Chernobyl town was not evacuated for more than 24 hours after the explosion at nuclear power plant
The explosion at reactor no. 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the early hours of April 26, 1986 near the now-abandoned town of Pripyat is the most disastrous nuclear accident in history. But if one goes back to that day and takes a closer look at the safety procedures which were implemented in the immediate aftermath, you'd be forgiven for wondering how the casualty count — currently estimated to be around 43 — was not higher.
Even taking into account the fact that little was known about how harmful the radioactive material which precipitated into parts of the western USSR and other European countries (mostly Belarus) was, it's almost unforgivable that those who lived in and around what is now called the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone were not evacuated for more than 24 hours after the explosion.
In fact, the Soviet Union had refused to even acknowledge that an accident had taken place at a power plant until workers at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant, which was more than a 1,000 miles away, detected the radiation and threatened to file an official alert with the IAEA.
Such recklessness for human life meant stories such as the one narrated by nuclear physicist Veniamin Prianichnikov are not as uncommon as one would like them to be.
Andy Higginbotham's piece on the accounts of those in and around the plant at the time was detailed in a Guardian article and narrated of how, on the morning of April 26, even as Pripyat Hospital was piling up with casualties, the residents in the exclusion zone carried on with life as usual.
Despite the ground beneath the plume barreling out from the reactor being scattered with radioactive particles emitting a field of up to 10,000 roentgen per hour — a human body absorbs a lethal dose if it has been exposed to 400 roentgen for 60 minutes — station director Viktor Brukhanov refused to sanction an evacuation of Pripyat.
But when Veniamin Prianichnikov, the chief of the plant's training programmes, returned home that morning from a business trip and saw the street being washed down with decontaminants, he knew something was wrong. When he got back to his flat, he found that his phone had been cut off, deepening his suspicions further. He then saw his wife tending their garden outside, directly underneath the fall of the plume, and even after pointing out the specks of graphite on the plants, could not convince her that they were in danger.
Prianichnikov, who had already been a nuclear scientist for than 40 years at the time, did not have his dosimeter with him to show those in the town that radiation levels were fatal in the area. "People wouldn't believe me," he told the Guardian. "And they could give you eight years in prison for going around saying things like that."
His boss at the station refused to confirm that an accident had taken place as well, insisting to Prianichnikov that there was just an exercise being conducted at the plant. However, at the same time, those who had been outside were now being hospitalized with nausea and vomiting. As the day darkened, the residents of the town were finally able to see enormous, all-consuming yellow and green flames licking reactor no. 4. Pripyat was finally evacuated on April 27 but, by then, the damage had been done.
Families were whisked away in buses by the military. They were not allowed to take their dogs, whose coats had by then been so irradiated that they had already begun turning feral. A group of hunters was later sent into Pripyat to shoot the animals, and by April 29, the streets of the once-bustling town were empty but for these dogs' radioactive corpses. Ukrainian officials have estimated that the 30-mile exclusion zone which Pripyat is now a part of will not be safe for human inhabitation for at least another 20,000 years.
As for Prianichnikov, he was tasked with assisting efforts to cool the reactor's core, which had been burning for more than 24 hours when the Chernobyl Commission decided the only way to extinguish the fire was to smother it. But after workers followed the scientists' suggestion to dump 4,000 tons of sand, boron, and lead, engineers and physicists made the horrifying discovery that the temperature of the core and the radionuclides rising from it was, in fact, increasing.
There was a very real threat that the uranium would reach its meltdown temperature, 2900C, melt through the foundations of the building, and then keep going until it reached the water table. If this happened, there would be a second, larger nuclear explosion which would destroy the three other reactors and leave Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia uninhabitable for decades.
Prianichnikov was sent in with temperature and radiation probes to discover exactly how long they had before such a disaster unfolded, and a second plan to freeze the earth around the reactor with liquid nitrogen was devised. It would ultimately prove unnecessary after the graphite seemingly burned itself out by May 10, though by that time, miners had already been commissioned to dig tunnels beneath the reactor.
Because scientists feared pneumatic drills would disturb the reactor's foundations, the miners were forced to work with handheld tools. The conditions also meant they had to forgo protective clothing, and all their efforts were for a waste. Most ended up dying after exposure to unthinkable amounts of radiation, with Prianichnikov somberly admitting they had died for nothing.