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249: Chernobyl Part 4

HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries tells the story of the worst nuclear disaster in history. Today, we’ll be looking at the fourth episode in the miniseries called The Happiness of All Mankind.

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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

A soldier is trying to get a woman to evacuate the radiation area.

She refuses. She says she’s 82, and has lived here her whole life.

Why do I care if it’s safe or not?

She says she was 12 when the Revolution came. Czar’s men, then Bolsheviks. They told us to leave. Then there was Stalin and his famine, the Holodomor. My parents died and two of my sisters died. They told the rest of us to leave. No.

Then the Great War. German boys. Russian boys. More soldiers. More famine. More bodies.

So, I should leave now because of something I cannot see at all? No.

While I couldn’t find anything in my research to suggest this introductory sequence was based on a specific person, what it depicts was something that’s very real. For one, not everyone wanted to leave the area. That’s probably not too surprising, it’s still common for people to not want to leave their homes when natural disasters like hurricanes are bearing down on them.

Being 82 years old means she’s talking about a revolution 70 years before the time period of the series. Since that time period is 1986, 70 years earlier was 1916.

That’s close enough to the Russian Revolution in 1917, so I’m going to guess that’s the revolution she’s referring to. There’s way too much to cover in this episode about that, but in a nutshell, the Russian government wasn’t doing well during World War I—which was from 1914 to 1918. In February of 1917, there was a revolution in Russia that basically ended with Czar Nicholas II abdicating the throne. That ended about 300 years of the Romanov Dynasty ruling over Russia since 1613 with the first Czar, Ivan the Terrible.

So, the government changed from a monarchy to…well, kind of chaos for a while, until in September Russia was declared a democratic republic. That didn’t last long, though, because in October of 1917, there was another revolution that saw Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik Party take power.

So, that’s why the lady was talking about the Czar’s men and then the Bolsheviks.

She also mentioned Stalin’s famine, the Holodomor. We learned more about that when we learned about the movie Bitter Harvest back on episode #40 and again with insights from the screenwriter of the movie in episode #57 of Based on a True Story.

That was a man-made famine in 1932 and 1933 when the Soviet Union, led by Joseph Stalin, forced unrealistic grain quotas that led to the famine. Since Ukraine was one of the largest grain-producing states in the USSR, they were hit especially hard. We don’t know the exact amount of people who died, but estimations range between 3.5 and 10 million people, most of them in Ukraine. Today, Ukraine recognizes Holodomor as a genocide carried out by the Soviet regime.

The next thing mentioned by the woman is the Great War with German and Russian soldiers. Even though a lot of people referred to World War I as the Great War, I don’t think that’s what she was talking about. World War I was taking place at the same time as the revolution she mentioned at the very beginning. Then, she seems to go in order of historical events, so mentioning the Great War at the end would be after Holodomor in the early 1930s. That makes me think she’s talking about World War II.

During World War II, the Germans occupied much of Ukraine after Operation Barbarossa when the Germans invaded. While Chernobyl technically existed, it wasn’t until the 1970s when it was picked for the nuclear power plant. So there weren’t a lot of residents in the area during World War II. Most of the residents at that time were Jewish and with the Germans invading and occupying the area until 1943, sadly that means most of them were murdered in the Holocaust.

Perhaps the most well-known incident happened at Babi Yar, a ravine located just outside Kyiv and about 133 kilometers or 82 miles away from Chernobyl. It was there on September 29th and 30th in 1941 that the Nazis murdered 33,371 Jews in one of the first massacres of the war. Throughout the war, the location was used for continual murdering by the Nazis so much so that by the end of the war it’s estimated between 100,000 and 150,000 Jews, Roma, Soviet prisoners and others were murdered there.

For the purposes of our story today, I think it’s moving to hear how it’s possible for a single person, like the woman in the beginning of this episode, to have lived through so many horrors and atrocities. And after seeing so many horrible things, now she’s supposed to run away because of something she can’t even see? We can understand why some would be hesitant.

