It’s the early hours of April 26th, 1986 in Soviet Ukraine, at a fire station attached to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
Leonid Shavrey, a 36-year-old firefighter, tosses and turns in his bunk.
He isn’t on duty for another two hours so he should be sleeping. But the beds in the station are hard and narrow, and Leonid struggles to sleep.
Finally, he manages to get comfortable. But just as he is about to drift off… a distant explosion shakes the room.
Leonid’s eyes snap open.
He rolls off the bed and bounds down the stairs, out of the building, and onto the road.
In the distance, Leonid can see flames shooting high into the air over the reactor building.
Leonid doesn't hesitate to respond. He hurries back inside and joins his fellow firefighters as they rush toward their vehicles. Leonid hauls himself on board the lead engine. He takes a seat next to the commanding officer, who's already shouting orders into a walkie-talkie, barking: “Call everybody in, Call everybody in!”.
With their blue lights flashing, the fire engines roar out of the station and speed around the power plant toward the burning reactor. Inside the lead vehicle, Leonid and the other firefighters hurry to get suited up – although they’re part of a nuclear plant fire brigade, they only have regular gear, and it's not enough to keep them safe from the danger that's waiting for them.
The engine jolts to a stop outside the towering reactor building.
As Leonid leaps out, he's amazed by what he sees. It seems like the entire reactor is on fire. The explosion has ripped a hole in the side of the power plant and scattered burning hunks of debris everywhere.
There is a thick plume of smoke rising out from the heart of the shattered building. And in the darkness of the night, it almost seems to glow.
The accident at Chernobyl will be the worst nuclear disaster in history. Many of the firefighters who were the first on the scene will later die, burned and poisoned by the radiation pulsing out of the reactor.
But the consequences of the disaster will be felt far beyond Chernobyl. Hundreds of thousands of people will be forced to flee their homes. A radioactive cloud of dust will spread across Europe. And even the stability of the Soviet Union will be jeopardized by the nuclear catastrophe unleashed on April 26th, 1986.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is April 26th: The Chernobyl Disaster.
Act One: The Accident
It’s the early evening on April 25th, 1986.
In the control room of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Soviet Ukraine, standing by the console in front of a vast wall of dials, gauges, and blinking lights, an engineer named Anatoly Dyatlov waits impatiently for an important safety test to begin.
The 55-year-old Siberian is deputy chief of the whole plant, and he is not an easy man to work for. Arrogant and aloof, Dyatlov intimidates other staffers with his ferocious intelligence and temper to match. But Dyatlov isn't here to make friends, he is here to do his job.
He has worked at Chernobyl since 1973. When he started, the power plant was still under construction; it wasn’t until 1977 that the first nuclear reactor came online. And since then, the plant has grown significantly. Four reactors are now operational, another two are nearing completion and six more are in the planning stages. But today, Dyatlov's top priority isn't new construction, it's addressing a major safety issue.
Nuclear reactors like the ones at Chernobyl require constant cooling to stop them from overheating. To achieve this, there is an electric-powered cooling system that pumps millions of gallons of water through the system every hour. If the water stops flowing, the reactor will overheat which is why there is a fail-safe. If the power goes out, emergency diesel generators are supposed to kick in and keep the water flowing.
But recently, Soviet engineers identified a flaw. The generators take around one minute to reach full power. And given this delay, there's a danger the reactor could overheat and meltdown before the generators get up to speed. Luckily, the Soviet engineers came up with a solution. They adjusted the electrical systems in the plant to bridge the gap. But now they need to shut down one of the reactors and conduct a test to see if their solution works.
But they can't shut down Reactor Number 4 until the Soviet higher-ups give them the green light. Earlier today, the authorities at the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, ordered Dyatlov and the rest of the engineers at Chernobyl to delay the test. They said the grid was running low on power. They couldn't afford to lose another reactor.
So there's nothing for Dyatlov to do but standby. He waits for hours and hours. Eventually, when their shift ends, the day team goes home. They leave behind notes and written instructions for their counterparts on the night team. But Dyatlov remains. As Deputy Chief Engineer, it's his responsibility to stay until the safety test is complete.
Finally, at 11 PM, word comes that the test is a go.
Dyatlov orders the night team to make their final preparations. But many are concerned. The test was supposed to have been conducted by the day team hours ago. The instructions they’ve left behind are a jumbled mess of hastily written notes and confusing annotations. Many on the night team feel overwhelmed and underprepared.
