Chernobyl exploded: Humanity's deadly weapon preyed on its own face

At least 210 thousand people died and hundreds of thousands of others became hibakusha, the term for the atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So many people were scared. But Little Boy and Fat Man were not the last horrible weapons made by humans.

The explosion of a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl when it was still part of the Soviet Union helped add to the list of the most severe disasters on earth.

The Chernobyl no. 1 nuclear reactor was established in 1977 with a power target of 1,000 MW. In Ukraine, Chernobyl was the cornerstone of the Soviet Union's ambitions in the nuclear field.

After the first reactor, there were three others which then stood up. The fifth was under construction, and another one was in the planning stage.

Apart from being the foundation of nuclear power in Ukraine, Chernobyl was a symbol of achievement for the Soviet Ministry for Energy and Electricity. During this time, they had never made a nuclear reactor completely from scratch.

So, in the late 1960s, the Energy and Electricity Ministry called Viktor Bryukhanov to Moscow for an important assignment, something he never expected would be the culmination and end of his career. Bryukhanov was ordered to build a reactor in Chernobyl.

Bryukhanov, at that time, did not have much knowledge about nuclear. When he was young, he studied electrical engineering and worked running a turbine at a hydroelectric power station in Uzbekistan.

But, for the Soviet Government, nothing was more important than Bryukhanov's loyalty and ability to complete the 400 million rubles project.

As told by Adam Higginbotham in Midnight in Chernobyl, Bryukhanov stayed in Chernobyl in the winter of 1970. Previously, Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, leader of the Communist Party of Ukraine, decided that the nuclear reactor was named after the city where it was located.

Byukhanov's arrival would later change life in Chernobyl, an area that since the 12th century became a hunting ground.

 Wormwood Star Memorial Complex, Chernobyl (Honza Groh)

Bryukhanov began to record every material he needed and then sent the details to the state bank to send him money. Almost every day, he went to the city by bus to buy materials and started the Chernobyl establishment. If there was no bus, he must ride a vehicle that passed by.

Slowly, Bryukhanov collected heavy equipment and workers. To speed up the work, Bryukhanov turned the surrounding forest into a residence for his workers and made the location a small village for a while.

In August, Bryukhanov took his wife Valentina and their two children Lily and Oleg to spend the night in the area he had built and named it Lesnoy.

Bryukhanov's seriousness was captured by the central government. Despite the distance of Ukraine and Moscow to hundreds of miles, the Soviet Government sent artists to perform in Chernobyl. This effort was to encourage workers to not get bored.

Still, in 1970, Bryukhanov decided to build another city called Pripyat. The city was built to be home for thousands of Chernobyl workers, including their families. Later, the population would reach more than forty thousand people.

Enerhetyk Palace of Culture, Pripyat (Tiia Monto)

The speed of development was contributed by the young workers who worked in Chernobyl. In 1972, Pripyat became a city that was already fit to be occupied. Apartments for shelter were ready. Bryukhanov and Valentina were one of the first families to occupy the three-bedroom apartment.

In 1977, the first Chernobyl reactor was successfully established. Following that were three more units in 1978, 1981 and 1983. All of them were of the Reaktor Bolshoy Moshchnosti Kanalnyy (RBMK) class. Each of which had 1,000 MW. Only two reactors were left, so the Chernobyl plan would be complete according to the target.

Life in Pripyat, the city closest to Chernobyl, was almost perfect. Around 1985, Pripyat had five schools, three public swimming pools, and 35 playgrounds. As a small town, life near nuclear reactors at that time was more like a privilege, not a danger.

Pripyat had a large food supply, even exceeding Kyiv, the current capital of Ukraine, and got direct financial support from Moscow.

"Pripyat was a lovely city. Life was good there, but it's good here in Slavutych too. As the Russian saying goes, there are no good things without bad things," said Sergei Matolievich Shedrakov, who had lived in Pripyat, to The Guardian.

Pripyat city limit sign (Apтeмий Титoв)

The explosion of the Soviet Union's ambitions

Even though four years had passed, the testing of nuclear reactor number 4 was still not done. The test was carried out to find out how the reactor responded when there was a lack of power. The RBMK reactor, as Terra Pitta noted in Catastrophe, continued to emit hot residues even though it was was dead.

