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251: Chernobyl Part 5

HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries tells the story of the worst nuclear disaster in history. Today, we’ll be looking at the final episode in the miniseries called Vichnaya Pamyat.

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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.

There’s text on the screen telling us we’re in Pripyat on April 25th, 1986. It’s 12 hours before the explosion.

Nikolai Fomin is meeting with Anatoly Dyatlov. He says once the safety test can be completed successfully, Viktor Bryukhanov will be promoted. That means Fomin will take Bryukhanov’s place and someone will need to fill Fomin’s place. Dyatlov says he wants to be considered for that position.

Just then, Bryukhanov enters the room. The test is ready to go, Fomin says. But Bryukhanov stops him short. He’s been trying to get this test done for three years and of course now that it’s almost here, he gets a call from the grid controller in Kyiv. They can’t lower the power for another ten hours. As frustrated as that makes them, they’ll have to delay the test. Dyatlov says he’s not worried about it. He’ll just go home to get some sleep and come back in the night to oversee the test personally.

I couldn’t find anything in my research to suggest this specific conversation took place, but the dialogue sets up some things that were very real.

It is true that promotions were in store for many of the characters we see in the series. There were talks of Bryukhanov being promoted. That would mean he’d leave Chernobyl and go to Moscow. That would also mean his role would need to be filled, and Nikolai Fomin was in line to do just that.

It’s also true that there was a delay in the test, although it was Nikolai Fomin who fielded the request to delay the test. If things had gone to plan, the test would’ve already been done by the time the weekend rolled around.

To fill in some historical context, the test they were running was simulating if the station lost power. They wanted to determine if a slowed turbine could provide enough electrical power to operate the core’s cooling water pumps for long enough until the diesel pumps came online.

They’d run the test a year earlier but the turbines weren’t able to hold power long enough, so in the meantime new voltage regulators had been developed. With those installed, it was time to run the test again.

There happened to be planned maintenance that would involve shutting down the reactor anyway, so they were trying to take advantage of that to run the test at low power.

The plan was to start shutting it down on Wednesday, April 23rd. But they pushed it back a day and decided to start shutting down the reactor beginning at 10:00 PM local time on Thursday, April 24th, 1986. The power would be down enough by the following morning, around 10:00 AM on Friday the 25th, to begin the test. That should only take a few hours, so everything should be done by 1:00 PM and Unit 4 would go into the weekend completely shutdown.

After Nikolai Fomin signed off on the plan, they started preparing for it. As it got closer to the time to start, they decided not to start at 10:00 PM after all because that would mean there’d be a shift change pretty much right as the test was getting started. So, instead, they decided to start it after the new shift came in around midnight.

Things were delayed a bit, but by the time 2:00 PM rolled around on Friday, the power had been dropped enough that they could finally start the test.

That’s when the call happened that we find out about in the series. A dispatcher at Kyiv’s electrical grid told them they couldn’t lower the power anymore. Since Chernobyl was providing power to Kyiv and it was Friday before a big holiday—May 1st was the May Day holiday—there was a lot of last-minute work as people were trying to hit their productivity quotas to get bonuses before the holiday. They weren’t allowed to go offline and begin the test until after 9:00 PM on Friday.

If we go back into the series, after that bit where we find out about the delay in the test, we fast forward to March of 1987 where the KGB Chairman Charkov threatens Valery Legasov. During the conversation, we find out Volkov was fired for, as Legasov puts it, “the crime of knowing.” If you remember from a previous episode, he was the guy who wrote the article that Ulana Kyomyuk found about the void coefficient issue.

Charkov tells Legasov that he needs to perform his duty to the State for the upcoming trial which, basically, means not talking about how the other reactors could do the same thing if they’re not fixed.

I couldn’t find anything to suggest this conversation took place in March of 1987, but the date of March is significant because that’s when the trial was supposed to take place. It ended up getting postponed to July, though, after Nikolai Fomin attempted suicide in his cell by cutting his wrists with shards of broken glass from his own glasses. The prison guards saved him, and the trial was postponed while he recovered.

As for the mention of someone being fired for “the crime of knowing”, it wasn’t just one person who was let go because of the disaster.

While there are likely a lot of people we don’t know about being let go, but we do know over 60 people who were fired or demoted in the aftermath of the disaster. And there were some high-ranking people in that mix, too.

So, it wouldn’t surprise me if Legasov’s job was in jeopardy at this point although, as the series suggests, he was also more of a public figure than many of the other scientists at the time because of his report to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.

