Initial efforts to minimize the consequences of the Chernobyl accident
Initial efforts to minimize the consequences of the Chernobyl accident

The situation that developed at the destroyed 4th power unit in particular, and at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant as a whole, required the most prompt action. The main burden of problems associated with minimizing the radioactivity released into the environment fell on the shoulders of the military, scientists, a huge number of civilians involved in various professions and specialties, age and gender.

The military played a huge role in combating the spread of radioactive contamination, along with scientists from the National Academy of Sciences and along with the Chernobyl firefighters under the leadership of Pravik V.P. and Telyatnikov L.P., who were the first to join the struggle to save the station. Given that at the time of the accident, Ukraine was part of the USSR, military personnel of all military districts of the country were involved in the work around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, without exception.

It was characteristic that the Soviet army was almost 100% staffed with youth with a sufficient level of education at the time of the disaster. However, this was not enough to understand the radiation hazard posed by being in the zone of its influence.

A huge burden of priority measures to determine the real extent of the disaster fell on the shoulders of the military and scientists. The first military unit that arrived in the Chernobyl region on the morning of April 26 was the Civil Defense Regiment of the Kiev Military District: several dozen soldiers and officers in vehicles, with radiation reconnaissance equipment and an army equipment decontamination kit. There were few of them, but they were the first to evaluate the extremely critical situation in the station area.

According to them, the level of contamination was from 2 x-rays to 1446 and 2080 at the destroyed reactor. On the afternoon of April 26, a mobile detachment of chemical troops arrived in the area of the nuclear power plant to deal with the consequences of the accident and a separate special company of radiation and chemical reconnaissance in the Kiev Military District. Already on April 27, the results of their work shocked everyone who had at least some idea of what happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

The map of radiation pollution of the territory they compiled became a kind of “sentence for all living things” and the basis for making extremely important decisions, in particular on the evacuation of the population. Chemical troops under the command of General K. Pikalov and helicopter units led by General M. Antoshkin quickly appeared on the territory of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

It should be noted that the personnel of many military branches took part in the work, both directly at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and around it. These are chemical, aviation, engineering, border, medical troops of the USSR Ministry of Defense, the Civil Defense Forces of the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs. The number of troops involved and the volume of work performed by the military was very large and diverse.

Events around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the destroyed 4th power unit developed rapidly

In the early morning of April 27, a task force began to work under the leadership of Colonel General V.K.Pikalov in Chernobyl, which included officers from the chemical forces department of the military academy of chemical protection, and the Central Research Institute of the Ministry of Defense.

Special vehicles were delivered by heavy transport and airplanes to the Chernobyl region, an advanced group of chemists arrived in 122 mobile detachments. In mid-May 1986, 2 brigades, 7 regiments and 3 separate chemical defense battalions were deployed in the contaminated area.

The total composition of chemical troops had totaled more than 10 thousand people by the end of May. The coordination of the activities of chemical units was carried out by the head of the chemical forces, Colonel Y.N.Koryakin, who worked for more than a year in the area of the Chernobyl tragedy.

At the same time, the Scientific Center of the Ministry of Defense of the USSR was formed, consisting of more than 4 years generals and officers — chiefs of chemical troops, specialists from the Shihan Military Institute, Military Academy of Chemical Defense, and chemical schools of the Scientific Research Institute of Chemical Forces.

Given that a nuclear reactor exploded at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, emergency decisions had to be made. For these purposes, the most important task was quickly organized by the efforts of chemists and aviators – radiation reconnaissance of the area.

The start of all aerial reconnaissance operations was well-established. The special control service of the USSR Ministry of Defense had been involved in the liquidation of the consequences of the Chernobyl accident by the end of the day on April 27. The specialists who were aboard the AN-24 with the tail number – 03 (aircraft commander Captain A.G.Zaitsev) had extensive experience in conducting radiation reconnaissance of the atmosphere and terrain in nuclear weapons testing conditions, both in standard and emergency situations.

To solve these problems, the following was installed on board of the laboratory:

  • highly sensitive equipment for recording low-intensity gamma radiation fields,
  • aero-gamma spectrometer for geological prospecting AGS-71s,
  • Zephyr” device for searching for gamma-ray sources,
  • trial selected equipment.

As a result of reconnaissance flights, an idea was formed of the spread of radioactive release in a westerly direction. It also became clear that a very complex accident occurred at the 4th power unit with the melting of the reactor core and the destruction of the reactor hall, as a result of which a huge amount of radioactive gases and aerosol fission products were released into the atmosphere.

Analysis of the situation by the military, as well as by scientists of the Institute of Atomic Energy named after Kurchatov and the Institute for Nuclear Research, made it possible to conclude that the release of radioactivity outside the station. However, no one knew about the gigantic scale of the accident at the first stage, since there was no comprehensive state system of radiation monitoring adequate to accidents of the scale in the Soviet Union that occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

This led to an incorrect determination of the scope and consequences of the Chernobyl disaster at an early stage of its development, which led to a belated awareness by the country’s leadership that the Chernobyl accident was not just a local emergency.

A study of the situation, conducted from the air and with the help of armored vehicles, made it possible to clarify the picture of pollution and destruction. Thanks to the efforts of the military and scientists, it was possible to determine the degree of structural destruction at the power unit itself during the reconnaissance work. Thus, the burden of radiation intelligence fell mainly on the shoulders of chemists and aviators.

