Underwater labyrinths of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant
Underwater labyrinths of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant

Viktor Lepnukhov is a member of the Society of Veterans of Intelligence of the Navy, a liquidator of the consequences of the accident at the ChNPP. After the “anniversary” expedition to the Zone, he wrote memoirs about the work of Chernobyl divers in 1986. Some of them, on behalf of the author, are in the following article…

“… When the Chernobyl reactor exploded, I did my military service in the Northern Fleet. At the end of May, having celebrated the DMR, I flew to Kiev. Since I served as a diver, I got a job with the Kiev expeditionary detachment of underwater technical works OSVOD Ukrainian SSR. There was a sufficient number of diving organizations in Kiev. But I was included in this particular detachment.

Petr Petrovich Popov, a specialist diver of the said enterprise, immediately warned that he would have to go to Chernobyl. There was no need to be a seer. I was almost sure that they would take me to the ChNPP. Our detachment had been performing diving work at the station since 1978, since the launch of the first unit. Any power plant has a large water economy. A separate subdivision was responsible for water at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. It was a hydro shop, to which divers were assigned. Diving work was quite specific. The object was not similar to the object. There were tricks everywhere.

It was understood that people who are familiar with the object can work more efficiently. In the spring, four “young specialists” who were only from service got a job with the detachment. Popov warned everyone about the inevitable business trip to the ChNPP. Then, everyone made a decision for himself. Everything was fair! Dima Kirshenin, Valera Pokrovets, Igor Sinenko, my brothers, also went through this “war”.

The sergeant major at the diving station was Seryoga Martz, and the second diver was Nikolai Koshmyakov. You can write books about each of these guys from the series “Life of Remarkable People”. The head of the detachment, Anatoly Trofimovich Babenko, avoided working in the emergency zone for a long time. He relied on the document “Uniform rules…”, prohibiting divers from working in the area of radioactive contamination. However, he went to Chernobyl for a meeting of the Government Commission. Hasty gathering and paperwork began the next day.

Pioneers of Chernobyl

The group of the first Chernobyl expedition included:

  • Gasin Boris Grigorievich, chief engineer;
  • Popov Petr Petrovich, a diving specialist;
  • Rumyantsev Yuri Vladimirovich, a physiologist;
  • Martz Sergey Kazimirovich, the 1st class diver, foreman of the diving station;
  • Nikolay Vladimirovich Koshmyakov, the 2nd class diver;
  • Lepnukhov Viktor Pavlovich, the 3rd class diver;
  • Yakubovsky Anatoly Nikolaevich, a driver.

That was our team, their age was from 20 to 50. Everyone called us “our first shot”. Gasin was a former commander of the submarine’s BC-5. Popov was a former underwater intelligence officer. Yuri Rumyantsev replaced our full-time doctor. And the rest served and got hard diving knocks in the Navy. There were no questions whether we should go or not. There is only one thesis: “If not me, then who is it?” And it was inside each of us without any pathos. They didn’t talk about it aloud. It was necessary to defend the country, that’s all. So, everyone decided on their own what to say at home. We drove into the unknown. On the advice of senior comrades, I warned my family that “I had gone to the construction of a bridge in Chernigiv.”

The station reported that work in the Zone is paid five times. In addition, a year counts as three. The “white steamers” that came to Pripyat from Volga looked cool. They pleased the eye with their beauty. We got cabins on the ship “Uzbekistan”. Well, in the 3rd class, and this is good, no time for luxury.

Thirst was constantly pursued from the first days. And we had a sore throat. The body was rebuilding. The electronic clock was constantly out of order. In addition, there was the constant “sour” taste in the mouth. The sarcophagus had not been covered yet. There are shots and emissions periodically.

Also, I would like to say a few words about the chemical protection troops. They were sent to the accident zone literally in the first hours. This is their job. They were engaged in dosimetric reconnaissance, and decontamination of settlements. In addition, they stood at checkpoints to the zone. The units were disbanded after the withdrawal of these units, when the situation got better and the need for them disappeared. Many servicemen who took part in the liquidation of the accident still do not have Chernobyl benefits. There is no department. Accordingly, there are no soldiers, which mean that there are no benefits.

Divers solved the problems of geologists in Chernobyl

Our group was assigned a reconnaissance dosimetrist from GP-5. It was a good apparatus for working in a nuclear explosion zone. They are still good at cracking nuts, but in April 1986 such a device was for happiness. We measured the level on the slopes of the coastal pumping station of Pripyat, from where water was pumped into the ChNPP water sector. “Buzzing” was very much. But we had to work. Our group was tasked with conducting a survey and finding out the state of the station’s hydraulic structures. We untwisted the net on the slope and cover it with three layers of sheet lead. So, we made the place for changing the diver’s clothes.

We lower the helmet and transport cylinders, from which air is supplied to the diver, from the coastal pumping station. So, we literally run downstairs, dressing the diver at a good pace. A traditional slap on the helmet. Then, the diver is under the water. And the others are running up. Excessive radiation is useless!

