The Moments After Chernobyl Blew
First responders arrive at the crippled nuclear power station in this excerpt from ‘Midnight in Chernobyl’ by Adam Higginbotham.
The following is an excerpt of Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham. Listen to his conversation on Science Friday here.
Up in the Unit Four control room, everyone was talking at once, as Deputy Chief Engineer Anatoly Dyatlov struggled to understand what the instruments were saying. A constellation of warning lamps flashed red and yellow across the consoles of the turbine, reactor, and pump desks, and electric alarm buzzers honked incessantly. The news seemed grave. At Senior Unit Control Engineer Boris Stolyarchuk’s desk, the readings showed all eight main safety valves were open, and yet no water remained in the separators. This scenario was the maximum design-basis accident and an atomshchik’s worst nightmare: an active zone starved of thousands of gallons of vital coolant, raising the threat of a core meltdown.
And at Senior Reactor Control Engineer Toptunov’s control panel, the needles on the dials of the Selsyn gauges were stuck at the four-meter mark, showing the control rods had stopped dead not even halfway through their descent. Toptunov had released the rods from their electromagnetic clutches to let gravity take them all the way to their stops, but somehow they had halted before bringing the reactor to shutdown. The gray LED numbers on the reactimeter—showing activity in the core—fluttered up and down. Something was still going on in there, but Dyatlov and the technicians around him no longer had any means of controlling it.
Midnight in Chernobyl
In desperation, Dyatlov turned to the two trainee reactor control engineers who had come to work that night to observe the test, Viktor Proskuryakov and Alexander Kudryavtsev, and gave them instructions to complete the scram manually. Head up to the reactor hall, he told them, and force the control rods into the core by hand.
The two men obeyed, but almost as soon as they had left the room, Dyatlov realized his mistake: if the rods wouldn’t fall under their own weight, they would also be impossible to move manually. He ran into the corridor to call back the trainees, but they had disappeared, swallowed by the clouds of smoke and steam that had filled the halls and stairwells of Unit Four.
Returning to the control room, Dyatlov took command. He gave orders to Shift Foreman Alexander Akimov to dismiss all nonessential personnel still at their posts, including Senior Reactor Control Engineer Leonid Toptunov, who had pressed the AZ-5 scram button. Then he told Akimov to activate the emergency cooling pumps and smoke exhaust fans, and gave instructions to open the gates of the coolant pipe valves. “Lads,” he said, “we’ve got to get water into the reactor.”
Upstairs, inside the windowless senior engineers’ room on level +12.5, Alexander Yuvchenko was engulfed in dust, steam, and darkness. From beyond the shattered doorway came a terrible hissing sound. He groped along his desk for the telephone connecting him with Control Room Four, but the line was dead. Then someone from Control Room Three rang through with a command: Bring stretchers immediately.
Yuvchenko gathered a stretcher and ran downstairs toward mark +10, but before he could reach the control room, he was stopped by a dazed figure, his clothes blackened, his face bloody and unrecognizable. Only when he spoke did Yuvchenko realize it was his friend, the coolant pump operator, Viktor Degtyarenko. He said he had come from near his station, and there were others still there who needed help. Probing the humid blackness with a flashlight, Yuvchenko came upon a second operator on the other side of a pile of wreckage: still able to stand but filthy, wet, and grotesquely scalded by escaping steam. He was quivering with shock but waved Yuvchenko away. “I’m all right,” he said. “Help Khodemchuk. He’s in the pump room.”
Then Yuvchenko saw his colleague Yuri Tregub emerging from the gloom. Tregub had been sent from Control Room Number Four to manually turn on the taps of the emergency high-pressure coolant system and flood the reactor core with water. Knowing this task would require at least two men, Yuvchenko told the injured pump operator where to go to get help and accompanied Tregub toward the coolant tanks. Finding the nearest entrance blocked by rubble, they went down two flights of stairs and immediately found themselves knee-deep in water. The door to the hall was jammed shut, but through a narrow gap, the two men glimpsed inside.
Everything was in ruins. The gigantic steel water tanks had been torn apart like wet cardboard, and above the wreckage, where the walls and ceiling of the hall should have been, they could see only stars. They were staring into empty space; the bowels of the benighted station were lit by moonlight.
The two men turned into the ground-level transport corridor and reeled outside into the night. Standing no more than fifty meters away from the reactor, Tregub and Yuvchenko were among the first to comprehend what had happened to Unit Four. It was a terrifying, apocalyptic sight: the roof of the reactor hall was gone, and the right-hand wall had been almost completely demolished by the force of the explosion. Half of the cooling circuit had simply disappeared: on the left, the water tanks and pipework that had once fed the main circulation pumps dangled in midair. Yuvchenko knew at that moment that Valery Khodemchuk was certainly dead: the spot where he had been standing lay beneath a steaming pile of rubble, lit by flashes from the severed ends of 6,000-volt cables as thick as a man’s arm, swaying and shorting on everything they touched, showering the wreckage with sparks.
