“Somebody had to do it…” – Alexander Fedotov (liquidator)
The clean-up operation following the Chernobyl accident was arguably the greatest in the history of mankind.
The term “liquidator” is now used to describe workers who entered areas designated as “contaminated” between 1986 and 1989 to help reduce the consequences of the explosion. These people included power plants operators and emergency workers such as firefighters and military personnel, as well as many non-professionals. Their tasks included cleaning up the debris from around the reactor, construction of the sarcophagus, decontamination, road building, and destruction and burial of contaminated buildings, forests and equipment. Information on the danger involved was often unknown or suppressed.
The word “liquidator” is derived from the Russian verb “likvidator” (ликвида́торы, which means “to eliminate” or “to eliminate the consequences of an accident”. Soon after the explosion it became clear that the consequences of the accident could not be “eliminated” but only “reduced” however the title was already in common use by this point. Other names used to describe workers involved in the clean-up include, emergency workers, accident recovery workers, salvage personnel or decontamination participants.
Many of liquidators during the Soviet period were coerced to work for a set period of time by means of a direct order. Thousands of liquidators however, mostly military officers and skilled professionals, volunteered to participate or to extend their work beyond the initial compulsory term.
The number of liquidators
Figures for the number of liquidators involved vary greatly from several hundred thousand to nearly a million people. It is likely that at least 300,000 – 350,000 people were directly involved. A report by the Nuclear Energy Agency quotes a figure “up to 800,000”. The International Conference “One Decade After Chernobyl” refers to “about 200,000 ‘liquidators’ who worked in Chernobyl during the period 1986-1987 and estimating the total number of people registered as involved in activities relating to alleviating the consequences of the accident at between 600,000 to 800,000.
According to the main, parental All-Union Distribution Register (USSR, 1986-1989) the number of liquidators is 293,100. The report from the Russian National Medical Dosimetric Registry quotes 168,000 liquidators in Russia. With 123,536 liquidators from Ukraine and 63,500 liquidators from Belarus, providing a total of around 355,000.
Classification of liquidators
Liquidators can be divided into three groups:
- During the initial phase the “early liquidators” were on site during the explosion or arrived during the initial phase of the accident (0-1 days, before the evacuation of Pripyat), including fire fighters.
- The early phase ranges from the end of the evacuation of Pripyat to the end of the construction of the sarcophagus (November 1986). Within this group are further subgroups including those who participated in clean-up works during 1986. Some of these workers, approximately 7% of all liquidators, received high doses (0.20-0.25 Gy).
- The late phase liquidators worked between the end of the Sarcophagus construction until the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, when central management of clean-up work was split between Russia, Belarus and Ukraine
|Year||Number of liquidators|
Information sourced from the All-Union Distribution Register
|Age group||Number of liquidators||% of liquidators|
Distribution of liquidators by age at time of arrival in the Zone.
114,504 selected cases, average age is 34.3 years.
The role of a liquidator
“Here we were, experts in our fields and in radiation, and we didn’t know where to begin or even recognise the scale of the disaster.”
– Sergii Mirnyi a 27 year old chemist at the time of the disaster.
Tasks carried out by the liquidators were wide ranging and included building waste repositories, water filtration systems, and a “sarcophagus” to entomb reactor number four.
Radio controlled vehicles were initially used to clear debris, consisting of highly radioactive fuel from the reactor core, thrown on to the roof of reactor 3. However these machines soon failed as the radiation destroyed the electronics within them. The only plan left at the time was for men, sometimes referred to as bio robots and the only mechanisms capable of functioning in the extreme conditions, to remove the debris by hand.
Only 2-3% of liquidators had a dosimeter during all time of their work. All dosimetric equipment measured only gamma-irradiation. However, the beta-radiation dose was a very considerable component of total external dose for the early liquidators. There is little data available concerning the internal irradiation of the liquidators.
From Kostin’s book – Confessions of a reporter (I recommend it):
Everyone is instructed to throw a shovelful of radioactive dust and then run. Almost all the liquidators who worked on the roof of the third block were thirty-five to forty year old reservists recalled to serve in the armed forces for “maneuvers”. General Tarakanov ordered them to remove the lead sheets covering the walls of the government subcommittee bureaus in order to make them rudimentary protective clothing. These suits were not wearable more than once: they absorbed too much radioactivity.
The smart ones made themselves a lead “fig leaf” that they inserted between two layers of underwear. But they forgot neither the lead cap that they wore as headgear nor the lead padded sole that they slipped in to their boots.
“More reinforcements were summoned. They lived in tent camps – some of which were several thousand men strong – that were located all over the 30-kilometer zone that surrounded the area affected by the exploded reactor. Each day, the liquidators would line up in front of the plant by the thousands to wait for work assignments.
Sometimes, liquidators would wait several hours before being handed a task for the day, if they got one at all.
Slowly, ad-hoc plans began to take shape. Military obstacle removal vehicles and bulldozers began levelling the highly irradiated and charred forestland, that was once a verdant green, surrounding the plant. The pine trees – which received their determined lethal irradiation dose of 3,000 roentgens – died, and their craggy leafless skeletons formed an impressive, unnatural location known to the liquidators as the “Red Forest”.”- Sergii Mirnyi
“Mirnyi and his men were assigned to surveying the dead lands of the zone surrounding Chernobyl in armoured patrol vehicles, measuring radiation and planting yellow flags in irradiated spots. The flags also contained special pockets in which the surveillance crews where to put notations recording the time the irradiated area was discovered and how much radiation was gauged.
After several months, huge trucks with concrete started to arrive almost non-stop, and the famous sarcophagus that covers the threatening ruin of the fourth reactor was built.”
All the extracts above that mention, or are attributed to, Sergii Mirnyi are from: Reflections of a Chernobyl liquidator – the way it was and the way it will be (Bellona)
While liquidators were praised as heroes by the Soviet government and the press at the time some struggled to have their participation officially recognized for years.
The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that 350,000 of the liquidators involved in the initial plant cleanup received an average total body radiation dose of 100 millisieverts, 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 uniforms that could provide adequate protection, so those liquidators enlisted to enter highly radioactive areas were required cobble together what they could. Some workers attached aprons made of lead sheets just 2 to 4 millimeters thick over their cotton work clothing.
Following the dissolution of the USSR in the 1990s, the health of liquidators has proved difficult to monitor. This has been compounded by Russia’s reluctance to provide the true figures for the disaster, or even on make serious estimates. The 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.
A study by Belarusian physicians however states that the rate of cancers among liquidators from Belarus is about four times greater than the rest of the population.
In contemporary Russian the word “liquidator” is a noun that needs no explanatory footnote as it connotes a mix of survivor, victim and hero.
“Chernobyl is still not understood. It is off the social scale and off the cultural scale” – Sergii Mirnyi
The award winning 26 minute film The Sacrifice, by Emanuela Andreoli and Wladimir Tchertkoff, documents the physical and emotional toll on those closely involved in the aftermath of the disaster.
Approximate radiation levels at different locations shortly after the explosion and in the Zone of Exclusion today can be found here.
In 1987 Blinkov was a chemist-scout. He measured sites for radiation within the polluted territory.
Hundreds of protected trucks were involved in the liquidation. After only weeks of use they had to be buried due to the levels of radiation.
After the explosion the the remaining three reactors were shut down. However even during the reactors’ suspension
it was necessary to ensure their maintenance and monitoring.
The medal awarded to liquidators is shown on the right, it depicts traces of alpha (α) and beta (β) particles and gamma (γ) rays over a drop of blood.
A monument was built in the city of Chernobyl and dedicated “To those that saved the world”.