Written by Laura Davies
On April 26th, 1986, a failed systems test resulted in the explosion of one of Chornobyl’s four reactors, and the release of 400 times more radiation than the Hiroshima nuclear bomb. This was the worst nuclear accident in history, killing 30 in the immediate aftermath and with projected deaths estimated to reach between 4,000 and 16,000 depending on who you ask.
However, it had the potential to be so much worse without the actions of the 600,000 people who sacrificed everything to help. They suppressed radioactive dust, prevented the poisoning of the Black Sea, and headed off a further explosion, which could’ve rendered much of Europe uninhabitable. These people were named liquidators for the meaning, “to eliminate the consequences of an accident.” Of course, this was before anyone realised the effects of the Chornobyl disaster could never be eliminated, only reduced.
The Initial Phase
After the explosion of reactor 4, one of the first priorities was to put out the enormous fires. Flames leapt 600 feet in the air and posed a very real threat of spreading the blaze, catastrophically, to reactor 3.
At 1.25 am, the alarms in Fire Station No2 blared, alerting the first liquidators to the disaster. Their 6ft status board, with a light for each room in the complex, was glowing red. Anatoli Zakharov was on shift that night and recalled pulling up to the reactor in his fire engine. Chunks of radioactive graphite littered the road, the bitumen roofs of the nearby buildings were alight, and parts of the road were so hot that firemen were wading, ankle-deep, through the asphalt.
As he remained in the engine, his lieutenant, Vladimir Pravik, and the team, with no protective clothing, or devices to measure the huge amount of radiation, climbed onto the roof to begin tackling the flames. They began by extinguishing the chunks of radioactive debris, and then, lacking any other equipment, simply kicked them away with their boots.
Once they’d tackled the roof, the team climbed into the ruins of the reactor hall itself, to attempt to cool the core, now burning at 2000oC. The water from their hoses turned to steam before it got anywhere close, while an invisible and fatal dose of radiation washed over them. 400 roentgen, is enough to kill a man. The uranium and graphite were emitting 30,000 roentgen an hour, which meant anyone on that roof would’ve received a lethal dose in 48 seconds. Pravik and his men fought the blaze for an hour.
Once the dizziness and vomiting set in, they were rushed to the hospital with acute radiation poisoning. One man had radiation burns so severe blisters formed on his heart, and Pravik’s eyes changed from brown to blue. As the ambulances took them away, another Lieutenant, Colonel Leonid Telyatnikov, approached five men to ask them to take the previous team’s place. He recalled that they rushed to the rooftop before he could even get the words out of his mouth.
When it became clear that the blaze couldn’t be subdued with hoses alone, the decision was made to smother it by air-dropping 4,000 tons of sand, boron, and lead. Pilots were required to weave through the maze of pylons surrounding the power station, hover 100 metres above the burning reactor and wait while their team threw bags of sand out of the open doors, all the while receiving staggering amounts of radiation.
When the crew began vomiting mid-flight, respirators were provided, and makeshift lead sheets were slid under their seats. Unfortunately, very few understood that the lead would only be good for one trip, as they’d absorb so much radiation that they’d become radioactive themselves.
600 firemen fought the fires at Chornobyl in the week that followed. Of these, 134 developed acute radiation sickness and 59 died. Their bodies were welded into coffins made of lead or zinc, and their graves were filled with concrete to prevent any radiation from their bodies from reaching the soil.
The Early Phase
After Chornobyl’s workers and their families had been evacuated from Pripyat, the early phase of liquidators was brought in and tasked with containment and decontamination.
This included civil defence troops from the Soviet Armed Forces, nuclear power plant operational personnel, medical professionals, Soviet and civilian air force personnel, scientists, engineers, miners, construction workers, and media professionals. Many bravely volunteered, but others were there by direct order. One Russian surgeon, Michael Fishkin, claims he was drafted in after he’d refused to misreport finding alcohol in the blood of a senior KGB agent he’d treated a few days before.
