wives were desperate to go with their husbands, and had to be held back by soldiers. The situation was calmed when a doctor told them that the patients would need fresh clothes for the trip; what they had been wearing had been burned. It was a trick; while the wives raced across town to pack bags, a plane took the injured firefighters away.

Driven by her love for her husband, Lyudmila followed him to Moscow anyway. She found out which hospital they had been taken to, and managed to see the head of the radiation department, Dr Gustova. She lied to the doctor, saying she already had two children, a girl and a boy, implying she wouldn’t have any more anyway, and the doctor relented and allowed her to see Vasily.

In fact, Lyudmila was six months pregnant with their first child. She ignored the risks to tend to her husband as much as possible.

“He began changing: every day, I found a different person. His burns were coming to the surface. First these little sores showed up inside his mouth and on his tongue and cheeks, then they started growing. The lining of his mouth was peeling off in these white filmy layers. The colour of his face… The colour of his body… It went blue. Red. Greyish-brown. But it was all his precious, darling body! You can’t describe it! There are no words for it!…He was passing stools maybe twenty-five, thirty times a day. All bloody and gooey. The skin on his arms and legs was cracking. His whole body was coming up in blisters. When he turned his head, clumps of hair were left on the pillow…None of the doctors knew I was staying with him all night in the pressure chamber.  They didn’t catch on. But the nurses let me. At first, they tried to talk me out of it. “You’re so young. What on earth has got into you? He isn’t a person now, he’s a nuclear reactor. You’ll both frazzle together.”

Vasily Ihnatenko died on the thirteenth of May, 1986, after fourteen days in the radiation sickness clinic. He was buried in Moscow, in a specially sealed zinc coffin beneath slabs of concrete; his body was highly radioactive, and no longer belonged to his family.

Memorial at Chernobyl. The plaque is inscribed, “To those who saved the world.” Source: Wikimedia Commons

Two months later, Lyudmila was visiting his grave when she went into labour. She returned to the same hospital where her husband had died to give birth, two weeks early.

“They showed me: it was a little girl. “Natasha,” I said. “Your dad named you Natasha.” She was healthy enough to look at. Tiny hands and feet. But she had cirrhosis, her liver had had twenty-eight roentgens. And congenital heart disease. Four hours later, they told me my little girl had died.”

Again, she was told she couldn’t take the body home. She begged them to bury the child next to her father.

Back in Pripyat, a city of almost fifty thousand people, barely anybody knew what had happened at the Chernobyl power plant. Life went on as normal. There were seven weddings. Children played in the street. One resident related that their neighbour spent the day after the explosion sunbathing.

“At one point he came down for a drink and said how easy it was to get a tan that day; he had never seen anything like it. He said his skin gave off a smell of burning right away, and he was tremendously jolly, as if he had just been boozing.”

That evening, the sunbathing neighbour was rushed to hospital in an ambulance.

Because Pripyat was built specifically for the workers at the power plant, naturally some of them knew that there was some cause for concern. Many thought that the solution lay in a bottle of vodka. This is not a Russian joke; they absolutely thought that drinking vodka would help.

Nadezhda Petrovna Vygovskaya remembered how normal that Saturday morning had initially seemed.

“No one had any suspicions. I sent my son to school, my husband went to the barber’s. I was making lunch. My husband came back very soon, to tell me, “there’s been a fire at the atomic plant. We’ve been ordered not to turn the radio off.”… To this day, I can see the bright, raspberry red glow. The reactor seemed lit up from inside. It was an incredible colour. Not an ordinary fire, but a kind of shining. Very pretty. If you forget all the rest, it was very pretty. I’d never seen anything like it in the movies, there was nothing comparable.

