This article was originally published on our site: yourdailyscience.com
The infamous Chernobyl disaster happened 35 years ago, but secret facts about this tragic accident still keep on emerging. While the explosion happened in Ukraine, which was still part of the USSR back in the day, the aftermath of the blast influenced the whole world, with radiation spreading all over Europe and as far as the United States.
The KGB, the main security agency of the USSR, immediately covered up the whole thing, while the government wasn’t officially admitting that anything happened at all.
So, what was the real reason behind the Chernobyl disaster and why was the government so secretive about it? Here are some of the most spine-chilling facts that remained a secret for decades - up until now.
The Biggest Event in Nuclear Power History
On April 26, 1986, the 4thRBMK-type nuclear reactor located in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded, causing a few immediate deaths on spot with hundreds of thousands of people who would suffer later in the aftermath of the explosion.
The accident was classified as Level 7, which is the disaster of the highest severity. The only catastrophe with a similar horrifying impact was the recent Fukushima nuclear explosion that has earned the same ranking.
Thousands of people in Pripyat, the town near the nuclear plant, were kept in the dark about what happened and went about their business, as usual, receiving lethal doses of radiation while they were out in the open. The whole town of Pripyat has been evacuated in a matter of hours, once the information got out, but for whole 36 hours the world was oblivious of the tragedy that was unfolding right in front of their eyes.
Was It Worse Than Hiroshima?
We know that the territory of 30 km around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was evacuated with roughly 70,000 people losing their homes forever. Still, not many people realize the scale of the Chernobyl disaster. How do you wrap your mind around something like that?
Well, there are a few events in the nuclear history of the world we can compare it to. It turns out, the Chernobyl explosion was 400 times more toxic than the atomic bomb that was detonated above the city of Hiroshima.
While the Chernobyl accident didn’t cause as many immediate casualties, its impact will last for centuries. According to scientists, the area of the nuclear plant explosion and adjacent territories will remain uninhabitable for more than 20,000 years!
The World Needed Answers
A nuclear event of such proportions doesn’t happen in the world every day. When Chernobyl exploded, people wanted answers, the scientists needed details, and everyone else wanted the situation taken care of as fast as possible.
While the USSR government has chosen to keep everything a secret, the news got out, and after a few days of ignoring the scale of the disaster, the people in charge have finally started giving out orders.
They needed a special reaction team and someone experienced to lead them. Valery Legasov, head deputy of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, has just learned about the accident. Roughly 12 hours have passed after the historic explosion and the fire was still raging inside the power plant.
Why Did The Investigator Commit Suicide?
A respected chemist and physicist, Valery Legasov was assigned to investigate the Chernobyl catastrophe. While the USSR government wanted as little coverage as possible, the physicist was intent on getting to the bottom of things.
That’s why people couldn’t believe their ears when two years after the catastrophe, in 1986, it was reported that Valery Legasov has committed suicide.
Valery Legasov was appointed by the USSR government to handle the fatal aftermath of the Chernobyl explosion. He was the head of a special team consisting of numerous military men, ministers, and scientists, who rushed to the place of tragedy. What was it that he saw?
Valery Legasov Couldn’t Believe His Eyes
As the destroyed Chernobyl nuclear reactor was spewing radiation smoke right into the atmosphere, contaminating both water and land for hundreds of kilometres around it, nothing seemed out of the ordinary in the cities close to the nuclear plant.
In Pripyat, he saw mothers pushing trams with babies and children playing outside, getting huge doses of radiation that would cause irreparable damage for generations to come.
There were only slight signs of worry in Kyiv, the capital of Ukrainian SSR, as rumours have started leaking from abroad. The government was still silent, allowing everyone to eat contaminated food and drink deadly water.
The Perfect Morning
The morning of April 26, 1986, was just another perfectly warm and sunny start of the day. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary – the people of Pripyat, a town with a population of 35,000, were preparing to have a day off.
Little did they know that by the end of the day the fresh clean air will transform into deadly poison, along with dust, earth, water, hair, clothes, and everything that has been out in the open, soaked in radiation.
For everyone in Pripyat, it was just another normal Saturday, while people in charge were desperately trying to cover up what has really happened at the plant. Was it criminal negligence or fear? Legasov would soon find out the truth.
What was Going on?
As Valery Legasov headed to the place of the explosion on the helicopter, he himself still had no idea what has actually happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Was it a minor check?
Well, he was called for a reason and there were troops sent from Kyiv to secure the perimeter. He was told there was an explosion – but he still had no idea of what scale.
The official report said that the number of vitalities was low and everything was under control. Their modern technologies and personnel has coped with the crisis well. But then he got to the Chernobyl power plant and was left speechless, just standing there, trying to grasp what he was looking at.