Thousands of liquidators were put up in tents, in huge camps. They either slept on the bare ground or were directed to contaminated haystacks to use for bedding.
No one knew then, and it’s still not known now, how much radiation each worker was exposed to. Many, who’d been brought in from nearby villages, didn’t understand the risks. For example, Mykhaylo Avershin, a young Soviet soldier at the time of the disaster, reported one man taking a parachute that’d been used to drop sand on the reactor. He wanted to give it to his wife to make trousers from. Initial attempts were made to track radiation intake with wearable devices. However, when these returned, showing the wearers were being continually overexposed, they were taken away.
One of the key priorities for the liquidators was to clean the rooftop of Reactor 3, which was littered with pieces of highly contaminated graphite. Due to the extreme levels of radioactivity, this was considered to be a job only suitable for robots. So, officials brought in several remote-controlled bulldozers, including Russian lunar landers called Lunokhod. Unfortunately, the high levels of radiation fried the circuitry, rendering them useless almost immediately.
Officials had no choice but to give the mission to so-called biorobots, otherwise known as men. The radiation levels were so extreme that each liquidator could spend no more than 90 seconds on the roof. They’d run to the radioactive rubble, fill a shovel, throw it over the edge, and retreat as fast as possible, at which point the next team would be lined up and ready to go.
They were provided with no protection for the task until a high-ranking official, General Tarakanov, ordered a group of men to remove the lead from the walls of the government subcommittee bureaus. This provided the liquidators with 2-4mm sheets they could use as makeshift, disposable armour. They strapped pieces to their chests, backs and heads, and the ones who still had hopes of becoming a father fashioned lead fig leaves to stick down their underwear.
3000 men worked on that roof and, as no records were kept, it’s unclear how many died or developed a life-changing disability as a result of the work. What is clear, though, is that they were heroes who saved an untold number of lives.
Another team of liquidators brought in during the early phase were the miners. Unfortunately, the 4,000 tons of sand and lead dropped by the pilots in the initial phase had a potentially deadly consequence. The sheer weight of the material had caused structural damage and was pressing the reactor core against the concrete foundations. Readings confirmed that the temperature of the uranium was rising, not falling, and if it reached a meltdown temperature of 2,900oC would burn through the concrete and soil below and hit the water table. This would be catastrophic as it would likely result in another, larger explosion that would take out all three remaining reactors and render Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia uninhabitable.
The only solution was to tunnel under the reactor core, freeze the earth with liquid nitrogen, and install a heat exchanger. A plan that would expose workers to extreme temperatures and potentially lethal amounts of radiation.
400 miners were brought in from all over the region and put to work. They, like the roof workers, wore no protective equipment. Not only was it useless at those levels of radiation, but it was simply too hot to tolerate. Work was made even harder due to fears that large equipment and pneumatic drills could further weaken the foundations and trigger a meltdown. So, all the digging and removal had to be done by hand. In thin cotton shirts, drenched in sweat, they’d fill mine carts with shovels full of dirt and push them back to the tunnel entrance.
What those miners achieved was nothing short of extraordinary. With the threat of a meltdown looming and the lives of everyone they knew hanging in the balance, they worked as fast as they could. They didn’t just push those carts out of the tunnel; they ran. The project was estimated to take 3 months to complete. It was finished in six weeks. Heartbreakingly, though, for those who lost their lives or are still living with disabilities as a result of the radiation, the core started to cool by itself. The cooling system was never even turned on.
Another team of liquidators often cited for their bravery were the divers. Scientists realised that there was another body of water that the molten core had the potential to burn its way into, the emergency steam discharge pool which lay below it. As with the water table concern, if the molten core made contact with the pool, it could trigger a steam explosion, and destroy the remaining reactors. They needed to drain the pool, but the only way to do this was to turn the valves manually.