In the evening, everyone came out on to their balconies; if they didn’t have one, they went to their friends and neighbours. We were on the eighth floor and had a great view. About three kilometres as the crow flies. People brought out their children and lifted them up. “Look! Don’t forget this!” And these were people who worked at the reactor: engineers, workmen. There were even physics teachers, standing in that black dust, chatting away. Breathing it in. Admiring the sight. Some people drove dozens of kilometres or cycled to see it. We had no idea death could look so pretty…”

There were three more explosions that evening, shortly after nine pm, as the local authorities and the special commission from Moscow debated what to do. Worse still, the wind changed. It now blew from the power plant towards the city.

In the middle of the night, the decision was finally made by the commission; Pripyat must be evacuated.

A new village, Ternopilske, was built for evacuees from the contaminated territory. Source: IAEA Imagebank

Vygovskaya recalled that there was a change in the city that Sunday morning.

“By eight in the morning, there were soldiers with gas masks in the streets. When we saw them and the army vehicles there, we were not afraid. Quite the opposite, we were reassured. Now the army was here to help, everything would be fine… After lunch, there were announcements on the radio that we should start preparing to evacuate.”

Translated, the announcement was as follows:

“For the attention of the residents of Pripyat! The City Council informs you that due to the accident at Chernobyl Power Station in the city of Pripyat the radioactive conditions in the vicinity are deteriorating. The Communist Party, its officials and the armed forces are taking necessary steps to combat this. Nevertheless, with the view to keep people as safe and healthy as possible, the children being top priority, we need to temporarily evacuate the citizens in the nearest towns of Kiev region. For these reasons, starting from 27 April 1986 2 pm each apartment block will be able to have a bus at its disposal, supervised by the police and the city officials. It is highly advisable to take your documents, some vital personal belongings and a certain amount of food, just in case, with you. The senior executives of public and industrial facilities of the city has decided on the list of employees needed to stay in Pripyat to maintain these facilities in a good working order. All the houses will be guarded by the police during the evacuation period. Comrades, leaving your residences temporarily please make sure you have turned off the lights, electrical equipment and water and shut the windows. Please keep calm and orderly in the process of this short-term evacuation.”

The Chernobyl refugees were also told not to take their pets with them. One child said, “We left my hamster at home when we locked everything up. He was a little white hamster. We gave him enough food for two days. But we never went back.”

Some families went to some lengths to retain prized possessions; not necessarily those of most material value. Nikolai Fomich Kalugin spoke of the value of a door.

“That door was our talisman. An heirloom! My father lay on that door. I’m not sure where the custom comes from… but in our parts, according to my mother, the dead have to be laid on the door from their home. They lie on it until the coffin is brought… And that same door is covered in notches, right to the top. It was marked as I grew: a notch for first grade, second grade, seventh grade. One from just before I left for the army. And next to that, you can see my son growing up. And my daughter. Our whole life is written on that door, like on an ancient papyrus. How could I leave it behind?”

He went back into the evacuated zone on a motorcycle to retrieve that irreplaceable front door, evading the police who thought he was a looter.

Leaving Chernobyl behind, however, did not mean escaping its reach.

“I sent my wife and daughter to the hospital. They had black spots spreading all over their bodies. They’d spring up and then fade away. The size of an old five-kopeck piece… We put her on the door. On the door my father once lay on. Until they brought the little coffin. It was so tiny, like the box for a large doll. Like a box. I want to testify: my daughter died from Chernobyl. But they want us to keep quiet. “It hasn’t been scientifically proved,” they say.”There isn’t enough data. We’ll need to wait hundreds of years. But my human life, it’s too short. I can’t wait that long. Write it down. You record it at least. My daughter’s name was Katya. My little Katya. She was seven years old when she died.”

While the civilians were being evacuated, the commission was trying to deal with their biggest problem – what to do with the reactor, which was still burning. A decision was made to use sand to try and put it out, with helicopters to deliver it. Boris Scherbina, head of the commission, greeted General Nikolai Antoshkin, chief of staff of the Kyiv district air force command, with the words, “Everything depends on you and your helicopter pilots now, general.”

