What Happened In The Immediate Aftermath Of The Chernobyl Disaster

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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  • Nuclear Plant Employees Kept Working As Radiation Poured Out
    Photo: Pawel Szubert / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Nuclear Plant Employees Kept Working As Radiation Poured Out

    The original explosions that rocked the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl occurred at around 1:30 in the morning on April 26, 1986. The No. 4 reactor at the plant exploded, and a meltdown occurred. Fires immediately broke out, and two men died in the chaos - one of whom was buried in the debris and remains there to this day.

    Despite the violence of the initial incident, the engineer on staff erroneously believed the reactor's core was undamaged and unexposed. Employees kept working, and firefighters arrived to quell the blaze without radiation-protective gear.

    Meanwhile, massive amounts of radiation poured out of the exploded reactor. More than 100 people received acute radiation poisoning, and dozens died within months. Radiation continued to leak from the core and spread to the surrounding area via the wind.

    Lyudmilla Ignatenko, the wife of one of the firemen, recalled:

    At 10 in the morning, the cameraman Shishenok died. He was the first. On the first day. We learned that another one was left under the debris - Valera Khodemchuk. They never did reach him. They buried him under the concrete. And we didn't know then that they were just the first ones.

  • Authorities Didn't Immediately Evacuate People In Nearby Cities 
    Photo: Shanomag / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    Authorities Didn't Immediately Evacuate People In Nearby Cities 

    In the wake of such a nuclear disaster, protocol called for the evacuation of nearby communities, including the city of Pripyat. But authorities did not follow protocol. As part of a cover-up effort, the Soviet government kept Pripyat citizens in the dark about the danger they were in - even after subsequent explosions in the damaged reactor that night.

    Police officers in gas masks appeared in the streets of Pripyat, and citizens started to report symptoms, causing anxiety and confusion, but the evacuation didn't begin until the middle of the next day - more than 24 hours after the incident.

    Lyudmilla Ignatenko recalled:

    It's night. On one side of the street, there are buses, hundreds of buses, they're already preparing the town for evacuation, and on the other side, hundreds of fire trucks. They came from all over. And the whole street covered in white foam. We're walking on it, just cursing and crying.

    Over the radio they tell us they might evacuate the city for three to five days, take your warm clothes with you, you'll be living in the forest. In tents. People were even glad - a camping trip! We'll celebrate May Day like that, a break from routine. People got barbecues ready. They took their guitars with them, their radios. Only the women whose husbands had been at the reactor were crying.

  • Government Officials Tried To Cover Up The Severity Of The Explosion
    Photo: IAEA Imagebank / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

    Government Officials Tried To Cover Up The Severity Of The Explosion

    The rush to cover up the severity of what occurred at Chernobyl began immediately, and the order came from the very top: Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviet leader created a commission to investigate the explosion, but did not tell the international community about the radiation it released.

    The Soviets finally came clean about the explosion only after radioactivity measured in Sweden on April 28 was traced back to Chernobyl, but they did not yet acknowledge its severity. By remaining quiet about the radioactive emissions still being released from the plant, they prevented other countries - and their own citizens - from dealing with the literal fallout of the event.

    As one citizen recalled:

    We sat in front of the television for days, waiting for Gorbachev to speak. The authorities didn't say anything. Only after the big holiday did Gorbachev come on and say: don't worry, comrades, the situation is under control. It's nothing bad. People are still there, living, working.

    Some experts believe this cover-up marked the beginning of the end for Gorbachev's international credibility because the man who campaigned on "openness" wasn't forthcoming at a crucial time.

  • 'Liquidators' Went In To Clean Up The Mess
    Photo: IAEA Imagebank / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

    'Liquidators' Went In To Clean Up The Mess

    Chernobyl was a disaster of unprecedented proportions, and nobody knew how to deal with cleaning up the radiation. The Soviet government's answer was to throw massive amounts of human power at the problem in the form of so-called "liquidators." Estimates on the number of liquidators range from 600,000 to 800,000, but there's nothing uncertain about the risks those people took while cleaning up the affected area.

    Liquidators were soldiers, firefighters, miners, and even custodians. Those who participated in building a concrete "sarcophagus" that covered the exposed core played the most direct role in saving lives, but all workers - whether they evacuated villages or washed the streets with hoses - risked their lives.

    Not everyone agreed with the cleanup plan, including chemical engineer Ivan Nikolaevich Zhykhov, who recalled: 

    I have a master's degree, I was working as the head of a laboratory at a large production facility. And what did they have me do? They handed me a shovel - this was practically my only instrument. We immediately came up with a slogan: Fight the atom with a shovel! Our protective gear consisted of respirators and gas masks, but no one used them because it was 30 degrees Celsius outside, if you put those on it would kill you. 

    Many of the liquidators were veterans of the Soviet war with Afghanistan. One veteran remembered feeling frustrated at being thrown once again into an unwinnable conflict:

    Their feeling was they'd pretty much had enough, with Afghanistan, they'd fought enough. They're sitting in the forest near the reactor, catching roentgen [a unit of radiation]. That was the order! They didn't need to send all those people there to get radiation. What for? They needed specialists, not a lot of human material.

  • The Soviets Blamed The Most Extreme Reports On Western Propaganda 
    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.

  • Chaos Reigned As People Evacuated 'Temporarily'
    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.