In the years following the Chernobyl disaster, the details of what exactly happened on that fateful day were shrouded in ambiguity and mystery. An embarrassment to the Soviet nuclear industry and a loss of face in the ever-intense Cold War against the United States of America, Chernobyl was swept under the rug by the Soviets and played down to the international media.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, there have been many documents and much information released concerning the disaster, allowing journalists, scientists, and historians to uncover what really transpired that day. The release of the documents has led to a spike in interest from different parties, and the disaster has been portrayed in film and television series many times.
Chernobyl Still Has Many Questions Unanswered
Although Chernobyl was an extremely destructive tragedy, since the loosening of files, reports, and documents due to the end of the Cold War, it can be safely said that it could and should, have been a whole lot worse. The efforts of the teams on-site to try and contain the disaster and limit the damage were extremely important in doing so. As the Soviets tried their best to cover as much information Surrounding Chernobyl up, these heroic stories and tales of self-sacrifice were also lost, until now.
In 2018, two plant workers were awarded the Ukranian Order for Courage, Alexei Ananenko, and Valeri Bezpalov. For several decades their story was unknown by many, left untold until HBO’s series named Chernobyl highlighted these brave people who laid down their lives to prevent an apocalyptic event.
Europe Could Have Been a Nuclear Wasteland
Even though the Soviets were talented at covering things up, there was no avoiding Chernobyl. The whole world witnessed pictures and coverage of the nuclear plant disaster. Such a disaster could not be hidden from the international media. The Ukrainian plant was seen burning for months after the initial explosion. Although the fires on the top of the plant were extremely hazardous and emitting radioactive material into the atmosphere, Soviet coordinators were much more concerned with a much bigger potential problem underground.
With the fires raging up above, the Soviets were terrified of the blaze burning down into the plant’s basement, which happened to contain millions of gallons of radioactive water waste. Once contact was made between the fire and the water, steam would be created, leading to an inevitable build-up of pressure that would eventually result in a huge explosion.
The First Ever Picture of The Chernobyl Disaster
The first photo ever taken of the Chernobyl disaster is the only surviving photo from the morning of the accident. The photographer, Igor Kostin, worked for Novosti Press Agency and was one of only five photographers in the world to capture pictures of the nuclear disaster. Kostin realized the historical importance of what he saw within hours of the explosion.
Kostin took aerial photos of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant that were shown all over the world, revealing the widespread damage and raising concerns about radiation contamination. This was a time when the Soviet media was trying to hide the true extent of the accident. Kostin's camera film was damaged by radiation, making the photo very grainy. Out of all the pictures he took during that flight, this one is the only one that wasn't ruined.
Europe Was Minutes Away From Nuclear Annihilation
This explosion would have acted similarly to a nuclear bomb, which would emit massive amounts of radioactive waste and steam right across Europe, destroying much of the continent as we know it today. The scientists on the scene quickly deduced that if this catastrophic event were to happen, then it could trigger explosions or meltdowns at least three other plants in Europe, multiplying the problem even further.
They also calculated that the water supply of Eastern Europe would be infected and turn toxic, in turn destroying rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. Northern Ukraine would have been turned into a nuclear wasteland, uninhabitable for hundreds or thousands of years. Other estimates were even more daunting, predicting the entire destruction of Northern Europe thanks to this potential explosion.
The Chernobyl Nuclear Plant Is Still a Threat
Thirty-five years after the world's worst nuclear accident, fission reactions are smoldering again in the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant. "It's like the embers in a barbecue pit," says Neil Hyatt, a nuclear materials chemist at the University of Sheffield. Ukrainian scientists are now rushing to determine if these reactions will stop on their own or if an intervention is needed to prevent another accident.
When the reactor's core melted down in 1986, various materials melted together, creating fuel-containing materials (FCMs) loaded with irradiated uranium. These FCMs are now the source of the current concern. As water continues to recede, the fear is that "the fission reaction accelerates exponentially," Hyatt says, leading to "an uncontrolled release of nuclear energy."