Helicopter pilots before a flight to Chernobyl. Source: IAEA Imagebank

And he apparently did mean, everything. When Antoshkin reported that his pilots were ready, he discovered that the commission hadn’t made any arrangements for people to fill and load the sandbags – they were expecting the pilots to do it. For a while on that Sunday morning, the General and two of the ministerial representatives of the commission actually filled sandbags themselves. Later, Ukrainian authorities supplied workers to do the labour, many of them women.

Once the sandbags were filled and loaded, the pilots had the arduous job of trying to get them into the reactor. The flight would be difficult, because the tall exhaust pipe of the reactor still stood, and it was hard to identify the reactor – it wasn’t spewing smoke, just radiation. Once in position over the reactor, the door of the helicopter would be opened and the sandbags thrown out. By hand. They had to try and hit a target just five metres – 16 feet – wide. This was the gap that was no longer covered by the biological shield.

One trip exposed the pilots to so much radiation that they should have been sent straight to hospital. They weren’t; instead they made the same journey again and again. They made 110 sorties on the first day, and carried on for another seven days after that.

The process did improve, though; a hook was quickly developed that allowed the helicopter to carry the sandbags beneath it, dozens at a time, and drop them without opening the door. They also added lead plates to the floor of the helicopters, so the pilots had at least some protection.

Not that it made much difference. They were tired, nauseous, and getting tanned by the radiation. One pilot, Valerii Shmakov, recalled, “The weather was wonderful, the sun was shining, everything was in bloom,coming back to life. But nearby there was a crow that could not take flight – it was too weak. Then we understood that the situation was serious. Once we started making flights above the reactor and going through the disinfection process, when our apparatus and clothing were treated with a special substance, we discussed among ourselves that the flights were really dangerous, and that perhaps we should take the whole brunt of the blow, becoming condemned men, as it were, now that we had become involved.”

However, they still needed to do more. If the reactor got too hot, the fuel still inside could give out even more radiation. In addition to the sand, they now dropped lead to bring down the temperature of the graphite, and boron and clay to absorb neutrons and prevent a chain reaction. They carried on until they’d dropped nearly 5,000 tonnes on top of the reactor. They stopped because they realised that there was a risk that much weight might bring the reactor crashing down into the basement levels of the power plant.

Helicopter approaching the power station. Source: IAEA Imagebank

It seemed to be working; the radiation levels began to drop.

At first, information about the accident was highly restricted, but the extent of the radiation cloud released by the explosion meant that this secrecy couldn’t be maintained. On the morning of Monday April 28th, a radiation alarm was triggered at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant near Uppsala in Sweden – 1,257 km or 781 miles away from Chernobyl. The plant was evacuated, but it soon became clear that the problem was not local; similar measurements were being found at other plants. By looking at the strength and direction of the wind, Swedish authorities worked out that it must be coming from somewhere in the Soviet Union. When asked, the Soviets initially denied knowledge. But they knew that the cat was out of the bag.

A student in Germany created this autoradiography print from leaves of grass in their school yard, demonstrating that the fallout had reached West Berlin. Source: Wikimedia Commons

At 9pm that evening, the first official public statement was made by an announcer on the evening news program Vremia:

“An accident has taken place at the Chernobyl atomic electricity station. One of the atomic reactors has been damaged. Measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of the accident. Assistance is being given to the victims. A government commission has been struck to investigate what happened.”

The Soviet authorities didn’t want to release any further information, but now the news was out, international journalists were happy to fill in the blanks. One journalist claimed that 80 people had been killed instantly in the accident, two thousand more were in hospital, and up to 15 thousand had been evacuated from Pripyat – an odd mix of over and under estimation.

As the news spread, there was speculation about how much contamination of crops and other produce there would be – not only in the Soviet Union itself, but in the other European countries where the radiation cloud had spread. It could be detected not only in Sweden, Finland and Norway, but also in Denmark, and the rest of Europe was anxiously watching the direction of the prevailing winds.

