What Happened After the Explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (the Series Didn’t Show Everything)
On April 26, 1986, 130 kilometers from Kyiv, an explosion happened at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and the surrounding environment was contaminated with a huge amount of radioactive chemicals. At that moment, nobody realized how serious the accident was. The next day, schools were still open, and people were just walking down the streets. It has been 3 decades since then, and the world still doesn’t know a lot about the accident and what it means for all of humanity.
Bright Side was inspired by the Chernobyl miniseries and decided to find out more about the events of those terrible days from the memories of people who were there when it happened. And despite the fact that the series was incredibly accurate at describing most details, the reality was still a little different from the film.
The workers of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and the start of the tragedy
It all began on April 26, at 1:23 a.m. After 2 explosions, a beam of light appeared in the sky above reactor No. 4, and a fire spread inside the plant. It was then that the first worker from the power plant died.
At 1:30 a.m., the director of the power plant Viktor Bryukhanov is contacted by the manager of the chemical division. He saw what was happening from the balcony of his house and couldn’t reach the members from the shift. Bryukhanov asked an operator to call it an emergency situation. Firefighters without special protection suits came to the site and got a huge dose of radiation — red burns appear on their faces, and people start vomiting and lose consciousness.
“So, the Chernobyl disaster happened and nobody was ready: the civil defense, the medical services, there were very few dosimeters, and the fire crew didn’t even know what to do... There were weddings celebrated nearby the very next day. Children were playing outside. The alert system was terrible. There was no automatic shutdown. The radioactive cloud started to spread after the explosion. Did anyone notice it? Did anyone take any measures? No.”Mikhail Gorbachev, former General Secretary of the CPSU
At 1:55 a.m. the director arrived at the station and made a call to Moscow. Alexander Lelechenko, the deputy chief of the electrical division, sacrificing himself, pumps the hydrogen out of the generators and saved the nuclear plant from a new, far greater explosion. He was transported to the hospital and subsequently escaped from the hospital to help more at the station. 11 days later, he will be dead.
At 2:45 a.m., the director of the plant asked to start evacuating the city. He got a refusal. Everyone was expecting a commission from Moscow. The core continued to emit radioactive smoke into the air.
Adults and children wake up in the city of Pripyat
3 and a half hours after the explosion, the head of the Pripyat police blocked the roads to the nuclear plant. There are not enough beds in the hospital, so the firefighters and the plant workers were transported to Ivankiv, the nearest town, and some are transported to the radiology hospital in Moscow.
A regular Saturday morning started in the city. Some men went fishing, children went to school. There were soldiers in the streets wearing masks and carrying dosimeters. They told people everything they knew: this was just training.
The city of Pripyat, children stand in front of their school
“There were unprecedented things in the school. There was a wet piece of cloth at every door. There was a piece of soap at every sink and nothing like this had ever happened before. There were women running around the school trying to wash everything. And, of course, the rumors. Obviously, the stories of some kind of an explosion at the power plant seemed completely unreal coming from second-graders. And the teachers didn’t say anything. So I wasn’t really worried. And at the beginning of the second lesson, 2 women came into the classroom and quickly gave us 2 small pills...”© mamasha_hru
At 11:40 a.m., at the river station, the workers from other reactors in the power plant took their families and left the city on a crowded ship. The sun looked unnaturally white.
By 4:00 p.m., people already knew about the fire in Pripyat because of the dark smoke in the sky. But there was no panic. People walked in the streets, discussed the next day’s soccer match between Dynamo and Spartak. Some of the inhabitants went to the hospitals and doctors recommended taking a mixture of iodine and water. The director of the plant got another refusal when he requested to start an evacuation.
Valery Legasov and Boris Shcherbina arrive onsite
Boris Shcherbina, a Soviet politician who served as a vice-chairman of the Council of Ministers
At 4:50 p.m., vice-chairman of the Council of Ministers, Boris Shcherbina, along with Valery Legasov, the First Deputy Director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, flew from Moscow to Kyiv. The members of the liquidation team at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant only had a couple of hours to understand how a nuclear reactor works.
In Pripyat, the sun went down and there was a red glow above the reactor that scared the inhabitants. There were no warnings about the danger, but there were patrols with dosimeters in the streets.
Valery Legasov, the First Deputy Director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy
At 8:30 p.m., the meeting began. Chemical units and helicopters arrived in Pripyat. The helicopters made it possible to see that the reactor actually exploded. Before that, everyone thought that the explosion happened next to it, but not inside it. Under pressure from the scientists, Shcherbina made the decision to start the evacuation of the city in the morning.