Mistakes Were Made and the Situation Worsened
Admittedly, these mistakes were made in earnest and it was down to the firefighters to assess the situation as best they could. As with any normal fire, by flooding the area (in this case the reactor floor ) then the risk of the fire spreading is greatly reduced, however, this was no normal fire. Without proper scientific knowledge, the firefighters added to the problem by flooding the chamber. This then put the radioactive water and flames in close proximity and the potential for destruction was multiplied. If the flames managed to break through to the basement, then Europe would be a very different place today.
Another problem created by flooding the basement was in connection with valves controlling the ‘bubbler pools’ located underneath the main reactor. The function of these pools acted as a backup coolant for the reactor and was designed as a safety measure in the case of a meltdown. By flooding the basement, these valves were blocked off and could not be adjusted in order to do the job they were made for.
Three Engineers Volunteered To Find And Fix The Valve
The Soviets still at the plant trying to control the damage were left with one option in order to stop the disaster. The valves had to be reached by hand and adjusted in order to protect the millions of gallons of radioactive water from touching the flames.
Only several workers knew the location and function of the valves, mechanical engineer Alexi Ananenko was one of them. At that moment, it was unknown whether anyone could survive this job, but it was clear that it had to be completed to prevent an even bigger disaster.
The Brave Men Suited up
Contrary to the HBO series Chernobyl, which depicted that the three engineers were instructed to go under against their will, it seems through released files and documents that the three engineers willingly volunteered for the task. Knowing the dangers they faced, Ananenko, Bezpalov, and Baranov stepped up to make the journey that could very well be their last.
Considering nobody knew the exact potential of the dangers that came with the role, it is highly likely that the risks were overestimated, which again shows the bravery shown by the engineers on this date. The three engineers suited up and prepared to go into the unknown.
The Three Engineers Waded Into Radioactive Water
As this was such a new mission and nothing like this had ever been carried out before the coordinators were stumped as to how to dress the engineers and what equipment they needed.
Lead-lined gear designed to protect people from radiation would have been far too heavy and the engineers would have been slowed down, increasing the fire’s chances of reaching the fire or even possibly drown weighed down by the suits.
Locating the Correct Valve Proved Difficult for the Divers
It was agreed that the workers would be suited in a standard diving wetsuit, in order to move quickly through the water. The faster the engineers reached the valves, the more chance the mission would be a success and they would be able to save the impending disaster. In one case of slight fortune, the firefighter has been able to siphon some of the radioactive water out, meaning they would not have to swim to the valve, but wade instead.
Underneath the power plant, the basement contained a labyrinth of pipes, wires, valves, and everything in between. The water was knee-high and highly radioactive, the brave engineers felt around for any clues. Luckily, the three workers knew the location of these certain valves and by following a pipe to its source, they found the correct valve.
The Mission Was a Success
So the engineers achieved what they had initially set out to do. The bubbler pools were drained and there was cause for celebration from the other workers still inside the plant, trying to help. Yet, whilst the potential was reduced, it had not gone completely away.
The core of the reactor was still burning fiercely, and while unlikely, there was always the possibility that it could burn through the concrete floor and into the basement water.
The Potential for Disaster Was Still Extremely High
However, while the danger was minimized, it wasn't truly over. The reactor core was still burning and while it was less likely, there was still a possibility that it would burn straight through the concrete building and make contact with the groundwater below.
In a preventative measure, the Soviets sourced every spec of liquid nitrogen and sent it straight to the engineers at Chernobyl. The plan was to pump the liquid nitrogen into the ground underneath the plant, thus freezing the ground and eventually stop the fire from reaching the groundwater. Fearful of knocking, breaking, or simply disturbing the foundations of the plant. The miners were sent in to excavate with hand tools. Little or no protective gear was provided to the miners and several died of radioactive exposure.
The Three Workers Were Met Like Heroes
For the thousands of workers at Chernobyl, complete devastation seemed a certainty before the valves were opened. Many of them were aware of the inevitable turn of events that would take place if the fires met the water supply, thus the mood was somewhat fearful during those first stages of the disaster
The workers in the plant didn't know whether the three-man team would reach the valves in time and save the plant and continent from annihilation. Upon reaching the blocked valves and opening the water supply, the danger was greatly reduced. When the workers learned of the success of the mission, there was much jubilation and the engineers came out to a hero's return.
