The disaster at midnight
In the wee midnight hours on April 26, 1986, a massive nuclear explosion occurred in one of the four core reactors of the Chernobyl nuclear plant at the outskirts of Pripyat city of Soviet Ukraine. Later estimates revealed the radioactive fallout was more than 400 times of that of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb that wiped out an entire city. Within the next week, hordes of first responders including the firemen and the factory workers died an excruciating, severe death with melting skin and decomposing body parts – symptoms of Acute Radiation Sickness (ARS). As more and more servicemen continued to be hospitalised with radiation poisoning, the surrounding city was being evacuated to protect the residents from a similar fate.
The impending catastrophe that could have wiped out Europe
Amidst all the trauma, pain and losses, while the city was still recuperating from the worst nuclear accident in history, a new, bigger threat raised its head. Lead scientists working with the Chernobyl Commission discovered that a mammoth thermal explosion (possibly of three to five megatons) is impending which might wipe out entire eastern Europe and render it uninhabitable for the next 5,00,000 years.
The explosion would have resulted due to failure of the plant’s cooling system. Water pipes in the reactor’s coolant had ruptured, in addition to continuous spraying of water from fire trucks, which created an enormous pool of radioactive water under the base of the reactor. At the same time, the damaged reactor core with a huge concentration of radioactive minerals was melting rapidly at 1200℃, gradually burning through the reactor floor. The thermal explosion would have happened the moment the molten radioactive lava touched the water pool, the level of which was alarmingly high. The explosion would have affected the other three standing and functional nuclear reactors of the plant, releasing an unprecedented amount of radioactive fallout all over the continent, describes Business Insider.
The solution required a huge sacrifice
Only one solution could have prevented the chemical calamity. A release valve located amid the pool had to be turned open in time, to pump out the toxic feedwater before the radioactive lava could reach it.
The operation needed a heroic sacrifice. An individual with a clear idea about the location of the release valve had to go down into the underground ‘chamber of death’ and do the needful, knowing very well that he might have to pay the price with his life.
While men debated with authorities the feasibility of this ‘suicide mission’, one man by the name of Alexei Ananenko stepped forward. He was one of the engineers at the Chernobyl plant and knew the exact position of the release valve. He was soon joined by engineer Valeri Bezpalov and shift supervisor Boris Baranov, who volunteered to accompany him and ease his task.
Later when Ananenko was asked why he did not refuse the assignment, he had said, “How could I do that when I was the only person on the shift who knew where the valves were located?” – stated a report by Upworthy.
The fateful operation and the success
On the fateful day of the operation, the trio descended down the dark stairs into a vortex of shockingly high radiation. They waded knee-deep through radioactive feedwater and succeeded in opening the valve at the nick of time. Soon afterwards, they emerged running out from the basement and rejoicing with the rest of the crew. Over 20,000 tonnes of toxic water was pumped out by the next day, thereby saving Europe.
Controversy prevails regarding the death of the three men. While a documentary claimed that all three of them succumbed to death due to radiation sickness soon after, later reports in 2016 in a book named ‘Chernobyl 01:23:40’ by Andrew Leatherbarrow refuted those claims as an exaggeration. He stated that one of them died due to cardiac arrest at 65, while another lived till 2015. Assumingly, Ananenko continued with the nuclear industry for a long time, and no reports of his demise have surfaced yet.