A Breathtaking Vision of Doom
As the helicopter was getting closer to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Valery Legasov was anticipating what they were about to see – four nearly perfect RBMK reactors in the biggest nuclear power plant in history.
Legasov was feeling a little bit of pride at that time. And why wouldn’t he? It was huge, it was important, and they were about to witness its grandeur.
But as the helicopter flew closer to the plant, something seemed off. The glow of the burning fire was visible in the dark of the night – it was an evil sight, and the scariest Legasov has ever seen in his life. For a few long seconds, he was silent as his mind was processing what he was looking at. There was a huge hole, a burning pit filled with toxic fire where the fourth reactor has once been. They needed to turn back, quickly!
The Horror Continued
He couldn’t get close to what was left of the RBMK reactor, now he knew that. There was a huge plume of dark smoke coming from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, with people running around and fatigued firemen trying to subdue the fire.
Each of them must have already received a lethal dose of radiation, but they kept on going nonetheless. And those that couldn’t move were taken to the hospital, spreading the radiation even further.
Legasov observed from afar, feeling the panic creeping in. He has never dealt with anything like this. How could you fight an invisible enemy that has already taken over? While the people in charge were trying to outsmart each other and make it seem like this wasn’t huge. Like people weren’t dying already.
Finally, an order came through to evacuate the people of Pripyat after 36 hours of exposure to unimaginable doses of radiation. Roughly 35,000 people gathered their belongings, whatever they could take, and left the town.
With them they carried heavily radiated clothes, the radiation was also in their hair and in the dust on the wheels of the buses. They were trying to get as far from radiation as possible, but it was leaving with them.
They were told it would only be for 3 days, so they left most of their belongings at the apartment buildings, flats, playgrounds, schools, and medical facilities. No one knew that Pripyat would turn into a world-famous ghost-town, a subject of movies and horrifying documentaries.
The Exclusion Zone
They had to establish an exclusion zone – an area with a radius of 10 km (6.2 mi) that was off-limits to everyone apart from people dealing with the consequences of the Chernobyl explosion. Valery Legasov was, of course, among those people.
They soon extended the exclusion zone to a 30 km (18.6 mi) radius and evacuated around 300,000 people from the northern part of Ukraine. Ukraine was not the only country that has suffered – the fourth part of Belarus, Ukraine’s neighbour, was contaminated with radiation as well.
As the firefighters were still trying to put off the fire, dropping sand and boron from the helicopters right into the raging fiery pit of the Chernobyl’s reactor, Valery Legasov had another pressing matter at hand. He needed to find out who was to blame for all of this.
Getting to the Bottom of Things
Valery Legasov knew that something was off, he just couldn’t put his finger on it. He had exclusive access to the fourth reactor blueprints and to the plan of the whole nuclear plant. By now he probably knew it even better than the people who built it!
He also had access to the dying men in the medical facility – all those operators who were on duty on the faithful night the explosion happened.
He knew he needed to find out the truth no matter what, even if it meant the end of his career. At that point, he didn’t realize just how dangerous his findings would be.
Interviewing the Survivors
Each of the operators who were there that day received lethal doses of radiation, and they knew it. Some were in worse condition than others, it was a slow and painful death with no cure.
They had questions of their own that no one wanted to answer. No one wanted to admit that the explosion happened not only due to human error. There was something else.
They could have been imprisoned even for talking about some kind of conspiracy around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. But they were dying already, so what could the people in charge possibly do to them now?
How It All Began
Valery Legasov tried to reconstruct the events that took place that night that led to the biggest nuclear tragedy in the history of mankind. He felt the weight of the whole world on his shoulders as he was getting bits of pieces of information, putting them together like an elaborate puzzle.
But this, of course, wasn’t just any puzzle – people’s lives were at stake and even more political careers, a fact that, he had to admit, could backfire at him anytime.
So, what was the night shift of operators doing at the time of the catastrophe? It turned out they were performing a risky test – even the operators themselves didn’t quite understand what exactly was tested. But Valery Legasov would soon find out the horrifying truth.
The Safety Test
It turned out before the night shift of operators took over, the day shift was conducting a test that sounded more like a dangerous experiment.
The reactors use electrical pumps that circulate thousands of litres of water that acts as a coolant for each of the four reactors at the plant. Each of them needs around 28,000 litres (roughly 7,300 gallons) of water per hour.
But if something goes wrong and the electricity gets turned off, the reactors would end up without their coolant, which would lead to dire consequences. They had backup diesel generators, but they were too slow, so something else was designed – a steam turbine. Although, there was one major flaw.