Back in the series, now it’s July of 1987. We’re in the city of Chernobyl where it’s time for the trial of the three men in charge that night: Viktor Bryukhanov, Nikolai Fomin and Anatoly Dyatlov.

As a quick little side note, three other men were also arrested but they don’t make an appearance in the series at all so it makes sense why they don’t show up in the trial. Those other three men arrested in August of 1986 along with Bryukhanov, Fomin and Dyatlov were Boris Rogozkhin, who was the Shift Supervisor on the night of the 26th, as well as Yuri Laushkin, the safety inspector at Chernobyl, and Alexandr Kovalenko, who was the Manager of the Reactor Workshop and approved the test’s plans along with Bryukhanov and Fomin.

It is true, also, that the trial took place in the city of Chernobyl. The reason for that was because Soviet law required a trial take place near the crime. And the high radiation levels made a convenient excuse for why attendance had to be limited—which also meant they could control how much information got out. The last thing they wanted was for journalists and victims families to be there.

So, for the most part, the three-week trial was behind closed doors. Although, one impression I got from the series as I was watching it while we see Shcherbina and Legasov talking outside the building where the trial is being held is that the rest of the city is abandoned. While obviously many had been evacuated, the Chernobyl power plant was still in operation. So, many of the people working there at the time would sit in on the trial as their work schedule allowed.

Going back to the series now, we see the trial itself. Much of the trial ends up being Boris Shcherbina and then Valery Legasov explaining everything that happened.

And the HBO miniseries does a very good job of summarizing everything. We’ve talked a lot about what happened up until this point as we’ve seen things throughout this series, but before we dig into the timeline of what happened ourselves, the one key thing I want to point out about what we see in the trial is simply that we don’t really know everything that happened in the trial. The transcript of the trial has never been released.

There were people in attendance who took notes, but most of those were confiscated by the KGB. The most we’ve learned about the trial comes from Deputy Chief of the Nuclear Physics Laboratory at Chernobyl’s Nuclear Safety Department, a man named Nikolaii Karpan, who was allowed to keep his notes and published a book that included transcripts based on his notes. Others, such as Dyatlov himself, have talked about what happened after being released from prison. But, in both cases, the best we have is the recollection of people who were there and not any official transcripts.

From that, we know the trial was basically a show trial. The issue was entirely on the operators. The design wasn’t going to be at fault, because that would mean the Soviet system that allowed for lax safety standards was at fault, too.

With that said, as we are nearing the end of the overall series, now is a great time to do basically what the HBO miniseries does in the trial: Review everything that happened in the timeline it happened. But, of course, in the miniseries we only see things happening a little before, during and after the disaster.

The real history of the Chernobyl power plant starts in 1970.

That’s when a 35-year-old Viktor Bryukhanov visited the area for the first time. He had been appointed as Chernobyl’s Director and was tasked with building the power plant. The official name of the power plant, by the way, isn’t Chernobyl. That’s just what we know it by because it was located in the city of Chernobyl. The official name is the Vladimir I. Lenin Atomic Power Plant.

The nearby town of Pripyat was also built at the same time to house the 50,000 or so workers, support staff and their families.

The location was chosen primarily because it was not too far from Kyiv, where it would provide power. It was also close to a huge river where it could pull water for cooling and a pre-existing railway line.

There were already RBMK reactors in the Soviet Union, and they were chosen for Chernobyl as well because it was the cheapest to create the most amount of power while also being the safest—or so they thought.

Four reactors were built initially and in November of 1977, the first reactor was ready for operation. Unit 2 went online in 1978 while Unit 3 was ready in 1981.

In September of 1982, there was a partial meltdown in Unit 1 because of a faulty cooling valve. No one even noticed it happened until a few hours later and it was covered up for the public until 1985. They just fixed the reactor and put it back into operation about eight months later. Also in 1983, they focused on getting Unit 4 up and running. It went into operation on December 20th, 1983. Everyone was excited about the news of all four reactors were running.

In 1984, there were “emergency situations” in both Unit 3 and Unit 4 that only came to light in 2021 when Ukraine declassified some KGB documents about it. We still don’t have all the details about the full extent of everything that happened.

And that brings us to April of 1986.

At 1:00 AM on April 25th, they started reducing the power at Unit 4 in preparation for the safety test.

