NON-FICTION: The Aftermath: A chain of events after the 1986 Chernobyl electrical explosion

The 1986 Chernobyl electrical explosion revealed the deficiencies, ignorance, and complacency within the Soviet political and administrative system, as well as one Ukrainian family’s intuitive and uneasy response to a radioactive chain of events.

April 26, 1986.

A mismanaged electrical-engineering experiment was about to take place at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Engineers with little knowledge of reactor physics were interested to see if they could draw electricity from the turbine generator of the Number 4 reactor unit to run water pumps, in the case that there was an emergency when the turbine was no longer being driven by the reactor but was still spinning inertially.

In a nuclear power plant, the reactor vessel is a pressure vessel containing the coolant and reactor core. Essentially, it is a device for containing and controlling a chemical reaction. The chemical process allows the conversion of raw material into a final product under a certain pressure and temperature. Every reactor possesses a graphite moderator: a nuclear reactor that uses carbon as a neutron moderator, which allows un-enriched uranium to be used as nuclear fuel.[1]

The engineers needed the reactor to wind up the turbine. Then, they planned to idle it to 2.5 percent power. That afternoon, unexpected electrical demand delayed the experiment until 11 p.m. that night. When the experimenters finally started, they felt pressed to make up for lost time, so they reduced the reactor’s power level more rapidly. This caused a fast buildup of neutron-absorbing fission by-products in the reactor core. This action poisoned the reaction.[2]         

During a systems test, reactor number four experienced a sudden power output surge. When an emergency shutdown was attempted, there was a more extreme spike in power output. Then, a reactor vessel ruptured and a series of explosions occurred. These power outages exposed the graphite moderator of the reactor to air, causing it to ignite into a dense fire. The plume of highly radioactive smoke fallout spread into the atmosphere and throughout large parts of the western Soviet Union and eventually Europe.[3]

The accident at Chernobyl was the result of a fatal combination of ignorance and complacency. “As members of a select scientific panel convened immediately after the…accident,” writes American physicist and Nobel laureate Hans Bethe, “My colleagues and I established that the Chernobyl disaster tells us about the deficiencies of the Soviet political and administrative system rather than about problems with nuclear power.”

April 27, 1986.

Lena woke up in her small, Kiev apartment at 6 am. Her husband, Simon, rested his head beside her, a protective arm covering her like a second blanket. She wiggled out of his grasp and Simon stirred, turning over on his other side.[4]

The apartment air was unusually hot for an April morning. Lena quietly washed, got dressed, and boiled herself a small pot of oatmeal and a pot of hot water. She steeped her tea after the water boiled. As she waited for the oatmeal to cook, she looked outside her window. The curtains blew in and out at an uneven tempo, gusting towards her and then fluttering away, like a pair of schoolgirls whispering in the morning. The dew that usually settled on the windowsill was absent. Across the street was an apartment building just like hers: standard, equal, Communist units. Everyone’s windows were open; the wind flowed in and out of each room freely. Spring was beginning.

Shortly after the accident, firefighters arrived to extinguish the fires. First on the scene was a Chernobyl Power Station firefighter brigade under the command of Lieutenant Volodymyr “Volodya” Pravik. Under his jurisdiction were firefighters “Vashchik” and “Kolya”.

 They arrived at 2:10 a.m. Each firefighter saw pieces of graphite scattered amidst the fire.

 “Is that graphite?” one of the men asked.

 Another kicked it away.

 One of the fighters on another truck picked it up, yelped, then dropped it back on the ground.

“It’s hot!” he said.

The pieces of graphite varied in size: some larger than the men themselves and some small as pebbles.

They didn’t know much about radiation. The remaining workers at the plant knew even less. They were not told how dangerously radioactive the smoke and the debris were. They may not even have known that the accident was anything more than a regular electrical fire.

Some of the men went to the roof to put out the spreading fire and save whatever victims were still alive. Vashchik, Kolya, and Volodya left up the ladder, wearing only their everyday firefighter uniforms with no additional protective gear.[5][6]

Lena ate in silence, walking between the kitchen and the other room that functioned as a bedroom, living room, and family room, all at once. There was a time when she, her husband, and daughter all slept together in that room, before Marina moved out to attend university.