Back in the series, we see a time and place on the screen. It’s August of 1986 in Kyiv. That’s four months after the explosion. Lyudmilla Ignatenko enters a building with another lady. There’s not a lot of explanation here, but it looks like she’s moving into an apartment.

The impression I got from the series, though, was that people from Pripyat were relocated to Kyiv. Granted, we don’t see any of the other people from Pripyat relocating, we only see Lyudmilla entering a new, or at least an empty, apartment. But then again the series focused more on Lyudmilla and Vasily than it did other townspeople in Pripyat.

In either case, what we do know from history is that after the town of Pripyat was evacuated everyone was moved elsewhere. A city named Slavutych was built just for the evacuees of Pripyat. It’s located about 30 miles, or 45 kilometers, from Pripyat.

However, with that said, in the timeline of the series no one was living in Slavutych yet. Construction on that city started in October of 1986 and the first residents didn’t move in until 1988. And because the evacuation of Pripyat happened on April 27th, 1986, a day after the explosion, the residents had to stay somewhere in the interim.

If we go back to the series, one of the most heart-wrenching sequences happens next. It’s when three soldiers, Pavel, Bacho and Garo, go around the now-abandoned city and shoot any animals they find. Most of them are loveable pets who were left behind in the evacuation and are just excited to see a human again. There’s one especially sad scene where Pavel comes across a dog with her puppies in a house. They’re so cute! But, they must be killed to avoid spreading radiation. They’ve been ordered to shoot the animals while others are digging up the ground and others still are cutting down trees.

This is all a part of the cleanup effort, trying to get rid of any radiation on the plants and the top of the ground, as well as killing any poisoned animals before they spread the radiation further or die horrific deaths themselves because of the radiation poisoning.

While I couldn’t find anything in my research to suggest things happened exactly like we see in the series with Pavel, Bacho and Garo, the essence of what we’re seeing here is true.

There were about forty men who took to the streets to hunt the pets. They weren’t keen on going to the radiation zone at first since they weren’t given anything to protect themselves against the radiation, but they did what they had to do.

At first, the pets did exactly like we see them doing in the series as they’d run up to the people. Then they’d scatter at the sound of the guns. Before long, many of the animals stopped trusting the humans and it got more difficult to find them.

That scene with the dog and puppies? It happened. More than once. In the bookVoices From Chernobyl, one of the hunters recounts the story of finding a dog with her puppies and how he shot them one-by-one. There’s a story of an older lady who had shut herself in her house instead of evacuating. She had three dogs and five cats, and the men forced most of them away from her despite her screams and protests. They left one cat and a dog.

All the animals were collected and buried in mass graves. The graves were supposed to be lined with plastic or protected in some way to keep the bodies from decomposing into the groundwater—kind of like what we heard happened to Vasily Ignatenko. But, that didn’t happen for the pets. They were put in the ground and covered with dirt. Most of the time they were already dead. One of the hunters recalled an instance where a dog was only injured, but they didn’t have any bullets to kill it. So they buried it alive.

Before the evacuation, everyone was told they’d be back within a few days. For two months, the hunters drove around the streets taking out the household pets. Horses were put down. But not necessarily all the animals were killed. One of the hunters recalls they left the pigs alive. Otters they let free so they could swim away in a nearby river.

It must have been devastating to have to do that.

While not as prominent in the series, we do see some of the other cleanup effort: Cutting down trees, digging up the earth, and so on.

All that happened, too, but of course there is more to the story than we see in the series.

For 30 kilometers, that’s about 18 miles, around the Chernobyl power plant the military was in charge of cleanup. Houses, cars, buildings, roads, trees, literally everything was deemed contaminated and needed to be cleaned.

To do this, they’d first spray things down. We saw some of that in the series, too. Something else we see is helicopters dropping something on the trees. While I was watching that, I wasn’t sure exactly what the liquid was for. There wasn’t a fire, so it’s not like when they drop water to put out wildfires. So, I thought perhaps it was to kill the trees to make them easier to chop down. After researching it more, I was wrong.

What they dropped from helicopters was a liquid solution they called “water soup.” The purpose of that wasn’t to decontaminate or kill or do anything other than to be a liquid that would make anything radioactive adhere to the surface.