By 2:00 PM, the emergency cooling system for the core was disabled to keep it from interfering with the test. At this point, Unit 4 was operating at about 50% of its normal power.

About 15 minutes before they were to begin the actual shutdown of the reactor, the call came in from the grid controller at Kyiv. They were ordered not to lower the power anymore until after the peak hours were over. The operators at Chernobyl didn’t know it at the time, but the reason for this last-minute request was because of another nuclear power plant had a unit go offline unexpectedly. So, the power at Chernobyl was needed to keep Kyiv from losing power.

Without much to do, they waited. The emergency cooling system was already turned off and that was a process that took at least 45 minutes to turn it off or on, so they decided not to turn it back on again since they’d just be turning it back off again in a few hours. So, the reactor stayed at 50% power from 3,200 MWt (megawatt thermal) to 1,600 MWt for another nine hours while they waited for permission to continue.

They couldn’t perform the test until the reactor was down to 700 MWt.

Around 4:00 PM, there was a shift change. The evening shift leader, a man named Yurii Trehub who we don’t see in the series at all, wasn’t familiar with the test at all. He didn’t have to be, it was supposed to have been over by 1:00 PM before his shift even started. What could he do? He walked into his shift to find the reactor at half power with the core’s emergency cooling system turned off—that last bit came as a surprise to him. He also didn’t have permission to continue. The test had been postponed, not canceled, he was told. So, he made use of his time by studying up on the test plans.

At 8:00 PM, Trehub started to get worried that he hadn’t heard anything yet. So, he made a phone call and was told to wait until Anatoly Dyatlov came in. And Dyatlov, in turn, wasn’t planning on arriving at the plant until they’d received word from the dispatcher at Kyiv that they could proceed.

Around 9:00 PM, that call came. They could proceed with the shutdown starting at 10:00 PM. Trehub called Dyatlov to let him know, but found out from Dyatlov’s wife who answered that he was already on his way.

At 11:00 PM, Trehub started to get worried that Dyatlov hadn’t arrived yet. But without cell phones like we have today, there wasn’t a lot he could do. He got a call from someone in Unit 3 to let him know Dyatlov had stopped off there first.

By 11:10 PM, Dyatlov had arrived in Unit 4’s control room and Trehub began the next step: Reducing the reactor’s power levels even further.

At midnight, there was another shift change. Yurii Trehub, who didn’t expect to be involved in the test only to arrive to find out he was going to have to, was replaced at the controls by Alexandr Akimov. As part of the shift change, Leonid Toptunov also started his shift.

Just as had happened with Trehub, Akimov and Toptunov expected everything to already be done by the time they started their shift. They expected an easy shift with a reactor that had already been shut down. Instead, they arrived just in time to finish the program. With the shift change and others who wanted to monitor the test, there were 20 people in the control room at this point.

Like Trehub, Akimov wasn’t familiar with what he should be doing so he was furiously trying to read up on it and get advice from the others in the room like Trehub, who had spent most of his shift reading up on it. Trehub didn’t leave, he wanted to see how the test would go so he was there to answer questions. Although, he only had one shift of reading up on the test so he had plenty of his own questions about what should be done. In some ways it was the blind leading the blind.

Meanwhile, Dyatlov wasn’t interested in answering questions and was pushing Akimov to work faster instead of reading the instructions.

Toptunov continued adding control rods into the reactor, slowing down the nuclear reaction. The power continued to drop from 1,600 MWt to 520 MWt. All of a sudden, an emergency alarm went off. The supply of water had dropped below acceptable levels. Toptunov wasn’t sure what to do, but Trehub hopped in and started checking on the power levels. Then, Akimov noticed the power levels had dropped way too far and were continuing to drop. Toptunov had accidentally switched the control rods regulators out of order and that had caused a massive dropoff in the power levels.

Although they were wanting to shut down the reactor for its routine maintenance, the turbine test they were performing had to be done at 760 MWt power, so they’d let the power drop way too low.

At 12:28 AM on Saturday the 26th, the computer indicated the reactor’s power level was at just 30 MWt.

Akimov and Toptunov began removing control rods to help increase the reaction and bring the power levels back up. By 12:32 AM, the power had increased to 160 MWt, then 200 MWt.

At this point, they had a decision to make.

