History is littered with events that evoke powerful memories with the utterance of just one word… Watergate, Dunkirk, and Titanic. When it comes to evoking feelings of dread, there is one that fills the mind with a myriad of destructive imagery and connotation even to this day. That word is Chernobyl.
Thirty-three years ago at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near the city of Pripyat in Ukraine, a late night safety test went wrong and the world experienced the worst nuclear accident of all time. Dozens of people were killed in the immediate aftermath and thousands more in the ensuing years. The disaster released 400 times more radiation into the atmosphere than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and contaminated millions of acres of surrounding land. Few people realise though that the scale of destruction could have been far worse if it weren’t for the bravery of three volunteers.
On 4 May 1986, just a few days after the initial disaster, mechanical engineer Alexei Ananenko, senior engineer Valeri Bespalov and shift supervisor Boris Baranov stepped forward to undertake a mission that many considered to be suicide. They were advised that if they did not survive their families would be taken care of. The outcome of their mission would decide the fate of millions of people; its importance was unparalleled in its magnitude and represents one of history’s greatest sliding doors moments. So what exactly was their mission?
On the day of the disaster and in an effort to control the blazing fire, firefighters pumped water into the nuclear reactor. One of the side effects was that it flooded the basement with radioactive water. This basement contained the valves that when turned would drain the ‘bubbler pools’ that sat beneath the reactor and which acted as a coolant for the plant.
The blast would have had a force of 3-5 megatons leaving much of Europe uninhabitable for hundreds of thousands of years.
Within a few days it was discovered that molten nuclear material was melting through the concrete reactor floor, making its way slowly down towards the pools below. If the lava-like substance made contact with the water it would cause a radiation-contaminated steam explosion that would destroy the entire plant along with its three other reactors, causing unimaginable damage and nuclear fallout the world would struggle to recover from. The pools containing some 20 million litres of water had to be drained and the only way to do that was by manually turning the correct valves down in the now flooded basement. Enter our three heroes.
If the three courageous men were not successful in their mission the Chernobyl death toll was likely to reach the millions. Nuclear physicist Vassili Nesterenko declared that the blast would have had a force of 3-5 megatons leaving much of Europe uninhabitable for hundreds of thousands of years.
Dressed in wetsuits and equipped with just a flashlight, the three volunteers jumped into the darkness of the basement below and went in search of the crucial valves. The events that follow have been turned into somewhat of a modern myth. For decades after the event it was widely reported that the three men swam through radioactive water in near darkness, miraculously located the valves even after their flashlight had died, escaped but were already showing signs of acute radiation syndrome (ARS) and sadly succumbed to radiation poisoning a short while later. They were apparently buried in lead coffins.
Andrew Leatherbarrow, the author of the 2016 book Chernobyl 01:23:40, spent five years researching the disaster and discovered a slightly different yet no less heroic turn of events. The basement was flooded with radioactive water but firefighters had previously pumped some of it out, so by the time the men jumped into the water, it was only at knee height. They weren’t the first to enter either as others had already gone into the basement to measure the radiation levels, although little to nothing is known about the fate of these people.
The discovery of the valves was still miraculous though, as Leatherbarrow states, ‘The men entered the basement in wetsuits, radioactive water up to their knees, in a corridor stuffed with a myriad of pipes and valves…it was like finding a needle in a haystack.’ Yet they found that needle before the molten reactor core above them had melted its way down through the ceiling. A sigh of relief was breathed all round.
The men exited the basement as heroes and rejoiced with their colleagues over a ‘job well done’.
Ananenko was later quoted as saying to the Soviet media, ‘Everyone at the Chernobyl NPS (nuclear power station) was watching this operation. When the searchlight beam fell on a pipe, we were joyous: The pipe led to the valves. We heard the rush of water out of the tank. And in a few more minutes we were being embraced by the guys.’ The men exited the basement as heroes and rejoiced with their colleagues over a ‘job well done’.
The three men would live longer than a few weeks and none would succumb to ARS, as modern myth would have you believe. As of 2015, it was reported that two of the men were still alive and still working within the industry. The third man, Boris Baranov, passed away in 2005 of a heart attack.
Although our knowledge of the event is now somewhat clearer thanks to Leatherbarrow’s research, he admitted that some of the best sources on the subject of Chernobyl have yet to be translated since the Soviet government wanted to downplay the disaster.
Over thirty years later and the true scale of destruction caused by Chernobyl is still a hotly debated subject. What is not up for debate though is the incredible level of bravery shown by these three men on that fateful day in May 1986. They knew exactly the risks involved and were prepared to give up everything in order to save the lives of an incomprehensible number of people.
In the coming months and years around 600,000 decontamination workers, known as ‘liquidators’, were brought in to help clean up after the accident. They significantly helped to limit the short and long-term damage that the disaster had caused but thousands of them paid the ultimate price. Their bravery and sacrifice should also be remembered alongside the heroism of the Chernobyl divers.