"There were 3,823 of them. This number I will retain in my memory for the rest of my life."
'Liquidator' is the generic name given to civil and military personnel in the former Soviet Union called upon to handle the consequences of the Chernobyl accident in 1986. They are credited with not only limiting damage from the disaster itself, but averting a greater catastrophe, which was expected if the melted, lava-like nuclear fuel that had escaped the reactor would have melted through the basement floor and came in contact with groundwater, triggering a massive steam explosion.
Most Soviet-time liquidators were coerced to work for a certain, medically reasonable time by means of direct order, motivation, and information on the operation’s life-threatening occupational hazards (including exposure to radiation and hazardous materials and severe stress) being withheld from them. However, thousands of liquidators volunteered of their own accord to participate or to extend their work beyond the initial compulsory term.
The worst of the radioactive debris was collected inside what was left of the crippled reactor, much of it shoveled in by liquidators wearing heavy protective gear, often assembled by the liquidators themselves as they were not properly equipped to take on this daunting task. They were dubbed “bio-robots” by the military because the robots they initially attempted to use were disabled by the extreme levels of radiation, and it was decided that the only way to go about this was to use humans.
Nikolai Tarakanov, the general in charge, gave them the following orders: “Now my dear comrades, you’re to go in teams of four, not six. You’ll be given one minute to complete the following mission. Look at your colleagues [pointing to a set of televisions displaying closed-circuit footage of other bio-robots cleaning up debris], they’re running quickly through this opening and then around the corner. You will be accompanied by a lieutenant along the wooden platform, and there’s the operational area. There you’ll find some blocks weighing 40 to 50 kilograms each. Is that clear? Each soldier must take 4 blocks [with their hands]. Carry the 4 blocks to the pit and throw them in, but you mustn’t go too near the edge of the pit. Only as far as this steel railing. They’re doing it correctly - do you see? Are you with me?”
Viktor Popov, a Russian theoretical physicist, was asked in an interview with BBC Horizon, “If anyone had said to you five years ago that you would have to work in areas of radiation - 200 Roentgens, would you have believed them?” He replied, “No, no. This is no place for people - 200 Roentgens, absolutely not. The problem is that we do not have the necessary technology to let people work safely in these conditions, I’m sorry to say. It would be better to ensure that such a catastrophe never happens, then we wouldn’t have to work in such high levels of radiation. But now there’s no alternative. And we know it’s not doing our health any good. Somehow the problem has to be solved - there’s no way around it. In time of war, things are also bad… Bullets are flying around. It’s better to sit at home, but someone has to go to war. This is a similar situation.”
Because of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, evaluating the liquidators’ health is difficult, since they come from various countries. All the figures quoted by various agencies are controversial, although an UNSCEAR report places the total confirmed deaths from radiation, as of 2008, at 64.