What sparked the disaster was an experiment to try and see how long the turbines would spin for without an electricity supply. This was hoped to be an option to cut down on costs. The combination of hot fuel and cooling water created a lot of steam which caused a huge amount of pressure. KABOOM! The two plant workers on duty at the time died that night. They were later buried in coffins lined with lead. The six firemen on call at the fire station across the road, arrived at the scene within 2 minutes and attempted to put the blaze out with water. Water had no effect on the fire which increased in intensity. The firmen were under the impression it was just an electrical fire and were not aware of the dangers they were facing. Those 6 fireman were all dead from radiation poisoning within a few weeks. The official death toll for the Chernobyl nuclear explosion is 30. All died within a few weeks of the disaster. 27 years after the accident, a fireman's jacket worn at that time still has a reading of 500. UNSCEAR says that apart from increased thyroid cancers, "there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure 20 years after the accident." Probably because those contaminated were already dead 20 years after the accident.
After the explosion the chief of the night shift wanted to shut down reactor 3 as a safety precaution but the chief engineer wouldn't hear of it. Eventually at 5am the other reactors were only shut down.
On our visit to Chernobyl we were told that the safe radiation readings for humans was 0.30. Radiation doses on that first day were 20 000. The guys who went to fight the fire had no chance. They had no idea of what they were facing. In the nearby town of Pripyat which was created especially for the workers at the power plant, some people went to a little bridge on the outskirts of the town where they had a good view of reactor 4 and the fire that was blazing. In the early hours of the morning they stood on the bridge and watched the blaze. All of them later died of radiation sickness. They were not included in the official death toll. That bridge is now known as the Bridge of Death.
Pripyat had a population of 50 000. Most of the adults were between the ages of 20 and 30. There were 5 schools and 12 kindergartens. About 17 000 children in total. There was a stadium with an athletics track and football field, a sports complex with swimming pool, shopping malls, supermarkets and an amusement park. Our guide told us that the reason why there weren't any churches, was because it was a relatively new town - only 16 years old, and they hadn't been built yet.
Pripyat wasn't evacuated immediately. People went about their business and continued with their day as if nothing had happened. However after a few hours people began to feel sick with headaches, vomiting and complained of a metallic taste in their mouths.
The Soviet Government only sent over a commission to investigate the accident on the evening of the 26th April. Due to the high radiation levels they found, it was decided to evacuate the people of Pripyat on the 27th April. They were told it would be temporary and they would only be gone for about 3 days, so they only needed to take their documents and a few belongings. It took only 3 hours for scores of buses to take away the 50 000 inhabitants. They would never return to collect their belongings. Two years after the accident, looters came in and cleaned out the town.
The government of Ukraine were only told that there had been a fire and it was extinguished and all was fine. Moscow informed the region that there was no need to cancel the 1 May celebrations and parades, they could still continue as there was no danger. It was only later that a further 220 000 people in about 96 towns and villages in the area were evacuated never to return. The area in a 30km radius from the explosion site became known as the Exclusion Zone.
The general population of the USSR were only informed 2 days after the accident in a short article on page 3 of the Pravda. It just said there was a fire, not that the reactor had exploded.
The plume of radioactive fallout drifted over the USSR and Europe. Because of the wind direction at the time, 60% of the fallout landed in Belarus. The world only became aware of the accident when scientists in Sweden detected high radiation levels in a puddle of water.
The Soviet Government tried to contain the disaster without letting the world know the enormity of the problem. Helicopters were sent in to drop bags of sand and boron on the fires. The helicopter pilots received huge doses of radiation as they made up to 33 trips a day to reactor 4. A new crisis arose as the fires continued to burn under the sand layer and it was feared that a second, huger explosion would destroy a large part of Europe. There was also a fear that Europe's subterranean water supply would be contaminated. When the heat from the magma below started to crack the sand layer, lead was dropped into reactor 4. Young miners were brought in from all over the Soviet Union to dig a tunnel under the reactor and create a room where they could put in a huge cooling machine to cool the magma. Underground in the tunnel they were digging the radiation levels weren't too bad, but once they exited the tunnel and came to the surface they were exposed to high levels of radiation. The worst of the radioactive debris on the rooftops had to be moved by young men called bio-robots, as the radioactivity stopped the machines from working.
Young men from the Soviet army were brought in to build a concrete sarcophagus to try and prevent further release of radioactive material. The sarcophagus was always supposed to be a temporary fix with a lifespan of 30 years. It is already starting to crack after 27 years, and there is a large black hole where part of it caved in in February 2013. After that radiation levels in the area were reported to be 12 times higher but it does seem to be back to where it usually is now. The new sarcophagus being built 150m away, is scheduled to be finished in 2015 after which it will be wheeled over to cover the old sarcophagus.
After the building of the sarcophagus, the huge clean-up started. Altogether about 600 000 people were involved in the clean-up, most of them were from the Soviet Army, young soldiers aged between 20 and 30. They were called the liquidators. They cleaned off radioactive dust, removed soil, sometimes up to a metre deep which they buried underground. All wooden houses in a 10km radius were demolished and buried underground, radioactivity markers placed on their graves. Forests in the immediate area were burned. The clean-up was huge. Liquidators showing signs of radiation poisoning were flown to Moscow where they were attended to in Hospital 6, the only hospital that specialised in the treatment of radiation sickness.
It's hard to believe but people continued to work in Chernobyl. The other three nuclear reactors were still operational. Reactor 2 was only shut down in 1991 after a serious turbine building fire. Reactor 1 was closed in 1996 and Reactor 3 was closed in 1999. Although the town of Pripyat was evacuated the day after the accident, the swimming pool was only closed and emptied in 1999.
Today 9000 people live within the 30km exclusion zone. Most are involved in continuous clean-up operations and the building of the new sarcophagus. They work 15 days on, 15 days off, to try and limit radiation exposure. Over 100 people are living in some of the abandoned villages, having returned illegally. The government has decided to turn a blind eye as they are all old. Scientists say the area won't be safe to live in for another 20 000 years.
An excellent photo essay on the effects of the Chernobyl Accident on children in Belarus (the border is about 15km from Chernobyl) can be viewed here. If this is the effects on children in Belarus which was 15km away, I dread to think the effects on children from Pripyat which was about 1km away. There are no records of the many miscarriages that occurred after the accident. The fact is that 400 times more radioactive material was released into the atmosphere from the Chernobyl accident than the bombing of Hiroshima. The containment and decontamination after the accident is reported to have cost the Soviet Union $18 billion, virtually bankrupting the USSR. The Chernobyl Accident was huge and had far-reaching effects. I am pleased that I was able to take the tour and find out more about what really happened.
Cindy Vine is the author of Not Telling, Defective and CU@8, all available on Amazon as both Kindle and paperback.