For many years, the details of the Chernobyl disaster were shrouded in mystery. The Soviets vehemently denied and purposefully obfuscated exactly what happened at Chernobyl, and westerners were allowed to see little of what transpired behind the Iron Curtain. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, more and more documents have been released, and we now have a clearer picture of the 1986 disaster and its aftermath.
While the events of Chernobyl were tragic, they could have been so much worse if not for the efforts of the brave first responders who contained the disaster. In covering up the disaster's true scope, the USSR also buried some of these heroic stories, including the stories of the Chernobyl suicide squad, three workers who risked their own lives to prevent an apocalyptic event.
Alexei Ananenko, Valeri Bezpalov, and Boris Baranov (posthumously) were awarded the Ukrainian Order For Courage in 2018, but for many years their story was left untold. Modern reporting and dramatizations like HBO's series Chernobyl have shone a light on their sacrifices.
After the initial disaster, fires burned across the atomic plant at Chernobyl. These fires burned for months, ejecting vast amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere and endangering nearby communities. However, Soviet officials were worried about a much more dangerous problem underneath.
If the fires continued burning through the floors at Chernobyl, they would eventually come into contact with rooms in the plant's basement flooded with 5 million gallons of radioactive water. The superheated water would turn into steam, causing pressure to build until it resulted in a massive explosion that could throw out huge amounts of radioactive waste and steam across Europe.
Soviet scientists calculated that this event would trigger meltdowns at three other nuclear plants, infect the water supply of Eastern Europe, and turn Northern Ukraine into an uninhabitable wasteland for at least a hundred years. Some estimates have gone even further, proposing that the explosion would have left a vast swath of Europe completely uninhabitable for centuries.
Mistakes were made throughout the chain of command. One of the more forgivable mistakes was made by local firefighting teams, who naturally thought that the way to combat the fires raging throughout the plant was to flood the reactor. This may have helped in the short term, but it also flooded the basement of the building and created a dangerous crisis.
When the basement was flooded, it trapped a vast amount of water under the complex. If the fires burned through enough material to come into contact with the water, a steam buildup could have resulted. The water in the basement also blocked access to the valves that controlled the "bubbler pools" beneath the reactor. These pools functioned as a coolant failsafe and were desperately needed in the event of a meltdown.
The only way stop a potential disaster was to relieve the pressure through the release valves found deep in the basement flooded with radioactive water, but the Soviets didn't know if anyone could even make it to the valve alive, much less survive and return. Few workers knew exactly where they were and exactly what to do with them, but mechanical engineer Ananenko did.
On HBO's Chernobyl, Ananenko, Bezpalov, and Baranov were forced into the mission, when all available evidence shows that they were, remarkably, volunteers. What's more, they were informed volunteers, knowing full well they might never make it back. In fact, they likely overestimated the risks, given that nobody really knew the condition of the basement or how much radiation they would be exposed to. It's a testament to their bravery that they went anyway.
Even at the time, it was called a life-threatening mission. The group waded in knee-deep, irradiated water in the dark to follow a path they well-knew could have been inaccesible, while the structure above them was unstable from the meltdown and the fire.
Dealing with radioactive water carries a special set of challenges. How to outfit the men going on such a mission? Heavy, lead-lined gear would slow them down and, at worst, drown them in the water. In addition, it would prolong their time in the radioactive rooms, making the mission even more dangerous.
Instead, the three workers opted for a simple outfit: a wetsuit that would allow them to move quickly and efficiently through the basement to the valves. Luckily, firefighters had already managed to pump some of the radioactive water out, meaning that the men didn't have to swim to the valve.