But Dyatlov is tired of waiting. Already frustrated by the delay, he barks out orders to proceed with the test. The cowed younger engineers swallow their doubts and do as they’re told.
Dyatlov, and the authorities in Kyiv, would have been wise to exercise caution. The issue with Chernobyl’s failsafe system is not the only problem at hand. The Nuclear Reactors here are littered with design flaws and shoddy construction issues. The plant is further hindered by a lax safety culture, and a young, inexperienced staff. Even Dyatlov’s newest safety experiment is deeply flawed and poorly conceived. But still, in spite of all of this, Dyatlov presses on.
So at 1:23 AM, Dyatlov gives the order for the test to begin. A member of the night team begins shutting down Reactor 4 as planned.
The engineers stare at the dials and gauges in front of them. But they can’t understand what’s happening. Instead of the reactor’s output dropping, it’s spiking.
Inside the massive hall that houses reactor 4, the ground begins to tremble. Engineers run for their lives as the hall’s metal floor begins to dance up and down. Then, there’s an enormous explosion.
The thick, 450-ton reactor shield blasts upward as air rushes into the exposed nuclear core, triggering a second, far more violent explosion.
In the control room, Dyatlov and the other engineers cower. The walls and ceiling shake and crack. The lights go out. And instantly, they know something has terribly gone wrong.
In the hours to come, workers and firemen will heroically fight to protect Chernobyl's three remaining reactors. Their efforts will save the rest of the plant – and the world – from an even greater disaster. But they cannot undo the damage already done. The fire in reactor 4 will burn for weeks, triggering an ecological catastrophe, resulting in thousands of deaths.
Act Two: The Aftermath
It’s early afternoon on April 27th, 1986, 36 hours after the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
In an apartment block in the nearby town of Pripyat, a young mother hurriedly pulls a jacket onto her fidgeting four-year-old son. She can hear a loudspeaker outside droning on with the same announcement that’s been playing for hours:
"Attention… Comrades! The City Council of People’s Deputies informs you that due to the incident at Chernobyl Power Station, the radioactive conditions in the vicinity are deteriorating. The Communist Party, its officials, and the armed forces are taking necessary steps to combat this…”
When the little boy asks his mother what’s going on, she tries to remain calm. She tells him they’re going to get on a bus that will take them somewhere safe. It’s just for a few days, they’re being told, so there’s no reason to pack heavily.
As the little boy runs off to grab a pair of shoes from the cupboard, the young mother glances out the window. In the distance, above the surrounding forests, she can see a column of dark smoke reaching into the skies above the power plant.
Pripyat has a population of almost 50,000 people. It’s a new town, built at the same time as the Chernobyl plant to house its workers and their families. The young mother feels lucky to be raising her son here; it’s an idyllic place, surrounded by lush forests, but the town has the most modern facilities. She hopes that the voice on the loudspeaker is telling the truth; that this evacuation is temporary; and they can all return to their homes in a few days' time. Holding a suitcase, she ushers her son out of their apartment. Many of her neighbors are already making their way downstairs. So she hurries her son along to join them.
When they step out into the bright spring sunshine, they see policemen, soldiers, and a fleet of buses waiting for them. These uniformed men urge them along. Young mother and her son squeeze onboard a bus. There’s no room for them both to take a seat so she pulls the boy onto her lap, jamming their suitcase beneath her feet.
Then the bus lurches off. Soon, it joins a massive convoy of similar vehicles flowing out of Pripyat.
As they drive through the town, her son suddenly points. Through the trees, he’s spotted the gleaming Ferris Wheel that towers over a newly completed amusement park. It’s due to open soon, just in time for May Day, a popular spring festival.
Her son asks, “We’ll be able to go, won’t we?”
The young woman forces a smile. “Of course,” she says. “We’ll be back before you know it.”
But neither the mother, her son or any of the other people on the bus will be ever allowed to return.
A few weeks later at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, a car bumps over the rough ground on its way to the reactor building. Sheets of lead have been bolted to its side to ward off radiation; a narrow slit has been left in the windshield for the driver to see where he’s going.
Strapped to the dashboard in front of him is a radiation detector known as a Geiger counter. It ticks faster and faster as the driver nears the shattered reactor building. In the car with him are four young, sweaty soldiers wearing rubber protection suits and rudimentary masks, with shovels at the ready.
These men are ‘liquidators’ – part of a group of 600,000 conscripts sent in by the Soviet authorities to clean up Chernobyl.