Either they could abandon the test and continue shutting things down for the maintenance or they could raise the power for the turbine test. Some people in the control room that night would later say they saw Akimov and Dyatlov arguing over the decision. Ultimately, Dyatlov was the most senior person in the room and he insisted on moving forward with the test. Instead of raising the power, though, Dyatlov decided they’d keep the reactor stable at 200 MWt and do the test that way instead of trying to raise it to the planned 760 MWt.

At 12:43 AM, Dyatlov ordered the operators to turn off the emergency signal from the two turbines that would be involved in the test.

At 1:03 AM and then 1:07 AM, two reserve pumps were activated to increase the flow of water. This was just part of the test—but of course, the test was supposed to be run at 760 MWt and not 200 MWt. Because of the lower power, the reactor became more unstable. At 1:19 AM, another alarm sounded. This was for low steam pressure. Because they’d introduced more water, that slowed the reaction down even further. Water absorbs neutrons and slows the reaction more than steam does. They turned off that alarm as well as the pumps.

Meanwhile, what they didn’t know, was the reactor running at such low power meant there was a byproduct of nuclear fission accumulating in the fuel rods. Xenon-135 is an unstable isotope that can have a huge effect on the reactor. It’s called xenon poisoning for a reason because it’s basically poisoning the core.

That made it extremely difficult for them to maintain even 200 MWt. To counteract this, Toptunov kept removing the control rods to keep the power levels from falling further. By 1:22 AM, only nine of the 167 control rods were in the core.

At that time, the reaction started to pick up.

This wasn’t intentional but was a result of the pumps being shut down. That meant there was less water cooling the reactor, so as the water reached boiling it turned into steam. As we just learned a moment ago, steam doesn’t absorb neutrons as much as water does. So that means with an increased amount of steam and less water, the nuclear reaction was rising. And fast.

Toptunov reported this to Akimov, but he didn’t really pay attention to it. He was too focused on starting the turbine test. That was supposed to start in a few seconds.

At 1:23:04 AM, the command was given to start the oscillograph, marking the beginning of the turbine test. By 1:23:40 AM, things were out of control.

The steam wasn’t absorbing enough neutrons, there were too many voids in the steam—we learned what a positive void coefficient means in the last episode—and there simply weren’t enough control rods in the core to slow down the reaction. The power was rising way too fast. Uncontrollably fast.

Realizing things were spiraling, Akimov ordered Toptunov to press AZ-5, the emergency shutdown of the reactor. That would insert all the control rods to stop the nuclear reaction. Except, if you recall from previous episodes, we learned the control rods in RBMK reactors like those in Unit 4 were tipped with graphite. That meant before slowing the reaction, they actually accelerated it as the graphite tips hit the water that had been absorbing neutrons.

That quick rise in heat was enough to cause some of the fuel rods to fracture.

The fuel rods, in turn, caused the control rods to get jammed so they couldn’t be inserted fully. That basically meant the only part sticking into the core was the graphite tips. The neutron-absorbing boron that was supposed to slow the reaction was ineffective. Instead, the graphite tips were continuing to increase the reaction. The control rods were having the opposite effect that was intended.

Pushing the AZ-5 button wasn’t the end. Instead, it was basically like pushing a self-destruct button.

The amount of power that they’d struggled to keep at 200 MWt for the test shot up to more than 30,000 MWt within a few seconds. The fuel rods broke down entirely, feeding the reaction further. The temperature rose even more, boiling the cooling water and turning it into so much steam that the core simply wasn’t designed to contain.

At 1:23:44, the steam exploded. That explosion tore apart the lines running coolant into the core. This even further accelerated the reaction.

At 1:23:46, two seconds later, there was another explosion. That was the explosion that destroyed the core and threw the core’s radioactive graphite blocks all over the place.

Inside the control room, they didn’t know what had happened. But we learned about that more in-depth when we saw it take place in the first episode, so I won’t repeat that story here.

Around this time it’s assumed the explosion caused the first death: Valery Khodemchuk, who was working in the part of the building that collapsed. They never found his body.

At 1:26:03, the fire alarm went off, calling in the fire department to deal with the fire. Under ten minutes later, they were fighting the fires on the roof.

A lot of these things we learned about in earlier episodes, but I’ll give the recap for the sake of the timeline.

Dyatlov was trying to continue to feed cooling water into the reactor. He didn’t know it had exploded. He didn’t believe it could explode. Nothing in any of their training had suggested that could be the case. There were even some who said RBMK reactors were so safe they could be installed in Red Square in Moscow without any harm.

Bryukhanov was called at 2:00 AM to let him know about the accident.

