On many occasions throughout history, when the unthinkable happens and tragedy strikes, mankind has demonstrated its collective ability to pull together and pick up the pieces. On April 26, 1986, the fourth reactor block at Chernobyl exploded. It was what so many people had been afraid of, campaigned against, and protested for years. Nuclear power was dangerous, they said, and in 1986, we found out just how dangerous.
Radioactive particles were in the atmosphere almost instantaneously, and by the next morning, rain falling on the nearby cities, towns and villages was already drizzling deadly radiation on the countryside. It didn’t need to be said – it was going to spread, and there was the potential that it would spread across the world. However, people got to work doing what needed to be done – they cleaned it up.
The first responders were a group of firefighters. There were 14 in total, and two would die that night from extreme exposure. More of the original responders – 28 of them – would be dead within a few months. But, with hindsight, it was found that their presence on the scene prevented things from getting even worse, stopping a second explosion that was perilously close to happening on the heels of the first.
Soon after the first team of responders had arrived on the scene, a group of soldiers took some readings. The levels were so high that 15 minutes of exposure proved to be deadly.
Rather than evacuating the now-abandoned city of Pripyat, emergency personnel were raced to the scene of the explosion. Simply dealing with the fires to stop the initial chaos was a massive undertaking. The numbers are staggering.
In the first rush alone, 186 firefighters, 81 fire engines and 80 helicopters were dispatched. Sand and boric acid was used, and 1,800 flights dumped 8,400 tons of materials on the burning reactors. Many pilots returned again and again, exposing themselves to the deadly radiation on a level that left them with no chance of survival. Nearly 600 people were exposed to radiation. All of them died.
Even after the exposed fires were extinguished, 195 lethal tons of radioactive, nuclear sludge needed to be cleaned up. It was only then, after officials realized the extent of what was leaking out of the reactor, that nearby towns were evacuated.
Not everyone left, though, and those that stayed became known as the liquidators. The word in Russian has a different connotation after Chernobyl; it means something akin to both hero and victim.
Between 1986 and 1989, thousands of people helped with the monumental cleanup effort which defined the aftermath of the disaster. And even today, the long-term health implications from their selflessness remain uncertain.
But it isn’t just those who were involved who remain at risk. It’s their descendants too, and will likely remain so for generations to come. Numbers vary as to how many people were involved in the cleanup, ranging from several hundred thousands to almost a million.
According to the Chernobyl Foundation, 830,000 people acted as liquidators. Some were as young as 15-years-old – and it’s estimated that about seven percent of those involved received dangerously high does of radiation.
Those that were among the first on the scene received the same amount of radiation as would be given off in 1,000 chest x-rays. And that’s more than five times the acceptable level of exposure for those working in the industry.
Attempts were made to use remote controlled devices to help with the cleanup, but with the amount of radiation in the area meant that only people could get the job done. So people did it, heading into the Exclusion Zone with homemade lead aprons, helmets and shoes.
The facility was ill-prepared for a tragedy of this magnitude, and there was no way to outfit all the liquidators with the protective gear they should have had – and in the end, they suffered for it.
Liquidators lived in tents while they worked, shoveling contaminated dirt, clearing deadly forests and hosing down buildings. They built the Sarcophagus, a massive construction project designed to seal off the reactor for at least a few decades.
They built walls to help prevent the contamination of the waterways and measured radiation levels across the contaminated lands. They bulldozed houses, poured cement over contaminated ground…. some even wandered the area, with the sole purpose of killing cats and dogs that would have been contaminated by the same deadly radiation.
And they did it all with equipment – trucks, helicopters, tanks, bulldozers and buses – which now lies silent in a massive ‘rescue vehicle graveyard‘ amid the barren Ukrainian tundra.
Regular radiation checkpoints were established as liquidators came and went. It was quickly apparent that their equipment was becoming nothing short of saturated with radiation, and many pieces became so toxic that their lifespan was only a couple of weeks.
Many of the vehicles were lined with lead in an attempt to shield their occupants, which shortened the life of the vehicles even further – and how effective the precautions were, it’s hard to tell. Once they were too deadly and too contaminated to use, they were relegated to Chernobyl’s chilling rescue vehicle graveyard.
And there they remain, blistering away amid this unsettling, otherworldly landscape. Rescue vehicles and other heavy equipment, some stripped to the bone, lies discarded after serving in the deadly aftermath of one of the most horrific disasters in recent history.
And those that manned the equipment have fared no better. It’s estimated that, by 2005, about 20 percent of the liquidators had died, many of them only in their 30s and 40s. Those that survive have a greatly elevated risk of cancer and other chronic diseases, not to mention the danger of passing on genetic anomalies.
It’s this that is perhaps the most heartbreaking – and the most long-lasting – of all the terrible effects of Chernobyl. And it’s far from over. More than 83,000 children born in the area display some form of genetic abnormalities. It’s thought that by 2050, a whole host of new health problems will develop that can trace their origins back to that one day.
But getting exact numbers and tallies is almost impossible, with much of the information on the disaster and its aftermath in various stages of declassification. Instability of governments in the region, information cover-ups and a simple lack of communication have all conspired to make the overall consequences of the disaster incredible difficult to determine.
The fallout from Chernobyl has, in the end, been more than just radiation. The surviving liquidators aren’t just surviving, they’re being forced to reevaluate everything that most people take for granted. Those who worked in the pits, moved soil, built the aptly named Sarcophagus that shielded the reactor, drove the machinery that’s now rusting away under the ex-Soviet sun…. those were the ones who were told not to have children – at least for five years or so.
They even joked about the radiation at first, until the bleeding started. They saw their friends and their colleagues, strangers they had just met, turning black and bruised before they died.
In 1986, they were heroes. Afterwards, they started to die. And they were faced with having to deal with something that only those who live through true tragedy must face. Eventually, the world moves on, the cameras are packed up, and the media moves on to the next story. But for many, there is no next story, and somehow, they must face what they have fought.