CHERNOBYL: 20 Years Later

The huge power complex constructed in the 1960s in the central Ukraine of the giant Soviet Union was a mammoth project for the benefit of Soviet society. This was the answer to the petition presented to Joseph Stalin from a prominent Soviet scientist, Igor Kurchatov, in 1949. The scientist used knowledge from captured German physicists for the development of nuclear-generated electrical power. It was to be a promising and safe advancement for the USSR. Yet what happened turned what should have been highly beneficial to a large population into an incredibly detrimental catastrophe.

Slow and chilling was the sparse and fragmented news coming out of the Soviet Union several days after April 26, 1986, telling that a nuclear power accident had occurred. The shock of the disclosure, from several international media sources, stood in sharp contrast to the searing fire rapidly launching wave after wave of radioactive particles into the Ukrainian skies from that dangerous early-morning experiment at the V.I. Lenin NPP (Nuclear Power Plant) Reactor No. 4. The city of Pripyat, where the incident occurred, is 11 miles from the larger Russian city of Chernobyl. Unfortunately, the name Chernobyl is forever cemented in everyone’s mind as the place of the most damaging man-made environmental and nuclear disaster ever to occur.

The city of Pripyat was built in 1977 to house 35,000 to 45,000 citizens, workers and family members connected to the overall operation and support of the power plant. A modern Russian future needed vast amounts of electricity and the large Chernobyl works would contribute to that requirement. Furthermore, the Soviet government was obsessed with staying in the forefront of any nuclear technology. The faulty experiment of that day in April 1986 was the precipitating factor with several contributing engineering and design problems in that power unit. The blueprint design and working nature of a RBMK reactor is, roughly translated, a “reactor cooled by water and modified by graphite.†The Russians felt more comfortable with this style of control and operation versus the pressurized water-cooled reactor that required a massive containment building.

Economy and speed of construction were paramount in showing the rest of the world that Russia could do it best. Yet a catastrophic explosion occurred during an electrical safety system backup test for the reactors. Inadequate training and incorrect operational procedures resulted in a major critical temperature overheating. The result was that uncontrolled high-pressure steam, mixed with a massive release of hydrogen gas that easily found an ignition source, blew away the No. 4 reactor’s steel and concrete lid. Within its nature, hydrogen gas has a wide flammable and explosive range when mixed with air. Unfortunately, the fierce counteraction punched a hole in the towering building’s roof and from that point everything was in a runaway state of destruction.

Much has been told about the long-range effects from the radiation released that fateful day. The directly related widespread environmental damage continues to be documented. What has not been told in sufficient detail is the commitment of the brave firefighters who faced a forceful enemy. And that enemy – radiation – was greater than any fire ever faced by firefighters in the history of firefighting. What follows is a tribute to those who did all they could, suffered the most and paid the ultimate price.

Almost immediately after the reactor blew, alarm bells were ringing in the power plant fire station. The code of the bell alarm system, which the six on-duty firefighters recognized, was that it was of a major proportion – a serious fire in Reactor No. 4’s building. A small firefighting crew was all that was maintained around the clock. Fire protection systems would react to any outbreak of serious fire, thereby aiding in the rapid suppression of anything that could threaten the plant and its operation. Russian fire protection authorities did not foresee an explosion as a real threat to the suppression systems.

In the plant’s fire station, the limited cadre of firefighters knew that all apparatus and personnel were to respond immediately. An automatic aid call to the city of Pripyat’s fire brigade would bring additional assistance. At least two more engines and a turntable aerial ladder truck would be dispatched.

While enroute to the reactor, Lieutenant Vladimir Pravik radioed for the brigade’s chief officer to be requested to report to the scene immediately. The chief fire officer assigned to the Chernobyl works was Major Leonid Telyatnikov, a respected and well-liked professional senior firefighter. Pravik made several comments to his driver that the fire was casting a weird, bright-blue mass of flames. He said they were unlike a series of dancing flames from a rooftop blaze. These appeared to be shooting skyward, much like being fired out of a cannon. Neither he nor members of his crew had ever remembered seeing a flame of that hue and force displaying itself from any large structure fire. Little did they know at that time it would be anything but an ordinary structure-and-contents fire.

Upon arrival, the lieutenant called for the high-pressure pumps to be turned on. This would give his men a sufficient amount of water flow. Initial fireground procedures required the layout of large-diameter supply lines and the raising of the 98-foot turntable ladder to the flaming rooftop of the reactor structure. Getting the turntable close to the structure was an immediate challenge due to the horrific debris broken and scattered everywhere. A small clear driveway did exist and the truck was able to be positioned. Handlines were carried up the ladder to start attacking the roof blaze. The extremely intense fire made the area feel like a hot summertime afternoon.