Soviet authorities wanted to demonstrate that they were in control; that there was nothing to fear. And there was an ideal opportunity coming up. May the First was a big holiday for the Soviets; officially known as the Day of International Worker Solidarity. It was traditionally celebrated with huge parades. So, to show that everything was fine, the parade in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, just 130 km or 80 miles away from Chernobyl, would still go ahead.

Even before that decision was made, though, the winds had changed, and the radiation levels in the capital were increasing. They made a concession to the risk, and reduced both the duration and the size of the parade, but Politburo members still had to attend with members of their family; their children and grandchildren. At its peak that day, the radiation levels in the city reached 2,500 microroentgens per hour.

One of the marchers said later that everything seemed normal until they reached the Main Square and looked at the podium. It was half empty. It should have been occupied by representatives of all the different branches of the Soviet economy, but there were no energy people there. As she stopped to wonder, she was approached by a man she assumed to be from the KGB, who took her by the arm and encouraged her to catch up with the march.

Nikolai Ryzhkov visiting Chernobyl. Source: IAEA Imagebank

The state commission met again, this time attended by Russian Premier Nikolai Ryzhkov. Maiorets, the minister of energy, still didn’t seem to have a firm grasp of the severity of the situation; he announced that “We will take all necessary measures and have Unit 4 in working order by October.”

Everyone else was apparently more realistic; it was at this meeting that it was decided to establish a 30km (19 miles) exclusion zone around the power plant. Some of the people who had been evacuated from Pripyat were still within this area; they would have to move again. Oleksandr Liashko, one of Ukraine’s political leaders at the time, recalled that he was in a village speaking to one of the evacuees when he was shown the map of the exclusion zone and realised that they were within it. The evacuee had told him that the physics teacher she was staying with had wanted them to move to his summer shack, because they were “bearers of radiation”.

“And I had a fleeting thought. What would that teacher , who had treated the family of evacuees in unfriendly fashion, say if he were ordered to evacuate his dwelling the next day?”

Beneath its pile of sand, lead, boron and clay, the reactor was not getting better. Although the radiation levels had been dropping, on the 2nd of May they shot back up again; the following day, and the day after, it continued to rise. The evacuation had to be sped up; the schedule demanded that the whole 30km zone be evacuated by May the 5th.

As the reactor continued to heat up, there was a fear that it could essentially melt through the floor into the basement levels below. This concept was called China Syndrome, like the 1979 Michael Douglas film; the idea was that fuel from a damaged reactor could melt its way all the way through the globe to China. Realistically, it wasn’t going to go that far, but if it reached the water table it could then get into the river, and from there into the oceans.

If the fuel from the reactor melted through to the lower levels, it would also meet the water that had accumulated there from the initial cooling and firefighting efforts. If it did, there could be a new steam explosion – one with the potential to take out the rest of the power plant and cause a disaster on a global scale. They had to get the water out.

Firefighters were again called upon to pump the water out, but first the valves of the bubbler pools had to be opened. And those valves were underwater.

Valerii Legasov, one of the most prominent scientists on the commission, said, “The water level and its radioactivity were high: at particular times and in particular places the level of radioactivity in the water reached one curie per liter.”

Valerii Legasov, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Getting to those valves was almost certainly a suicide mission. Ivan Silaev, deputy head of the Soviet government, offered financial incentives to anyone who would undertake it, including free cars and apartments.

The three volunteers were engineers Alexei Ananenko, Valeri Bezpalov, and their shift supervisor Boris Baranov. They volunteered for the simple reason that they knew the layout of the plant; they knew where the valves were.

It’s often said that all three succumbed quickly to radiation sickness and died soon after. In fact, all three survived. One died from heart failure in 2005, but as late as 2015 the other two were understood to still be alive.

With the valves open, the water could now be pumped away, but the danger was not completely eliminated. Legasov insisted that filters be installed to purify the contaminated water before it could reach the river; his colleague, Yevgenii Velikhov, said that the ground beneath the reactor should be frozen to cool it, and a concrete platform erected underneath. Rather than choose between them, Silaev decided to do both.