“All the party members and government leaders were only worried about saving their families. They canceled many flights from Ukraine. They packed the planes with their family members. And they didn’t care about anything else.”Georgy Lepnin, professor of physics, who worked at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant as a volunteer from 1986 to 1992
On April 28, at 5:00 a.m., the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant detected high radiation levels. The workers checked all the systems. It became clear that it was coming from a cloud that was carried by the wind from the power plant in Chernobyl.
One hour later, workers in a nuclear plant in Oskarshamn, Sweden, found out that a radioactive emission happened in the USSR. At the same time, Valery Legasov suggested starting to drop a special mixture on the reactor to stop the emissions. 1,250 buses, 350 trucks, and 2 trains arrive in Pripyat in order to evacuate almost 50,000 people.
The start of the evacuation and the work on the liquidation of the consequences
“When I was walking home with my backpack in one hand and a bucket in the other, singing some song, there were already 2 fire trucks in the forest of pine trees, watering the trees. I was older, I mean I was 10 years old, and I didn’t care about it, but smaller children were excited to play in the water that was trickling down from the trees, despite the warnings from a fireman... We quickly went to the road that connected Pripyat and Chernobyl and we quickly realized the true scale of the disaster. As I found out later, there are about 30 kilometers between Pripyat and Chernobyl and there was a huge line of buses on the road. There were different buses. Any kind that they could find. There were armored cars going right across the fields and there were young guys everywhere putting on hazmat suits.”© Andrey Shabanov
Because of the helicopters, radioactive dust got into the air, and the situation got worse because of the moving buses. Flights were delayed through the end of the evacuation, but the people there still continued to breathe in the dust.
At midday, BBC reported the high levels of radiation and the accident at the Soviet nuclear plant. The USSR didn’t comment on the situation at all and continued to prepare for their Labor Day parade, along with other countries. At 9:00 p.m., on the news program Vremya, they showed a short message about an accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant but they didn’t say a word about the radiation or the danger for the people.
Young soldiers in the regular service also took part in the evacuation. Igor Hyryak is among them, he was the only black liquidator we know about. He built a pontoon on the Pripyat river along with other soldiers that was used to evacuate people. After 2.5 months of work there, he suffered from a throat burn.
For the entire summer, soldiers took turns cleaning up the rubble, burying the empty villages, and shooting down animals in order to prevent the spread of radiation outside the exclusion zone.
On the 1st of May, people in the cities of the Eastern Block went outside for parades despite the radioactive rains. Only the military, the police, the liquidators, the plant personnel, and the members of the government commission remained in Pripyat.
“We lived in Tallinn at the time. My mother was crying. I was 9 and a half years old and, of course, I didn’t realize how serious the disaster really was. And then we saw people in the streets wearing slippers and robes. It was unimaginable for Estonia. They were refugees. And there were a lot of them. And I have to give it to the people of the city — everyone offered help. Absolutely everyone!”© Elena Salnikova
Almost a thousand helicopters worked above the reactor and the number of healthy pilots was constantly decreasing. The pilots that were in Afghanistan were ordered to go to Pripyat.
On May 2, in Pripyat, people were hoping to restore the destroyed reactor by the anniversary of the October Revolution. In the evening, the evacuation of the 30-kilometer zone around Pripyat began. The first liquidators of the accident died in hospitals. Doctors wore lead shields in order to protect themselves from the radiation emitted by the patients.
“I am an Austrian, and I was born in 1983. My friend’s father was taking part in some military exercise when the radioactive rain started. The commanders must have known about everything, but they were not going to protect their soldiers. My friend’s father died of cancer at the beginning of the 1990s. And a neighbor of ours went for a walk outside and was also in the rain. Several weeks later, he lost all his hair and it never grew again.
I remember being given iodine pills in my kindergarten and primary school years after all of these events.”© _ak
Experts realized that there was a danger that the radioactive fuel from the exploded reactor would melt down the concrete pad and would get into the pool of water, which could lead to a new catastrophic explosion. 3 engineers, without any special protection clothes, went into the half-flooded building and got rid of the water.
Miners, along with the builders of the Kyiv subway, dug a tunnel to install the cooling system and built a protection wall to prevent the fuel from getting into the underground water supply, the Dnieper River, and the Black Sea. They even built dams on the Pripyat River.