When the reactor suddenly turned off, for example, using the scram button, the water would try hard to cool the reactor core so that it was not damaged. Chernobyl had three backup generators that served to provide power to the water pumps, but they took power from the turbine engine for about 60–75 seconds before the generators functioned. The endurance of the turbine engine to keep spinning was what Chernobyl wanted to achieve.

In 1982, the test was carried out on another reactor, but the power from the generators was not enough to drive the pumps in action. Two years later, the experiment was resumed and did not achieve the desired results. In 1985, the test results were also unsatisfactory. The fourth test was finally decided on April 25, 1986.

Still in Pitta's notes, on the appointed day, everything was ready. But unfortunately, one of the electrical power suppliers in the Soviet Union suddenly died. The test had to be postponed to April 26, 1986.

Entrance to the zone of alienation around Chernobyl (Slawojar)

Although Bryukhanov as the Chernobyl director agreed, he was not at the location and handed the test responsibilities to deputy chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov and chief engineer Nikolai Fomin.

Chernobyl applied the shift work system: day, evening, and night. Most of the night-shift workers did not have much knowledge about nuclear and had no experience in carrying out such a test. The reactor power at that time was only 200 MW, far from the minimum of 700 MW to run the test.

But Fomin remained confident of continuing the test; one thing he would regret later on. Senior engineer Leonid Toptunov and shift supervisor Aleksandr Akimov who at that time handled the reactor refused to do the test.

Dyatlov was furious. He threatened to find someone else who would obey his orders. The 55-year-old man was a graduate of National Research Nuclear University MEPhI and once installed a nuclear reactor on a Russian submarine. Delay, for Dyatlov, would only give a bad impression to his career.

Akimov and Toptunov had no choice but to obey. In those days, a career as a nuclear engineer was very promising rather than being forced into the army and sent to Afghanistan. Losing a job at a nuclear reactor could affect their lives. Moreover, Dyatlov was one of the most reliable nuclear engineers in Chernobyl. Neither Fomin nor Bryukhanov had much knowledge of nuclear.

Aleksandr Akimov (AFS 86)

At 01:22:30, Toptunov realized that the computer wanted the reactor to shut down immediately. Testimony from one of the workers at Chernobyl, Razim Davletbaev, stated that Toptunov's concern was again ignored by Dyatlov. He immediately ordered Akimov to start the test. Nothing else could stop Dyatlov, even the catastrophe that followed afterward.

Less than a minute later, at 01:23:04, the beginning of Chernobyl hell began. The test was carried out, and the power in the reactor dropped very dramatically to 30 MWt. This amount of power was unable to pump water into the reactor and risked making the reactor become hot and melt.

Akimov, who realized this, panicked and made a big decision in his life: pressing the AZ-5 or scram button to shut down the reactor. This section continues to be a debate in history because another version says the scram was pressed as a sign that the test was running as it should; the goal was that the turbine would move and pump water while in fact, it did not.

The control rod made of graphite in the reactor also moved irregularly until it finally stopped. This rod was needed so that the increase in the fission rate inside the reactor could be controlled. The absence of this stem function eventually caused overheating in the Chernobyl nuclear reactor no. 4.

The reactor power suddenly jumped to 33,000 MWt, eleven times higher than usual. Excessive heat eventually made the fuel lines in the reactor burst, including the water pipe there. Hot steam in the reactor was unstoppable. The temperature at that time reached 3,000°C, and right at 01:23:58, hot steam could no longer be dammed by reactor no. 4.

Steam plumes continued to be generated days after the initial explosion

The 1,000-tonne reactor roof exploded and showed the appearance of the reactor core. Some were graphite rods from the reactor. Some were materials that had been exposed to radioactivity. The materials were all scattered on the roof.

One explosion was not enough. Two or three seconds later, a second explosion followed with 700 tons of graphite materials exposed to radioactivity. Not only black smoke came out, but also blue light radiated into the air.

At that time, Dyatlov, Akimov, and some people at Chernobyl probably realized how chaotic they were.

When Chernobyl engineers confirmed to Dyatlov and Akimov that the reactor had been destroyed, Dyatlov could not believe it. He insisted that the explosion only came from oxygen or hydrogen.

For Andrew Leatherbarrow, as noted in Chernobyl 01:23:40, Dyatlov's denialism was only a sign of despair about the reality that occurred on April 26, 1986, thirty-four years ago.