This, alongside the job of “eliminating the consequences of the accident”, required considerable manpower.

Hundreds of thousands of men and women were mobilised, largely through the military, to carry out the labour. They didn’t necessarily know what it was they’d been called to do.

Ivan Nikolaevich Zhmykhov, a chemical engineer by training, recalled being handed a conscription notice and reporting obediently to the enlistment office.

“The commisar leafed through my file. “I see you haven’t attended any of our training camps. Well, we need chemists. How do you fancy twenty-five days in camp near Minsk?” I thought, “Well, why not take a break from work and the family? Do some marching around in the fresh air.”… In the morning, we found our unit in the forest. They lined us up again and did a roll-call, issuing protective clothing. One set, a second, a third. “Uh-oh,” I thought. “This looks serious.” They also issued us with a greatcoat, cap, mattress, pillow – all winter kit. But it was summer, and we had been promised we would be released after twenty-five days. “Oh, come on, guys,” the captain  transporting us laughed. “Twenty-five days? You’re on your way to Chernobyl for six months.” Bewilderment. Anger. Then they started talking us round: anyone inside the twenty-kilometre limit gets double pay, inside ten kilometres, triple pay, and at the reactor itself, multiply by six. One guy started calculating that in six months’ time he would be able to drive home in his own car. Another just wanted to get out, but that would be desertion.”

Another worker said, “They took us there, right up to the power plant. Gave us white coats and white caps; gauze face masks. We cleaned the grounds. It was one day shovelling and scraping below, one day up on the roof of the reactor. Did all the work by spade. The guys up on the roof were called “storks”. The robots couldn’t take it, the equipment was going crazy. But we did our work. We sometimes got blood coming out of our ears, our noses. A tickling in the throat, your eyes stinging. There was this constant drone in your ears. You felt thirsty, but lost all appetite. We weren’t allowed to do our morning exercises, to keep us from breathing in extra radiation. Though we travelled to work in open-top trucks. But we did our work well. And we’re very proud of that.”

Clean-up workers received special rations. Source: IAEA Imagebank

Alexander Kudryagin was another clean-up worker.

“Within a couple of months, it all seemed normal, it was just your life. We picked plums, trawled for fish… we played football. Went swimming!… I believed in my lucky star! Ha ha! Now I’m second category disabled. I fell ill immediately… We told all these jokes. Here’s one. They send an American robot up to work on the roof. It operates for five minutes, then breaks down. Then a Japanese robot lasts nine minutes before it breaks down too. The Russian robot works for two hours, then, over the walkie-talkie, “Okay, Private Ivanov, you can come down now for a cigarette break.” Ha ha!…”

At the reactor, they removed radioactive graphite using shovels, dressed in cumbersome lead protection suits, often made by hand. Miners dug beneath the reactor to install the concrete platform, but they weren’t allowed to use heavy machinery due to fears that the vibrations might make the foundations crack and release the radioactive materials above. Instead, they dug by hand, working in three hour shifts. Most were keen to do so, citing a popular motto of the time: “Who, if not we?”

In the wider exclusion zone, they bulldozed and buried entire villages that were too contaminated to ever be occupied again; they scraped away contaminated topsoil and took it away to be buried.

Zmykhov later said, “What we were doing was insane… If we had not got diabolically drunk every night, I doubt we could have kept going… The wind was blowing, dark clouds sailing in the sky. The reactor was not sealed. We would take off a layer, come back a week later, and we might as well have started all over again. There was nothing left to strip. The radioactive sand was drifting down.”

Zoya Danilovna Bruk, a nature conservation inspector, recalled the kind of instructions that these workers were given – and how well they were followed.

“We wrote up instructions on how to dispose of radioactive soil. Burying soil in the soil, that’s a new occupation for the human race. Nobody could understand what they were supposed to be doing. In our manual, the dumping of waste was supposed to follow a geological survey to ensure that the ground water was no less than four to six metres down, and that the disposal pit was shallow. Its sides and base were to be lined with plastic sheeting. But that was only what it said in the instructions. The reality was different. No geological survey. They stabbed a finger in the map and said, “Dig there.” The operator digs. “So how far down did you go?” “The Devil only knows! When I saw water, I stopped.” They dumped it straight into the ground water…”

In fields near the river, a special pattern of furrows was designed to prevent radionuclides from entering the water.