Obstacles were directly encountered by the fire crews as they got up on the roof line of the reactor building. As the firefighters stepped off the rungs of the turntable ladder, their boots started sticking to the roof. The tar-pitch composition of the roof’s overlay was melting and acting like glue to the soles of their boots. It took all of their strength just to move and pull their heavy hoses into position through this gummy stew.

Suppression activities were even more difficult and becoming more critical to carry out. As their hoselines bore into the flaming crater, the firefighters could not believe their eyes, as the large-caliber streams of water simply vaporized with no effect of suppression, much less any note of extinguishment. On top of all of this, the firefighters were also experiencing an unusual feeling, first on their faces, then hands and bodies. They began to sense as if they were being seared like a steak on a grill. It was beginning to feel like a severe exposure to sunburn after staying at the beach too long on a cloudless afternoon. Within an hour or so, when most of them were at the hospital undergoing treatment, they would soon discover what a nuclear tan looked like on each other’s bodies. The worse was yet to come for almost all of them.

Shortly after the reactor’s brigade members were engaged on the roof of the No. 4 reactor, they saw the arrival of the Pripyat city apparatus and the command car of Telyatnikov. The major quickly conferred with the city’s fire officers, ascertained their manpower and apparatus status, and then had them run up their turntable ladder to the top of Reactor No. 3. Plant firefighters on top of the roof edge of the No. 4 reactor also advised Telyatnikov by radio that they could see at least five distinct fires burning freely. Quick deployment of hand-jacked hoses over the city’s turntable aerial ladder soon brought additional hose streams bearing down on the separate fires scattered across the large roof area of reactor No. 3.

About 20 minutes into the firefight, the firefighters started to fatigue and begin vomiting. Even the hardiest of the group were beginning to become exhausted. They were having severe headaches and all experienced a bizarre metallic taste in their mouths. When they got to the ground and removed their turnout clothing, almost immediately blisters started to appear on their hands, faces and backs. Ambulances were hastily summoned to get medical attention for the firefighters. A recall of all the plant’s fire brigade members was begun and the city followed likewise. The heat, gases and smoke of the fire were not inflicting standard fireground injuries. Something more sinister was in the mix.

No sooner had Telyatnikov set up his command post did urgent reports come in to him regarding the disabled firefighters and the out-of-control status of the fire. He instantly called for the fire departments of Chernobyl and Kiev to send a maximum response. His dispatcher was told to request the maximum amount of personnel and apparatus that they could afford to send. The fire brigades of these two major cities would be needed to tame this fiery beast, he thought to himself, despite a solid hour’s response time factor.

Time started passing quickly. Eventually, the power plant’s management reported to the scene and started ascertaining what many had feared: that radiation levels were totally unacceptable. The small personal dosimeters, carried by all plant employees, registered only up to four roentgens per hour. They were immediately maxed out. The radiation meters that the power plant’s technicians brought out to the scene could not register how high the levels were. Their meters simply “pegged out,†which meant that the radiation was beyond measurement of their instruments. Later, Grigori Medvedev, world-recognized author of several books on Chernobyl, wrote in The Truth About Chernobyl, that the radiation emissions ranged from roughly 1,000 to 20,000 roentgens per hour!

The instrument technicians advised their managers that there were no levels of safety to be found anywhere close to the reactor building. They said the firefighters at the top of the No. 4 reactor were doomed. Wave after wave of firefighters, plus several members of the plant’s volunteer brigade and other staff members who aided in the fight, were feeling the effects of a condition noted to be worse than the combined Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic blasts of World War II. There was no protective clothing available for them to remain at their posts directing large-caliber streams of water into the radioactive inferno. “No one’s safety could be guaranteed†was what the power plant’s management team told Telyatnikov and the other officials assembled at the command post.

The major then took it upon himself to send a message to his command at Russian National Fire Headquarters in Moscow. It would send his superiors into a tailspin. One of his superiors wanted to believe him, but nuclear authorities were telling the staff at fire headquarters that it isn’t as bad as everyone is claiming. Political lies were told because of political fallout. The Communist Party was still in control, and to go against the party’s wishes would bring anyone’s career to a quick ending. The major had two serious questions needing prompt and accurate answers. First, how can I protect my men from the constant onslaught of the radioactive waves accompanying the fire , and second, what extinguishing agent will control and suppress this? Headquarters was baffled. No expertise was available on this subject. A response would be days away at best.

The Soviet military was called into action. Eventually, a plan of using an airborne helicopter attack was doggedly effective in suppressing the fire and some of the reaction. Nuclear scientists recommended a mixture of boron, sand, lead and dolomite to be dropped into the heart of the No. 4 reactor. The pilots and crews of the rotary-winged aircraft were limited by several factors with each passing maneuver. Although the open throat of the No. 4 reactor was easily visible, the enormous reactor shield had flipped over and landed at an angle, partially covering the reactor’s core. Thus, to these military veterans of the ongoing Afghanistan war, making a “direct hit†still took determined skill and some luck for a successful run. And a “run†it was! This was a race into the very face of death by radiation.

