It’s April 1986. Alarms at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden start going off unexpectedly, warning of high levels of radiation. Operators are confused. The power plant is fully operational. Nothing is amiss. The radiation detectors shouldn’t be going off. Soon, other nuclear power plants in Scandinavia start reporting the same thing. Their alarms are going off too. A dangerous amount of radiation is spreading throughout northern Europe, but where is it coming from? They narrow it down to an area in Ukraine, which is part of the Soviet Union. They reach out. What’s going on? But the Soviets deny any issues with their nuclear facilities. “All good here,” they say, “no problems at all.” But that’s a lie - a big one. In reality, the most devastating nuclear disaster in history is underway at Chernobyl and it’s worse than anyone realizes. The Soviets may be keeping a poker face, but did you know their desperation to prove themselves to the world almost destroyed it entirely? Let’s fix that.
Hello, I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. This week we are pulling back the iron curtain to uncover what exactly happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 and, more importantly, how.
Let’s rewind the clock from the moment radiation detectors started sounding the alarm at nuclear power plants throughout northern Europe. It’s important that I set the scene for you because this catastrophe took place within the context of a very specific time and place and we can’t fully understand the how without dissecting that first.
In 1986, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union or USSR which stands for Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and TBH, I did not know what USSR stood for until like 2 days ago. Actually, in researching this episode, I realized that I know very little about the former Soviet Union. I mean I guess it was before my time. I was born in 1988 and the USSR dissolved in 1991, so yeah I was like 3. And while 3 year olds can’t be expected to know much about geopolitics, my age isn’t the only reason for my lapse in knowledge.
The Soviet Union was notoriously secretive and withholding. They kept their cards well hidden, even from their own citizens. There was no transparency and very little contact with other countries. They basically sealed themselves off into their own bubble. This is where the term “iron curtain” comes from. It’s the political boundary between the USSR and the west. They were basically cold shouldering everyone like a passive aggressive teenager. But, weirdly, and also like a teenager, so maybe not weirdly, they also kind of wanted to be popular. They wanted to be respected and revered for being a great nation. They wanted the world to know how successful they were, but they also didn’t want to have anything to do with the rest of the world. So, yeah, it’s complicated. The Soviet Union was complicated and confused, possibly having an existential crisis, and my passive aggressive teenager analogy has come full circle.
The Soviet Union was a communist country. It was based on the socialist views of Karl Marx which promoted a classless society in which private property doesn’t exist. People’s needs are met by the government. They live in government housing. They are given vouchers to receive food provided by the government. In theory, citizens’ needs are met, poverty does not exist, and equality reigns supreme. In theory, of course, not in practice, never in practice. In reality there was a huge disparity between the quality of life enjoyed by the government elite and the common folk. Every government eventually weasels its way into the mold of the haves and have nots. Sorry Marx, but you had to have seen that coming.
So let me be clear, there’s no working your way to the top in the Soviet Union. There’s no upward mobility. You can’t just go out and get a bigger apartment or a nicer car. You can’t go buy a nice suit or splurge on filet mignon one night. You just take what you're given and you’re grateful to live a simple, predictable life where all of your needs are met. So it’s the antithesis to the American dream. Communism is anti-capitalism and anti-democracy and every blue blooded American knows that communism is the devil. No, but in all honesty it’s pretty easy to see why the US and the Soviet Union butted heads so much. They were built on completely opposite political philosophies.
So I’m aware that what little I do know about the Soviet Union has likely been highly propagandized and demonized by the US. But weeding through all of that, I see a country that wants to do things their own way without the influence, the temptation of western freedom creeping in, thus the iron curtain. I also see a country that has a lot to prove. It’s them against the world and they want to establish their place, thus the space race which the Soviets won when they succeeded in sending the first man into space in 1961.
By 1986 the Soviet Union had grown to encompass 15 different republics - Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. It’s massive and it’s set its sights on a new world competition - nuclear energy. Because the Soviet Union wants to be super with it, they’re on top of the trends, their cutting edge, avant garde. They desperately want to maintain that reputation as they cling to the lingering fumes of their space race victory. So nuclear energy is where it's at.
