“Chornobyl” Series: What really happened and what didn’t happen during the Chornobyl Accident. Eyewitnesses tell!

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Oleksiy Breus was on the morning shift of the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant on April 26, 1986, arriving at the station immediately after the night’s accident and immediately began to deal with the aftermath of the disaster.

Oleksiy Breus is one of the witnesses of the first hours of the Chornobyl accident.
In 1986, he was a senior control engineer at the plant’s power unit 4. His workplace is the same control panel portrayed in the first episode of the HBO “Chernobyl” series.

On April 26, Oleksiy was in the morning shift, working on localization of the accident and trying to supply water to the already destroyed reactor.
It was he, then a 27-year-old operator, who pressed the last button on the control panel of the power unit 4. Oleksiy Breus saw and personally interacted with the station’s staff, who later became prototypes for the Chornobyl characters.

What is true and what is fiction in the “Chornobyl” series – the impression of an eyewitness.
Eyewitnesses told of the circumstances of those days and how accurately they were portrayed in the “Chornobyl” series, through which the world is once again discovering the largest man-made disaster in history.

Accident, radiation and euphoria

Irradiation, red skin, radiation burns, steam burns were all talked about, but they haven’t shown it as clearly as in this movie …
That day I saw Akimov and Toptunov. They were, to put it mildly, not in the best condition.

It was obvious that they felt very bad, they were very pale – Toptunov was, literally, white. And then, at the hospital, as it was told, his skin turned black.

I saw other colleagues who worked at night – they were very red. There is an episode in the movie where a person goes out after visiting the reactor – and red spots appear through the clothes. It is difficult for me to say whether radiation burn is happening so fast. I had a slight burn under my right eye, but I didn’t notice it the first day.

When I left after the shift from the fourth block, my skin under the clothes was brown – such a strong “suntan”. And all that was not covered with clothing – hands, face, neck – were red. But my colleagues who worked at night were much worse – those whom I saw were red and then just died.

Such were Leonid Toptunov and Olexander Akimov in real life. Both died of radiation sickness at the 6th Moscow Clinical Hospital – Akimov on May 11, 1986, Toptunov on May 14, 1986 (photo from the ChNPP archive).

When my colleagues and I went to the room near the reactor to open the water supply, for me it was the place with the strongest influence of radiation. I stayed there for the longest time and when I came back there was a feeling of exaltation, determination, readiness for feats at all costs. This is called “radiation euphoria” – it happens after exposure to high levels of radiation. It passed quickly and I started to get nauseous – a classic reaction to radiation.

As shown in the film, many people felt really badly sick.

They often talk about the metallic taste in their mouths (In the series, the firemen mention it. – Ed.), But I didn’t have one. Someone had, but not all …

In general, the series is nearly the first attempt to show what exactly the station’s employees were doing inside the destroyed unit after the explosion.

Firefighters.

Vasyl Ignatenko,  a fireman from Pripyat, was the first who came to the accident. In the series, he is one of the main characters in the first episode.

Firefighters, like station operators, were putting out fires in many places that night. Everyone heard that there was a fire on the roof and they feared the fire would spill over to the next block and move on.

But rooftop fire is a myth. There was no fire, as the firefighters and the operators, who were there, said. There were local spots but they were quickly shot down.
There was no fire on the roof of the ChNPP, says Alexei Breus.
There were firemen on the roof, who fed the water into the hot and destroyed reactor with their “sleeves”.

However, if in the normal mode 48 thousand tons of water are pumped into the reactor per hour, but during the accident that water was probably evaporated without reaching it.

But they had such a task, they were putting out the fire. And because of that they then died.

Pictured in the series, Vasyl Ignatenko died on May 13, 1986 from radiation sickness at the same 6th Moscow Clinical Hospital. In total, in the first days after the accident, 27 people died – two directly during the crash (one body was never found in the wreckage), the rest – from radiation sickness in several weeks.

These are five firefighters from the Pripyat fire department, including Vasyl Ignatenko. And the sixth perished firefighter is Volodymyr Pravik, chief of the Chornobyl fire department guard.

Without reducing their heroism, the question remains: was it necessary to put out the fire in this way?