Everyone was briefed that exposure to the flying radiation particles, gases and invisible free radicals could kill them or give them a long and terrible fight with cancer at some point in their lives. The amounts of radiation rocketing forth were still risky. Estimates put 500 roentgens per hour as the minimum impact of the airspace over the reactor. The aviators took their iodine pills, hoping for the best possible protection factor. Aviation time had to be restricted, both for the air crews and the flying machines. Not only could radiation attack a human being, but their equipment was subject to long-term effects of irradiation. No decontamination was possible to salvage any materials used in this venture. Literally, all of the equipment used in this struggle was sent to a nuclear scrapyard. Again, no one’s safety could be guaranteed.

Time was precious. Even the nighttime was used for the ongoing suppression and containment efforts. In a sharp contrast to this overall horrible event, those assembled were awed by the beautiful colors cast against the nighttime sky from the reactor’s opening. The nocturnal beauty of the nuclear-borne light masked what they could not see – a killer.

Moscow authorities mustered every resource that was known to exist in their country. Even the entire Soviet Army was placed on full alert and select units were deployed in an emergency state of readiness to assist directly at the site. In direct support from the National Soviet Fire Service, all major cities sent the best of their fire brigades’ personnel and equipment to render extended mutual aid. Russian authorities searched everywhere in the Soviet bloc for expertise in this matter and found none to deal with the scope of this calamity. The best guessing of calculated estimations and trial and error were what guided the early days of damage control and loss prevention.

Effects of Radiation

The Swedes first detected large and small air currents bearing elevated levels of radiation particles from the wind mass coming over from the Russian continent. They checked with Russia’s neighbor, Poland, to ascertain whether the Poles knew of anything occurring. As word got out to other nations, all hell broke loose in the rest of the world. The Soviets reluctantly broke their evening homeland newscasts with a minor reference to a “urgent†condition at the Chernobyl power plant that “authorities had under controlâ€. Admitting mistakes was not a way of life in the USSR.

Surprisingly, the USSR refused offers of aid from U.S. atomic authorities, but accepted help from industrialist Dr. Armand Hammer. In his personal jet, Hammer brought with him an authority from UCLA. A brilliant 40-year-old doctor, Robert Peter Gale, would be “of a great value and service to the Soviet Republic,†stated Hammer. Gale was respected for his work at UCLA Medical Center with radiation and bone marrow diseases. Severe radiation injuries promote massive destruction of the internal organs and bone marrow of a human body. The knowledge that Gale brought with him permitted many positive contributions to be shared with Soviet medical authorities. In particular, a Soviet physician, Dr. Angelina Guskova, was the lead medical officer at Hospital No. 6. She saw to it that the firefighters were kept in a sterile atmosphere, hoping that other viruses would not attack their already weakened states and bring about an early death before treatment could begin. To this day, the treatment of the overwhelming health care challenges of the Chernobyl victims was beyond any historical reference. Gale later published a book, Final Warning, about his experiences at Hospital No. 6.

It was about 10 days into the incident that the fire was declared out. Of course, no one really knew for sure what continued to happen in the reactor base. Efforts were directed to sealing the entire structure. Eventually, a huge concrete tomb was constructed over the remains of Reactor No. 4, but no one knows if the nuclear threat will ever surface again in this burial device. Much by way of nuclear reactor reform has taken place since those dark days of April 1986. Knowledge is shared among nations who use this method of power generation. Reactor design with the utmost in safety features that cannot be overridden have been designed.

Today, a journey to a suburb of Moscow takes a visitor to Mitino Cemetery, the burial place of many of the disaster’s heroes. The firefighters have their hallowed place of rest among a firefighter memorial sculpture. Lead-lined coffins, soldered shut, contain at least 29 of the Soviet bravest who gave everything that day. Some firefighters suffered a prolonged and very painful death from severe radiation poisoning. Their bodies were brought here to join with their fire service comrades in death, just as they had joined each other on the fireground. Their sacrifice was great. We learned another expensive lesson that they paid for with their lives.

Michael L. Kuk, PhD., CFO, CHS-V is fire chief at Fort Polk, LA, and chair of the CBRNE Working Group. He has conducted extensive research on firefighting history from Roman times and serves as the U.S Army’s fire service historian. Kuk has been a published fire service author since 1974. A Vietnam veteran, he served as a U.S. Army combat firefighter. A master musician, he continues to perform at firefighter, military and civil ceremonies throughout the year in many locales. He is a founding member and chair of the Federal Firefighters Memorial Committee and a federal fire chaplain. Kuk has led volunteer, combination, industrial and military fire departments.