A Doomed Mission for Two Heroes
The heroic story of Alexander Akimov and Leonid Toptunov is a tragic one. Soon after the initial explosion engineers Akimov and Toptunov believed a closed valve was blocking the coolant from doing its job on the reactor. The two men suited up and waded into radioactive water far more toxic and dangerous than it would be several days later for the successful mission.
At about 8 a.m. the young guys were on site. They spent hours partly submerged trying to figure out a way to pump water into the reactor. By that time, they could no longer speak, they were vomiting non-stop. Alexander, condemning himself, repeated that he did everything according to the instructions during the tests. On May 6, Alexander turned 33 years old, and on May 11 he died. Until his death, Alexander reproached himself: “I did everything right, I don’t understand why this happened.”
What Actually Happened
On the night of April 26, 1986, Leonid Toptunov worked in the control room at the reactor control panel with Aleksandr Akimov. Toptunov had only been operating the reactor for two months. Their test plan instructed them to lower the power of the reactor to 700 megawatts (MW). But during their preparations for the test, something unexpected happened.
The reactor stopped working correctly and decreased to a very low power level of only 30 MW. Increasing the power after this point was risky because of Xenon poisoning and design flaws in the reactor unknown to the operators. Despite this, Dyatlov told Toptunov and Akimov to raise the power back to 700 MW. Withdrawing a dangerous number of control rods, the operators could only reach 200 MW due to xenon poisoning. Akimov realized something was wrong, and asked for the AZ-5 (scram) button to be pressed to shut down the reactor. Toptunov pressed the button. However, because of a design flaw, the decreasing control rods actually sped up the nuclear reaction, causing the reactor to explode.
Other Engineers Volunteered
Some workers were completely vaporized during the initial explosion, and as scarring as this sounds, years later it seems they were the lucky ones. There have been countless cases of long-standing, painful illnesses directly related to the explosion. The lingering illnesses seem to have plagued the local population for several generations.
The story of Anapenko, Bezpalov, and Baranov was a success, due to the fact that all three engineers made it out of the reactor alive and that they completed their mission. Chernobyl however, was a disaster, and casualties occur in disasters such as this.
An Involuntary Suicide Mission
Ten days after the disaster, a small team of engineers was sent into the basement of the Chernobyl plant to manually open valves on the bubbler pool, including Ananenko, Bezpalov and Baranov. "I never thought it might mean death," Alexai admitted 33 years after the disaster. "In that position, I could hardly have said No – why would you employ someone like that [as a maintenance engineer]?"
Their mission was successful, and they managed to avert the risk of another steam explosion. However, in the following weeks, all three of them showed signs of radiation sickness. "They didn’t tell us anything at first – nobody said 'go see the doctors, let them give you some medication.' Nothing like that. In three years of liquidation, I accumulated 92 REM. While the acceptable norm for a nuclear power plant worker is 5 REM annually, I think."
Eight months after the Chernobyl accident, workers entered the corridor under the damaged No. 4 reactor. They found something very surprising: there was black lava that had come out of the reactor core, like a man-made volcano. One of these hard lumps was really shocking, and the workers gave it the nickname 'Elephant's Foot' because it looked like an elephant's foot.
Sensors showed that this lava lump was extremely radioactive. So much so, that If a person stayed near it for just five minutes, they would get enough radiation to be killed. Elephant's Foot is made of a rare substance called corium, which has only formed naturally five times in history: once during the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania, three times at the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi plant disaster in Japan, and once in Chernobyl.
More Radiation Was Emitted at Chernobyl Than at Hiroshima
Although there was a happy ending for the three brave engineers who braved the radioactive water, the story was not so happy for many other workers and local civilians. The plant explosion at Chernobyl emitted more radioactive energy and waste than the nuclear bomb at Hiroshima in 1945.
