Three forgotten heroes whose brave actions in Chernobyl in 1986 saved millions of lives
The operation undertaken by engineers Alexei Ananenko and Valeri Bezpalov, and their shift supervisor Boris Baranov, gave them the title 'Suicide Squad'
The catastrophic nuclear accident at reactor no. 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near the now-abandoned town of Pripyat, in what was then Soviet Ukraine, on the 25th and 26th of April 1986 dispersed large quantities of dangerous radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere. The radioactive fallout was hundreds of times more than the two nuclear bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US in World War II.
The immediate aftermath of the accident caused two deaths within the facility: one after the explosion, and the other compounded by a lethal dose of radiation. Over the coming days and weeks, 134 further servicemen were hospitalized with acute radiation sickness (ARS), of which 28 would go on to die in the months that followed.
Furthermore, another 14 from this group would succumb to radiation-induced cancer in the next 10 years, with officials recording an excess of 15 childhood thyroid cancer deaths as of 2011.
While the official figures for the fatalities from the disaster vary greatly depending on which source you refer to — UNSCEAR places the total number of confirmed deaths as 64 while the WHO claims the figure might reach 4,000 — it is clear that this number would have been much higher without the incredible sacrifices of three men who came to be known as the 'Suicide Squad'.
Engineers Alexei Ananenko and Valeri Bezpalov, and their shift supervisor Boris Baranov volunteered to undertake a mission that would require them to wade through knee-deep radioactive water and open the valves for two floors of bubbler pools located beneath reactor no. 4. But why did they have to do this?
The problem arose because the two floors of bubbler pools served as a large water reservoir to the emergency cooling pumps for the reactor and also as a pressure suppression system capable of condensing steam in the case of a small broken pipe. The third floor above them, and directly below the reactor, served as a steam tunnel where the steam released by a broken pipe was supposed to enter so it could then be led into the bubbler pools.
However, after the disaster, the pools and the basement were flooded because of multiple ruptured cooling pipes, which constituted a serious steam explosion risk. The issue was further compounded because of the fact that, in early May, the core of reactor no. 4 was still melting. This meant that the smoldering graphite, fuel, and other material above, at more than 1200 °C, started to burn through the reactor floor and mixed with molten concrete from the reactor lining, creating a radioactive semi-liquid called corium.
According to Zhores Medvedev's 'The Legacy of Chernobyl', if this mixture had managed to melt through the floor into the pool of water, it would have caused a steam explosion that would have wiped out half of Europe's population and left the continent near uninhabitable for the next half-a-million years.
The necessity to drain the pool became a matter of life and death.
The only way these pools would be drained, however, was by opening the sluice gates, the valves to which were underwater in the flooded corridor of the basement. Ananenko, Bezpalov, and Baranov took up a task, which was considered very much to be a suicide mission, as they were some of the few who knew the location of the valves.
Geared with wetsuits, respirators, and dosimeters, which measures exposure to ionizing radiation, they entered the knee-deep radioactive water and successfully managed to open the valves.
This subsequently allowed the fire brigade to drain the basement, with the completion of the operation of 8 May coming after 20,000 metric tons of highly radioactive water was pumped out.
Many popular recollections of their heroic deed, including BBC docudrama 'Surviving Disaster — Chernobyl Nuclear', claimed that all three suffered from radiation sickness after the operation and died shortly after. But Andrew Leatherbarrow, the author of 2016 book 'Chernobyl 01:23:40' refuted those claims and called it a "gross exaggeration".
He said one of the men was still alive and working in the nuclear energy industry — this is believed to be Ananenko — and that another, Bezpalov, was alive at least up until 2015. Baranov, on the other hand, lived up until he was 65 and died in 2005 after suffering from heart failure.
HBO's upcoming historical drama miniseries, 'Chernobyl', is set to tell "the true story of one of the worst man-made catastrophes in history and the brave men and women who sacrificed to save Europe from unimaginable disaster." Slated for release on May 6, it remains to be seen whether 'The Suicide Squad' will feature in the series.