The Firefighters of Chernobyl

A firehouse close to the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant with a memorial for those killed in the disaster. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

A firehouse close to the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant with a memorial for those killed in the disaster. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Nuclear power is abundant across the world today, thanks in part to the US and former Soviet Union’s research and competitiveness during the Cold War.

But one April night in 1986 proved that this nuclear power had deadly consequences, and has left many Soviet firefighters in the same situation those who responded to Ground Zero face today.

In the early morning hours of April 26, 1986, scientists at the Chernobyl Power Plant in Pripyat, Ukraine (then a part of the USSR) were conducting one of many experiments at the plant.

This experiment in particular was coupled with scheduled maintenance to one of the power plant’s four nuclear reactors, and would test the reactor’s capacity to operate in the event of a power failure until emergency generators could be activated.

In order to effectively complete the experiment, several safety features normally in place to prevent system breakdowns were intentionally shut down as to not disrupt the test.

As a result, the reactor met dangerously low levels of power, destabilizing the nuclear product, and specialists attempted to fix the issue by powering back up the reactor. Engineers ordered the cooling rods of the reactor to be inserted, but the rods caused a massive power build-up that resulted in an explosion.

The reactor ignited in flames after a massive power release that decimated the reactor and caused fires on several other buildings and reactors in the grounds.

Immediately after the explosion, the Chernobyl Power Station fire brigade, led by Lieutenant Volodymyr Pravik, responded to the site of the explosion.

The plant’s director initially downplayed the size of the destruction, but Pravik immediately recognized the massive blazes and requested additional help from surrounding fire brigades.

Dozens of firefighters took positions on top of surrounding buildings, dousing the hot nuclear fallout of hot graphite and other poisonous substances.

Unbeknownst to most of the fireman, according to reports following the disaster, the environment the firefighters were operating in was an extremely lethal one. Firefighters were cited in the report as stating that they were unaware that the explosion occurred at one of the reactors due to the level of destruction.

However, dozens of firefighters remained on the scene for hours, successfully containing the fire to Reactor Four and preventing the exposure of even more nuclear material contained in the other reactors.

This played a major role in limiting the already massive extent of damage caused by the nuclear fallout from the reactor.

The Soviet government was slow to react to the disaster, downplaying the scale of the disaster and not immediately issuing

Of the 10 initial firefighters on the scene, seven would die of acute radiation in the two weeks following the Chernobyl disaster.


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