Of the thousands that were there that day, many people and animals were affected badly, winding up in hospital beds from which they would never leave, suffering severe burns and other horrific effects of high radiation exposure.
A Mission Like This Had Never Been Attempted Before
One of the most infamous moments in modern history, the Chernobyl disaster has been mythologized to extremes partly due to the secrecy surrounding it for so long. Romanticized by certain people and politicized by others, the events surrounding Chernobyl require further examination.
A certain point of view at the time of the disaster was that wading through the toxic water meant certain death. The two engineers that died of radiation exposure a few days after going down to the basement seemed to prove the theory that it was a suicidal mission with only one outcome.
Investigators Are Still Learning About the Incident
Contrary to popular belief, all three workers from that famed mission survived. This was in part due to the efforts of the firefighters who had managed to drain a large amount of the water out of the basement before the mission took place and the fact that the engineers knew the location of the valve they needed to turn, thus did not spend an extended period of time in the basement.
All three engineers were seen as heroes, and they all lived a relatively normal life afterward. Baranov died in 2005 of a heart attack, but Ananenko and Bezpalov are still alive today.
Andrew Leatherbarrow's Chernobyl 01: 23: 40
Andrew Leatherbarrow has written the most up-to-date summary of the Chernobyl disaster. His book Chernobyl 01:23:40 took translated reports from engineers, scientists, coordinators, and any other relevant people during the disaster.
Even Leatherbarrow admits there is still more to be unearthed and discussed, one account that is yet to be translated is of the engineer who was scapegoated and blamed for the disaster, thus the story continues to develop, twist, and turn.
Radiation Levels in the Basement Were Checked Before the Divers Went In
If reports are to be believed, There were survey teams sent in before the divers before their heroic mission to check the radiation levels.
Although reports such as this one debunk the myths that the divers were the first ones down there, after the explosion, it does not make their story any less heroic.
If the Brave Sacrifice of Those Engineers in the First Mission Did Not Take Place, Then Chernobyl's Scientists Would Not Have Known What the Problem Was and How to Fix It. It Was Due to the Initial Dive Team's Bravery That the Successful Mission Could Take Place a Few Days Later.
If the brave sacrifice of those engineers in the first mission did not take place, then Chernobyl's scientists would not have known what the problem was and how to fix it. It was due to the initial dive team's bravery that the successful mission could take place a few days later.
Chernobyl is a disaster like no other, and although the new series has caused a fair bit of controversy, it is important to remember the individual stories that come out of disaster-filled situations like Chernobyl.
What Became of Chernobyl's Wildlife?
April 26, 1986, marked the world’s worst nuclear accident. Located at the settlement of Pripyat, Ukraine, the Chernobyl plant was isolated from contact with the outside world and lacked proper safety inspections. The disaster occurred when technicians attempted to conduct a poorly designed experiment.
After shutting down the power regulation system and emergency safety systems, they withdrew control rods from the reactor’s core and allowed it to remain at seven percent power. The result was chaos. A massive explosion occurred, catching the plant on fire and blowing the lid off of the reactor. Two people at the facility died immediately. Radioactive material spread through the air, contaminating its surroundings, and changing the course of nature for decades to come. We may never know the full effects of the death toll. Estimates range anywhere between 4,000 to 93,000 casualties; a wide range due to the many unknowns of radiation poisoning.
The Massive Evacuation
Heartbroken families were forced to leave their homes behind. Government officials lied and told the populace that they would be able to return soon. Thirty-three years later, the Chernobyl area is too radiated for humans to be able to survive there.
Oddly enough, animal populations thrived in the aftermath. What was once a human wasteland has become a wonderful animal sanctuary. Bison, deer, elk, bears, and foxes have been sighted in large numbers.
When the Human Population Left, the Animal Population Thrived
How large is the nuclear zone? Spanning some 1,600 miles, the Chernobyl atomic zone has accidentally become one of Europe’s largest animal sanctuaries. Government officials have placed motion-detecting traps inside of the area, capturing videos of animals that are thriving in the absence of a human population.
