The whole world knows about the feat of the Chernobyl firefighters. They, as it should be, were the first to arrive at the crash site and did not allow the fire to spread to other reactors. Six of them died … The atomic workers, who were on duty at their workplaces, remained at the destroyed unit until the evening. Twenty of them died. What exactly did they do after the explosions at the 4th power unit, why, and most importantly, for the sake of what they could not leave their jobs, which, in the end, became hell for each of them?
Alexey Breus shares his memories. He is tall and slender, with long hair and a soft look. Alexey Breus looks more like an artist, musician or poet than a nuclear physicist. At 60, he looks younger than his peers. However, on the day of the accident, he received radiation of 120 rem, with an allowable 2 rem per year, according to Ukrainian standards.
On April 26, 1986, on the day of the accident, I, as the operator of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, was destined to become the last person to press the button on the still “living” control panel of the destroyed unit at the fourth reactor. This happened 14 hours and 20 minutes after the explosion of the reactor.
I went to work in the morning, not really knowing anything about what happened at the 4th reactor at night. I just went to my next work shift. To say that I wondered what I saw is to say nothing. I made my way to the destroyed nuclear block through the ruins of destroyed structures, sagging and burnt communication systems, fragments of graphite, acrid smoke.
Looking at my colleagues who arrived before me, seeing the state of those who remained from the night watch, I first felt terrible fear and began to guess what really happened. It remained to understand the reasons – what caused the disaster? But it took a while.
I went to the reactor six hours after the explosion and stayed inside for most of the day. Later, due to the high level of radiation, very often the working shift of the military, seconded specialists, and other liquidators lasted only a few minutes in Chernobyl. But on the day of the accident, the nuclear scientists, despite lethal radiation levels, worked an entire eight-hour shift. Moreover, some just as long as they could stand on their feet.
On that ill-fated day, in the evening, pressing the last button on my remote control, I had no idea that I was leaving my workplace forever. There is no fatality in the fact that I was the last one at the control panel of the atomic unit. There is no merit, no fault. A fact, but apparently a historical one.
It was the moment of pressing the last button that ended the desperate and cruel confrontation between the atomic lobbyists and the situation at the nuclear plant. This moment was the beginning of the second stage of the catastrophe, the elimination of its consequences, which continues to this day and globally will last for centuries.
And before that, for a long time, we, atomic scientists did what no one else could do except us, neither fire brigades, nor professors with scientists, nor soldiers, nor administrators, nor party officials. But we are not Gods. Our capabilities and strengths have been exhausted. The last button confirmed this. The only surviving pump for supplying water to the reactor did not start! After that, the intervention of operators in the fate of the 4th Chernobyl reactor ceased forever.
Nuclear operators had a lot of work after the explosion
For me and my colleagues, it was precisely work, our professional activity, albeit in extremely difficult conditions. After the explosion of the reactor, atomic scientists tried to somehow reduce the detrimental effect of what had already happened. The main tasks in that hellish environment were:
- put out the fire – with firefighters and independently;
- eliminate non-nuclear threats and prevent new victims that could cause a hydrogen explosion, oil fire, broken electrical wires;
- find and rescue colleagues who could no longer move;
- scout the situation: the state of the reactor, building, radiation levels;
- provide cooling of the reactor by continuous water supply.
The most important thing for me, as well as for those who were at that moment at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, was the cooling of the reactor. This was a categorical requirement in the circumstances, spelled out in all operator instructions.
Suppression of fire and non-nuclear threats
Fighting fires is as much a duty for operators as it is for firefighters. The operators have a schedule of whom, where and what exactly should do in the event of a fire. They are trained to do this, they can handle fire hoses and fire extinguishers, know where the fire systems are located, how they work and how to handle them. After all, operators also pump water to firefighters.
New threats arose after the explosion of a nuclear reactor that could lead to new victims. The atomic workers understood this better than others and did everything to prevent new explosions, fires, collapse of building structures, electric shock to people. It goes without saying that in order to eliminate such threats, it was necessary to do something to stop, turn off, shut off, empty, de-energize, or vice versa, to fill, turn on, connect. Under the prevailing conditions, it was sometimes necessary to pay for this with your life.
For example, technical oils had to be immediately removed from the turbine compartment so that they would not ignite, since there was a fire nearby. And there are more than two hundred tons of such material in two tanks located near the turbines. The operator just needs to turn the key on the turbine control panel to let the oil through a large glass pipe into a special underground tank outside the building. However, due to the large destruction and broken communications, it was impossible to do this using the control panel.
Therefore, two of the operators, not really thinking about the consequences, stepped into the danger zone and did what they had to do. They opened the valves and the technical mass of glass into the underground containers with their own hands. Due to the very high radiation exposure, these guys died. However, they prevented the transformation of the 4th power unit into a nuclear Vesuvius at the cost of their lives.