May Day was approaching, which meant the holiday preparations had already begun. In the Soviet Union, May Day was equivalent in stature to July 4th celebrations in the US. Back then, it was known as “International Workers’ Day” and currently is called “The Day of Spring and Labour.” To this day, there are big demonstrations on this holiday: people parade on the streets and flowers are found everywhere. Spring is in full bloom. Some Russians would have the work day off; people would stay in their hometown for the parades, or otherwise, they would use that as an opportunity to travel. It was common to travel to different forests and parks to go camping, hiking, swim, and enjoy nature.[7]

Marina planned a camping and hiking trip in a nearby forest with her coworkers and school friends. Lena smiled at the thought of her daughter planning and making these trips. When she was younger, Lena would send her to sleepaway summer camps in forests only to pick up a crying, freckled child a week later. When asked why she didn’t enjoy herself, Marina couldn’t explain, but Lena comforted her and still understood. Her daughter was a copy of her husband, save for her eyes and her spirit. She was a Yampolskaya at heart. Lena turned to her pot of oatmeal and saw the grains boiling rapidly, almost overflowing in the pot. She turned the stove off and set the pot on a plate to cool off. Usually, she would make enough oatmeal for her and Marina as they left at the same time in the morning, but for now she was away in Leningrad (now known as St. Petersburg), taking her final exams.

Lena walked back into the kitchen with a bowl of oatmeal, sitting down to review files before she finished her breakfast and left for work. For the past 20 years, she worked diligently in an engineering company and was now the executive manager of her department. Her days were spent crunching numbers, calling and supervising meetings and organizing financial transfers between clients. This morning, she reviewed the statistics collected from a meeting the day before, but she just couldn’t concentrate. She breathed in and out slowly; the air was too heavy. Something didn’t seem right.

Forgetting her work and the oatmeal, she went to their cord phone and dialed her daughter’s number. Lena pinched her dress nervously and tapped her foot as she waited one ring, two ring, three…[8]

Kiev was approximately 93.27 kilometers(57.95 miles) away from Chernobyl. The closest city was Prypiat, 20.5 km kilometers(12.7 miles) north of Chernobyl; it was not immediately evacuated after the incident.[9] The townspeople went about their usual business, completely oblivious to what happened. However, within a few hours of the explosion, dozens of people fell ill. Later, they reported severe headaches and metallic tastes in their mouths, and even more disturbingly, uncontrollable fits of coughing and vomiting.[10]

“Hello?” Marina answered the call.

She breathed a sigh of relief.

“Dotsya, my dear,” Lena started. “How are exams?”

Lena was only half listening as her daughter described her difficult exams, the new friends she made in her temporary dormitory, and the beauties of Leningrad. Finally, she cut her off.

“I called to tell you not to go on that camping trip.”

Marina was silent. She paused, then finally asked, “But why?”

“I don’t know why. I just know you should not go. I have a feeling for it. Not right now.”

“Mom, we’ve been planning this for weeks,” Marina started, “I even bought new sneakers for the trip. I’d be really sad to miss it. It’s our May Day celebration.”

“I really don’t want you to go.”

Lena loved her daughter fiercely, more than anything in the world. She also knew that this trip with her friends, the new pair of sneakers she had purchased just for it: they were probably worth a week of her salary if not more. The daughter and mother usually agreed and never shared uncomfortable silences until this moment, when the air was thick and the atmosphere poisonous.

Historians would often downgrade the severity of the plant explosion and did not consider the data.

Fact one: four hundred times more radioactive material was released in the Chernobyl disaster than had been by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Fact two: The disaster released 1/100 to 1/1000 of the total amount of radioactivity released by nuclear weapons testing during the 1950s and 1960s[11].

Fact three: Approximately 100,000 km² of land was significantly contaminated with fallout, the worst hit regions being in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.[12][13][14]

April 27, 1986.

Val was going to be Marina’s fiancé[15]. They became good friends as teenagers and stayed friends throughout high school, different colleges, and when Val was drafted into the army. At this time, he was still serving. Luckily, he was stationed at a base in St. Petersburg and never shipped out to Afghanistan, so Marina was able to visit him very frequently. It was only some time later, when he finished his time in the army, that he returned to Kiev, they briefly dated, and were quickly engaged.

