“Somebody had to do it…” – Alexander Fedotov (liquidator)
The clean-up operation following the Chernobyl accident was arguably the greatest in the history of mankind.
The term “liquidator” is now used to describe workers who entered areas designated as “contaminated” between 1986 and 1989 to help reduce the consequences of the explosion. These people included power plants operators and emergency workers such as firefighters and military personnel, as well as many non-professionals. Their tasks included cleaning up the debris from around the reactor, construction of the sarcophagus, decontamination, road building, and destruction and burial of contaminated buildings, forests and equipment. Information on the danger involved was often unknown or suppressed.
The word “liquidator” is derived from the Russian verb “likvidator” (ликвида́торы, which means “to eliminate” or “to eliminate the consequences of an accident”. Soon after the explosion it became clear that the consequences of the accident could not be “eliminated” but only “reduced” however the title was already in common use by this point. Other names used to describe workers involved in the clean-up include, emergency workers, accident recovery workers, salvage personnel or decontamination participants.
Many of liquidators during the Soviet period were coerced to work for a set period of time by means of a direct order. Thousands of liquidators however, mostly military officers and skilled professionals, volunteered to participate or to extend their work beyond the initial compulsory term.
The number of liquidators
Figures for the number of liquidators involved vary greatly from several hundred thousand to nearly a million people. It is likely that at least 300,000 – 350,000 people were directly involved. A report by the Nuclear Energy Agency quotes a figure “up to 800,000”. The International Conference “One Decade After Chernobyl” refers to “about 200,000 ‘liquidators’ who worked in Chernobyl during the period 1986-1987 and estimating the total number of people registered as involved in activities relating to alleviating the consequences of the accident at between 600,000 to 800,000.
According to the main, parental All-Union Distribution Register (USSR, 1986-1989) the number of liquidators is 293,100. The report from the Russian National Medical Dosimetric Registry quotes 168,000 liquidators in Russia. With 123,536 liquidators from Ukraine and 63,500 liquidators from Belarus, providing a total of around 355,000.
Classification of liquidators
Liquidators can be divided into three groups:
- During the initial phase the “early liquidators” were on site during the explosion or arrived during the initial phase of the accident (0-1 days, before the evacuation of Pripyat), including fire fighters.
- The early phase ranges from the end of the evacuation of Pripyat to the end of the construction of the sarcophagus (November 1986). Within this group are further subgroups including those who participated in clean-up works during 1986. Some of these workers, approximately 7% of all liquidators, received high doses (0.20-0.25 Gy).
- The late phase liquidators worked between the end of the Sarcophagus construction until the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, when central management of clean-up work was split between Russia, Belarus and Ukraine
|Year||Number of liquidators|
Information sourced from the All-Union Distribution Register.
|Age group||Number of liquidators||% of liquidators|
Distribution of liquidators by age at time of arrival in the Zone.
114,504 selected cases, the average age is 34.3 years.
The role of a liquidator
“Here we were, experts in our fields and in radiation, and we didn’t know where to begin or even recognise the scale of the disaster.”
– Sergii Mirnyi a 27 year old chemist at the time of the disaster.
Tasks carried out by the liquidators were wide ranging and included building waste repositories, water filtration systems, and a “sarcophagus” to entomb reactor number four.
Radio controlled vehicles (as shown in the video below) were initially used to clear debris, consisting of highly radioactive fuel from the reactor core, thrown on to the roof of reactor 3. However these machines soon failed as the radiation destroyed the electronics within them:
The only plan left at the time was for men, sometimes referred to as bio robots and the only mechanisms capable of functioning in the extreme conditions, to remove the debris by hand.
Only 2-3% of liquidators had a dosimeter during all time of their work. All dosimetric equipment measured only gamma-irradiation. However, the beta-radiation dose was a very considerable component of total external dose for the early liquidators. There is little data available concerning the internal irradiation of the liquidators.