Imagine you’re going down a dirt road, the dust gets kicked up and then settles somewhere else.

This process was similar. They wanted to avoid any radioactive or anything getting kicked up by the next phase of the cleanup.

That next phase involved spraying a special decontaminating agent on anything and everything: Grass, plants, cars, mechanical equipment, houses, any structures, pretty much everything. If something was beyond decontamination, it’d be destroyed or buried. Entire buildings and structures were buried to limit the continued contamination. And that last part, especially, would certainly kick up plenty of radioactive material and things you don’t want flying around as you’re trying to clean up in the area.

An entire forest was cut down, too. It was about 10 square kilometers, or a little under 4 square miles, so not a huge forest—but enough to be a big job. That was nicknamed the Red Forest because the trees were so affected by the radiation from explosion that they actually turned red.

If we go back into the series, Ulana Khomyuk is continuing her investigation into what happened. She pulls some documents from the KGB archive—it got redacted some before she was allowed access to it—and after Anatoly Dyatlov refused to talk to her in the last episode, this time he’s finally willing to talk. Khomyuk brings the document.

In their dialogue, we find out the document is from 1976 and it talks about RBMK reactors under extreme conditions. They forgot to redact the table of contents, though, so Khyomuk points out some of the pages they did redact are talking about a positive void coefficient and the AZ-5 button. That seems to be of interest because they pressed the AZ-5 button and then the reactor exploded.

Dyalov says void coefficients have nothing to do with AZ-5 and then tells her that she’s looking for answers, but even the right question won’t find the truth. There is no truth. You’ll only get lies in return for your questions and I’ll get the bullet.

As we’ve learned throughout this series, Khomyuk is a fictional character so of course the specifics of this scene are made up. But this brings up a great point, because even though we’ve learned what the AZ-5 button was already, there’s a new term the HBO miniseries talks about here that we haven’t explained in our own series yet: Void coefficients.

What are they and was Dyaltov correct in the series to talk about how they have nothing to do with the AZ-5 button?

To start, a void coefficient isn’t unique to the reactors at Chernobyl. A void coefficient is just a way of measuring how the reactor changes as voids are introduced. The voids are things like steam bubbles in the water. And the measurement is basically to know if the void coefficient is positive or negative. If it’s negative, that means it’ll be less reactive and if it’s positive it’ll be more reactive.

For an RBMK reactor type, the void coefficient is extremely positive. So that’s why it needed to be monitored closely.

How about the idea of the void coefficient having nothing to do with AZ-5?

That’s not entirely true, but that doesn’t mean the series is wrong when it suggests Dyatlov thought it was true at the time. If you’ve listened to the first few episodes in this series you’ll know there was nothing in the training on RBMK reactors in the Soviet Union at the time to suggest anything otherwise.

However, looking at this from a historical perspective, we know that’s not true. We talked about this before so I won’t go in-depth explaining what AZ-5 does again, but the reason it’s not true has to do with the design of the control rods because they’re tipped with graphite.

Going back to the series, there’s another date on the screen. It’s September of 1986, and they’re still trying to clear the roof of debris. Boris Shcherbina makes some calls and gets a police robot nicknamed “Joker” from West Germany.

After lowering the robot to the roof of the reactor by helicopter, we see Shcherbina and Valery Legasov in the control room with a bunch of monitors. They decide to start by testing the robot’s functions. Good signal. Motors are good. Move one meter forward, all good. Okay, now let’s go one meter backward, all goo—uh…wait a second. It just died. In the control room, all the buttons go from green to red. Is that the signal? No, the signal is fine. There’s so much radiation the robot itself died.

That’s all true, although there’s more to the story that we don’t see in the series.

The plan wasn’t one that Shcherbina or Legasov came up with themselves, but rather it came from technicians at the Ministry of Energy.