But this was April 1986 and Val was still in the army. They were divided into different squads and Val was chosen to be part of the artillery squad. Soldiers spent most their days cleaning different areas of the campsite. His squad was responsible for cleaning and fixing things within the patrol officers’ village, along with working in the electrical/heat storage unit where coal would constantly be fed to a fire. Through rotating shifts, he met soldiers from other units and became friends with many of those on the chemical defense team.

Drills were very infrequent and done every third day for no more than three hours. The soldiers were put through physical education training, including running, climbing, and timed courses. They were taught how to use an AK-47 rifle: how to assemble and disassemble, load and unload. As the artillery squad, they were able to shoot canons and calculate the angles of the canon shots. Soldiers took shifts at guarding the perimeter on the military base. Every day, they sat through political education classes that praised the Soviet government and success of Soviet officials. No one took this class seriously.

His final months of service in 1986 were different than his usual routine. It was tradition for the last few months of the serving period to involve “specialized” assignments, as their service became less rigorous because they could not be sent to battle in that time. Though they remained on the army site, their duties changed entirely. Val and his friend, Sasha, who had begun serving at the same time as Val, were assigned to build carovniks, or farms for cows. Every military base had its own small farm to feed the soldiers, sergeants, and staff.

Val and Sasha were given three meals a day: breakfast at 7 a.m., then a second meal at 12/1 p.m., and supper at 6 p.m. There was usually no more than 30 minutes a day for free time; it all depended on what the soldiers’ shifts were like and when their commanding officer allowed them the time.

It was on April 27, 1986, at a 7 a.m. breakfast in the mess hall that Val and other squad members noticed that none of the chemical defense soldiers were in attendance. Throughout the day, they found the team’s chemical equipment and cars missing throughout the base. None of them showed for their shifts at the electrical/heat storage unit.

Prypiat was only considered for evacuation when a state commission investigated the accident on April 26. By the time they arrived, two people had died and 52 were receiving medical attention in a hospital. By the night of April 26, the state commission had an overwhelming amount of  evidence that extremely high levels of radiation had caused a number of cases of radiation exposure.

Prypiat was finally evacuated at 2 pm on April 27.[16]

April 28, 1986.

The general population of the Soviet Union was first informed of the disaster on April 28, 1986. It was two days after the explosion, and the public went about their days as if nothing incredible occurred. On that day, all radio broadcasts run by the state were replaced with classical music, which was a common method of preparing the public for a tragic announcement. Scientists from around the Soviet Union were armed and placed on alert as they awaited instruction.

[17]Only after radiation levels set off alarms at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden – over one thousand kilometers from the Chernobyl Plant – did the Soviet Union admit that an accident had occurred. And yet, the government still attempted to conceal the scale of the disaster. [18][19]

After the evacuation of Prypiat[20], a 20 second warning message was aired on the state TV news program, Vremya:

“There has been an accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. One of the nuclear reactors was damaged. The effects of the accident are being remedied. Assistance has been provided for any affected people. An investigative commission has been set up.”

           —Vremya, April 28, 1986

[21]It was only on April 28 that Val and other soldiers heard word of a broadcast on Vremya that mentioned an accident at the Chernobyl chemical plant. On May 3, the rumors were confirmed for them in a delivered, official recording of the radio announcement and even then, they thought it was too vague for comprehension.  The soldiers knew little about radiation and chemical explosions but made the connection between the disappearance of the chemical defense squad and the Chernobyl accident.

April 29, 1986 – May 2, 1986.

Marina went on the camping trip.[22] They traveled near the river called T’terev; it ran straight out of the city Chernobyl. Equipped with camping gear and new sneakers, they went hiking in the forest. They cooked food over pots of boiling water from T’terev and they bathed and swam through the river. For breakfast, they picked wild strawberries from the bushes. They celebrated the May Day holiday well.

For May 1, 1986, the Soviet government wanted the celebration to be just as big and wonderful, despite the Chernobyl disaster. They wanted to maintain a façade of stability and success throughout the country. Local “Communist Party of the Soviet Union” leaders ordered Kievans (including hundreds of children) to take part in a mass civil parade in the city’s center—”to prevent panic”.[23][24]

May 2, 1986.

Upon her return to Kyiv, Marina was told about the radio announcement aired on Vremya. It was her first time hearing any news about the accident, but it was so vague that she didn’t see much cause to be worried.