The Day Shift Was Called Off
The turbine had to generate the electricity that would make the pumps work and keep the coolant going to the reactors. A bunch of tests were conducted in the previous years, but they all failed. On the day of the explosion, one such test has taken place.
The day shift of operators was properly instructed to execute the test – they would shut down the reactor and test the new turbine system. What they didn’t know was just how complex this test would be – all the details were hidden even from them.
The team prepared everything to carry out the test and disabled the emergency core cooling system. This meant that if anything happened the reactor could potentially explode. Suddenly, they were called off to another plant. Then, when the night shift arrived, the unprepared men continued the test.
They Didn’t Know What They Were Doing
The night shift team had almost no briefing and didn’t know what they were getting into. That’s why deputy chief-engineer Anatoli Dyatlov headed the experiment himself.
Under his command were Leonid Toptunov, the man who was operating the reactor that night, and Aleksandr Akimov, the chief of the night shift.
Toptunov was also responsible for distributing the emergency rods that were specially designed to shut down the reactor in case of emergency. Little did they know, that the system wouldn’t work as everyone expected it to.
It Went Bad From the Start
With the emergency cooling system being off, the night shift proceeded with the test. Although the power level required for safely running the test hasn’t been attained, Anatoli Dyatlov insisted on running it anyway.
His career was on the line, but he didn’t realize that it was much more than that. Their lives and the lives of billions of people all over the world were on the line, too!
As the experiment proceeded everyone quickly understood that it wasn’t going well. The turbines weren’t coping with their task, there was a lack of coolant, and as they tried different ways to stabilize the reactor it became only more unstable.
Desperation was Creeping in
Finally, in a desperate attempt to shut down the whole thing, Toptunov pushed the scram button that initiated an emergency shut-down of the whole system.
The control rods should have been fully inserted into the reactor’s core, turning it off for good. But the thing didn’t work!
The only system that should perform flawlessly under any circumstances didn’t work as it was meant to. The rods didn’t come all the way in, and instead of pacifying the reactor, they only made things worse. Whatever unstable reactions have already started inside the core, pushing the button only made it worse.
A Dreadful Sound
Unexpected power surge must have scrambled the system, or so they thought. Everything was silent for a few long minutes, but then they heard a sound of a blast. Did something explode? They didn’t know.
Part of the team was sent down to check on the reactor to see what was actually going on with it. They had no idea just how dangerous it was to get close to the exposed core.
Another, louder sound of explosion followed, leaving everyone in the control room speechless. They still couldn’t wrap their heads around what was happening. Did the war break out? What was going on?
It was Fire and Smoke Everywhere
Part of the team that went down witnessed the horror with their own eyes, receiving unheard of doses of radiation with every second they spent down at the combusted reactor.
Sasha Yuvchenko, one of the engineers working on the plant that fateful night, recollected the spine-chilling events: “There was a heavy thud. A couple of seconds later, I felt a wave come through the room. The thick concrete walls were bent like rubber.”
He then continued, “I thought the war had broken out. We started to look for Khodemchuk (his colleague) but he had been by the pumps and had been vaporized.”
The Horrifying Beauty
Yuvchenko was scared out of his mind, but even in the midst of all the chaos, steam, and death around him, there was an odd moment of peace he remembered for the rest of his life.
As he looked up at what should have been the plant’s roof over the fourth reactor, he saw only the beautiful starry sky.
“There was no ceiling, only sky; a sky full of stars," he remembered later with an almost calm expression on his face. "I remember thinking how beautiful it was." Out of all his teammates who were down at the reactor that night, he was the only one who survived.
A Dark Secret
What no one on the team of people conducting the nuclear power test knew was that the design of the RBMK reactor was flawed from the start.
Such were the times back then – the lower people were down the chain of command, the less information they had.
What was well-known among the people who held power and wanted to rush the development of nuclear power in the USSR, was classified information for the people who actually ran the nuclear plant.
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
Valery Legasov was very well aware of the flaws that were present in the RBMK-type reactors used in the Chernobyl NPP. That’s why he was listening to all the interviews with a heavy heart.
Was it, in fact, their fault that this catastrophe happened? Because of people like him, the scientists, physicists, chemists, and especially all those government people that decided which information can be accessed by the public.
Most of the time, special information like this just has ‘classified’ written all over it. Legasov was sure that they will try to conceal as much of the truth as possible once his official report would be ready.
The Unstable Reactor
Chernobyl’s fourth reactor was relatively safe, but only if you knew how to operate it properly. It turned out that the reactor became unstable at low power levels – and that was exactly what happened on that horrible night!
As the power levels dropped down considerably, the deputy chief engineer decided to carry out the test nonetheless. He couldn’t risk his career and present himself as untrustworthy.
As they lowered the power, the reactor went to a halt, but due to its flawed build, there was already heat building up inside of its core. But that, of course, wasn’t the only thing.