Without the threat of population-reducing facts such as hunting by humans, the presence of wildlife is growing almost exponentially. Wolves are thriving in the Chernobyl exclusion area as well as the beaver population.
Terrestrial Animals Are Not the Only Population on the Rise
In an exciting turn of events, terrestrial animals are not the only population on the rise. A study released this year showed us that semiaquatic animals are also faring well. To test their theory out, scientists placed dead fishes along the river bank’s edge and set up cameras to see which animals they would attract.
Their study proved successful. Ninety-eight percent of the fish carcasses were eaten within one week. Scientists took clear photos of otters, minks, and white-tailed eagles, traveling to and from the river’s shore for their meals. This is the first time in history that scientists have observed creatures in the region since the disaster occurred in 1986, conclusively proving the need for animals to scavenge there.
Giant Catfish Dwell in Radioactive Ponds
In something like a scene from a Hollywood post-apocalyptic film scare, giant catfish are thriving in radioactive ponds. The real question is, will they get superpowers?
Unfortunately, unlike the fun big-screen storytelling, these radioactive monsters are just that - gross, giant catfish. Since catfish have notoriously large appetites, they will eat just about anything that is put in front of them. Since there are no natural predators to them in the Chernobyl area, their population has grown in the radioactive cooling ponds.
The Red Fox Is Among the Nuclear Zone’s Most Common Mammals
As one of the most resourceful creatures, it’s no surprise to us that the wild Red Fox made it onto the list of Chernobyl nuclear survivors. Even in areas with high radioactivity, scientists frequently spot this adorable creature.
However, since they are still not used to seeing humans, they have no hesitation in approaching us. The Red Fox will often walk right up to visitors in the hopes of receiving a tasty treat.
Endangered Horses Were Brought Here as Part of an Experiment
Scientists were desperate to save the endangered Przewalski’s horses. During the 1990s, Przewalski’s horses were introduced to the site as part of a conservation experiment. Confusing, right? How could a nuclear waste site possibly be conducive to an endangered animal species’ recovery? As expected, the horses brought in from zoos and captivity died off, and wild horses relocated to the Chernobyl area survived.
Due to the lack of human presence and interference with the natural environment, the horse population is also thriving. The horses have successfully bred in multiple generations and paved the way for future populations to expand.
The Bison Population Has Expanded by 10% Since 1996
It is easy to find the primary reason for the bison’s population growth in the Chernobyl exclusion area. There’s no hunting by human predators permitted. Once again, camera traps have given us incredible insight into the region’s flourishing animal populations.
While we know that the bison population has expanded by 10% since their introduction to the area in 1996, how they are affected by the radiation is uncertain. With a lifespan of twenty-four years, it is difficult to determine if a bison’s cause of death is natural or radiation-induced.
Brown Bears Have Returned to the Chernobyl Area
This could be the most shocking news yet. Let’s backtrack a little. Brown bears never left the Chernobyl area due to the 1986 accident, explosion, and fire. The brown bear population has been absent for nearly a century until recent years. For a while, scientists struggled to find conclusive evidence for their return. However, in 2014, they were able to capture beautiful photographic evidence.
Once again, without humans, there to disturb them and ruin their ecosystem, yet another animal population is thriving. Here is something else to consider. The flourishing wildlife population around them provides the brown bears with a steady food supply. Scientists have begun fitting the brown bear population with collars and tracking tags to study their behavior, migration patterns, and whereabouts. It doesn’t look like these bears are going anywhere anytime soon.
The Eurasian Lynx Is Back Too
Here is yet another fascinating animal reappearance. After vanishing for nearly half a century, the Eurasian Lynx has returned. Just like the brown bear, many people had assumed that the Eurasian Lynx was gone for good.
After all, it had fled the area and stayed away for almost fifty years. Recent years have gifted researchers with their presence. Scientists noticed tracks and scratches on trees consistent with their behavioral patterns. Three different Lynx families were seen traversing the zone, most likely hunting for smaller prey. As dedicated carnivores, they were likely drawn to the region by the dense fox and rabbit populations.