An extract from Igor Kostin’s book – Confessions of a reporter (recommended):
Everyone is instructed to throw a shovelful of radioactive dust and then run. Almost all the liquidators who worked on the roof of the third block were thirty-five to forty year old reservists recalled to serve in the armed forces for “maneuvers”. General Tarakanov ordered them to remove the lead sheets covering the walls of the government subcommittee bureaus in order to make them rudimentary protective clothing. These suits were not wearable more than once: they absorbed too much radioactivity.
The smart ones made themselves a lead “fig leaf” that they inserted between two layers of underwear. But they forgot neither the lead cap that they wore as headgear nor the lead padded sole that they slipped in to their boots.
Following orders issued by Soviet authorities to mark the end of cleanup operations on the roof of Reactor No. 3, three men were ordered to secure a flag to the top the chimney overlooking the destroyed reactor. Reached by climbing 78 meters up a spiral staircase. The men were sent despite the dangers posed by heavy radiation, and after a group of liquidators had already made two failed attempts by helicopter.
The radiation expert Alexander Yourtchenko carried the pole, followed by Valéri Starodoumov with the flag, and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Sotnikov with the radio. The whole operation was timed to last only 9 minutes, in an attempt to limit exposure. On their return, the trio were rewarded with a bottle of Pepsi, a luxury in 1986, and a day off.
Extracts from Sergii Mirnyi’s – Reflections of a Chernobyl liquidator – the way it was and the way it will be (Bellona)
“More reinforcements were summoned. They lived in tent camps – some of which were several thousand men strong – that were located all over the 30-kilometer zone that surrounded the area affected by the exploded reactor. Each day, the liquidators would line up in front of the plant by the thousands to wait for work assignments.
Sometimes, liquidators would wait several hours before being handed a task for the day, if they got one at all.
Slowly, ad-hoc plans began to take shape. Military obstacle removal vehicles and bulldozers began levelling the highly irradiated and charred forestland, that was once a verdant green, surrounding the plant. The pine trees – which received their determined lethal irradiation dose of 3,000 roentgens – died, and their craggy leafless skeletons formed an impressive, unnatural location known to the liquidators as the “Red Forest”.”- Sergii Mirnyi
“Mirnyi and his men were assigned to surveying the dead lands of the zone surrounding Chernobyl in armoured patrol vehicles, measuring radiation and planting yellow flags in irradiated spots. The flags also contained special pockets in which the surveillance crews where to put notations recording the time the irradiated area was discovered and how much radiation was gauged.
After several months, huge trucks with concrete started to arrive almost non-stop, and the famous sarcophagus that covers the threatening ruin of the fourth reactor was built.”
The following includes a number of extracts from an article by Adam Higginbotham for Guardian News & Media Ltd.
Anatoli Zakharov – Fireman
Just after 1.25am, as flames leapt 600ft into the air around the reactor hall, the alarm sounded at Fire Station No 2 of the Chernobyl plant. In the telephone room, the 6ft-square status board, with its hundreds of red lamps – one for every room in the entire complex – suddenly lit up from top to bottom.
On the night crew was fireman Anatoli Zakharov, who had been stationed at Chernobyl since May 1980. It had been an uneventful six years, but Zakharov had seen Reactor No 4 being built, from the inside out. So when he parked his fire engine beside the burning wreckage of the building, and saw the chunks of graphite scattered across the asphalt, he knew there was only one place it could have come from.
‘I remember joking to the others, “There must be an incredible amount of radiation here. We’ll be lucky if we’re all still alive in the morning.”‘
The hot debris from the exploding reactor set light to the bitumen-covered roofs of the surrounding buildings, threatening to spread the blaze into the kilometre-long turbine hall, and – even more catastrophically – to neighbouring Reactor No 3. While Zakharov remained with his engine on the ground, his commander, Lieutenant Pravik, took officers Titenok, Ignatenko and the others and climbed a ladder to the roof to fight the fire. It was the last time Zakharov ever saw them. They had no protective clothing, or dosimetric equipment to measure radiation levels; the blazing radioactive debris fused with the molten bitumen, and when they had put the fires out with water from their hoses, they picked up chunks of it in their hands and kicked it away with their feet. When the fires on the roof were under control, Pravik and men summoned from the Pripyat brigade climbed into the ruins of the reactor hall to train hoses on the glowing crater of the core itself, where the graphite was burning at temperatures of more than 2,000C. This heroic but utterly futile action took them closer to a lethal source of radiation than even the victims of Hiroshima – where the bomb emitted gamma rays for only the instant it was detonated, 2,500ft above the ground.