Joker was a real vehicle they bought from West Germany. It was specifically designed to handle radioactive material, and the plan was to use it alongside two other rovers that were developed for the Soviet lunar exploration program. They didn’t want to pick anything up and move it elsewhere since that’d just create another contaminated site they’d need to deal with. Instead, they wanted to do exactly like we see in the series: Push the radioactive debris off the roof and back into where the core of Unit 4 used to be. That way they could lower the radioactivity enough to build a roof over the whole thing to seal it off.

That was the plan.

Just like we see in the series, Joker and the other rovers weren’t up to the task. They all failed. It was back to the drawing board.

The date was September 16th when the commission met in Shcherbina’s office to decide what to do next. They had to clean the rooftops if they ever wanted to build a huge metal and concrete roof—something they called a sarcophagus—over the whole thing to seal it off. It was just too dangerous to build if the rooftops weren’t cleared of radioactive materials first.

And their attempts at using remote vehicles failed miserably.

There was only one option left to clean up the radioactivity too dangerous for machines to do. Everyone in the room knew what that meant. Humans had to do it.

Back in the series, we see text on the screen saying it’s October, 1986. General Tarakanov gives a bunch of soldiers instructions for how they’re going to clean it up. Russia needs it done. You’ll have 90 seconds to solve the problem. Enter through the reactor building #3 and climb the stairs to the roof. When you get to the top, wait for a moment to catch your breath.

When you enter the work area, look for the graphite. Some of the blocks might be 40 to 50 kilograms—that’s about 90 to 110 pounds—and it all must be thrown over the edge in a specific spot. He points to a photo of the roof, showing where they’re to throw the graphite over so it lands in Unit 4.

After 90 seconds, a bell will ring and you’ll return immediately. Go back down the stairs for decontamination.

And not to get too far ahead of our story today, but at the end of the episode we see Tarakanov thanking what he says are “the last of 3,828 men.”

This recreation of how the cleanup process went is pretty accurate!

Although, it didn’t start in October like the series suggests. It also didn’t end after December like the series implies by showing that scene with Tarakanov at the end. That scene comes after we see text on the screen with the date of December, 1986 and a conversation between Shcherbina, Legasov and Khomyuk. We’ll get to that conversation in a minute.

In reality, the cleanup operation started just three days after the decision was made to use humans, or bio-robots as the planners called them. As we learned a moment ago, that decision was made on September 16th.

We don’t see this at all in the series, but before anyone went onto the roof to clean things up someone had to go up there to do a test. To figure out the plan, basically. That was done by a radiologist in the Army Medical Corps who wore protective gear that included pieces made from hastily torn down lead from the walls of government offices in Chernobyl, along with ten different dosimeters to monitor the radiation levels. He sprinted across the roof of Unit 3 and threw five shovelfuls of graphite over the edge to the remains of Unit 4 before sprinting back.

He was on the roof for 73 seconds. In that time, he absorbed 15 rem, which is three times what the U.S. federal government considers to be safe to be absorbed in an entire year.

General Tarakanov was a real person, and he was in charge of the soldiers tasked with doing the cleanup. He gave each soldier the chance not to go. There were some who didn’t want to go, but they also recognized they were the last chance. If they didn’t do it, no one else would. In the end, no one refused to go.

On the afternoon of September 19th, the first wave of soldiers began the bulk of the work. It was work that lasted for 12 hours a day and for 12 days, until October 1st. They were armed with shovels, rakes, wooden stretchers to carry larger pieces of graphite and sledgehammers to break out pieces that had been melted into the bitumen.

The time of 90 seconds we see in the series is a simplification. They were trying to limit each person’s exposure to no more than 25 rem, but they did use a bell or a siren when the time was up. Each soldier’s contribution was meticulously logged.

One person threw down three pieces of graphite weighing up to 200 kilograms, or about 440 pounds. Another threw down seven pipes weigh up to 30 kilograms, or 67 pounds.

Each soldier was only supposed to go on the roof once, but some went again.

At the end of the cleanup operation on the roof of Unit 3, just like we see in the series, there were three men who climbed to the top of the chimney to raise a red flag. That was done to signal the cleanup was finished. There are photographs of the men attaching the flag to the top of the chimney of taken by war photographer Igor Kostin that I’ll include in the resources for this episode over on the show’s website.