Soon, word got back to Lena and Marina of different rumors told by people around work, around the neighborhood. Stories gradually became worse and worse in the following weeks. Whispers about every potato, beet, and strawberry being contaminated and hushed rumors about people falling sick and dying echoed through the streets of Kiev. Some speculated that the Soviet government had prevented any real information to be passed onto citizens about the accident. They had done it before and were sure to do it again.

Marina stayed home with her family. Lena had thrown out all produce and meat within the refrigerator, and, for a long time, the family only ate canned goods and drank liquor with each meal.

Marina would still go to work each day, but noticed the physicists’ and chemists’ worries about the radiation rumors. For weeks, the employees drank vodka together, thinking that it would rid their body of any toxins and chemical radiation. Not so consequently, their constant vodka consumption also had them getting quite drunk. Every day was a party for a long, long time.

People started to evacuate Kiev. It was impossible to get a train ticket anywhere, because as panic rose, the population in Kiev decreased. Parents tried to send their children to relatives in Odessa or Moscow, anywhere far enough away from Chernobyl. Val told Marina that his older brother evacuated his daughter and wife to a small apartment in Odessa to live with distant relatives for almost the entire summer.

Because the plant was run by authorities in Moscow, Ukraine’s government did not receive completely accurate information on the situation at the site, according to the former chairman of Presidium of Verkhovna Rada (Council member of the Supreme Council of Ukraine) of Ukrainian SSR, Valentyna Shevchenko. In her recollections, she stated that she was at work when at 9:00 am, Vasyl Durdynets––who performed duties for the Minister of Internal Affairs as the First Deputy Minister––called in with a simple, everyday report, adding at the end that there was a fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. He noted that it was extinguished and everything was fine.

“How are the people?” Sheychenko asked.

“There’s nothing to be concerned with,” Durdynets replied, “Some are celebrating a wedding, others are gardening, and others are fishing in the Pripyat River.”[25]

May 1, 1987.

A little over a year after the Chernobyl disaster, Marina and Val took a trip together to Leningrad. They arrived together at the train station in Kiev and checked in their tickets and luggage. It was a four hour train ride that left them exhausted, but upon their exit, they found something they had not expected: a security check point. In major Russian cities like St. Petersburg, Leningrad, and Moscow, the Soviet government had installed new check points with radiation monitors that every passenger had to pass before exiting the terminal. This had become a given for any travelers from a close radius to Chernobyl, which included Kiev.

Val went through the checkpoint, and Marina followed. The alarm sounded when she passed through.

The security guards patted her down, from her shirt, to her pants, to her shoes, and stopped when they examined her sneakers. Asking her to take them off, they put the sneakers through the monitor and again, the alarm sounded.

The soles of the sneakers were completely intact; nothing appeared to be wrong. But these were the same sneakers Marina had worn on her camping trip the year before. They were completely infected with the radiation within the T’terev river. They were immediately confiscated and disposed.

May-December, 1987.

Despite the radioactivity levels of the Chernobyl plant, the government refused to shut the entire plant down. They claimed that if they were to shut the plant down, the entire region would be out of power. In the disaster, the third reactor exploded, but the first and second reactor were still functioning.[26]

Despite their knowledge of the fatalities and sicknesses, they allowed workers to operate the first and second reactors in two-week shifts. Then, a new squad would arrive. They were paid well over the typical salary.[27]

January, 1988.

In the year after the accident, animals in surrounding forests gave birth to mutated and deformed kin.[28]

[29]To this day.

The Chernobyl chemical-nuclear plant, reactors one and two, are still operating.

[1] Wilson, P.D., 1996, The Nuclear Fuel Cycle, OUP. Nuclear Power Reactors, from the World Nuclear Association

[2] “Chernobyl”, an excerpt from Chapter 5, “A Matter of Risk” from Nuclear Renewal by Richard Rhodes.

[3] “Frequently Asked Chernobyl Questions”. International Atomic Energy Agency – Division of Public Information. May 2005. Retrieved 23 March 2011.

[4] Marina Levsky retold this account as her mother, Lena Gorodetskaya, had told her when she was alive.

[5] National Geographic (2004). Meltdown in Chernobyl (Video).