A fatal dose of radiation is estimated at around 400REM – which would be absorbed by anyone whose body is exposed to a field of 400 roentgen for 60 minutes. On the roof of the turbine hall, both gamma and neutron radiation was being emitted by the lumps of uranium fuel and graphite at a rate of 20,000 roentgen an hour; around the core, levels reached 30,000 roentgen an hour: here, a man would absorb a fatal dose in just 48 seconds. It was a full hour before Pravik and his men, dizzy and vomiting, were relieved and rushed away by ambulance. When they died two weeks later in Hospital No 6, Zakharov heard that the radiation had been so intense the colour of Vladimir Pravik’s eyes had turned from brown to blue; Nikolai Titenok sustained such severe internal radiation burns there were blisters on his heart. Their bodies were so radioactive they were buried in coffins made of lead, the lids welded shut.
Anatoli Zakharov remained on duty at the power station until 2pm, and then cycled home. He drank three litres of apple juice, and went to bed. Shortly afterwards, he was hospitalised in Kiev, where he remained for two months; they told him that he’d absorbed 300REM of radiation. ‘That’s what they wrote down. But only God really knows what my dose was.’ In 1986, he was awarded the Order of the Red Star for bravery; in 1992, he was declared a total invalid. Now, he says the men from Fire Station No 2 never doubted the risks they were taking.
‘Of course we knew!’ he laughs. ‘If we’d followed regulations, we would never have gone near the reactor. But it was a moral obligation – our duty. We were like kamikaze.’
Of his shift of 28 men who went out to fight the fire that night, only 16 are still alive (2006).
“Call everybody, everybody” – Chornobyl Dispatch 1986, firefighters are informed of the fire at Reactor’s 3 and 4.
Vasily Ignatenko – Fireman
Vasily Ivanovich Ignatenko (13 March 1961 – 13 May 1986) was a one of the first firefighters to reach the Power Palnt. He received a fatal dose of radiation and he died from acute radiation syndrome on 13 May 1986. In 2006, he was posthumously awarded the title of the Hero of Ukraine, the highest national award in the country.
Sergei Volodin – Helicopter Pilot
Volodin began flying helicopters from the Soviet Air Force base in Kiev in 1976. It was a quiet posting: he spent the years flying bureaucrats and generals around the country in an Mi-8 helicopter specially equipped with lounge chairs, toilet and a bar. Once in a while, he’d pass the Chernobyl plant and, just out of curiosity, turn on the dosimeter that measured radiation inside the cockpit; there was never a flicker.
On the night of 25 April 1986, Captain Volodin and his crew had the emergency rescue shift for the Kiev area. Their helicopter was the first on the scene at Chernobyl. As the government assembled an emergency commission to tackle the disaster, Volodin was instructed to fly around Pripyat with an army major on board to take dosimeter readings; they would use these to map the radioactivity around the town. They set off without protective clothing, dressed only in shirtsleeves; it was another clear, cloudless day. But as Volodin flew toward the plume of smoke and steam rising from Reactor No 4, strange-looking, viscous droplets of liquid began beading on the canopy. Below, he could see a village where people were at work in their gardens; when he looked up at the dosimeter, the reading had gone off the scale. He flicked the device through all its settings – 10, 100, 250, up to 500 roentgen per hour: ‘Above 500, the equipment – and human beings – aren’t supposed to work.’ Yet each time the needle ran off the end of the dial. Suddenly the major burst into the cockpit with his own dosimeter, screaming at Volodin, ‘You murderer! You’ve killed us all!’