Unfortunately, said valves could only be reached through the underground passages that had been flooded by firefighters and were now radioactive. Three men were selected for the mission, shift supervisor, Boris Baranov, senior control engineer, Valery Bespalov; senior mechanical engineer, and the only one on shift who knew where the valves were, Aleksey Ananenko.
The legend goes that they donned wetsuits, dived into the radioactive water, turned the valves, saved the day, and died just weeks later from the exposure. Fortunately, the legend isn’t entirely true. While they did wear wetsuits, they weren’t entirely necessary as firefighters managed to drain the tunnels before they entered. This made the job somewhat simpler, but Ananenko still recalls the fear of being unable to find the valves in the maze of pipes or of them being damaged and unable to be turned. Plus, the radiation levels were still potentially lethal.
Happily, his fears were unfounded, and the men were able to find the valves without issue. When they emerged as the pool drained they were embraced as heroes. Even better, all three men went on to live much longer. Baranov died at age 65 of a heart attack, and the other two are still alive. Ananenko denies the mission was an act of heroism, claiming, “I never felt like a hero. I was doing my job.”
The Health Consequences
Leukaemia, lung cancer, thyroid cancer, tumours, cerebrovascular diseases, heart disease, blood clots, mental health issues, chromosomal damage, PTSD, gastroenteritis, accelerated ageing of the blood vessels, and cataracts. These are all the things surviving liquidators have had to endure. Every man and woman brought in to work was categorised as healthy before the disaster. One study found that within 5 years this had dropped to 30% and after 16 years only 2% could be deemed healthy and 64.7% were classified as disabled.
However, proving the ailments of each individual were a direct consequence of their work as a liquidator and not as a result of their lifestyle is almost impossible. Plus, in the first few years after the disaster, it was officially forbidden to cite radiation as the cause of any disease amongst the liquidators. For this reason, both the total health impacts and even the death toll are hotly disputed. According to the Chornobyl union, of the 600,000 liquidators they recognise, 60,000 are now dead and 165,000 have a disability. In contrast, the World Health Organisation pegs the predicted total death rate at just 4,000.
The Fate of the Liquidators
Despite the modesty of Ananenko and many other liquidators, no one can deny that what they did was incredibly brave and the majority of Europeans owe both their lives and health to them.
At first, this was well recognised. Medals were issued and generous benefits were provided to all liquidators. This included monthly payments, funded health care, and subsidised public transport. However, over the years, these benefits have been slowly cut, leaving survivors with barely enough to feed themselves.
This was done as a cost-saving exercise as the public slowly forgot the sacrifices made. Weak justifications were given following studies which showed no higher rates of cancer and death in those exposed to radiation. However, studies have also shown huge increases in PTSD, disability, and mental health issues. Chromosome damage has been proven, and on average, each liquidator shows radiation exposure equivalent to 10 years of ageing. These studies, though, are largely ignored.
Other liquidators have been denied any compensation on the grounds that they were there as military personnel. Some have fallen through the net as they were brought into Ukraine from different countries and qualify for neither nation’s compensation scheme, and thousands lost their status as liquidators in 1997 when the Ukrainian government claimed they were illegitimate.
Some survivors have fought hard for increased benefits and recognition and even took part in a hunger strike in 2006. One participant, Igor Stolbikov, said he joined the strike when his disability payments were reduced to 3,000 rubles, the equivalent of $110, a month. He claimed, “It is as if the state wants us to die sooner.”
There have been some successes as rallies and court petitions have improved the situation for some. But, tragically, others have died waiting. Liquidator Sergey Krasilnikov, put it best when being interviewed in his cramped apartment, “Over time, we went from being heroes to outcasts. I can tell you, we never thought that giving up our own health and protecting the Ukrainian people would eventually lead to us becoming irrelevant both to the state and to the people. That one day no one would take any interest in us.”
What’s the fate of the liquidators? For the lucky ones, a return to relative normality with a medal and the knowledge that they did good for the world. But, for too many, a shortened life of radiation-induced health problems, and inadequate benefits, in a world that has slowly forgotten their heroism.
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