“The instructions specified that the tractors used for ploughing these furrows must have radiation shielding and a hermetically sealed cabin. I did see such a tractor. It actually did have an airtight cabin. There it stood, with the tractor driver lying on the grass taking a nap. “Are you crazy? Has nobody warned you?” “It’s okay. I’ve covered my head with my jacket,” he replied.”

In some places, radio-operated bulldozers were used in the clean-up. Source: IAEA Imagebank

On the 15th of May, the Politburo assigned the task of sealing the reactor to Yefim Slavsky, the minister of medium machine building. His was the department that originally designed the Chernobyl reactors, and they had the experience and resources to deal with the job. From a number of potential designs, including one which suggested burying the reactor in a mound of sand, concrete and metal balls, it was decided to go with the fastest option; incorporate the bits of the reactor building that remained standing into a new protective concrete structure. It was officially called the shelter, but has generally been better known as the sarcophagus. The Soviets accepted help in constructing it; Italian equipment was brought in to work on the foundation, and West German pumps were used to supply concrete to the walls. More military men were drafted into construction battalions. The Politburo wanted the sarcophagus completed within four months; it took six.

Because the sarcophagus was supported by the damaged ruins of an exploded building, it could never be considered a permanent solution; it was expected to last only twenty to thirty years.

Its replacement, the New Safe Confinement, was designed to last a hundred years. To make construction safer for the workers, a massive arch was built beside the reactor, and then rolled on rails to slide over the original sarcophagus. It also offers scope for remote equipment to be used inside to safely demolish the old structures. It was put into place in 2016, and many systems had begun operation in February 2019.

The New Safe Confinement, pictured in August 2017. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The deaths confirmed to be as a direct result of Chernobyl included:

Valeriy Khodemchuk, a plant operator who was stationed in the pumps engine room. He was most likely killed instantly, and his body was never recovered. A plaque to his memory has since been installed in the corridor that once linked Units 3 and 4 at Chernobyl Power Station.

Aleksandr Lelechenko, deputy chief of the electrical unit, who ordered younger workers to stay back while he repeatedly attempted to make repairs. He was sent to Pripyat hospital, but discharged himself to return to work. He died on the 7th of May in Kiev hospital.

Aleksandr Akimov, the shift leader in charge at the time of the explosion. He suffered deep radiation burns to 100% of his body and died on the tenth of May, as did one of the firefighters.

Lieutenants Viktor Kibenok and Volodymyr Pravyk, firefighters, died the following day.

On the 14th, one fireman and three plant workers, including Leonid Toptunov and the intern Aleksandr Kudryavtsev passed away. The other intern, Viktor Proskuryakov died on the 17th.

Yakaterina Ivanova and Klavdia Luzganova, the only women included on the official list of casualties, were Pripyat city police guards stationed near to Unit 4. Ivanova died on the 26th of May, one month after the explosion, and Luzganova on the 31st of July.

Eventually, Ukraine would recognise almost 90,000 citizens as Chernobyl casualties, disabled to the highest degree; 50,000 in Russia fell into this category, and 9,000 in Belarus, despite that being the area which received most of the fallout. 500,000 were recognised by Ukraine as liquidators; 200,000 in Russia and more than 100,000 in Belarus. Estimates of how many deaths may ultimately be caused as a result of the radiation cloud which spread across Europe vary. According to a Greenpeace report, anything between 10,000 and 200,000 additional deaths may be connected to Chernobyl between 1990 and 2004. The World Health Organisation predicted an additional 4,000 cancer deaths in surrounding countries; the Union of Concerned Scientists suggested 27,000 excess cancer deaths worldwide. The problem is, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to accurately assess whether these later deaths are actually connected to radiation exposure or not.