By 2:15 AM, an emergency meeting was called by Pripyat city officials. They still didn’t know the extent of the damage, but they decided to block anyone from coming or going from the city. To do that, they’d need help so the call is put out for police and military assistance.

Around 3:00 AM, Bryukhanov calls his boss, Vladimir Marin, to report the situation. He reported the explosion was at 1:21 AM. Later, he’d report the firefighters had extinguished the flames by 3:30 AM.

In truth, more firefighters arrived around 4:00 AM to combat the flames. At this time, everyone still believed the reactor was intact and they were trying to extinguish the fires before they affected the core.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, news of the accident had reached Antanolii Maiorets, the Minister of Energy. He started trying to get updates on the situation to feed to his boss, Boris Shcherbina. The typical protocol for any accident would be for a commission to be formed to look into the cause. Shcherbina was in charge of that commission.

Around 5:00 AM, a deputy minister surprised others in the city meeting by saying he had already ordered 1,100 buses to come to Pripyat just in case of an evacuation. No one wanted to evacuate. That would admit something more serious and insight a panic.

Back in the reactor, they were continuing to try and feed water into the core. They thought perhaps the water wasn’t getting into the core because of blocked valves. So, they spent hours trying to fix that, manually turning valves and checking things.

Around this time is when the second victim was killed. Vladimir Sashenok was an Automatic Systems Adjuster who was found unconscious in ankle-deep radioactive water. He’d been pinned under a beam in Room 604 after the explosion and was now unconscious, radioactive burns all over his body. They managed to rescue him, at great cost to the two men who pulled him out, but Sashenok he died at the hospital around 6:00 AM.

He had just celebrated his 35th birthday four days earlier.

By 6:35 AM, nearly all the fires had been extinguished. The only fires left were those inside Unit 4. There were 186 firefighters working on the flames now.

Around 9:00 AM, the first of the commission into the accident began to leave Moscow for Pripyat. Maiorets left around 4:00 PM. When he arrived in Pripyat, he went to look at the reactor and was in shock. This was worse than the reports indicated. Although they didn’t realize it at the time, that first-hand look at the damage caused Maiorets and those with him to absorb massive amounts of radiation.

Even though people were seeing graphite scattered about, some of them thought it came from Unit 5—they were planning on expanding the Chernobyl plant to go from four reactors to six. But when they checked on that graphite, it was still intact. So they were at a loss to know where the graphite came from, their minds simply not being able to comprehend Unit 4’s core exploded.

Then, Bryukhanov joined the city commission meeting around 11:00 AM. Time and time again, Bryukhanov was told not to panic. The commission from the government will be here soon and they’ll decide what to do.

Early in the afternoon, two other nuclear experts from Moscow arrived by the names of Boris Prushinsky and Konstantin Polushkin. Arguably, those two men had more experience on RBMK reactors than anyone else on the commission. The first thing they wanted to do was to see the damage with their own eyes from the air. So, they did just that—after lunch, of course.

When they saw the damage, they knew the reactor had exploded. No one could deny that anymore.  

That evening, Boris Shcherbina and Valery Legasov arrived in Pripyat a little after 8:00 PM. Maiorets and others were already meeting when they arrived. The news of the exploded reactor was a surprise, but it was undeniable. It also meant they were entering unknown territory. No one knew what to do. They had to come up with ideas.

Also in Pripyat around this time, townspeople were gathering on what’s now known as the bridge of death. They were watching all the flames and glow in the night sky over the plant. They didn’t know it was burning graphite they were looking at, or that the wind over them was blowing a lethal dose of radiation. No one on that bridge survived.

At about midnight on Sunday, April 27th, buses began to arrive at Pripyat. Around this time, too, General Nikolai Antoshkin arrived in Pripyat. Like many who arrived soon after the explosion, he wasn’t entirely sure what he was walking into. When he got there, Shcherbina told him they needed helicopters.

An hour later, Unit 1 was shut down while Unit 2 stopped around 2:00 AM.

At 7:00 AM was when General Pikalov drove the truck to get a more accurate radiation reading. There was no doubt then…the graphite was still burning and radiation was still being given off.

One of the things they decided in the commission meeting was to try to stop the burning reactor by dropping sand and other things from helicopters. Shcherbina had already ordered the assistance of military helicopters from Antoshkin and those started to arrive on Sunday morning. There were about 80 of them so far, with more on the way.