Sergei Martz reports from under the water: “There is some kind of nonsense in the receiving chambers. It looks like clay.” Someone brings the sample up. And who knows what it is? Geologists are working nearby. And we are addressing a question to them. Geologists rejoice. It is bentonite, which they pump under pressure into the voids of the dam. Geologists pump in. But where does the solution go? They cannot understand. Thanks to the divers, we figured out the problem. Because of this, the work increased significantly. Some water intake chambers were almost half clogged with this material. I had to clear it by hand. So, the work became a “hard labor”. But where can you go? During the first watch, we managed to inspect the fish protection barriers, the supply channel, the hydraulics of the pumping station.

The ChNPP is preparing to launch the first unit. We leave the Zone in half. They wash the bus several times. Then, we go to the base in Kiev. Typically, working bases meet all diving expeditions returning from business trips. They help to unload. And standard questions are: how and what? However, here is silence, the coastal base of the detachment as extinct. There are no souls anywhere! Of course, it is because we are in “Chernobyl” robes, doctor’s caps, respirators. We decided to joke. But everyone hid… No one wants to help unload the equipment. We are dropping the “camouflage”. It seems that we are recognized, and people are starting to catch up.

Another watch at the Chernobyl NPP

Since the station was working on a watch basis, we had time to rest a little. After the rest, we began to get ready for another business trip. We worked like a conveyor belt. It’s already October. So, it’s freezing in the morning. I see the guys at the entrance to the zone. So, how many times we drove along this road “to war”. I see familiar steamers and service personnel, who recognizing us, happily smiles. Familiar songs from the ship broadcast. Pripyat is visible in the bus window. This city was one of the “youngest” in the USSR, with an average age of 26 years.

This autumn expedition includes some guys from Pripyat. Looking out the bus window at the city, the guys cover their faces with a respirator. But there is tension and pain in their eyes. They observe abandoned villages and cities, the gardens with huge apples, from which the branches of trees break. Bed linen hung in April is still drying in courtyards and on balconies. Semi-wild dogs are prowling in search of food. So, the first acquaintance with the “Zone” cannot leave you indifferent. It is an awful sight.

Alla Pugacheva gave concerts during our absence. Many station employees show Alla Borisovna’s autograph on their caps. In general, the situation is stabilizing, the “sarcophagus” is going to be covered. As the general situation at the Chernobyl NPP is gradually clearing up, the bureaucratic machine begins to take shape. If it took 10 minutes to solve organizational issues earlier, it takes half a day now. The guards cannot let us into the facility. Some kind of seal is missing.

The head of the hydraulic engineering department offers us a new transport, the BMK130 boat, abandoned by someone on the shore as unnecessary. Its buzzing is much higher than the norm. But we win at the pace of movement. We load onto the boat and set off. We get to BNS-3, our main place of work, directly through the cooling pond.

The case with a stranger at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant

I remember once we left Kolya Koshmyakov to guard the deployed equipment, while we went to get food. When we returned, we found Kolya in a rather “pensive” state. It turns out that a stranger in Afghan uniform appeared during our absence. At that time, senior and middle managers wore such uniform.

The stranger introduced himself as an employee of the service investigating a possible sabotage at the ChNPP. Then, he asked for the opinion of a professional diver about the prospect of a terrorist attack at the station. Is it possible to assume that the diver-saboteur gets to the ChNPP from the neutral waters of the Black Sea? Is it possible that a diver will secretly be able to pass under water along the Dnieper to Pripyat?

Kolya, a kind soul, laughed and smashed this version to pieces. In turn, he offered the “stranger in Afghan uniform” his effective means of solving the problem. The interlocutor’s face stretched out and, thanking Kolya, he quickly left. So, Kolya was sitting pensive in doubts. “Wasn’t it a double agent?”

In addition to our detachment, divers from other organizations in Kiev participated in the liquidation. They worked in a 30-kilometer zone. They were separating Pripyat. Moreover, they built water intakes for shift camps and laid a cable. But the forces of the expeditionary teams of underwater technical work began to melt over time. Divers, who had more than enough doses in the summer of 1986, left the zone.

I know that many guys did not live long after the Chernobyl shift. In the first summer, we lost seven liquidator divers. I was more fortunate, having worked at a diving station for two years. Then, it was decided to create its own diving service at the Chernobyl NPP. I went there to work. And those of mine who managed to survive are Sergey Martz and Kolya Koshmyakov.

This spring, the guys and I met and drove through painfully familiar places. They remembered the dead colleagues who daily wearing a spacesuit immersed in radioactive water. The ChNPP hydraulic systems, which we cleaned out as a “new penny”, are still in working order. Their impassable tunnels were taken away in due time by the lives of my colleagues. I consider their labyrinths an underwater monument to every diver-liquidator who died of overexposure…”