In 1972 construction of a nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine, about 60 miles north of the capital of Kyiv, began. 7 years later, reactor 1 was completed and Chernobyl was born. It was actually, officially called Vladimir Lenin power plant cause everything is Vladimir Lenin. He was the communist revolutionary who helped overthrow the Russian government during the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. This is when the royal family was killed - you know Anastasia, like from the Disney movie. So yeah this whole regime was founded by murdering of children. Let that sink in. Even decades later, the Soviet Union just will not let Lenin go. They call him “Grandfather Lenin” and they figuratively and literally won’t let the dude die. Lenin’s preserved body has been on display publicly since his death in 1924 and it looks exactly the freaking same as it did 100 years ago. It’s wild. Anyway, we’re off topic.
So reactor 1 is completed in around 7 years. They also establish a whole town to house the workers that’s just north of the power plant called Pripyat. Over the next decade they construct 3 more reactors at Chernobyl. But when I say they, I don’t mean like nuclear scientists and engineers, I mean the KGB, which was like the Soviet Union’s police force, like the SS of the Soviet Union, the gestapo. According to the people who actually knew about constructing nuclear power plants, the KGB cut a lot of corners. They rushed the whole process and used cheap materials and archaic methods, ignoring the advice of the experts all to make a deadline. They used the wrong kind of concrete, tipped the control rods in graphite (which was a cheap shortcut), and failed to construct adequate containers around reactor cores which would have prevented radioactive fumes from being released into the atmosphere in the event of a meltdown. But, despite all that, they did it. They built a nuclear power plant that generated around 10% of all electricity used by Ukraine. They appear to be keeping up with the rest of the world, they’re relevant, they’re with it. But it’s all a facade, a sham. Under their shiny, polished exterior what they’ve really built is a catastrophe waiting to happen. There’s more on the line than just appearances for individual workers involved in the project as well, though. Failure to meet these deadlines could mean jail time. The Soviet Union is not messing around. It’s big government and wields an iron fist alongside its iron curtain.
Let’s pause to talk about nuclear energy for a minute, how it works. It’s pretty complicated so I won’t go into the nitty gritty, just a basic overview. Basically, nuclear energy is created when nuclear fission happens - a neutron collides with a uranium-235 atom causing it to split into 2 parts. When it does this, it releases 2 or 3 more neutrons which then go on to collide with more uranium atoms creating a chain reaction that releases a ton of heat. The heat boils water to create steam and the steam turns a turbine producing electricity. To keep the chain reaction from getting out of control and producing too much heat, control rods made of boron can be dropped down into the reactor. The boron absorbs extra neutrons, keeping them from colliding with the uranium atoms and slowing the reaction down.
The Soviet Union developed a type of nuclear reactor called RBMK which had graphite rods attached to the ends of the boron control rods. The purpose of the graphite part was to displace water and keep it from filling the void when control rods were removed. This design improved the efficiency of the reactor. BUT graphite has the opposite effect of boron, it speeds up the reaction. So they’d plunge the control rods all the way down to slow down the reaction as the boron part absorbed neutrons, then they’d lift them up partially if they needed the graphite tips to speed up the reaction. The boron and graphite were used alternately to control the reaction as needed - slower, faster, slower, faster, down, up, down, up
Water is a crucial part of nuclear reactors. Not only is it turned into steam to actually turn the turbine and create the electricity, it’s also necessary to cool down the reactors. In 1982 a faulty cooling valve caused a partial meltdown of reactor 1 at Chernobyl. This incident released a dangerous amount of radiation into the atmosphere but luckily no one was killed. The Soviet Union kept this super hush hush though. No one found out about it until years later.
In 1984, Valery Legasov, a leading scientist in the Soviet Union who will eventually be brought in to deal with the impending disaster warned the government that design flaws in the reactors at Chernobyl could lead to an uncontrollable meltdown, but of course he was ignored and they carried on, business as usual.
On April 25, 1986 a routine safety test was planned for reactor 4. In the event of an electrical outage at the power plant, turbines were supposed to continue to spin to power the main circulating pumps which provided the cooling water to keep the reactor’s temperature stable. You can’t just cut the power to these things althogether, you have to keep the cooling water coming. This same test had been performed about a year previous but the turbines slowed down too quickly to provide backup power to the reactor. So the test failed, basically. Now they had a new design to remedy this and they needed to test it out.
They were supposed to perform this test earlier in the day but unexpected power outages elsewhere meant they had to keep reactor 4 running. They have to power it down for the test and they were like “well we can’t shut it down, we need it,” so the test was delayed. Now it’s almost midnight and they’re desperate to get this test over with before they get in big trouble, basically. Because, this is what running a country on fear and intimidation does, it makes people rush extremely risky procedures just to make deadlines.