The Void Effect
As they removed the safety control rods, a dangerous reaction started, that was only made worse by the test of the turbine cooling system.
It was supposed to keep the reactor’s temperatures at bay, but instead, it produced steam bubbles, also known as ‘voids’, inside the reactor.
This RBMK-type reactor is the only one that reacts to these ‘voids’ by creating a sudden, huge, burst of power. After pushing the scram button, the atomic reaction inside the reactor went out of control as instead of pacifying the reactor the rods with graphite tips only made it heat up even more.
Lies, Lies, Lies
The saddest part in this tragic sequence of events is that it could have been completely avoided if only the information about the reactor’s flaws wasn’t kept a secret.
Engineers operating the reactors must be the first ones to know what they’re dealing with. But the USSR government couldn’t release this information to the public as this would hurt their image badly.
After years of trials, errors, and unsuccessful tests, the secret about the RBMK reactor’s flaws was heavily guarded, with only a bunch of physicists and government people knowing the truth. Valery Legasov realized he had a tough choice to make, one that would probably change his life forever.
The Choice of a Lifetime
Finally, Valery Legasov knew the whole truth – it wasn’t only the operators’ fault who were on duty the fateful night Chernobyl exploded, it was a whole sequence of events and criminal negligence that has led to this nuclear power catastrophe.
As he was sitting in front of a special committee at the university he worked at, Legasov felt that something dreadful was going to happen and it would be up to him to reveal the truth or conceal it once and for all.
His report was lying in front of him and he was heavily praised for it. Indeed, it was a job well done, a deep research that has gotten Legasov to the bottom of things. But, as he suspected, this report would not see the light of day. They said that some things needed to be changed. Their people were working on it. Legasov was about to head to Vienne to give a public speech on the events of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster.
Valery Legasov was torn apart – he had to tell the truth, he knew there was no other choice! But he also knew that it would be the end of him as a scientist, a physicist, and a part of the community. He would probably be ostracized for the rest of his days if he’d speak about what has truly happened at the power plant that day.
The night before the speech Valery Legasov couldn’t sleep, he just kept thinking about the ‘upgraded’ report lying on the desk of his hotel room.
The official version given to the press all over the world clearly blamed the operators working at the Chernobyl NPP that night. What would happen if he revealed the truth? What consequences would it have for everyone, including him?
In the end, Valery Legasov didn’t have the guts to tell the truth for the whole world to hear. He was highly praised for his detailed report of the events that unfolded the night of the explosion, including all the actions that were taken in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster.
He had nothing to hide when it concerned the sequence of events – after all, the operators and deputy chief-engineer who worked on the plant that day have already been blamed for everything that happened. He just confirmed the official statement.
Nevertheless, he couldn’t let it go. After his speech in Vienna, the operators that were still alive after the catastrophe were sentenced to prison, while the deputy chief-engineer, Anatoli Dyatlov, and power station’s director, Viktor Bryukhanov, were sentenced to 10 years in the labour camp.
Legasov Couldn’t Forgive Himself
From the audio records and notes left by Valery Legasov in his apartment, the investigators of his suicide concluded that he just couldn’t live with himself after covering up the truth of what actually happened at the Chernobyl NPP.
Almost immediately after his speech in Vienna, Legasov tried publishing numerous articles on the dangers of the RBMK-type reactors like the ones in Chernobyl, but none of those articles saw the light of day.
There were too many nuclear power plants like that in the USSR and admitting that they were unstable would mean another type of catastrophe for the government. They couldn’t risk losing all that nuclear power!
No More Illusions
Valery Legasov used to truly believe in the system and in his country. Now that he has seen its inner workings, those illusions shattered like glass.
He lost his job at the university, his position, and the respect of his peers. He was excluded from the social life, turning into a pariah. His word didn’t mean anything anymore, and the extremely dangerous unstable RBMK-type nuclear reactors remained active as if nothing has happened.
The investigators of Valery Legasov’s death believe that he simply couldn’t take it anymore and has ended his life out of desperation. In one of his notes, Legasov stated that this whole situation was “an apotheosis of all that was wrong in the management of the national economy and had been so for many decades.”
A True Hero
While Legasov wasn’t awarded the “hero of socialist labour” title along with other members of the Chernobyl disaster team at the time of the accident, he did earn it posthumously in 1996.
Sadly enough, it was only after his death that his colleagues and the whole of the scientific world finally paid attention to his articles and suggestions to improve the safety of all the remaining reactors of the Chernobyl-type reactor to avoid a catastrophe of the same scale.
The truth finally got out and safety changes were made, but, unfortunately for Valery Legasov, he never witnessed this historic event.