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Reactor Control Room in Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

The real story of the Chernobyl divers

Alexei Ananenko, Valeri Bespalov and Boris Baranov are the three men who made up Chernobyl's so-called 'Suicide Squad'. They bravely entered the basement of the nuclear reactor to try and save the lives of millions of people.


History is littered with events that evoke powerful memories with the utterance of just one word… Watergate, Dunkirk, Bhopal 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.

On April 26, 1986 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?

A nucelar hazard sign in a forest
Nuclear radioactive danger sign in forest in Chernobyl exclusion zone around Chornobyl Nuclear Power Station | Image:

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.

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’.

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.

An abandoned classroom full of debris

What happened to the Chernobyl divers?

It’s become part of the unofficial lore of Chernobyl that the three intrepid ‘divers’ sacrificed their lives to save millions, succumbing to ARS in the immediate aftermath of their mission. The reality is much more positive than the myth, with all three men escaping such a grisly fate. Indeed, Alexei Ananenko and Valeri Bespalov are believed to be both still alive as of 2024, while Boris Baranov lived until 2005 when he passed away from heart disease.

In the years since Chernobyl, Ananenko has been the most vocal about the event itself and its aftermath. His memories of the day after the explosion provide a fascinating insight into how the people of Pripyat woke up to a transformed reality.

As he recalled in one interview, the first sign that something was awry was the sight of cleaning trucks spraying white foam over the streets – a seemingly innocuous spectacle which, to Ananenko’s trained eyes, signalled something terrible had happened at the plant.

His suspicion was confirmed when he took the usual bus to work and saw the cratered reactor. It was a sight so surreal and fantastical that Ananenko couldn’t help but feel fearfully superstitious, turning his head away because, ‘I decided that if you looked at it, the radiation would come to you.’

By contrast to the acclaimed Chernobyl miniseries, the authorities didn’t rely on volunteers for the task of draining the basement. Speaking to the website Ex Utopia in 2021, Ananenko emphasised how he and the other two ‘divers’ (actually, waders) regarded their task in pragmatic terms, simply as something that had to be done, rather than some dramatic suicide mission. In fact, the radiation readings they took during the operation weren’t overly alarming for the hardened nuclear plant workers.

‘I never thought it might mean death, and they only sent me because I knew how to do it,’ he said. ‘They couldn’t have sent anyone else! And of course, in that position, I could hardly have said no. Why would you employ someone like that [as a maintenance engineer]?’

Gasmask on a window sill
Old children's gas mask inside of the abandoned Pripyat Elementary School No. 3 in Pripyat city | Image:

Although the men thankfully didn’t have to endure serious long-term effects from their excursion, they did all suffer a degree of radiation sickness over the weeks that followed. Black marks appeared on Ananenko’s legs, which he casually describes as a ‘radioactive tan’, but this didn’t come as a huge surprise; the men kept setting off radiation alarms despite washing themselves repeatedly after peeling off the diving suits.

This was far from the end of Ananenko’s Chernobyl experience. For more than three years, he served as one of the fabled liquidators who were tasked with decontaminating the plant. It was an arduous experience, with Ananenko and his fellow workers taking iodine pills and donning bulky protective suits and masks to stave off the worst of the radiation.

Medical care could also be rather lax. On one occasion, Ananenko whacked his head on a steel door at the power plant and immediately went to see the on site doctor to check for concussion. What he found was no doctor, but a note explaining he’d gone to see a Chernobyl charity concert that was being put on in Kyiv by Soviet pop star Alla Pugacheva. The star had previously put on a special performance within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone as a ‘thank you’ to the liquidators, but Ananenko had been unable to see it because so many people from Kyiv had disregarded any concerns about radiation and flocked to the Zone for the free concert.

In the ensuing decades, Ananenko has continued to work in the energy sector, giving lectures on nuclear safety and promoting the responsible utilisation of nuclear power. He’s also on record as approving of Chernobyl tourism because of its educational potential.

In 2019, Ananenko, Bespalov and Baranov were all awarded the prestigious title Hero of Ukraine, in recognition of the vital yet largely unsung role they played in helping to mitigate one of the worst accidents of the 20th century.

Chernobyl after the accident

Just weeks after the disaster, work began on a gigantic steel and concrete ‘sarcophagus' to cover the ruined reactor and lessen radioactive leakage. This was only ever intended to be a temporary fix and deteriorated to the point where a new, vast steel shell – dubbed the 'New Safe Confinement' – had to be built around it in 2016.

Both the power plant itself and the rest of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, including the abandoned city of Pripyat, have held a dark allure for visitors across the decades. Pripyat’s decaying structures, from crumbling housing blocks and classrooms to the Ferris Wheel of its never-opened amusement park, have become icons of the disaster. They’re a huge draw for tourists who aren’t fazed by the relatively low radiation levels in the area, which have been likened to what you’d be exposed to on a long-haul flight.

One strangely beguiling after-effect has been the flourishing of animal and plant life in the region, with experts describing the Exclusion Zone as an ‘involuntary park’ – that is to say, a once-inhabited and industrialised area which has reverted back to nature. Wild boar, wolves, lynx, bison and moose are among the creatures which freely roam the forests.

Far from being a lifeless, post-apocalyptic wasteland, it’s described by the UN as the third-largest nature reserve in mainland Europe. In the words of the head of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP’s) Nature for Climate Branch, ‘The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is a fascinating example of nature’s power to rebound from degradation.’