And from somewhere in the heart of the tangled mass of rebar and shattered concrete—from deep inside the ruins of Unit Four, where the reactor was supposed to be—Alexander Yuvchenko could see something more frightening still: a shimmering pillar of ethereal blue-white light, reaching straight up into the night sky, disappearing into infinity. Delicate and strange and encircled by a flickering spectrum of colors conjured by flames from within the burning building and superheated chunks of metal and machinery, the beautiful phosphorescence transfixed Yuvchenko for a few seconds. Then Tregub yanked him back around the corner and out of immediate danger: the phenomenon that had entranced the young engineer was created by the radioactive ionization of air and was an almost certain sign of an unshielded nuclear reactor open to the atmosphere.
As the three trucks from Fire Station Number Two drew up beside Unit Four, a fire prevention officer from the plant came running out to meet them. He had witnessed the explosion and called in the alarm. Anatoly Zakharov jumped down from his cab and looked around. The ground was littered with blocks of graphite, many of them still glowing red with intense heat. Zakharov had watched the reactor being constructed from the inside out and knew exactly what they were.
“Tolik, what is it?” one of the men asked.
“Lads, it’s the guts of the reactor,” he said. “If we survive until the morning, we’ll live forever.”
Pravik told Zakharov to stay by the radio and await instructions. He and squad commander Leonid Shavrey would conduct a reconnaissance to establish the source of the fire. “And then we’ll put it out,” Pravik said.
With that, the young lieutenant disappeared into the plant.
Inside the turbine hall of Unit Four, the two firemen found a scene of total chaos. Broken glass, concrete, and pieces of metal lay everywhere; a few dazed operators ran here and there through the smoke that rose from the rubble; the walls of the building trembled, and from somewhere above came the roar of escaping steam. The windows along row A had been shattered, and the lights above Turbine Number Seven were blown out; jets of steam and hot water blasted from the ruptured flange of a feed pipeline, and flashes of flame were visible through clouds of steam in the area of the fuel pumps. Some of the roof had caved in, and heavy pieces of debris—hurled out of the reactor building and onto the roof of the hall by the explosion—were still falling from above. At one point, a lead plug that had been used to close a reactor channel tumbled from the ceiling and smashed into the ground within a meter of where one of the turbine operators stood.
Pravik and Shavrey, mere firefighters, had no equipment to measure radiation. Their walkie-talkies weren’t working. They found a telephone and tried to call the power station dispatcher to find out more details of the emergency. They couldn’t get through. For the next fifteen minutes, the two men ran around inside the plant. But they were unable to establish anything for certain, except that parts of the turbine hall roof had collapsed, and the areas that hadn’t seemed to be on fire.
By the time Pravik and Shavrey returned to their men outside Unit Three, the firefighters of the Pripyat city brigade had arrived. By two in the morning, the men of seventeen other fire brigades from all over the Kiev region were racing to the plant, accompanied by search-and-rescue teams, special ladder crews, and tanker trucks. Soon afterward, the chief of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Kiev established a crisis center dedicated to the emergency and called for updates from the scene every forty minutes.
In his apartment across the street from the Pripyat police station, Piotr Khmel, chief of the first watch of Paramilitary Brigade Number Two, was ready to turn in after his long night of drinking when his doorbell rang. It was Radchenko, a driver from the station house.
“There’s a fire in Unit Four,” he said. Every man was needed at once. Khmel told him to wait while he put on his uniform, then followed him downstairs to the UAZ jeep waiting on the street. On his way out, the young lieutenant snatched the half-empty bottle of Sovietskoe shampanskoye from the kitchen table. As the UAZ yawed into the sharp lefthand bend on Lesi Ukrainki Street, Khmel held tight to the bottle. He drained it to the dregs.
Whatever the emergency, there was no need to waste good Soviet champagne.
In his flat on Lenina Prospekt, plant director Viktor Brukhanov was woken by the telephone within two minutes of the explosion. Beside him in bed, his wife stirred and looked up as the light snapped on. Calls from the station in the middle of the night were not unusual, so she felt no need to be alarmed. But now, as her husband listened in silence to what he was being told, Valentina watched the color drain from his face. Viktor put down the receiver, dressed in a trance, and slipped out into the night without saying another word.
It was not yet 2:00 a.m. when Brukhanov reached the plant. He saw the jagged outline of Unit Four, lit from within by a dim red glow, and knew that the worst had happened.
I’m going to prison, he thought.