As a quick little side note, Kostin was one of the few photographers to document the accident. His photographs are some of the only surviving images of Unit 4 just a few hours after the explosion. Many of his photos didn’t survive due to the radiation while others were so heavily affected by it that the radiation itself is visible in the film. I’d highly recommend you look at his photographs to get a good idea of what an absolute mess the whole area was after the explosion.

If we go back to the series, it’s December of 1986 now. There’s a brief mention in the dialogue between Shcherbina, Legasov and Khomyuk about Legasov going to Vienna to speak to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Before he does that, Khomyuk wants to tell him what she’s discovered about what happened. She shows him the document she also showed to Dyatlov earlier in the episode. That’s the heavily redacted document that talks about a tie between the AZ-5 button and the void coefficient in RBMK reactors.

To her surprise, Legasov already seems to know about this.

He tells Khomyuk about an RBMK reactor in Leningrad back in 1975 that had a fuel channel rupture. The operators pressed AZ-5 and the power went up first before it went down.

In the series, Legasov mentions a colleague named Volkov wrote the article Khomyuk found. Vladimir Volkov was a real person, he was the head of the Kurchatov Institute’s RBMK safety research group.

As you already know, since the composite character of Khomyuk is involved in this, that’s not what really happened. But the idea of something happening in Leningrad in 1975 is real. And it didn’t have to be found by someone from the commission in some KGB archive, because someone who was there for the Leningrad accident was also at Chernobyl.

He’s not in the series at all, but Vitalii Borets was one of the most experienced nuclear engineers in the Soviet Union at the time. In November of 1975, he was working at the Chernobyl power plant when he took a business trip to Leningrad for some training at an RBMK reactor some 50 kilometers, or about 30 miles, outside the city.

On November 30th, he was stopping the reactor and shifting to another mode of operation when he noticed something was wrong. As the reactor slowed to a lower power level, inserting the control rods to slow the reaction didn’t slow the reaction like it was supposed to. In fact, it did the exact opposite: The nuclear reaction was increasing rapidly.

They managed to avoid an explosion by using the AZ-5 emergency shutdown, but not before one of the fuel channels melted releasing radiation into the air. We still don’t know exactly how that affected the people of Leningrad.

The issue had to do with the design of the control rods. They were six meters long, or just under 20 feet. Because of the graphite tips, when they were inserted into the core at a depth less than two meters, or about six and a half feet, they caused a spike in the reaction.

This issue as well as the incident at the Leningrad power plant was something the Soviet government kept under wraps. What they did do was to give orders to change the control rods in RBMK reactors in the Soviet Union to avoid the issue from happening again. Although they didn’t say why they were making the changes, so no one at Chernobyl really thought it was a big deal. It was just an order to make a change. And they did make the change in Unit 3 at Chernobyl, but they hadn’t gotten around to doing it yet in Unit 4.

However, because Borets happened to be there when it happened, he knew there could be an issue. Even he didn’t know the full extent of why it happened, only that it did. By the time 1986 rolled around, it was an incident that happened over ten years earlier so it wasn’t something that was on the top of his mind as he helped plan the test at Chernobyl.

After the explosion, of course, that was a different story.

Speaking of the story, there’s also more to the story of Legasov going to Vienna that we don’t see in the series. The timeline in the series is a bit off because it talks about Legasov going to Vienna during a conversation that supposedly happened in December of 1986. In truth, Legasov went to Vienna from August 25th to the 29th in 1986. He was the head of the Soviet Union’s delegation to explain to the International Atomic Energy Agency what had happened at Chernobyl.

While he was there, Legasov presented a report on the disaster and answered questions for over three hours from scientists of other countries. Of course, not all the details were included in the report. That report basically blamed operator error and left out the issues with the reactor design. Not only that, but the report was prohibited from being seen back in the Soviet Union. So, that meant there were people around the world who knew more about the disaster than those working on it.

Later, Legasov admitted to playing a part in the coverup of information when he said:

“I did not lie in Vienna, but I did not tell the full truth.”



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