They power down the reactor but when they do this, the water supply falls and this causes the power to drop rapidly, more than they wanted it to. They’re trying to get it back up to the level they need to perform the test but it’s all over the place, fluctuating every few minutes. They can’t get it to stabilize. Finally the supervisor is like “just do it already, we’re seriously gonna get in so much trouble you guys if we don’t get this done.” And he advises them to ignore the warning alarms beeping and red lights flashing and start the test which they do at 1:23 am on April 26th. As soon as they start the test, the power from the reactor shoots up to 10 times its normal output, alarms are going off, no one even knows what the alarms mean, everyone is freaking out, shouting, running around. The supervisor orders an emergency shutdown of the reactor, because in order to conduct the test, the automatic safety shutdown feature had been disabled earlier that day. Someone runs across the room, sliding into home plate like a baseball player and smashes a big red button. I don’t know if that actually happened, I made that part up. But they do attempt to shut it down.
To stop the reaction, they try to drop the control rods back down into the reactor. Remember these are made of boron which absorbs the neutrons, slowing down the chain reaction that creates the heat. But all the pressure from the reactor basically spiraling out of control has caused the cover plate to partially detach, rupturing the fuel channels and jamming all of the control rods half way down. Remember those graphite tips? They’re basically stuck in the reactor now, accelerating the reaction and causing a massive power surge that instantly boils the cooling water. Steam builds up with nowhere to go and the reactor explodes.
A few seconds later there is another explosion. The fuel channels, literal tons of hot graphite, and a bunch of radioactive material are spewed out of the reactor during the explosions and now there are fires everywhere. 2 workers are killed in the explosions and it’s just complete chaos and pandemonium.
So it kind of seems like the operators screwed this up big time, right? But years later in 1991, a report by the State Committee on the Supervision of Safety in Industry and Nuclear Power determined that it was not in fact the operators’ fault that reactor 4 exploded. It said quote “while it was certainly true the operators placed their reactor in a dangerously unstable condition (in fact a condition which virtually guaranteed an accident) it was also true that in doing so they had not in fact violated a number of vital operating policies and principles, since no such policies and principles had been articulated.” So basically, they didn’t break any rules because there weren’t any rules. They were like “we don’t know what the eff we’re doing. Who gave us this job? We’re super unqualified to be handling explosive radioactive material under tight deadlines. Oh, wait that was the same government that imposed the deadlines.” But, spoiler alert, 3 managers of the plant will be sentenced to 10 years in prison for the part they played in the disaster even though the faulty design, shoddy equipment, and unqualified employees were not their fault at all.
But, let’s go back. Reactor 4 has just exploded and is spewing radioactive material into the atmosphere. The whole place is on fire. Firefighters rush to the scene to try to put the fires out which they do after about 6 hours. Officials think it’s all under control, or so they claim anyway. They’re measuring relatively low levels of radiation (readings which later turn out to be grossly inaccurate, by the way). But the reactor keeps exploding and they’re forced to take action.
Remember the town they built just north of Chernobyl to house the workers? It was called Pripyat. Well about 36 hours after the initial explosion, they finally decide they have to evacuate the people living there. It’s all still just way too out of control. In Pripyat, loudspeakers hastily erected overnight buzz to life. A calm woman’s voice blares through the streets announcing that Pripyat is being evacuated, just for 2 or 3 days, while they get the accident under control. People are instructed to take only absolute necessities with them and are packed into buses which do not allow pets - cats and dogs are left behind, there’s no other option, but just for 2 or 3 days, so they’ll survive right? Sorry, but no. You see, those residents never returned to Pripyat. No one did, because of what happened next.
Back at Chernobyl, helicopters have been dropping 5000 tons of boron, sand, clay, and lead on the damaged reactor to try to get it under control. They’re like, “cool that ought to do it.” Nope. They soon come to the horrifying realization that all the boron and stuff they've been dropping to try to put it out have actually just insulated the reactor, the core of which is still melting down. So they haven’t put it out, they’ve just trapped it which is worse. The reactor sits on top of a huge pool of water which is where the cooling water is pumped from. But as the core continues to melt down, it’s nearing these water reserves. If it reaches them, it will instantly turn the water into steam, trapped steam, that will trigger the largest explosion yet. This explosion would have been way worse than the previous explosions. It likely would have caused the other 3 reactors to explode, wiping out half of Europe. Millions of people would have died from radiation exposure and all of Europe would have been uninhabitable for at least 500,000 years. So we're talking about a major worldwide global disaster here and yet, when Scandinavian power plants come knocking the Soviet Union is still all “it’s fine, we’re fine, everythings fine.”