‘We’d taken such a high dose,’ the pilot says now, ‘he thought we were already dead.’ Later, Volodin discovered that the plume he had flown through was emitting 1,500 roentgen an hour. Having established radiation readings for the map, the pilot then flew technicians from the plant around the reactor, to assess the damage; a photographer shot pictures of the destruction through the open window of the helicopter. Afterwards, Volodin was told he and his crew had been so irradiated they could no longer fly. Hospitalised in a Kiev cardiology ward, the doctors told him to drink as much wine and vodka as he liked; they had no idea how to treat him. Volodin stayed until late May, and returned to fly in and out of the disaster site for another five months.
Volodin retired as a pilot in 1991 to take a desk job. ‘I have a strange illness,’ he says. ‘I’m afraid of flying.’ Now 58, he has heart problems; his flight engineer is an invalid. In recognition of his work at Chernobyl, he receives a special liquidators’ pension of 26 Ukrainian Hryvna a year. He points sadly at the drinks in front of him: ‘The tea costs 35.’
Veniamin Prianichnikov – Nuclear physicist
When the chief of the plant’s training programmes, Veniamin Prianichnikov, returned home that morning from a business trip to Lvov, he saw the streets being washed down with decontaminants. ‘I knew something was happening,’ he says. When he got back to his flat, he discovered that the phone had been cut off and his wife was out of town at their dacha, tending her flowers, directly in the path of the plume. She refused to believe anything was wrong – even when he showed her the specks of graphite on the petals of her wild strawberry plants.
Prianichnikov has been a nuclear physicist for more than 40 years, and has worked everywhere from the plutonium factory at Krasnoyarsk-26 to the atomic testing grounds of Kazakhstan. He has already undergone one heart operation he ascribes to the accident.
From the outset, Prianichnikov suspected the accident was catastrophic, but without a dosimeter he found it hard to convince his neighbours of such a heretical idea: ‘People wouldn’t believe me – and they could give you eight years in prison for going around saying things like that.’ When he finally got through to his boss at the station, he was told that an exercise was being conducted. But by the time the sunbathers had been hospitalised with nausea and vomiting, Prianichnikov had shut his wife and daughter indoors, and had them packed and ready to leave. That night, from the sixth-floor balcony of the flat, they watched yellow and green flames flare from the torn ruins of Reactor No 4.
The graphite in Reactor No 4 had been burning for almost 24 hours when the Chernobyl Commission decided the only way to extinguish the fire was to smother it. The scientists suggested sand, boron and lead, to absorb radiation and cool the melting core – 4,000 tons would do it, dropped into the blazing reactor from the air. On the afternoon of the 27th, two Mi-8 helicopters from Kiev began the first of hundreds of firefighting sorties. The pilots navigated through a forest of pylons surrounding the power station to hover 100 metres above the burning building, and, aiming by eye, dropped individual bags of sand from the helicopters’ open doors. The radiation directly over the reactor was such that the pilots soon began being sick in the air; eventually they started flying in respirators, and sliding lead panels under their seats. By 1 May, they had dropped 4,450 tons of sand into the reactor.
But on 2 May, the engineers and physicists at Chernobyl made a horrifying discovery: the temperature of the core and the volume of radionuclides rising from it were both increasing. They suspected that the whole helicopter operation had been a terrible mistake: the sheer weight of everything they had dropped on the reactor from the air – including 2,400 tons of lead – had not only caused structural damage but was pressing the hot reactor core against its concrete base. And if the uranium reached meltdown temperature – 2,900C -a single sphere of molten fuel would burn through the concrete foundations of the reactor building, and keep going until it reached the water table. At that moment, there would be another explosion, exponentially more devastating than the first; the three remaining reactors would be destroyed in a nuclear blast that would render Ukraine, Belarus and Russia uninhabitable for decades to come.
‘That was the most terrifying thing,’ says Veniamin Prianichnikov. ‘We were petrified of meltdown, walking around like zombies.’
