"Your eyes hurt, and there was a metal taste in your mouth. Those are the two things you felt."
March 29, 2011 8:26 AM   Subscribe

How do you clean up a massive nuclear disaster? With 800,000 people, 45 seconds at a time. The Liquidators, Chernobyl's "biorobot" cleanup crew: Part 1, Part 2.

On April 26, 1986, Reactor 4 at the V.I. Lenin Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant suffered a catastrophic accident. A series of explosions ejected highly radioactive material from the core, much of it landing on the roof of the adjacent Reactor 3. Authorities first brought in radio-controlled heavy equipment to clean the debris off the roof, but it quickly broke down under the intense radiation. Thus, Plan B: use human beings to clear the debris off the roof. Russian reservists, scientists, and civilians, many protected only by home-made, hand-sewn lead suits, were called to the scene to remove the debris, using shovels, wooden boards, or their (gloved) hands. Some worked for as little as 40 seconds in an effort to limit exposure. Few wore individual dosimeters.

Reflections of a liquidator: "Live men proved to be the only reliable mechanisms able to get this debris down," said Mirnyi. "The radio-controlled vehicles failed: irradiation breached the semiconductors inside them. It was the best plan we had."

Interview with a liquidator: "Time on the roof varied from as short as 45 sec. to as long as 3 min depending on the current radiation level and place you have to work on. Sometimes, especially after helicopter's treatment (they have used special solutions to suppress the radiation/dust by dumping tons and tons of de-activating solution very early in the morning, before we start working there), levels were not as high, so you we were able to work a bit longer. We chopped asphalt which contained pieces of highly radioactive solids sunk into molten asphalt on the explosion day (the asphalt solidified over them after the initial fire was put down...) and tossed them down on the ground, over the roof edge."
posted by googly (22 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
For those interested in reading more about the lives of Chernobyl workers, Adriana Petryna wrote a great ethnography on the subject:

Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl
posted by jardinier at 8:28 AM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Petryna's book is fantastic, as is Svetlana Alexievich's Voices of Chernobyl (1, 2)
posted by jmccw at 8:54 AM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

er, Voices FROM Chernobyl
posted by jmccw at 8:55 AM on March 29, 2011

Their badge is badass too. No vague metaphors there.

When do Gulf oil spill workers get theirs?
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:03 AM on March 29, 2011 [11 favorites]

The scary thing about Chernobyl is that none of the nuclear plant workers (including the control room staff) knew anything about radioactivity - it was considered a state secret.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:27 AM on March 29, 2011

none of the nuclear plant workers (including the control room staff) knew anything about radioactivity

Huh? Not quite sure what you mean. A fair number of the workers at the plant were nuclear scientists; they certainly knew "about" radioactivity. You can't really run a nuclear reactor otherwise.

There weren't enough dosimeters and the "acceptable" dosages were apparently often concocted on paper after the fact, so that many workers probably got exposed far more heavily than they were given credit for, but several people who have been interviewed that I've read have made the point that they did this knowingly.

And in the Mirnyi interview ('Reflections' link), he mentions looking at the license plates of trucks selling vegetables and avoiding ones coming from the area that was contaminated. So clearly he and others knew that there was contamination.

There was certainly a coverup effort afterwards, though. But the guys at the controls, sloppy as they may have been, weren't total rubes.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:47 AM on March 29, 2011 [6 favorites]

Battle of Chernobyl (Part 1 of 11) is an excellent documentary about what happened.

Chernobyl Girl is also an amazing set of links (bottom of the page) about a woman motorbiking thru the restricted zone.
posted by I love you more when I eat paint chips at 10:47 AM on March 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

I almost posted the Chernobyl motorcycle trip links, but then saw that they had been posted before, along with the controversy elicited when someone questioned the veracity of her story.
posted by googly at 10:51 AM on March 29, 2011

Chernobyl Girl is also an amazing set of links (bottom of the page) about a woman motorbiking thru the restricted zone.

This was revealed as a semi-hoax a while ago.
posted by Behemoth at 10:59 AM on March 29, 2011

What these guys did... if I'm ever in a position to do this myself I sincerely hope that I wouldn't permanently shame myself by declining. It wasn't their fault this reactor went up but, by God, they went over the trench regardless.
posted by Slackermagee at 11:20 AM on March 29, 2011

Seriously? They were time-limited to the extreme, and those were the biggest shovels they had? Poor bastards. Poor, brave bastards, that is.
posted by Sportbilly at 11:59 AM on March 29, 2011

Yep, Chernobyl Girl has some awesome photos but they're not without controversy. On the other hand, there's some great (amazing, incredible) photographs in Chernobyl: Confessions of a Reporter.