Divers

(In the series, the leaders of the commission on the consequences of the disaster Legasov and Shcherbin are looking for people who would go down under the reactor and release the accumulated water there. The scene is presented as a search for volunteers who “will die in a week” from the radiation received. In real life, Oleksiy Ananenko, Valery Bespalov and Borys Baranov, who accomplished this task and became known as “Chornobyl divers” survived the liquidation. Two are still alive and Baranov died in 2005. Oleksiy Ananenko is a friend of Oleksiy Breus.– Ed.)

In the TV series, “Chernobyl divers” are dressed in diving suits. In fact, they were only in wetsuits.

There was no meeting described in the movie where volunteers were sought.

This work was planned in advance.

The decision to remove the water from the reactor was made somewhere above, the task was dropped to a government commission, and further to the management of the nuclear power plant, and at last to the shift of Ananenko, Bespalov and Baranov …

They were not volunteers – they were just told that they should do it, they replied – so they should … Which does not diminish their heroism.

Of course, there were no aqualungs or bathyscapes. There were transparent plastic wetsuits, heads open.

They were kneeling in the water … At some place it was necessary to walk on the pipe so as not to come into contact with water. In fact, the light went off there – the Soviet flashlight failed. They felt the right valve, and then the flashlight seemed to work.

Divers had regular Petal Respirators that did not interfere with the conversation (in the photo – other liquidators, not divers)

The radiation levels, of course, were high – much higher than normal. But not catastrophic, they did not get radiation sickness there. Where necessary, they were running to reduce the effects of radiation.

Strainge as it is but none of them – neither Ananenko nor Bespalov – can accurately remember when the history with divers took place. Approximately on May 6.

I remember, after that, in the pionerer camp “Kazkovyy (Fairy)” in the Chornobyl zone, where the personnel from Pripyat were taken out, the order of the director to award Baranov, Bespalov, Ananenko for performing a particularly important task was announced – they were allocated 80 rubles (In the film Legasov sought volunteers for this mission for 400 rubles. – Ed.).

Miners

(Another line in the series is the miners who dug a tunnel under the reactor, which was to stop the molten core from moving down. – Ed.)
The miners in the series are portrayed as rigorous and determined. There were several hundred of them at liquidation, and more than 200 – from Donbass.

Miners are one of those stories that were completely inappropriate and unnecessary.
There were fears that the “lava” in the reactor will pass not only the pool-bubbler (from which the divers drain the water. – Ed.) but reaches the ground waters.
To stop this, they tried to break through a tunnel to pump liquid nitrogen and stop the lava. But as a result, nitrogen was not pumped. Although the miners did everything and got exposed. It did not happen in a tunnel, which was actually a shelter from radiation, but when they came out to drink water and smoke.
They took off their respirators, undressed – but not like in the movie, not naked …

Observing the accident

(In the series, several dozens of Pripyat residents come to the bridge on the night of the accident to watch the fire at the Chrnobyl NPP, unaware of the risk of radiation. – Ed.)

Now, the bridge from which residents allegedly observed the Chщrnobyl fire was given the unofficial name of the “bridge of death”. However, as Oleksiy Breus says, this episode is most likely one of the legends.

First of all, there was no big flame at night. The glow was during the explosion and then there was no fire. The very next day, some physical processes took place inside the destroyed reactor, which gave a glow, but it was not a fire.

However, I know, that people did go closer to the station to see what was going on.

I was staying in the hospital with a fellow student, who was biking to the bridge in the morning of April 26th. He received a dose of radiation from which, according to the professor, who treated him, developed a classic first degree radiation sickness.
Thus, it was enough that he just went to the bridge to watch.
Another acquaintance, with whom I was being treated, told that on the night of the explosion he was walking near this bridge with his girlfriend. He then also had some problems.

But I did not hear about people watching in the night at large. I think it’s artistic convention.

“Antihero” Dyatlov and ChNPP leadership

The film conveyed very well the emotional mood that prevailed then among the staff and the authorities.

Deputy Chief Engineer Anatoliy Dyatlov was responsible for conducting the experiment on Chornobyl NPP, which ended in an accident. In the movie, he is one of the antiheroes. In real life, he received 10 years in prison, was released pre-term and died in 1995 of a heart attack. For the rest of his life Anatoly Dyatlov denied his guilt in the crash.

In fact, no one knew how to act –  we, the operators, the station management, the officials, Gorbachev – no one knew, because this had never happened before.
But this is normal for this situation – it takes time to decide what happened and what to do next.