Further, we understood that we urgently need to remove hydrogen from the electric generator. If this is not done and the generator is left to fend for itself, a new powerful explosion of hydrogen will inevitably occur, which will lead to new destruction, new fires, new victims. The atomic workers again went to the danger zone and performed the necessary operations to prevent a new explosion, but again – at the cost of their own lives.
Rescue victims and cool the reactor
We found our colleagues and comrades from the night shift, who were under the rubble as a result of the explosion, seriously injured, under the influence of strong radiation exposure. We carried them almost half-dead on our shoulders. As a result of this, we all received radiation burns that make themselves felt throughout our lives. We could not find one of the operators, Valery Hodemchuk. He remained forever buried under the rubble of the reactor shop. The sarcophagus erected later is not only a protective object, but also a kind of monument over the place of his death.
The worst thing for us, the operators, was to leave the reactor without water. Cooling the reactor is our sacred duty. That is why in the first hours after the explosion of the reactor, we were focused on the most crucial moment – the supply of water to the reactor.
Together with three colleagues, breaking into a dilapidated and flooded room next to the reactor, we manually tried to control a complex system that was supposed to provide water to the reactor. However, no one had complete confidence that the water reaches the target even in a small amount.
Due to numerous damages on the pipes, tons of water poured out, flowed down and collected in basements. Later, cleaning the flooded basements became a punishment for nuclear scientists for several months. Then, on the day of the accident, at about 10 a.m., important electrical components were under water, due to which the power supply to the unit was lost. As a result, the only pump that was pumping water to the reactor stopped. The emergency power supplies turned on automatically and the pump turned on again.
At night, clean water was first fed to the reactor. This is the kind of water that is always used to cool the reactor. However, the supply of clean water ran out pretty quickly. Soon, after 10 a.m. the pump had to be stopped. We began to restore water supplies to fill the reservoirs with river water. From an engineering point of view, as from a human point of view, this is blasphemy. However, then the priorities were already different.
In 2011, 25 years after Chernobyl, during the accident at the Japanese NPP Fukushima-1, there was a similar situation. The Japanese also used the water that was available in this situation, sea water. To fill the tanks with river water, it was necessary to work under the very walls of the destroyed Chernobyl reactor. Vladimir Babichev, a shift supervisor of the 3 and 4 Units, took over the most dangerous operations. As a result of radiation, he suffered severe acute radiation sickness.
He left last, as befits a “captain of a dying ship”
While river water was flowing into the tanks, a brain center, worked on the control panel. Viktor Smagin was the shift supervisor of the 4th power unit. He quickly analyzed all the information collected from all accessible corners of the block from intelligence operators. Unfortunately, it did not give a chance for the prospect of further actions by the nuclear scientists. Our stay on the block became not only useless, but also deadly. We did everything in our power, and even more.
Assessing the situation, Viktor Smagin made a difficult decision for himself. Having gathered those who were on duty at that moment, at 11-00 o’clock on April 26, he gave the command: “Everyone should leave the 4th power unit!”
It was a decision that required not only balanced professionalism, adequacy, but also responsibility for one’s colleagues, regardless of instructions, despite threats from the authorities, to recognize any further actions on the destroyed block as inappropriate and, in the end, to abandon them!
After that, there were two left on the control panel – Smagin himself, as the senior operator in rank, and me, the second in rank. Viktor Smagin’s condition as a result of acute irradiation deteriorated sharply. He, understanding the outcome of the situation, ordered me to urgently leave the 4th unit. I switched to the control panel of the 3rd unit. Only then, Smagin himself left the control panel of the 4th power unit. He was the last, as if he were the “captain of the sinking ship.”
His team did not impress the management, which “made some decisions somewhere above”. They continued to call and demanded to supply water to the reactor at any cost. Viktor Smagin, in a very serious condition, barely moving, went to the first-aid post of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. I returned to the control room of the fourth reactor.
Until the very end of the shift, I was there alone. I made the necessary switchings to restore the water supply to the reactor, turned off unnecessary equipment, which was dangerous. In addition, I turned on the cooling water supply for the 3rd unit, monitored, as far as possible, the readings of the instruments.
All the time I stayed in touch with other operators, with whom I was doing common work. According to instructions from “above”, we tried to restore the water supply to the reactor. At about 4 p.m., there was already enough river water in the tanks. I pressed the last button on the remote control of the fourth block.
We expected that the pump would start up, and as a result, the water supply to the reactor would resume. But the pump was silent. I pressed it again and again, but it did NOT turn on. It was the last pump that survived, the last chance, the last button … “
By the end of the day, the nuclear scientists left the destroyed block. They did everything they could with great losses, but very worthy! In the epicenter of a nuclear catastrophe, liquidators of a different kind were replaced.
Scientists, builders, people in uniform, nomenklatura officials, soldiers and reservists, doctors, journalists, photo reporters “occupied” the NPP the very next day. A military camp began to grow in the open air, a real training ground in which those who worked and lived who, at the cost of titanic efforts, fought with the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. This is how the next phase of liquidation measures came into play, in which, unfortunately, there were also casualties.