Kostin (a photographer, really) was, as Wiki notes, "the only photographer in the world to take pictures of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster...26 April 1986 -the day of the worst nuclear accident in history." He took some truly incredible photos, and has continued to take photos of the aftermath of the disaster (though he has exceeded the amount of safe exposure to radiation and so far as I know is no longer able to enter the Exclusion Zone).
posted by librarylis at 12:37 PM on March 29, 2011

From entropicamericana's link:

There’s a note on the door: Dear kind person, please don’t look for valuables here. We never had any. Use whatever you want, but don’t trash the place. We’ll be back. I saw signs on other houses in different colors—Dear house, forgive us! People said goodbye to their homes like they were people. Or they’d written: We’re leaving in the morning, or, We’re leaving at night, and they’d put the date and even the time. There were notes written on school notebook paper: Don’t beat the cat. Otherwise the rats will eat everything. And then in a child’s handwriting: Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good cat.

OK, got something in my eye now. But that whole page of stuff is incredible.
posted by infinitywaltz at 2:42 PM on March 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Chernobyl - The Severe Days

This reporter died within days of filming these shots. Watch for white dots and flashes on the film caused by radiation.
posted by TrialByMedia at 3:26 PM on March 29, 2011 [6 favorites]


/reaches into pouch for Rad-X and a couple doses of RadAway.
posted by rhythim at 5:07 PM on March 29, 2011

Mr. Bobinski in the film Coraline wears a badge of a Liquidator. The movie doesn't explain why he has blue skin, but that might be a reason for his odd coloration.
posted by autopilot at 5:17 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Found this interview the other day, with Natalia Manzurova, who at the time was a 35-year-old engineer at a nuclear plant in Ozersk.

A couple of her remarks:

When you were called to go to Chernobyl, did you know how bad it was there?
I had no idea and never knew the true scope until much later. It was all covered in secrecy. I went there as a professional because I was told to -- but if I was asked to liquidate such an accident today, I'd never agree.

What message do you have for Japan?
Run away as quickly as possible. Don't wait. Save yourself and don't rely on the government because the government lies. They don't want you to know the truth because the nuclear industry is so powerful.

Footage of liquidators: Chernobyl: The Lost Film (6:30)
posted by Twang at 6:10 PM on March 29, 2011

The scary thing about Chernobyl is that none of the nuclear plant workers (including the control room staff) knew anything about radioactivity - it was considered a state secret.

I'm not sure what you mean by this. The existence of radioactivity was well understood by most of the authorities involved; the actual effects may not have been as well understood. The publication of information about the radioactive release from Chernobyl was kept secret from the country and even locals for days. But workers at the facility would have been unable to do their jobs safely without understanding radioactivity and all personnel wore dosimeters. On the other hand, medical personnel were woefully unprepared, as an accident of this magnitude was considered so unlikely. Many other mistake were made, such as administering iodine to the firemen after their exposure rather than before, but they were decontaminated and had dosimeters checked (when dosimeters were still available). Other personnel were allowed to leave the site without taking proper decontamination procedures. Pripyat was evacuated without any formal decontamination or other health interventions, but apparently most people understood the potential danger, and the evacuation itself spread contamination to other towns.

It was an utter clusterfuck, to be sure, but it wasn't like that episode of Star Trek.
posted by dhartung at 11:08 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

But workers at the facility would have been unable to do their jobs safely without understanding radioactivity and all personnel wore dosimeters.


The film-badge type, that you send in to a developer after the fact?
The real-time geiger-counter type, which gave them a reading of zero because the geiger tube was saturated by orders of magnitude more radiation than it could handle?

People died needlessly because dosimetry equipment didn't warn them of the magnitude.

According to the documentary, when staff were finally able to get a high-range instrument on site, they assumed it was faulty because the reading to too crazy to possibly be true.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:28 PM on March 30, 2011

(dhartung - I'm not sure what KokuRyu means either, my post wasn't meant to be a criticism of your question, more like additional notes. On re-reading, I wrote it poorly)
posted by -harlequin- at 5:36 PM on March 30, 2011

And a top of that, when their dosimeters were read, the workers were never told the numbers. I still think that to some degree nuclear power is better than many of the alternatives, but DAMN if these documentaries aren't chilling.
posted by infinitywaltz at 6:00 PM on March 30, 2011

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