Tim Knifton

The Firefighters of Chernobyl

As stated in yesterday’s blog, the articles I will write will not appear in any particular order.

Today’s blog concentrates on the efforts and the bravery of the firefighters (or liquidators as they were known) in the fighting and eventual management of the blaze that initially destroyed Reactor 4 in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and spread throughout the plant.

A lot of this article is based on research from other sites and has been copied over from several areas of research. I feel that there is no point reinventing the wheel and writing this from scratch.

The Chernobyl disaster is widely considered to have been the worst nuclear power plant accident in history, and is one of only two classified as a level 7 event on the International Nuclear Event Scale (the other being the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011). The battle to contain the contamination and avert a greater catastrophe ultimately involved over 500,000 workers and cost an estimated 18 billion rubles. The official Soviet casualty count of 31 deaths has been disputed, and long-term effects such as cancers and deformities are still being accounted for.

Shortly after the accident, firefighters arrived to try to extinguish the fires. First on the scene was a Chernobyl Power Station firefighter brigade under the command of Lieutenant Volodymyr Pravik, who died on 9th May 1986 of acute radiation sickness. They were not told how dangerously radioactive the smoke and the debris were, and may not even have known that the accident was anything more than a regular electrical fire: “We didn’t know it was the reactor. No one had told us.”

Grigorii Khmel, the driver of one of the fire engines, later described what happened:

We arrived there at 10 or 15 minutes to two in the morning… We saw graphite scattered about. Misha asked: “Is that graphite?” I kicked it away. But one of the fighters on the other truck picked it up. “It’s hot,” he said. The pieces of graphite were of different sizes, some big, some small, enough to pick them up…

We didn’t know much about radiation. Even those who worked there had no idea. There was no water left in the trucks. Misha filled a cistern and we aimed the water at the top. Then those boys who died went up to the roof – Vashchik, Kolya and others, and Volodya Pravik…. They went up the ladder … and I never saw them again.

However, Anatoli Zakharov, a fireman stationed in Chernobyl since 1980, offers a different description:

I remember joking to the others, “There must be an incredible amount of radiation here. We’ll be lucky if we’re all still alive in the morning.”

Twenty years after the disaster, he said the firefighters from the Fire Station No. 2 were aware of the risks.

Of course we knew! If we’d followed regulations, we would never have gone near the reactor. But it was a moral obligation – our duty. We were like kamikaze.

The immediate priority was to extinguish fires on the roof of the station and the area around the building containing Reactor No. 4 to protect No. 3 and keep its core cooling systems intact. The fires were extinguished by 5:00, but many firefighters received high doses of radiation. The fire inside reactor 4 continued to burn until 10 May 1986; it is possible that well over half of the graphite burned out.

The fire was extinguished by a combined effort of helicopters dropping over 5,000 metric tons of sand, lead, clay, and neutron absorbing boron onto the burning reactor and injection of liquid nitrogen. The Ukrainian filmmaker Vladimir Shevchenko captured film footage of an Mi-8 helicopter as its main rotor collided with a nearby construction crane cable, causing the helicopter to fall near the damaged reactor building and killing its four-man crew. It is now known that virtually none of the neutron absorbers reached the core.

From eyewitness accounts of the firefighters involved before they died, one described his experience of the radiation as “tasting like metal,” and feeling a sensation similar to that of pins and needles all over his face. (This is similar to the description given by Louis Slotin, a Manhattan Project physicist who died days after a fatal radiation overdose from a criticality accident.)

The explosion and fire threw hot particles of the nuclear fuel and also far more dangerous fission products, radioactive isotopes such as caesium-137, iodine-131, strontium-90 and other radionuclides, into the air: the residents of the surrounding area observed the radioactive cloud on the night of the explosion.

Timeline

1:26 – fire alarm activated
1:28 – arrival of local firefighters, Pravik’s guard
1:35 – arrival of firefighters from Pripyat, Kibenok’s guard
1:40 – arrival of Telyatnikov
2:10 – turbine hall roof fire extinguished
2:30 – main reactor hall roof fires suppressed
3:30 – arrival of Kiev firefighters
4:50 – fires mostly localized
6:35 – all fires extinguished

With the exception of the fire contained inside Reactor 4, which continued to burn for many days.

In the city of Chernobyl there stands a simple memorial to the liquidators who rushed to reactor number four in the immediate aftermath of the explosion. The firefighters who initially responded to the disaster on the morning of April 26, 1986 were unaware that they were entering a radioactive environment, and rushed to the plant without donning protective suits and respirators. While they labored to extinguish the fires, their bodies absorbed lethal doses of radiation, and many of them later died of Acute Radiation Sickness. Overall, some 600,000 workers, including scientists, miners, and Soviet military conscripts, participated in the Chernobyl cleanup efforts. To this day, many of them continue to experience a variety of health problems stemming from their time spent in the zone. The plaque on the monument is inscribed “To those who saved the world.”

Thanks for reading.

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This entry was published on October 13, 2012 at 10:23 am. It’s filed under Photography, Travel and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

9 thoughts on “The Firefighters of Chernobyl

  1. Pingback: A revisit to the Firefighters of Chernobyl | Tim Knifton

  2. Kyryll on said:

    Brave men, sad that they didn’t know about the consequences.

  3. Pingback: Chernobyl. | O'Reilly, Talbot & Okun Associates Blog

  4. Pingback: Chernobyl | O'Reilly, Talbot & Okun Associates Blog

  5. Actually, no liquid nitrogen was injected into the plant! There was a plan to dig a tunnel underneath the reactor, carve out a large room, and fill that with 25 tons of liquid nitrogen in order to try and cool the radioactive “lava” before it melted through the earth below the reactor and hit groundwater (which would have caused a third explosion, possibly worse than the previous two). However, there wasn’t time or necessary resources to carry out the nitrogen plan, so they ended up just filling the underground room with cement–which ended up working anyway. Just wanted to clear that bit up. 🙂
    Great article, by the way!

  6. Actually, no liquid nitrogen was ever injected into the reactor. In the days following the accident, a plan was put in motion to dig a tunnel underneath the reactor, carve out a large room, and fill it with ~25 tons of liquid nitrogen in order to freeze and stabilize the soil beneath the reactor, as well as to cool the radioactive “lava” melting it’s way down through the lower floors of the plant. The fear was that this “lava” would burn through the earth below the reactor and hit a reservoir of groundwater that lay underneath it, which would have caused a third explosion–possibly more catastrophic than the previous two. However, due to lack of time and resources, they ended up just filling the room with cement…which ended up working anyway. Just wanted to clear that bit up! 🙂
    Great article, by the way! Those liquidators don’t get enough credit in the media or in Western history books!!

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