But it’s not. It’s not fine at all. They have to do something. So they gather everyone together and they’re like “okay here’s the deal, we have to drain the water under this melting reactor core before we blow up half the world. We need some folks to go down there and find and open a valve to drain the water. It’s likely a suicide mission but, if you’re successful, you will have saved the world. And if you die, we promise we’ll take care of your families.” So it’s, honestly it reminds me of the movie Armageddon when Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck have to go blow up an asteroid before it can destroy the Earth. That’s basically what kind of mission we’re talking about. But 3 guys volunteer, bless them, 2 plant engineers and a shift supervisor. Alexei Ananenko, one of the engineers, later said “how could I [refuse] when I was the only one on the shift who knew where the valves were located.” What a true hero.
They put on wetsuits, wade through knee deep radioactive water, their radiation monitors jump to the highest possible reading, they just ignore them and keep going. They find the valve, release it, hear the water start to drain and then book it out of there. The mission is a success and, despite the radiation exposure, all three men go on to lead long healthy lives.
But Chernobyl’s not out of the water, pun intended, yet. Even though they’ve drained the pool of cooling water, if the reactor burns its way down to the groundwater it will contaminate it and radioactive water will make its way into rivers and streams and eventually to the ocean and all over the world. They make plans to build a thick concrete platform under the reactor to contain it and keep it from reaching the groundwater, which like, why was that not already a thing? I don’t know. Now they have to build it underneath an unstable, melting down nuclear reactor. They can’t use heavy machinery because the site is so unstable so they have to do all the work by hand. Miners are called in. They’re working in tunnels, digging by hand (I mean, like with shovels and stuff but no machinery), with temperatures of up to 120 degrees. They’re completely naked, soaked in sweat, likely exposed to radiation, but they do it. They manage to build the concrete platform. They also start injecting 25 tons of liquid nitrogen underneath the reactor every day to freeze the ground.
Then the clean up begins. 600,000 men are drafted from the Soviet army to help decontaminate the site. Forests are torn down to eliminate contaminated plants and animals from the food chain. The top layer of soil is scraped off and buried underground but the bulldozers are making a mess of things, mixing contaminated soil with new soil. Wild and domesticated animals are killed. So I guess that’s what happened to all the pets left behind in Pripyat, sadly. To keep exposure at bay, each person is only allowed to collect 1 piece of radioactive debris, mostly hunks of graphite strewn all over the plant. They wear lead aprons for protection but it’s not enough. Many will die later of cancer related to radiation exposure.
A month in, radiation levels are ridiculously high. They cover the ground in concrete and build a wall, a “sarcophagus” around reactor 4 to try to contain it. At this point, they’ve come clean to the rest of the world about the accident at Chernobyl but they’ve steadfastly maintained the whole time that everything was under control. On May 14th, 3 weeks after the accident, Mikhail Gorbachev, the current leader of the Soviet Union, speaks publicly about Chernobyl for the first time. The rest of the world is, understandably, infuriated. West Germany demands that the Soviet Union close all of their nuclear power plants. Italy refuses to trade with Ukraine and blocks Ukrainian ships from entering Italian ports. US President Ronald Raegon offers his condolences to the people of Ukraine, recognizing that they are the victims and not the aggressors. Meanwhile, he attacks Soviet leaders for their complete lack of communication with the rest of the world, maintaining that a disaster of this magnitude should never have been considered an internal matter. In return Gorbachev attacks Reagan, falsely claiming that the radioactive material released by Chernobyl was miniscule compared to the atomic bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima Japan in 1945. In reality, the meltdown of reactor 4 released 400 times more radioactive material than the Hiroshima atomic bomb. So, I don’t know, I feel like that speaks pretty lowly to Gorbachev’s character. I mean he didn’t know that at the time but then just don’t say anything at all, you know? Any rebuttal at that point when you were undeniably in the wrong just seems petty.
Eventually, the soviet people start rallying against Gorbachev, the way he handled the disaster, and really just nuclear energy in general. This was actually a major contributing factor to the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. Decades later in 2006, Gorbachev wrote that Chernobyl was “perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
Despite it all, the 3 intact reactors at Chernobyl continue to be used. The last one, reactor 3, wasn't decommissioned until the year 2000 which I find insane. Workers lived outside the exclusion zone and worked short shifts, knowing they were being exposed to radiation but they were paid well and, to them, it was worth the risk.