Heading into the main administrative building, the director ordered the plant’s chief of civil defense to open up the emergency bunker in the basement below. Designed as a refuge for the staff in the event of a nuclear attack, the hardened bunker contained a crisis center with desks and telephones for each of the plant’s department heads, decontamination showers, an infirmary for the injured, air filters to scrub poison gas and radionuclides from the atmosphere, a diesel generator, and tanks of fresh water intended to support 1,500 people for a minimum of three days—all sealed behind a steel airlock door. Brukhanov went upstairs to his office on the third floor and tried to raise the chief shift manager of the plant on the phone. There was no reply. He ordered the activation of the automatic telephone alert system, designed to notify all senior personnel of an emergency of the highest degree: a General Radiation Accident. This indicated the release of radioactivity not only within the station but also onto the grounds and into the air surrounding it.
The mayor of Pripyat arrived, accompanied by the plant’s resident KGB major and the Party secretaries of both the plant and the city. The apparatchiks had many difficult questions. The director, expected to provide answers, had none.
The bunker was a long, narrow space with a low ceiling, cluttered with tables and chairs, which filled quickly with the department heads summoned by the phone alert. Brukhanov took a seat right beside the door, at a desk equipped with several telephones and a small control panel, and began reporting the news of an accident to his superiors. First, he called Moscow, where he spoke to his boss at the USSR’s atomic energy authority, Soyuzatomenergo; then he called the first and second secretaries of the Party in Kiev. “There’s been a collapse,” he said. “But it’s not clear what happened. Dyatlov is looking into it.” Then he informed the Ukrainian Energy Ministry and the director of the Kiev region power supply utility.
Soon afterward, the director took the first damage reports from the head of plant radiation safety and the chief shift supervisor: there had been an explosion in Unit Four, but they were attempting to supply cooling water to it. Brukhanov heard that the instrument readings in the control room still showed coolant levels stuck at zero. He feared that they stood on the precipice of the most terrifying catastrophe imaginable: the reactor running dry of water. Nobody suggested to him that the reactor had already been destroyed.
There were soon thirty or forty men in the bunker. The ventilation fans hummed; pandemonium reigned. The hubbub of dozens of simultaneous telephone conversations—the supervisors of every department of the V. I. Lenin nuclear power plant calling their employees, all focused on ensuring a supply of water and getting it pumping to the core of Reactor Number Four—reverberated from the hardened concrete walls. Yet at his desk by the door, Brukhanov seemed stunned: his formerly laconic manner sagged into a dejected stupor, his movements slow and numbed by shock.
After witnessing the horror of the destruction of Unit Four from the outside, Alexander Yuvchenko and Yuri Tregub ran back into the plant to report what they had seen. But before they could reach the control room, they were stopped by Yuvchenko’s immediate boss, Valery Perevozchenko, the supervisor of the reactor section on their shift. With him were the two trainees who had been sent by Deputy Chief Engineer Dyatlov to lower the reactor control rods by hand. When Perevozchenko explained their instructions, Yuvchenko tried to tell them that their mission was senseless: the control rods—indeed, the reactor itself—no longer existed. But Perevozchenko insisted. Yuvchenko had only examined the reactor from below, he said; they needed to assess the damage from above.
While Tregub continued on to the control room, Yuvchenko agreed to help find a way to the reactor hall. Orders were orders—and besides, Yuvchenko was the only one with a flashlight. Together the four men picked their way up the stairs from mark +12 toward mark +35. Yuvchenko was last in line as they wound through a labyrinth of collapsed walls and twisted wreckage, until they reached the massive airlock door of the reactor hall. Made of steel and filled with concrete, the door weighed several tonnes, but the crank mechanism used to hold it open had been damaged in the explosion. If they went into the hall and the door swung shut behind them, they would be trapped. So Yuvchenko agreed to stay outside. He braced his shoulder against the door, using all his strength to keep it from closing, while his three colleagues stepped over the threshold.
Inside, there wasn’t much room. Perevozchenko stood on a narrow ledge and swept the darkness with Yuvchenko’s flashlight. Its yellow beam caught the outlines of the gigantic steel disc of Elena tilted in the air, balanced on the edges of the reactor vault; the hundreds of narrow steam tubes that ran through it had been shorn away in ragged clumps, like the hair of a mutilated doll. The control rods were long gone. As they gazed at the molten crater beneath, the three men realized in horror that they were staring directly into the active zone: the blazing throat of the reactor.
Perevozchenko, Proskuryakov, and Kudryavtsev remained on the ledge for only as long as Yuvchenko held the door: a minute at most. But even that was too long. All three received a fatal dose of radiation in a matter of seconds.
Even as his three colleagues staggered back into the corridor in shock, Yuvchenko wanted to have a look for himself. But Perevozchenko, a veteran of the nuclear submarine fleet, who knew very well what had just happened, shoved the younger man aside. The door slammed shut.
“There’s nothing to see here,” he said. “Let’s go.”
From Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham. Copyright © 2019 by Adam Higginbotham. Excerpted with permission by Simon & Schuster, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Adam Higginbotham is a journalist and author of Midnight In Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster (Simon & Schuster 2019). He’s based in New York, New York.