As for the characters of key Chornobyl disaster personnel, such as director Bryukhanov, chief engineer Fomin, deputy chief engineer Dyatlov – here in the series it is not artistic convention, but simply lies. Their characters turned out to be completely perverted – just some villains. In fact, they were not like that.

Chornobyl NPP Director Victor Bryukhanov, Deputy Chief Engineer Anatoliy Dyatlov and Chief Engineer Mykola Fomin during the Court

I think Dyatlov, who ran the tests that night on April 26 on the fourth block, became the main anti-hero in the series because it was perceived by so many people among the station’s subordinate workers in the first time after the accident. But it was in temper. Then the thought changed.

He really was a tough man, he caused fear – when he appeared on the block, it was an event that strained everyone. However, Dyatlov was still a high-level expert … and the cause of the accident was not in his authoritarian style, but in the shortcomings of the reactor .. .

With the main character of the series – Valery Legasov – Oleksiy Breus did not have an occasion to communicate. I could not see Legasov. His workplace was a bunker under the first administrative building.

Nuclear engineers

Oleksiy Breus at the control unit 4 – photo from the Soviet Komsomol newspaperMoloda Gvardia (Young Guard)”, 1984

One of the things I didn’t like about the series was that the station staff were constantly scared of something, their knees were shaking. The miners, on the contrary, shown as tough guys, for whom sea is knees deep. And for some reason, the nuclear workers were shown with completely different characters.

Oleksiy Breus at the control panel of the third reactor 20 years after the accident

Although they were absolutely not like this – no one escaped, everyone remained.
I didn’t even have an idea to run from there because there was work that needed to be done.

The film showed that the operators were rescuing victims, exploring the state of the reactor and the level of radiation, as well as trying to supply water to the reactor.
But they did not show that they also were putting the fire down, provided water to the firefighters and tried to prevent new explosions and fires.
And it was hard and important work that took the lives of the operators.

The denigration of the Soviet Union and the KGB?

Of course, the film has many typical stamps for the West: vodka mug and KGB at every turn. The KGB was indeed there at every turn, but it was not visible and did not seem to be very disturbing (though, in fact, it also prevented secrecy, after all, being one of the causes of the accident).

Liquidators before entering the roof of 4 ChNPP unit

I myself signed the document for the KGB for not disclosing information about the Chornobyl accident on three pages. And the first point I was forbidden to tell, I quote, “about the real causes of the Chernobyl accident.” The real causes of the accident can still be debated, but then the ban was meant to say that pressing the reactor emergency shutdown button caused an explosion.

But in general, trying to show the Soviet Union’s flaws through stamps is one of the downsides of the film. At the same time, the essential shortcomings were indeed … And I do not consider the series as denigration of the Soviet Union.

Necessary serial

In general, the impressions are positive.

It is perhaps the first time that the Chornobyl disaster was shown so powerfully – as a global catastrophe that has involved huge masses of people.

They talked about it, but not so clearly.

The film brings humanity’s attention back to the Chornobyl phenomenon – to its scale and to the fact that it has not passed, but still exists. And it is very much needed in this regard.

From time to time I work with tourists traveling to the Chornobyl area. And it seems that the interest in Chornobyl is not local but really global. And taking into consideration the ratings, the movie increases it further.

I can imagine how many people will go to Chornobyl after the last series.
Tour operators ask their tourists about the motives of the trip, and some have already answered that they decided to go, just after watching the trailer of the series – because later they expect a sell-out on these trips.

Oleksiy Breus has worked at ChNPP since 1982. His workplace – control panel  of the power unit 4 of the station. On April 26, he learned of the accident when he arrived at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant as a normal shift. He worked virtually all day in the destroyed unit to eliminate the aftermath of the accident. Oleksiy made the latest attempt to launch the last surviving pump from a control panrl for a non-existing already reactor. He returned to the station duting the first days of May 1986 – just when divers were coming down the reactor.

During all these events, he received significant radiation (120 rem at the Soviet rate of 5 rem per year), after which doctors forbade him to work on radiation facilities.

Later Oleksiy Breus worked as a journalist. He is also a painter – he is in the group of independent artists “Strontium-90”, whose paintings are devoted to the topic of the Chornobyl accident.

He lives in Kiev now with his family. He is 60 years old now.

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