Alongside dealing with the consequences of the disaster, the original commission had also been charged with investigating the causes. They decided, quite quickly, that it was the fault of the plant’s operators, because they had violated technical procedures.

In early July, plant director Viktor Briukhanov was summoned to a meeting in Moscow, where he was expelled from the Communist Party. That was a mere preamble to the criminal proceedings, which would be held in Chernobyl despite the high radiation levels, thanks to a law that stated trials should take place where the crime had occurred.

Six managers and safety officers of the Chernobyl power plant were on trial; they included Briukhanov, the chief engineer Nikolai Formin, and Fomin’s deputy, Anatolii Diatlov, who had actually been in the control room overseeing the test at the time of the explosion. The trial had to be postponed for a while, due to a suicide attempt made by Fomin; it commenced in July 1987. There were three charges against them; that they had violated safety rules for enterprises subject to explosive hazards, that there had been an abuse of power in withholding information about the real extent of the disaster, and that they had been negligent, failing to train plant personnel properly. Briukhanov admitted negligence. Formin’s defense was that the fault lay with Diatlov and Akimov, the now-deceased shift leader. Diatlov admitted to a number of faults, but defiantly stated that their actions wouldn’t have caused an explosion if not for faults in the reactor’s design.

This was something that a number of scientists considered to be a significant factor, although few were prepared to speak up about it publicly. The graphite tips on the control rods, and the way that the water and steam could interact and create voids in the reactor, made it unstable and difficult to control, especially at low levels. There were already plans to modify other reactors of the same type, and not to build any new ones, which was a strong indication to everybody in the industry that there was at least some fault in the design.

However, the designers of the reactor were protected from these proceedings. The court ruled that the defendants were guilty. Briukhanov, Diatlov and Fomin were all sentenced to ten years in prison. The other defendants received sentences of between two and five years.

Criminal investigations had also been started against Aleksandr Akimov and Leonid Toptunov, the shift leader and reactor operator on that fateful night. Those proceedings were closed when both died as a result of their injuries.

In 1991, the year that Ukraine achieved independence, a new commission concluded that the plant personnel were not entirely responsible for the accident; “The flaws in the construction of the RBMK-1000 reactor, which was used in Unit 4 of the Chernobyl atomic energy station, predetermined the grave consequences of the Chernobyl accident.”

Somewhat astonishingly, the plant itself continued production for some years. Reactor 2 was shut down in 1991, following a fire. There were plans to restart it in the mid-90s, but they were never carried out. Reactor 1 was shut down in 1996, and Reactor 3 in 2000. Decommissioning the plant finally began in 2015.

Today, the exclusion zone is still in place, but people are allowed in to take tours of the ghost town of Pripyat and even the power plant itself. Such tours are advertised as “super safe”; they’ll even supply you with free respirators, twice daily dosimetric checks, and lend you a personal Geiger counter. There are discussions about adjusting the regulations for the outer parts of the exclusion zone, where people have been permitted to return but the land remains officially contaminated, so food cannot be cultivated and development is not permitted. There are even people living inside the exclusion zone itself; mostly older people, like the ladies seen in the film “Babushkas of Chernobyl”, who refused to be kept away from their homes and simply returned. They grow their own food, make their own vodka, and accept the risks, because it is their motherland.

Abandoned village near Pripyat. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Chernobyl’s effects have been widespread; some say it was a vital trigger in the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it made people all around the world look at nuclear energy in a very different way. The debate over whether atomic energy provides a better solution than fossil fuels continues to this day.

Thanks this episode go to:

I’d like to say a special thank you to Patreon supporters:

  • Skeleheron
  • Michael Fay
  • Andy SJ
  • Itxi
  • LouLi
  • Mish Liddle
  • Will Friedrichs

and to all of you for listening and reading.

Supporting the Great Disasters podcast on Patreon can give you access to exclusive content, and helps the show keep going.


    Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.