[6] Shcherbak, Y (1987). Chernobyl. 6. Yunost. In Medvedev, Z. p. 44

[7] “Mayday traditions and events in Hungary”. Caboodle.hu. 2007-04-30. Retrieved 2011-05-01

[8] Marina Levsky retold this account to the author of this article as her mother, Lena Gorodetskaya, told her when she was alive.

[9] Google. Google Maps: Calculated distance between Prypiat, Ukraine, and Chernobyl, Ukraine, and then Kiev, Ukraine, and Chernobyl, Ukraine. N.d. Raw data. N.p.

[10] Time: Disasters that Shook the World. New York City: Time Home Entertainment. 2012. ISBN 1-60320-247-1.

[11] “Ten years after Chernobyl : What do we really know?”. Iaea.org. 21 September 1997. Retrieved 20 August 2011.

[12] “Torch: The Other Report On Chernobyl- executive summary”. European Greens and UK scientists Ian Fairlie PhD and David Sumner – Chernobylreport.org. April 2006. Retrieved 20 August 2011.

[13] “Tchernobyl, 20 ans après” (in French). RFI. 24 April 2006. Retrieved 24 April 2006.

[14] “Path and extension of the radioactive cloudl” (in French). IRSN. Retrieved 16 December 2006.

[15] Val Levsky retold the accounts in this narrative with his experience in the army.

[16] Director: Maninderpal Sahota; Narrator: Ashton Smith; Producer: Greg Lanning; Edited by: Chris Joyce (17 August 2004). “Seconds From Disaster”. Seconds From Disaster. episode 7. season Season 1 (2004). series Series 1. 30/40–50 minutes minutes in. National Geographic Channel.

[17] Kagarlitsky, Boris (1989). “Perestroika: The Dialectic of Change”. In Mary Kaldor, Gerald Holden, Richard A. Falk. The New Detente: Rethinking East-West Relations. United Nations University Press. ISBN 0-86091-962-5.

[18] Mould, Richard Francis (2000). Chernobyl Record: The Definitive History of the Chernobyl Catastrophe. CRC Press. p. 48. ISBN 0-7503-0670-X.

[19] Marples, David R. (1988). The Social Impact of the Chernobyl Disaster. New York, NY: St Martin’s Press.

[20] Director: Maninderpal Sahota; Narrator: Ashton Smith; Producer: Greg Lanning; Edited by: Chris Joyce (17 August 2004). “Seconds From Disaster”. Seconds From Disaster. episode 7. season Season 1 (2004). series Series 1. 30/40–50 minutes minutes in. National Geographic Channel.

[21] (Russian) Video footage of Chernobyl disaster on 28 April.

[22] Marina Levsky retold, in vivid detail, her experiences during this post-Chernboyl period.

[23] Kevin McDermott, Stalin: Revolutionary In An Era of War (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) 41-43.

[24] “Mayday traditions and events in Hungary”. Caboodle.hu. 2007-04-30. Retrieved 2011-05-01

[25] “Interview of Valentyna Shevchenko to “Young Ukraine” (Ukrainian Pravda)”. Istpravda.com.ua. 25 April 2011. Retrieved 20 August 2011.

[26] Petryna, Adriana (2002). Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[27] Davletbaev, RI (1995) (in Russian). Last shift Chernobyl. Ten years later. Inevitability or chance?. Moscow: Energoatomizdat. ISBN 5-283-03618-9.

[28] “Malformations in a chornobyl-impacted region”. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. 18 March 2011. Retrieved 20 August 2011.

[29] Marples, David R. (1991). Ukraine Under Perestroika: Ecology, Economics and the Workers’ Revolt. Basingstoke, Hampshire: MacMillan Press. pp. 50–51, 76.

IMG-20180209-WA0000

Danielle Levsky is an arts and culture reporter, theater critic, essayist, poet, vocalist, and instructional designer. Born and raised in Chicago by Ukrainian-Jewish refugees, she grew up speaking English and Russian; she later became fluent in French through her primary and secondary education. She currently serves as the Theater Editor Scapi Magazine, a local Chicago arts web magazine. Danielle has contributed articles, reviews, essays and other writings to Newcity Magazine, Mental Floss, HelloGiggles, and other publications. When she’s not writing, Danielle types commissioned poems on command on typewriters with Poems While You Wait, drinks copious amounts of tea, and explores the various DIY art scenes in Chicago.

Website/Portfolio: daniellelevsky.wordpress.com

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