The Wolf Population Is Flourishing in the Exclusion Area
As we previously mentioned, the wolf population is faring quite well in the exclusion area. It makes sense. As members at the top of the food chain, they have no natural predators in the exclusion area. The wolf population is seven times higher here than that of outside regions.
With an abundance of prey, there is a reason why they made this contaminated region their new home. While the success of this wolf population seems to be positive, it also brings a cause for alarm. How will this thriving wolf population affect the future of wolves in this region?
The Wolves Could Be Spreading Mutations
While this may seem far-fetched upon a first impression, it is a very likely possibility. Since the wolves in the radiated zone have been doing so well and migrating frequently, they may have interbred with outside populations and therefore, spread genetic mutations.
To track them, scientists have fitted wolves with tracking collars and tags. One wolf was followed as far away as Russia, some 250 miles away from the Ukrainian exclusion zone. As the population of wolves living in the radiation zone proliferates, they threaten outside packs.
How Significant Is This Threat to Wolf Population Mutations?
Scientific evidence demonstrates how mutations are passed down genetically in other species. While this phenomenon has yet to be observed for sure in these wolves, the threat remains high. Given the logistics of how far these wolves have traveled, mutations in outside wolf populations are likely.
As we know, most genetic mutations are harmful. Wolves that are profoundly affected by radiation will not be able to find a mate. They are also more likely to die during long migrations. The most significant concern that scientists have is that the Chernobyl exclusion area has become a population source for Ukrainian wolves. Thus, there is a high probability that many outside wolves are already affected by genetic mutations. More research is underway to assess the situation and propose possible solutions to mitigate this outcome.
Radioactive Puppies Run Wild
For dog lovers everywhere, this is the most heartbreaking thing you’ve read yet. As survivors of the Chernobyl nuclear blast, many pets had to learn to fend for themselves after being left behind.
Sadly, soldiers were forced to shoot dogs they found who were immediately affected by the nuclear fallout. However, they did not see all of them. Generations of stray dogs survived the atomic fallout, forming packs that continue to breed. Dogs like these stray puppies are plentiful in the Chernobyl area. Thirty-three years later, they are truly native to the area.
There Is a Rescue Program for the Stray Chernobyl Dogs
If you also felt crushed by what you just read, here’s some hope to hang onto. There is a stray rescue program for dogs living in the Chernobyl exclusion area. But survival is no joke, and there are still plenty of dogs that need to be rescued. Winter is particularly harsh in Ukraine, and these poor pups have to deal with a lot more than just the cold. Natural predators like wolves and bears pose a dangerous threat to their survival.
Thankfully, the U.S. nonprofit organization, Clean Futures Fund has a local veterinary clinic. They have provided vaccinations to dogs and puppies they have found as well as spay and neuter services to deter future population growth of domesticated animals.
Can We Pet (or Take Home) the Puppies?
All of the tourists want to know one thing - can we pet the puppies? While these mammals may contain trace radioactive substances in their fur, scientists have ruled that petting these pups is relatively safe. It’s worth the risk to us. Just make sure to wash your hands immediately afterward.
Keep in mind though that like any other feral house pet, petting these dogs comes with the risk of rabies. Local veterinarians have done their best to vaccinate every dog that they come across, but it’s impossible to vaccinate them all. Nonetheless, local rescue and charity organizations are doing their best to help these dogs.
Humans Won’t Return to Chernobyl Exclusion Areas for a Very Long Time
After thirty-three years, it appears that the human population has left the Chernobyl exclusion areas for good. Will people ever return to their old homes? What will become of the region’s existing animal populations?
Thanks to scientific reports, animal lovers can rest easy. It is not safe for humans to return to the area for 20,000 years. However, despite the apparent risks to their longevity, a limited number of villagers have ignored advice and returned to their old homes. The Ukrainian government has strictly forbidden these actions, showing conclusive evidence that the radiation links to a high risk of thyroid cancer. Nevertheless, these villagers appear content to live a risky albeit simple life, with no access to electricity, running water, or sewage.