Also on Sunday morning, Shcherbina made the decision to evacuate Pripyat. But he didn’t quite give the order yet, he wanted to see the damage at Unit 4 first-hand. Along with Legasov, General Pikalov, General Antoshkin and a few others, they flew a helicopter over the reactor to see the damage.

Although others had seen it in the daylight before, this was the first time many of those in the helicopter saw it from the air in the daylight and it quickly became apparent this was not a minor thing. This would have global implications.

The order to evacuate Pripyat came at 10:00 AM on Sunday morning. The buses rolled in and, at about 1:00 PM, the announcement was made to the people of Pripyat telling them to evacuate.

You can hear a bit of that when we learned about it in episode number two of this series.

A line of buses stretching 12 kilometers, or about 7.5 miles, along with the nearby trains and boats on the river were used to evacuate a majority of the 50,000 or so men, women and children living in Pripyat at the time. Some stayed behind to help with the emergency services.

About that same time on Sunday morning and continuing through May 1st, the helicopters started dropping the mixture they’d hope would smother the fire and stop the nuclear reaction. Looking at this from a historical lens, we now know that almost none of the neutron-absorbing boron reached the core.

On Monday the 28th, some other countries started detecting the dangerous radioactivity. The staff at a nuclear power plant in Sweden noticed increased radioactivity during a routine check of their shoes. Then in Denmark, the announcement was made of an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor.

On Tuesday the 29th, American satellites took photographs of Chernobyl and saw the roof was gone and it was still smoking. Something had obviously gone wrong.

On April 30th, an official statement declares that two people died during the accident— Khodemchuk and Sashenok—and another 197 have been hospitalized. But, it’s okay, their radiation levels are under control and going down.

May 1st was a holiday: May Day. As fate would have it, the wind changed direction and blew the radiation toward the largest town nearby, Kyiv. But still, the annual parades and celebrations continued in Kyiv and Minsk. Everything is normal. Meanwhile, at this point, any of the Soviet elite who had family in the area had already secretly told them to leave.

On May 2nd is when the three men volunteered to turn the valves for the sluice gates that would avoid another potential explosion. We learned more about this in episodes two and three of the series.

The construction workers also started the project of digging under Unit 3 with the purpose of building a liquid nitrogen heat exchanger under Unit 4. We also learned about this in episode three.

On May 9th, Vladimir Pravik became one of the first to die from acute radiation sickness. He was one of the first firefighters who arrived on the scene right after the explosion and was set to celebrate his 24th birthday just a few days later.

On May 10th, the senior reactor operator that night, Alexandr Akimov, succumbed to his radiation burns and died.

On May 14th, Leonid Toptunov died. He was another operator that we see heavily featured in the HBO miniseries.

On May 27th, the idea of a concrete structure to cover the exposed reactor is devised. It’s what we now know as the sarcophagus.

Another problem arose, though, because the power from the Chernobyl plant was still very much needed. So, on September 29th, Unit 1 was started back up. Soon after that, on October 10th, the construction resumed on Units 5 and 6. On November 9th, Unit 2 restarted.

Restarting Unit 3 was delayed, however, because if you recall from earlier episodes we learned that Unit 3 and Unit 4 were connected.

Work on the sarcophagus began on December 14th, 1986. They used 300,000 tons of concrete and 6,000 tons of metal to build an encasing structure over Unit 4. It was designed as a relatively short-term solution for the next two or three decades.

It wasn’t until April 21st, 1987 that Unit 3 was powered back up. Three days later, they decided to stop construction on Units 5 and 6.

In 1991 there was another disaster, this time in Unit 2. A fire broke out because of a defective switch. That ignited some insulation that then led to a leak of hydrogen. The roof collapsed and Unit 2 was decommissioned.

Another major event happened in 1991: The fall of the Soviet Union.

Not to get too far ahead of our timeline here, but a 2006 interview with Mikhail Gorbachev is relevant to our story today when he quoted as saying: “The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl 20 years ago this month, even more than my launch of Perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later.”

In December of 2000, Unit 3 was shut down, marking the final reactor being shutdown at the Chernobyl power plant.

Then, in June of 2003, a replacement for the original sarcophagus was announced. Named the New Safe Confinement, the plan was to build something that would last a lot longer than the original structure. Construction didn’t begin until September of 2010, and it was completed in 2019.

The New Safe Confinement should contain the radioactivity in Unit 4 for at least the next hundred years…

…that is, if everything goes according to plan.



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