"Dyatlov was exhibiting strong signs of a psychological phenomenon commonly associated man-made disasters, known as groupthink, described as the desire for harmony or conformity in the group which resulted in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome," said Leatherbarrow.

Vague facts

For all the Soviet population, and the world community as well, Chernobyl was an extraordinary event that haunted them. After the two explosions, it did not mean the problem was over. Severe radiation rose in all directions.

Nuclear power protest in Berlin, 2011 (Chrischerf)

Radiation gauges at that time were only able to measure up to 1,000 µR, and when one of the technicians measured the Chernobyl radiation level, the device was unable to estimate it.

The leak and radiation were unknown to Dyatlov, Akimov, and friends. Overshadowed by aftershocks, radiation spread to the nearest town, Pripyat. Akimov instead sent two interns to the reactor to manually move the control rods. In the following days, the two people died due to radiation exposure.

"He sent them to their deaths," wrote Leatherbarrow.

Vladimir Shashenok, one of the victims, suffered severe injuries. After being hit by the explosion, he never again opened his eyes for four and a half hours until his last breath. Sashenok was the second victim who died on the first day of the explosion.

Because of the severity of the injuries caused by the Chernobyl explosion, his wife did not recognize Sashenok's body. She did not believe her husband had died. "It was not my husband at all. It was a swollen blister," said his wife as noted by Leatherbarrow.

Abandon buildings in Chernobyl (Natis)

Dyatlov looked for another way. He asked the fire department to put out the fire. He also sent people to the roof to clean up the graphite rods that were prone to burning at any time.

When cleaning up the debris on the roof, they realized the danger that was sticking to their bodies for decades to come. However, as one survivor Jaan Krinal said, they did not have much choice for the sake of their family. If left unchecked, the condition of an open nuclear reactor would be worse.

Some of the top-level engineers at Chernobyl like Dyatlov, Akimov, and Toptunov have all died, except for Fomin. The nuclear explosion at Chernobyl resulted in thirty-one deaths in the first three months, and possibly four to 90 thousand people would die from long-term radioactive effects.

The BBC noted that there were 600 thousand people who were likely exposed to radiation. Another source stated 893 thousand people. They are known as liquidators, and until now, they have received financial assistance from the government.

There were 350 thousand people displaced by the Chernobyl disaster. The World Health Organization predicted the radiation reached 200,000 km² up to Belarus, Russia, and Europe. Another prediction is that the Chernobyl region is not suitable for habitation for the next 20 thousand years due to radiation.

New safe confinement in 2017 (Tim Porter)

Akimov and Toptunov died two weeks after the explosion due to radiation exposure. Dyatlov died nine years later for the same reason. Only Fomin and Dyatlov were briefly tried and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Both were accused of negligence in carrying out their duties. Bryukhanov as director was also sentenced to five years in prison.

Although accused of negligence, the actual events related to Chernobyl have different versions. Until the end of his life, Akimov insisted he did nothing wrong. During the trial, Dyatlov also admitted that the test went smoothly without violating safety procedures. Another version is, the Soviet RBMK reactor scheme was indeed problematic.

However, that fact may be too vague. The head of the Chernobyl investigation team, Valery Legasov, said Chernobyl was a form of deification of all that was wrong in national economic management and had taken root for decades. His voice record was found on April 27, 1988, exactly one day after the two-year anniversary of Chernobyl. He decided to end his life by hanging himself.

His death was mysterious. The Soviets did not open this incident to the public after weeks. Some considered Legasov to have committed suicide because of the massive Chernobyl report. There was also a conclusion that Legasov could not stand being followed by KGB agents. Others expected Legasov to be depressed due to radiation exposure.

Indeed, many Chernobyl victims might increase later, given the average population of Pripyat was 26 years old at that time. But Ukraine does not want to give up so easily with Chernobyl. Now, Chernobyl has become a tourist location with a safe limit of 30 km from the area of the former nuclear reactor.

Exposition at Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum (Jorge Láscar)

Fomin who survived the incident had become a Chernobyl tour guide since 2009 and had taken more than 500 trips. For Fomin, Chernobyl was a bitter memory. He tried to commit suicide twice, one before the trial, one after the sentence he received. For him, life must go on even though Chernobyl and Pripyat are now dead.

"We should think about Chernobyl, about Fukushima. We should remember that. And we should remember that nuclear power is not without consequences," said Fomin as quoted by Bankwatch.