Before the Fukushima 50, there were the Chernobyl liquidators. After the nuclear reactor explosion 25 years ago today that rained down radioactive material over Ukraine, Belarus, and western Russia, a corps of plant employees, firefighters, soldiers, miners, construction workers, and volunteers were called in to clean up the mess.
The government of the former Soviet Union called them “liquidators,” meaning those who eliminate the consequence of an accident. But from early on, it became clear that they could not eliminate, but only contain, the damage from what still stands as the largest nonmilitary release of radioactivity in history.
At the peak of the cleanup, an estimated 600,000 workers were involved in tasks such as building waste repositories, water filtration systems, and the “sarcophagus” that entombs the rubble of Chernobyl reactor number four. They also built settlements and towns for plant workers and evacuees.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says some 350,000 of the liquidators in the initial plant cleanup received average total body radiation doses of 100 millisieverts. That’s a dose equal to about 1,000 chest x-rays and about five times the maximum dose permitted for workers in nuclear facilities.
The Soviets did not have adequate protective uniforms, so those enlisted to enter highly radioactive areas cobbled together their own shields. Some workers, like the ones shown here, attached aprons made of lead sheets just 2 to 4 millimeters thick over their cotton work clothing. Authorities agree that 28 workers lost their lives to acute radiation sickness, while another 106 of the liquidators were treated and survived. But the health toll for the survivors continues to be a matter of debate. One advocacy group, the Chernobyl Union, says 90,000 of the 200,000 surviving liquidators have major long-term health problems.
Some of the highest doses of radiation were sustained by the workers enlisted to clear debris from Chernobyl’s rooftops. After the explosion, the facility was covered in pieces of highly contaminated graphite, the substance that had been used instead of water to cool the reactor and slow the fission reaction in the Chernobyl plant design.
Initially, authorities tried to use robots to do the job of removing the dangerous debris, but after a few days the high levels of radiation damaged the electronic circuitry of the machines.
The job had to be done by human hands, and so a subset of the workers who became known as “biorobots,” were deployed to the rooftops. They would run up to the rooftop for minutes or less, removing just a few shovels of waste before a new crew of liquidators would take their turn. Workers recall feeling pain in their eyes and a lead taste in their mouth due to the high radiation levels.
This photo [above] from the rooftop of reactor number three, like most of those in this collection, was taken by Igor Kostin, who worked at Novosti Press Agency at the time and became the best-known of the Chernobyl disaster photographers. He has said that the white streaks at the bottom of the photo were due to the high levels of radiation below. Indeed, some of his early photography after the accident was damaged beyond recovery.