April 26, 1986: Face-to-face with radiation
April 26, 1986: Face-to-face with radiation

It is well-known that radiation has no taste, color or smell. In a word, it is invisible. It is impossible to hear it. And yet … The ChNPP is a huge nuclear power complex. All four power units were working on the night of the accident, the 5th and 6th were under construction.

The following standards determine the number of people working at the Chernobyl NPP: one person must be present for 1 MW of generating capacity. The capacity of the four operating units of the station was 4000 MW before the accident. Thus, the ChNPP staff included about 4 thousand workers.

On the night of April 25-26, 1986, at the 1st and 2nd stages of the station, there were 176 people on duty operating personnel, including employees of the relevant shops and repair services. In addition, 286 builders and installers worked at the construction of the third stage of the ChNPP (5th and 6th power units). They organized it on a 24-hour rotational basis.

All of these people are potential victims who have experienced critical levels of acute radiation exposure. Some of them lived after the accident for no more than a year. Others managed to live a couple of years longer. Those who miraculously managed to survive had to deal with lifelong health problems. They are the consequences of that terrible night. They describe their emotions and shocks that they had to experience in this way:

A.A. Breus, an engineer at the 4th unit of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant

“… I felt readiness to do anything, a feeling of elation and some kind of inappropriate solemnity. A few years later, I learned that it was the so-called “radiation euphoria”. This is the condition that high radiation can cause. A little later, the feeling of elevation disappeared, and it began to vomit. This is already a sign of strong radiation.

The nausea disappeared after an antiemetic pill from a soldier’s first-aid kit in an orange box, which Sergei Kamyshny brought to the control panel. He was the shift supervisor of the reactor department, and “treated” Viktor Smagin and me. In the evening after the shift, when I threw off my white camera uniform, I wondered that my whole body had acquired a bronze tan, which disappeared only three days later. Apparently, the body was actively fighting the radiation received …

“… There were strong feelings that day, not related to radiation. In the morning, when approaching the nuclear power plant, I saw a destroyed reactor from the bus. My first thought was: “That’s not possible!” The thought of a “mass grave” flashed through. It seemed that the entire night shift had perished under the destroyed block. It was completely incomprehensible to me why they brought us here, what else can be done? And for the first time in my life, I felt the hair on my head rise! Since then, I know that the expression “hair is standing up” is not just a metaphor.”

I will forever remember the sensations that gripped me during my stay at the control panel of the fourth reactor in the afternoon of April 26. I am alone there, incredibly quiet, because there is no usual hum and vibration. You can hear the rustle from the slightest movements, even how plastic shoe covers crunch.

There was no fear, but single sounds intensified the tension … A feeling of annoyance flooded over from the irreparability of the situation, from my own impotence, right up to a lump in my throat… It was necessary to make an effort to return from this state of extreme despair to a working rhythm of consistent actions. Professional tasks that had to be completed at any cost were in the first place. “

“Game” in non-virtual reality

A.A. Breus, an engineer at the 4th unit of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant

“… It is not enough to understand what the operators on duty inside the destroyed block were doing all day. One must also imagine in what conditions they found themselves. Besides fire and radiation, there were many other dangers. In particular, jets of hot steam and hot radioactive water gushed from the broken pipes, which caused radiation and thermal burns in many. One of the nuclear scientists, Vladimir Shashenok, died of burns on the same day. The broken wires electrocuted the operators, wet with water and sweat. I had to breathe acrid poisonous smoke and radioactive dust.

The destroyed building structures were often barely held. In some places, they had to work under concrete blocks that hung from the roof, swayed and could collapse at any moment. At night, immediately after the explosion of the reactor, one of the operators, Yuri Korneev, had to simply run away from concrete slabs, which, one after another, like dominoes, fell behind him from the roof of the turbine hall. It was a terrible, seemingly unreal picture.

After Chernobyl, a new generation has already grown up, which knows about Chernobyl rather not from documentary sources, but from computer games. Every time I visit Pripyat, I wonder that thanks to computer games, young tourists who first found themselves in an empty city know its plan and unmistakably indicate where the post office, swimming pool, stadium, school and the like are located.”

We must admit that comparison with computer games is not the worst way to talk about Chernobyl today. The situation in which the atomic workers found themselves was indeed very similar to the virtual reality of today’s computer games. The only difference was that it was a real fact, in which from the military arsenal were only knowledge and a sense of professional duty.

There were no more lives left and the ability to repeat the route in case of failure. Each had only one single life which he could easily loose. The liquidators were not scoring virtual points, but real X-rays: the1-st, 2-nd, 3-rd or 4-th degree of radiation sickness. I scored my “points” too. According to the conclusion of the dosimetry service of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, my dose of radiation, which I received that day, was 120 rem.

According to the current Ukrainian standards, the radiation dose for NPP operators should not exceed 2 rem per year. The Soviet Union standards in 1986 allowed operators to be exposed to up to 5 rem per year. The radiation dose of 600 rem is absolutely lethal.

After a shift at the destroyed fourth unit, I worked for another two days at the third reactor. They engaged me in its cooling and transfer to a stable safe state.

Offenders” or the main culprits of the disaster

I came to Pripyat in 1982 as a certified designer of nuclear reactors after graduating from the nuclear department of the Moscow Technical University named after Bauman, headed by Academician Nikolai Antonovich Dollezhal. He is the chief designer of the world’s first nuclear power plant and Chernobyl reactors.

It is obvious that each “liquidator” has his own Chernobyl, each resident of Pripyat has his own Pripyat. I’m not saying that I liked the city right away, rather, on the contrary. However, now, I appreciate my involvement in the life of this deserted city, and dear Pripyat pages in my biography. Apparently, as for most of the former residents of Pripyat.

A diploma of higher nuclear education was not enough to work at the reactor control panel. Four years in Pripyat are constant education, constant exams, medical checks and the like.

Before the accident, I was not very interested in politics, in particular, international. But over time, this began to interest me, but it was almost impossible to find out about events in the world from Soviet newspapers. I learned English. Through an oversight of local officials, I got into my hands the reviews of the foreign press labeled “for official use”. They were then prepared exclusively for party functionaries.

I was pretty gripped by history in Pripyat. However, this hobby did not survive Chernobyl. After April 26, 1986, I saw with my own eyes how a fictional story was being written. Moreover, after reading what they write about the accident in textbooks, I lost confidence in it. Most of all, I did not like the fact that the Soviet propaganda machine spoke about the Chernobyl operators, shifting all the blame for the disaster on them. Then, I realized that this was a lie, which they tried to write in a bold line into the history of Chernobyl.

I began to write articles for Ukrainian newspapers by myself. However, they published my materials on any other topics, just not about Chernobyl. Later, in one of the Kiev editorial offices, I was frankly told that “such topics” are prohibited from coverage in the press. After all, I, like other operators who worked at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the first hours after the explosion of the reactor in 1986, had to sign a piece of paper for the KGB not to disclose a large list of information about Chernobyl.

I understand well the designers and operators, since I myself worked at the control panel of the nuclear unit. Long-term work made it possible to look at the problem from the outside and with an open mind. As a result, I’m more inclined towards the operators. However, over time, I have come to the conviction that picking only the technical reasons for Chernobyl is a dead end, because the real causes of the disaster lie in the moral plane. And the most terrible consequences of this catastrophe are humanitarian … ”.

… After the accident, A.A. Breus devoted many years to highlighting the problems of Chernobyl – technical, environmental, social, moral, thereby doing everything to, as a direct witness to the events of that tragic night, answer the avalanche of accusations that fell on the Chernobyl operators, making them in fact “offenders” and the main culprits of the disaster.