At first, Moscow tried to suppress information about the accident. They’d invested heavily in nuclear power, a source of great pride for the country. But once the radiation from Chernobyl was detected in Western Europe, the Soviets couldn’t suppress the truth any longer. On April 28th, more than two days after the accident, the state media made a short announcement, confirming there’d been an accident but reassuring the Soviet public that the situation was entirely under control.
But in reality, the Soviet authorities were scrambling to deal with the disaster. The melted remnants of reactor 4 were still spewing out radiation and needed to be contained. But there were tons of radioactive debris to be cleared from the site first. Initially, the Soviets hoped to use remote-controlled bulldozers and robots to do the job, but they proved almost useless, the toxic conditions quickly frying their electronics. So instead, the Soviets relied on manpower.
The soldiers in the car were told they were going on a routine training exercise in Belarus. Instead, they were shipped to the Ukraine. Now, as they ride in the car on their way to the reactor building, they hope they’ll survive the horror that awaits them. Any exposure to the powerful radiation this close to the scene of the disaster is dangerous. And if they stay too long, even by minutes, they’ll die.
As the driver closes in on the building, the Geiger counter emits a long piercing cry of alarm. This is as close as the driver dares to get. He slams on the brakes. It’s barely stopped before the other men leap out.
They rush to the nearest patch of exposed earth, thrust in their shovels, turn the soil to cover the contamination, then sprint back to the waiting car. Driver hammers his foot down and the car accelerates away, the scream of the Geiger counter slowing to a steady tick.
After turning over a few shovels of dirt, these soldiers' work for the day is done. But they, and thousands of soldiers like them, will have to repeat this task every day for months until the plant is clear so construction can begin on a massive sarcophagus to entomb the ruined reactor.
The cost will be enormous; even beyond the money spent and the lives lost. The leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, will later claim the disaster "was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union”. Chernobyl will not only practically bankrupt the Soviet state, it will also reveal the unsustainable deceptions and delusions that lay at the heart of its regime.
Act Three: The Legacy of Chernobyl
It’s April 1992, six years after the Chernobyl Disaster; and only a few months after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In a dingy bar in Kyiv, the capital of the newly independent Ukraine, a wiry man with a shock of gray hair hunches over a corner table. Anatoly Dyatlov is now 61 years old, but the former deputy chief engineer of the Chernobyl Power Plant looks far far older. With a cigarette clutched between his lips, Dyatlov reads through a newly published independent report on the Chernobyl Disaster.
The Soviets held their own inquiry, immediately after the explosion, and pinned the blame on individuals at the plant. Dyatlov was one of six men convicted of negligence. Still, he’s always maintained that the Soviet leadership made him a scapegoat. And this latest report seems to confirm it.
It says that the problem at Chernobyl was systemic. Corners were cut during construction, and the design of the reactors was fundamentally flawed. So much so that the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was an accident waiting to happen. In the years leading up to the disaster, there were plenty of near incidents - a partial reactor meltdown in 1982 and two more close calls in 1984. But the Soviet state covered them up. In a culture of secrecy and complacency, too little was done to avoid real catastrophe.
But the report does not absolve Dyatlov of blame either. He pushed ahead with the poorly conceived safety test. As Dyatlov reads the criticisms of his leadership, he shakes his head, flicking cigarette ash across the table.
Dyatlov will never admit doing anything wrong that night at Chernobyl. He will die in 1995 from bone marrow cancer, likely caused by radiation from the power plant.
He was one of thousands. The exact number of victims of the Chernobyl Disaster is hard to pinpoint. Two workers were killed in the initial explosions and twenty-nine firefighters died of radiation poisoning soon afterward. But hundreds of thousands of others in the region were put at risk. The World Health Organization estimates that up to 9,000 have died as a result.
Today, the Chernobyl Power Plant is at the heart of an exclusion zone, a 19 miles-wide stretch of land where no civilization remains, nature has reclaimed the abandoned town of Pripyat and the countless villages and farms scattered throughout the area. Despite the abundant wildlife, radiation still lingers in the soil. In early 2022, Chernobyl was briefly seized by the Russians during Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine. But the attacking troops were apparently unaware of the risks of making camp and digging trenches in the exclusion zone.
Soon, there were reports of soldiers falling sick; proof that Chernobyl’s invisible dangers have not vanished; not even three decades after that disastrous spring night of April 26th, 1986.
Next on History Daily.April 27th, 1945. Benito Mussolini is captured by Italian resistance fighters, marking the end of his twenty-three-year Fascist regime.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.