“We, students from Kyiv, went back home on the holidays and we had no idea how serious everything really was. We came back to Kyiv and all the cars were empty. The train attendants looked at us as if we were insane and asked, ‘Everyone is going to Odessa and why are you coming back?’ We were ordered to return, otherwise, we would be expelled. So, we returned, collected some lilies of the valley and ate some radioactive strawberries...”© Nelly Limpopo
Liquidators installed lead shields around their tents to protect themselves from the radiation and it was dead silent everywhere around. Doctors were there and there were a lot of photographers. People showered and changed their clothes really often.
On May 15, the first liquidation shift left Chernobyl along with Shcherbina, but Valery Legasov and some other scientists remained there in order to work on a shield for the destroyed reactor.
On May 23, a fire started near the destroyed reactor core and it took 8 hours to put it out. The firefighters were not allowed to tell doctors what happened to them.
“Our military base was in the field between the 2 villages. People were not allowed to live there, but soldiers were! We lived in tents, 36-38 people in each, we slept on bunk beds, and had 2 potbelly stoves. They brought food to us but not firewood. So, we had to use local wood. Entire villages were buried in order to prevent the radiation from spreading and our guys in tents were trying to keep warm near mini nuclear reactors! These guys had more radiation exposure than the liquidators.”Sergey Shalkevich, Chernobyl liquidator
In the 30 km exclusion zone, some entertainment events were arranged. The first to perform was Joseph Kobzon, he gave a concert in the city administration building where the radiation levels were extremely high. After that, Valery Leontiev, Alla Pugachova, Na Na, and others sang for the liquidators.
In August, Legasov went to Vienna to tell the world about the accident and he said that it was human error. But he told a different version to the USSR and saying that the reactor itself was the reason for the explosion. He asked the government to stop using similar reactors in other power plants. He got denied. At the end of November, they built the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant sarcophagus above the reactor. It started to deteriorate later, and in 2010, the construction of new sarcophagus started. It is supposed to last for 100 years.
The USSR presents its own version of the truth to the world and decides to stop building new nuclear plants.
“My mother from Germany told me that, during those days, they were prohibited to collect mushrooms in the forest. Also, nobody drank cow’s milk for several months after the official reports about the quality were published. The mushrooms are still not eaten because the soil is contaminated. So is the meat of wild hogs.”© MalbanaKwaly
At the end of 1986, Valery Legasov was the only person among the leaders of the liquidation team who didn’t get the state award. A few months later, he also didn’t get accepted to the scientific council of the Kurchatov Institute. He had intestinal cancer, but he continued his own investigation of the reasons for the explosion. The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was continuing to function at this point.
On the second anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, Legasov was found dead. The next day, Legasov was going to make the results of his own investigation public and he recorded the unknown facts about the explosion that were used in “Surviving Disaster” Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster.
6 months after that, an ill Boris Shcherbina was sent to liquidate the consequences of the earthquake in Armenia that killed 25,000 people.
In 1990, Boris Shcherbina died. Viktor Bryukhanov went on leave because of his health issues. He returned to work at Chernobyl. In the summer of 1991, the levels of radiation were still very high near the plant: 171 microroentgen per hour, whereas the normal level is supposed to be 20-25 microroentgen.
In October 1991, a fire started near reactor No. 2. The workers of the plant and firefighters received 2-week doses of radiation but there was no danger to the inhabitants. It was then decided to stop work at the plant temporarily.
Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife didn’t visit the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant for the first time until February 23, 1989. Their road there was very long because experts had to spend time choosing the least contaminated route.
The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant didn’t stop producing energy until 2000, but there were still some workers there. It will take another 1,000 years for the dangerous chemicals to decay. But despite that, people are venturing back to their empty houses.
“I am from Belarus. 10 years ago or so, my relatives gave us some blueberries. After just a glass of berries, my mom had a terrible diarrhea and my aunt had a headache. We decided to check the berries with a dosimeter: it turned out that the level of radiation was dozens of times higher than normal.”© Lalja
Today, in Russia there are 3 nuclear power plants and 10 reactors that are similar to the one that exploded in 1986 in Chernobyl. After the explosion, they were fixed but no other similar reactors have been built.
The official number of victims of the accident is less than 50 people — they are the ones who didn’t survive the explosion or died of very high radiation exposure, but several more thousand died or will die because of the radiation they received in the exclusion zone. The number of people who have or will have certain health problems is in the millions.
Please share your family’s story — what do you or your parents remember about the beginning of May 1986?
Preview photo credit Igor.Kostin.Photographer.of.Chernobyl