The Chernobyl Divers
In all of the chaos and confusion that followed the disaster there are many stories of great sacrifice and bravery, none more inspiring than that of the 3 Chernobyl divers, Valeri Bezpalov (a soldier and engineer at the plant), Alexie Ananenko (an engineer at the plant who knew where the safety valves were located) and Boris Baranov (an “ordinary” worker at the plant who offered to hold the lamp).
Ten days after the disaster a further risk immeasurably greater than the initial explosions was identified. Initially firefighters had unsucessfully used water to try to extinguish the flames from the reactor. This contaminated water had pooled beneath the reactor core which, having had a combination of sand, clay and boron dropped on it in an attempt to smother the flames, had turned into a lava like substance. This lava was slowly burning through the foor of the reactor, and had it reached the water below would have set off a massive thermal explosion that would have had devastating consquences across most of Europe.
Valeri Bezpalov, Alexie Ananenko and Boris Baranov volunteered to use SCUBA equipment to swim through the pooled water to find and release the safety valves for the sluice gates to drain this water away. The men knew that the levels of radiation under the main reactor in the water would be lethal. All that they asked was that their families be taken care of after their deaths.
The men were successful in their mission, even though Boris’s lamp failed shortly after entering the water, but not before finding the pipes that the divers then followed in the dark to the safety valves. They returned from the pool to see their colleagues and those in charge of securing the safety of the plant “jump for joy”. Alexei was even able to be interviewed by the Soviet media, but gave away no sign of the dreadful radiation poisoning that all three of them had received, or the fate that awaited them.
A fortnight later two of the men had died of radiation poisoning in hospital in Moscow, and were buried in sealed lead coffins. The third man, Boris Baranov, only survived a little longer before succumbing to the inevitable end that exposure to such high levels of radiation must bring.
Months later it was established that the molten lava did indeed burn through the reactor floor. The action that these three men had taken almost certainly saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people throughout Europe.