By 2010 the concrete sarcophagus around reactor 4 has fallen into disrepair and construction starts on a new, permanent structure that takes 8 years to build at a cost of 3 billion dollars. This new sarcophagus is supposed to last for 100 years.
But the damage caused by Chernobyl is ongoing. Pripyat sits abandoned since the evacuation in 1986, a radioactive ghost town. Experts estimate it will remain uninhabitable for the next 20,000 years. Officially, only 31 deaths are attributed to the Chernobyl disaster, most of those were firefighters and workers at the plant who were present at the time of the initial explosion. But estimates put the actual death toll at anywhere from 4,000 to 500,000 people. Thyroid cancer in children spiked in the years following the accident as well as a 20 to 30% increase in infant mortality. Many who took part in the cleanup of Chernobyl have died since 1986 with radiation related cancer rates nearly 3 times higher than the rest of the population.
Although Chernobyl has been out of commission as a power plant since 2000, it still requires constant maintenance to continuously cool spent nuclear fuel. Which is a problem because of the recent conflicts between Russia and Ukraine. Just last year the Russian army took over the Chernobyl power plant, cutting off the power which prevented the cooling of the fuel. Luckily the International Atomic Energy Agency assured the world that the outage would not affect safety and that, even without electricity, the nuclear fuel would not heat up enough to cause an accident. So that’s good, I guess. I mean, geez Russia can we not, though? They’ve also dug trenches in the red forest which is one of the most contaminated areas in the exclusion zone, contaminating themselves with radiation in their desperation to take back control of Ukraine. Why?
According to war.ukraine.ua, the official Ukrainian government website meant to provide verified information about the war with Russia and gather support from allies quote “Russian President Vladimir Putin has spared no effort to promote the false historical narrative that Ukrainians and Russians constitute ‘one nation’. Putin fervently wishes to reassemble the countries of the former Soviet Union and reverse what he calls the ‘greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.’ His ultimate goal is to ‘right the wrongs’, as he sees them, of the fall of the USSR in the Cold War, thirty years ago.” They go on to say “Ultimately, the answer to the question is simple: a country that shuts down any expression of freedom can never understand, nor live with or next to, a country that represents the very essence of freedom.”
So, who is this Putin guy really? I mean I knew he was a KGB officer back in the days of the Soviet Union so he obviously has some loyalty there. I decided to do some more digging and ended up on Putin’s Encyclopedia Britannica page. Now, normally, Encyclopedia Britannica is like the driest of all my sources. It’s just facts over there. They aren’t sensationalizing anything, just telling it like it is and it’s usually really boring. But you guys, Vladimir Putin’s Encyclopedia Britannica page reads like a freaking mafia movie. Like holy cow, this guy. From suspected Russian meddling leading to the 2016 election of US President Donald Trump to doing away with term limits in Russia, to various assassinations and suspicious deaths, to the invasion of Ukraine, the bombing of a theater that was being used as a bomb shelter with the word “CHILDREN” painted on the sidewalk outside. Putin is a bad guy. If Encyclopedia Britannica paints you as a bad guy… you’re real bad. Okay?
So I don’t know man, I don’t know. I tried real hard to separate my own judgment of Russia and the Soviet Union from the sensationalized, down with communism view I’ve been fed my whole life living in the United States but, even objectively, they need to get it together over there. The secrecy and the saving face, the lies, the conspiracies, the domination and oppression of people who just want to be free, the reckless endangerment of the rest of the whole world. Enough is enough. How long are you going to behave this way, Russia? Get it together.
I want to end this episode with a call to action on behalf of Ukraine. You can donate to help the Ukrainian people defend themselves against the aggressive invasion by Russia through many legit channels including the Red Cross, UNICEF, and Amnesty International. I’ll drop links to these organizations in the show notes. Sometimes prayers just aren’t enough. Any amount helps and is your global voice, speaking up, stepping up to say “Enough, Russia.” Let freedom ring y’all. Let it be heard, always.
Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found this story interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix.
Information used in this episode was sourced from History.com, a Forbes magazine article, war.ukraine.ua, Encyclopedia Britannica Online, Scientific American, Duke Energy, MIT, world-nuclear.org, thesun.co.uk, BBC, a Short History of podcast episode about Chernobyl, and a Deathbed Confessions podcast episode about Valery Legasov. Links to these sources can be found in the show notes.