Almost the entire personnel of the chemical troops passed through Chernobyl. For courage and heroism, many soldiers and sergeants, warrant officers, officers and generals have received prestigious government awards. V.K. Pikalov, the Major-General Colonel and the Chief of Chemical Forces, and N.T. Antoshkin, the Major General and the Air Force Commander of the Kiev Military District, were awarded the title Heroes of the Soviet Union.

Minimizing the consequences of the accident

The institutes of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR began working on minimizing the consequences of the disaster almost immediately after the Chernobyl accident. Even in the early days, despite the lack of reliable information, the vast majority of institutes sent their employees to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant to collect information.

Dosimetrists groups were created at the institutes of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR to work at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The solution to perhaps the most difficult issue – stopping the process of ejection of radioactive elements from a destroyed reactor by the method of plugging it – proposed by scientists, fell on the shoulders of military pilots. The Chairman of the Government Commission B. Shcherbina noted during a meeting in Chernobyl with the Major General Aviation N.T.Antoshkin that all hope rests on helicopters and pilot skill in this work, since there was no other way to approach the ruins of the reactor.

As it is now known, there were repeated nuclear accidents and incidents in the USSR until 1986, nuclear weapons tests were carried out. Thus, certain experience was accumulated, but the specialists of the Institute named after Kurchatov, who were involved in resolving the consequences of the Chernobyl accident, did not have an unanimous opinion on the events and ways out of this situation.

So, some considered it possible to concreting the destroyed block, while others categorically opposed this, believing that the preconditions for the explosion of an atomic bomb would become obvious in this way. After numerous consultations, a decision was made to backfill it in order to curb the destroyed reactor, the so-called plugging from the air with a mixture of substances: sand, boric acid, dolomite clays and lead.

The implementation of this task required the realization of a large amount of preparatory work. In particular, it was necessary to study the situation in the reactor area and the ways of approaching it. The work had to be carried out at an altitude of 100 meters, taking into account the fact that the radiation level there was about 500 R / h, in addition, for the discharge of substances, pilots needed to hover over the emergency reactor for several minutes.

A site was selected a few kilometers from the station for the smooth operation of helicopters, their landing and loading. 93 discharges were carried out on the first day, and 186 – on the second. As of May 1, 1900 tons of sand were discharged from helicopters. A couple of days after the start of the operation, the chairman of the Government Commission B. Shcherbina cut the discharge plan by half, as concrete structures could not withstand such a weight.

In total, about 5 thousand tons of various bulk materials were dumped into the reactor – 4 000 tons of sand, 500 tons of lead in the form of blanks and 87 tons of crushing. Pilots of helicopters perfectly coped with the task and, in addition, performed a number of other unique operations in Chernobyl.

Three types of threats

The Government Commission to address specific issues related to the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident created several temporary special commissions dealing with problems of engineering, biomedical and engineering. These commissions identified three main types of threats, which at that time were associated with the presence of nuclear fuel in the destroyed reactor:

  • nuclear;
  • thermal;
  • radiation hazards.

Nuclear danger – there was a risk of a possible re-explosion in the event of the presence of nuclear fuel residues in the reactor.

Thermal hazard was that hot incandescent nuclear fuel could gradually burn a stove of lower biological protection and overlap of the lower rooms of the reactor compartment, then fall into groundwater.

Radiation hazard was associated with prolonged continuous release of activity from a destroyed reactor, mainly due to the burning of graphite.

Thus, during the active stage, all the main technical measures were aimed at localizing the accident and preventing the release of radioactive substances from the reactor.

In the course of the aftermath of the accident, a situation developed when representatives of various military structures, scientists, engineers and technical workers and many other workers involved from ministries and worked at the 4th power unit, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, and at the same time within the entire 30-kilometer exclusion zone departments.

Most of the employees of the nuclear plant remained at their workplaces. All of them, in accordance with planned tasks, carried out a huge amount of work. Some carried out dosimetric monitoring, decontamination of the territory, buildings, equipment, people, etc. Others solved the problems of blocks 1, 2 and 3 of the station, and still others carried out construction work to preserve the destroyed block.

To this end, they created the necessary infrastructure – concrete plants, access roads, and pumped extremely contaminated water from the reactor rooms. Some workers were engaged in the construction of a cooling plate under the reactor; another part erected a protective “wall in the ground” around the station, environmentalists monitored the state of water resources of the contaminated territory; builders provided workers with housing.

There were those who were involved in catering, personal protective equipment, medical care, and security. Hundreds of people were observing the necessary regime for organizing the work and life of thousands of liquidators. Thanks to the efforts of a number of scientific teams of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR, many urgent issues were resolved at the initial stage of the liquidation measures.

In particular, the life support of Kiev and its residents, other regions of the republic was monitored. The Academy of Sciences worked in extreme mode. Complex issues of an organizational, scientific and technological nature were resolved. Starting from the first dramatic days, success or failure – and sometimes empty a waste of efforts by the army of many thousands of liquidators and the country as a whole – depended on the professional ability to obtain the necessary information in difficult conditions of a high radiation field, the ability to carry out (without sufficient data) analysis and predict the development of events, justify the direction for further actions.

Later, books and memoirs will be written about people who were involved in the liquidation of the consequences of the Chernobyl accident, and in fact – carried out a daily feat, hundreds of testimonies of eyewitnesses of events will be collected, films and documentaries made. Then, at the initial stage, none of them suspected that he was writing a chronicle of the most tragic technological disaster of the century with his heroic work. Then people sought to solve the question – HOW can the consequences be eliminated as soon as possible, but to the question of WHY this happened – the answers will be found much later…