A plan was devised: to freeze the earth around the reactor with liquid nitrogen, and then build a heat exchanger in the ground beneath it to cool the core and prevent meltdown. Prianichnikov himself was sent in with temperature and radiation probes to discover how long they had before the core burned through the two metres of concrete foundations; meanwhile, miners were summoned from the coalfaces of Donetsk and the subway projects in Kiev to dig tunnels beneath the reactor. The scientists feared that pneumatic drills could disturb the foundations of the reactor, so they worked with hand tools, in conditions where wearing protective clothing was practically impossible, amid extraordinary fields of radioactivity. To freeze the ground, all the liquid nitrogen in the western Soviet Union was sent to Chernobyl: when it didn’t arrive quickly enough, director Brukhanov received a late-night telephone call from the minister in charge of the operation. ‘Find the nitrogen,’ he was told, ‘or you’ll be shot.’
On 10 May, the fire finally subsided; it now seems possible that the graphite simply burnt itself out. The nitrogen was found, and the subterranean heat exchanger built, but by mid-May the temperature of the core had dropped to 270C; the exchanger was never even turned on. ‘The miners died for nothing,’. ‘Everything we did was a waste of time.’
When I asked if he received any recognition for what he did, Prianichnikov smiles darkly. ‘I didn’t go to court, and I wasn’t put in prison. That was the recognition I received.’
Sergey Bondarenko – Soldier
“The first day after the accident was a mess”. “No one knew what to do and the residents of Pripyat were not informed about anything and thus suspected nothing. Only military chemists carrying dosimeters were silently scanning the neighbourhood to measure the radiation levels.” An account of Sergey Bondarenko’s time in the Zone can be found on the excellent http://chernobylproject.blogspot.co.uk.
While liquidators were praised as heroes by the Soviet government and the press at the time some struggled to have their participation officially recognized for years.
The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that 350,000 of the liquidators involved in the initial plant cleanup received an average total body radiation dose of 100 millisieverts, equal to about 1,000 chest x-rays and about five times the maximum dose permitted for workers in nuclear facilities.
The Soviets did not have uniforms that could provide adequate protection, so those liquidators enlisted to enter highly radioactive areas were required cobble together what they could. Some workers attached aprons made of lead sheets just 2 to 4 millimeters thick over their cotton work clothing.
Following the dissolution of the USSR in the 1990s, the health of liquidators has proved difficult to monitor. This has been compounded by Russia’s reluctance to provide the true figures for the disaster, or even on make serious estimates. The authorities agree that 28 workers lost their lives to acute radiation sickness, while another 106 of the liquidators were treated and survived. But the health toll for the survivors continues to be a matter of debate. One advocacy group, the Chernobyl Union, says 90,000 of the 200,000 surviving liquidators have major long-term health problems.
A study by Belarusian physicians however states that the rate of cancers among liquidators from Belarus is about four times greater than the rest of the population.
In contemporary Russian the word “liquidator” is a noun that needs no explanatory footnote as it connotes a mix of survivor, victim and hero.
“Chernobyl is still not understood. It is off the social scale and off the cultural scale” – Sergii Mirnyi
The award winning 26 minute film The Sacrifice, by Emanuela Andreoli and Wladimir Tchertkoff, documents the physical and emotional toll on those closely involved in the aftermath of the disaster.
Approximate radiation levels at different locations shortly after the explosion and in the Zone of Exclusion today can be found here.
In 1987 Blinkov was a chemist-scout. He measured sites for radiation within the polluted territory.
Hundreds of protected trucks were involved in the liquidation. After only weeks of use they had to be buried due to the levels of radiation.
After the explosion the the remaining three reactors were shut down. However even during the reactors’ suspension
it was necessary to ensure their maintenance and monitoring.
The medal awarded to liquidators is shown on the right, it depicts traces of alpha (α) and beta (β) particles and gamma (γ) rays over a drop of blood.
A monument was built in the city of Chernobyl and dedicated “To those that saved the world”.