Weird History
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What Happened In The Immediate Aftermath Of The Chernobyl Disaster

Updated September 19, 2019 76.9k views15 items

When the No. 4 reactor exploded at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986, a colossal meltdown began. At the time, the people living near Chernobyl in what is now Ukraine, including first responders to the scene, didn't know they were experiencing a life-changing event. The effects of the Chernobyl disaster reverberated worldwide, with long-term repercussions for wildlife, humans, and the environment.

Immediately following the disaster, the Soviet government downplayed the dangers of the large amount of radiation the explosion and subsequent fire released, which led to widespread misinformation - or no information at all. The rest of the world soon discovered the severity of the disaster at Chernobyl. But for those closest to the danger, the news came far too late. Decades after the incident, although the area has come back to life in some ways, harmful effects persist.

Those who worked at the nuclear plant or lived in the surrounding areas tell haunting tales about what it was like in the immediate aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. Many of them shared their recollections in the book Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Nobel Prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich.

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  • Photo: IAEA Imagebank / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

    The Soviets Blamed The Most Extreme Reports On Western Propaganda 

    As other countries began to suspect something horrible had happened at Chernobyl, Soviet officials stuck to the party line and claimed the incident was entirely under control. With reports circulating that a radioactive cloud was descending upon Europe and a core meltdown likely had occurred, the Soviet government said these were just examples of Western propaganda.

    Officials compared the event to the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island and suggested the West was attempting to take advantage of the situation to sully the Soviet Union's international reputation. But in the following weeks, the depths of Mikhail Gorbachev's deception became clear.

    The Soviets lied to their own citizens, too. Politician Vladimir Matveevich Ivanov recalled:

    We got telegrams from the Central Committee, from the Regional Committee, they told us: you must prevent a panic. And it's true, a panic is a frightening thing. Only during the war did they pay so much attention to news from the front as they did then to the news from Chernobyl. There was fear, and there were rumors. People weren't killed by the radiation, but by the events. We had to prevent a panic.

  • Photo: slawojar / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Chaos Reigned As People Evacuated 'Temporarily'

    When the order to evacuate Pripyat and other nearby communities finally came, citizens began to realize something terrible had happened. But they remained - by design - ignorant of just how much radiation had leaked from the plant.

    After keeping them in the dark about the explosion for more than a day, authorities gave the people of Pripyat roughly an hour's notice to prepare for evacuation and told them to pack for a three-day trip. Few had any notion they'd be leaving their homes for good, and some even thought of it as a vacation.

    Local resident Nadezhda Petrovna Vygovskaya recalled:

    All day on the radio they are telling people to prepare for an evacuation: they'd take us away for three days, wash everything, check it over. The kids were told to take their school books. Still, my husband put our documents and our wedding photos into his briefcase. The only thing I took was a gauze kerchief in case the weather turned bad.

  • Photo: Adam Jones / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

    Radiation Levels On The Plant's Roof Made Robots Malfunction

    The Soviet government attempted to use robots to help clean up the affected area, but they were ineffective in the face of such pervasive radioactivity. Robots trying to remove ejected material from the reactor's roof broke down within minutes, so liquidators took on that task instead.

    While the liquidators were often referred to as volunteers, Aleksandr Kudryagin remembered differently:

    I don't think that any of us doubted that they'd put us in jail for insubordination. They'd put out a rumor that it would be two to three years. Meanwhile, if a soldier got more than 25 roentgen, his superiors could be put in jail for poisoning their men. So no one got more than 25 roentgen. Everyone got less. You understand?

    But they were good kids. Two of them got sick, and this other one, he said, "I'll go." And he'd already been on the roof once that day... Another gig was making a hole up top, and then it was time for him to stop. We're all waving at him: "Come down." But he's on his knees up there, and he's whacking away. He needed to make a hole in that spot, so we could throw the debris down. He didn't get up until he'd made the hole. He got a reward - 1,000 rubles. You could buy two motorcycles for that back then. Now he's a first-group invalid. But for being afraid, you paid right away.

  • Photo: IAEA Imagebank / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

    Three Men Who Drained The Coolant Pool Prevented Another Catastrophe 

    Tragic events often lead to apocryphal tales, and Chernobyl is no different. One popular myth involves a group of men who allegedly "saved Europe" by taking on a dangerous mission to drain a pool of water beneath the plant and prevent a steam-based explosion from spreading even more radioactivity across the continent.

    Sergei Vasilyevich Sobolev, of the Shield of Chernobyl Association, recalled:

    There was a moment when there existed the danger of a nuclear explosion, and they had to get the water out from under the reactor so that a mixture of uranium and graphite wouldn't get into it - with the water they would have formed a critical mass. The explosion would have been between three and five megatons. This would have meant not only Kiev and Minsk, but a large part of Europe would have been uninhabitable. Can you imagine it? A European catastrophe.

    So here was the task: who would dive in there and open the bolt on the safety valve? They promised them a car, an apartment, a dacha, aid for their families until the end of time. They searched for volunteers. And they found them! The boys dove, many times, and they opened that bolt, and the unit was given 7,000 rubles. They forgot about the cars and the apartments they promised - but that's not why they dove! Not for the material, least of all for the material promises.

    In reality, the mission was less of a dive and more of a wade through a soggy basement, and the men who did it faced no more risk of radiation poisoning than any of the other liquidators on site. Still, draining the pool did prevent a catastrophic explosion.