There are so many points in history in which the overall plot is well known, but tiny details are often forgotten. My co-worker recently recommended an HBO series to me, Chernobyl, and I quickly jumped on board. For two days I was drawn into the mystery and horror of one of the world’s most devastating nuclear power plant disasters.
True heroes emerged from the story as well. Brave souls that pushed themselves above and beyond the call of duty to save not only their country- but the world. Pilots, firemen, scientists, medical professionals, miners, and more.
I wanted to share a story about one of them because as new documentation is revealed and scientists discover new and surprising consequences of the Chornobyl explosion, it is time to share the stories.
A brilliant man, at 36 he became a Doctor of Chemical Sciences, at 45 – a full member of the Academy of Sciences. For his work on the synthesis of chemical compounds of noble gases, he was awarded the title of Laureate of the State and the Lenin Prize. But he was not a nuclear scientist, and it was by accident that he ended up in Reactor 4 at the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Soviet Ukraine at all. Because no one else could be reached because they were on holiday, and a plane was waiting, Legasov was the man for the job. Within 12 hours, he was appointed to the government’s special commission.
First thing first…
It was Legasov, who convinced the government commission chairman, Boris Shcherbina, that the first thing they should do was to evacuate people from Pripyat; unfortunately, the evacuation didn’t begin until 36 hours after the explosion. Buses were brought in and 50 thousand people were removed, saving many lives. After that, officials established a 30-km Chernobyl Exclusion Zone that was determined to be unsafe for human habitation for 20,000 years.
By the time Legasov arrived, the fire was nearly contained; however, a massive amount of radioactive elements were released into the air and what was left of the building proved to be a serious threat. But this did not deter Legasov from his mission and he would fly over Chornobyl a couple of times a day, despite the continual warning from the dosimeter, a device that measured the external ionizing radiation in the area.
Even though it was a rule that no one could spend more than two weeks at the site, Legasov spent four months and was exposed to four times the allowed radiation exposure. By May 5th, the radiation was beginning to play its dangerous game on his body, and by May 15- full symptoms were showing. But this didn’t stop him- he was dedicated to saving as many lives as possible.
Telling the truth…
Legasov’s role as a hero continues as he was selected to speak at the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world’s nuclear watchdog. He presented a report to colleagues that claimed the explosion was caused by structural flaws and human errors. He advocated transparency between what occurred and what was briefed to the public. The report was a success around the world, but back home it was not received well. Legasov pointed out some key errors in the reactor design and safety concerns with shortcuts taken, concerns that had been addressed before but ignored by the government.
In his report, he concluded that the reactor, or RMBK, was faulty and unstable and was banned from use worldwide except in the Soviet Union. The government had been warned that the reactor didn’t have a protective layer to contain radioactive materials in case of a leak or exposure, but it remained unheeded. The plant was operated by untrained personnel, and they had no idea how to handle the equipment on the night of the meltdown. “Neglect by the scientific management and the designers was everywhere with no attention being paid to the condition of instruments or of equipment,” Legasov wrote in his report.
As you can imagine, this didn’t go over well- and Legasov was stripped of his status in the scientific world and his name was removed from the list of those to be awarded the Hero of Socialist Labor for their work because ‘other scientists don’t recommend it’. He was also excluded by a 129-100 vote by his own peers from a chair on the Scientific and Technical Council of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, where he had once served as a Deputy Director.
He couldn’t survive the aftermath…
Unfortunately, Legasov’ story ended in tragedy when he committed suicide on 27 April 1988, just one day after the 2nd anniversary of the disaster. He had been suffering from radiation sickness, and the loss of his job, and probably didn’t want to be a burden on his family as his body further deteriorated. However, prior to his death, he took notes and recorded his own recollection of the events which have proved to be key in learning about Chernobyl’s real devastation.
On 20 September 1996, Boris Yeltsin awarded him the posthumous honorary title of Hero of the Russian Federation.
This is just one story about the people who were instrumental in the aftermath of the nuclear meltdown that affected the world. It was a story hidden in a closet for a long time. However, as the aftermath of the explosion is being studied in its entirety, it is possible for a complete picture to come to light. I want to take a moment to acknowledge Legasov and his family for everything they went through. Hopefully, as his story is shared, we can all agree that heroes come in all shapes, forms, and professions. And in this case, a group of scientists made the conscious decision to rebel against the government. While the immediate repercussions were harsh, they changed the world.
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