Chernobyl Disaster in 33 rare photographs taken at the time7 min read
On 26 April 1986, a series of explosions destroyed reactor no. 4 of Chernobyl, and several hundred workers, firemen and army men faced a fire that burned for 10 days and spread toxic radiation throughout Europe.
We talked about Chernobyl disaster in various articles, also documenting the current state of the area of alienation of the zone (to find out more visit our dedicated section), but less known among those who risked life there were also the many photographers who immortalized moments that will remain unique in the history.
Following the accident, several helicopters were used to pour sand and boron onto the reactor debris. The sand was intended to stop the fire and prevent further leakage of radioactive material, while boron served to prevent further nuclear reactions. Within a few weeks everything was covered with the famous concrete “sarcophagus”, which limited the emission of radiation and the dispersion of other radioactive material to the maximum.
After the incident, the Soviet government ordered the demolition of about 2 square kilometers of pine forest next to the plant to reduce the possibility of contamination. The area around the plant was made off-limits for 30 kilometers, now called the alienation zone.
Here are the photographs that documented the period immediately following the explosion.
The first photo to be taken of the reactor, at 4pm, 14 hours after the explosion. This was taken from the first helicopter to fly over the disaster zone to evaluate radiation levels. The view is foggy due to radiation, which also explains why the shot was not taken too close to the window. Later, radiation experts learnt that at 200 metres above the reactor, levels reached 1500 rems, despite the fact that their counters did not exceed 500 rems:
In photos below, a military helicopter sprays a decontamination liquid that should reduce the spread of radioactive particles around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant a few days after the disaster:
After the operations of cleaning the roof of reactor No. 3 the Soviet authorities ordered to place a red flag on top of the chimney that dominates the reactor. The spiral staircase was 78 meters high, and the flag bearers were sent despite the enormous dangers of radiation contamination, after a group of workers had failed two attempts with the helicopter. Radiation expert Alexander Yourtchenko was carrying the auction, followed by Valéri Starodoumov with the flag and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Sotnikov with the radio. The entire operation was scheduled to last only 9 minutes, given the high levels of radiation.
In the end, the trio was awarded a bottle of Pepsi (a luxury in 1986) and a day off.
In the 30km no-go zone around the reactor, liquidators measure radiation levels in neighbouring fields using antiquated radiation counters, wearing anti-chemical warfare suits that offer no protection against radioactivity, and “pig muzzle” masks. The young plants will not be harvested, instead used by scientists to study genetic mutations in plants:
After the evacuation of Chernobyl on 5 May, 1986, liquidators wash the radioactive dust off the streets using a product called “bourda”, meaning molasses. Chernobyl had about 15,000 inhabitants before the accident:
Dead fish are collected by an artificial lake within the Chernobyl site that was used to cool the turbines. The fish, which died from exposure to radiation, are abnormally large and flabby. They jumped out of the lake where they could be picked up by the bare hands of any passerby:
June 1986 – The remains of reactor no. 4, photographed from the roof of reactor no. 3:
A frame from Soviet television shows a man injured in the Chernobyl explosion while receiving medical treatment:
A worker from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant holds a dosimeter to measure radiation levels, with the sarcophagus built in half, visible in the background:
Liquidators (ликвидаторы – likvidatory) eliminate radioactive debris from the roof of reactor no. 4, throwing them to the ground where they will subsequently be covered by the sarcophagus. Those that were called “biological robots” had only a few seconds of work time to place a pile of debris, lift a load with the shovel and throw it among the ruins of reactor no. 4:
A Soviet technician prepares a tank truck with a solution designed to decontaminate people’s clothes and equipment. Photograph taken in Kiev on May 9, 1986:
An aerial view of the damaged Chernobyl nuclear power plant, photographed a few weeks after the disaster, in May 1986:
Most of the liquidators were reservists between the ages of 35 and 40, called to assist in cleaning operations. The army did not have adequate uniforms for work in radioactive conditions, so those who were destined to work on the roof and in other highly toxic areas were obliged to adapt their clothes and wear screens made of lead sheets that measured from two to four millimeters thick. The sheets were cut to size to make aprons to wear under cotton work clothing, and were designed to cover the body in front and behind, in particular to protect the spine and bone marrow:
A Soviet technician checks the water taken from a river near Kiev. Withdrawals were performed every hour to ensure that water supplies were safe:
An aerial view of the damaged Chernobyl nuclear power plant, subjected to repair and containment work in 1986:
Below, some liquidators clean the roof of reactor no. 3. Initially technicians attempted to remove radioactive debris using robots from western Germany, Japan and Russia, but the machines could not cope with extreme levels of radiation, so the authorities decided to employ human beings. In some areas the liquidators could not remain exposed for more than 40 seconds before the radiation received reached the maximum dose that a human being should have received throughout his life:
Hans Blix (centre), the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, watches a video detailing the clean-up operations with members of a government commission. Blix became a central figure of the disaster clean-up, visiting the Chernobyl site several times and overseeing the building of the sarcophagus:
A Soviet technician checks little Katya Litvinova during a radiological inspection of residents in the village of Kopylovo, near Kiev, on May 9, 1986:
A team of liquidators is preparing to clean up the radioactive debris from the roof of reactor no. 4:
An internal photo of a still functioning section of the Chernobyl nuclear power station taken a few months after the 1986 disaster:
A bulldozer digs a large trench in front of a house before burying the building and covering it with earth. This method was applied to entire villages that remained contaminated after the disaster:
The village of Kopachi is buried, house by house. It was located 7km from the Chernobyl reactor that housed the control room and decontamination area in the months after the disaster. A bulldozer would dig a large trench in front of each house before burying the building and covering it with earth and flattening the soil. Entire villages would be buried this way:
Genetics and botanical experts noted that many plants were victims of gigantism in the year following the disaster. These monster plants were soon eliminated by natural selection:
In the clinic No. 6 in Moscow, specializing in radiotherapy, a patient recovers after a bone marrow operation. A doctor examines the patient in a sterile room. The examination is carried out in an individual room, air-conditioned, through openings specifically created to avoid direct contact with the patient and contamination:
A liquidator, equipped with a hand-made lead shield on his head, works to clean the roof of reactor no. 3:
In this photo of 1988 relatives attend the funeral of radiation expert Alexander Goureïev, one of the liquidators who cleared the roof of reactor 3. These experts were often referred to as “roof cats”. Goureïev died as a result of contracting a radiation-related illness:
Photographer Igor Kostin discovered this deformed child in a special school for abandoned children in Belarus. The photo was published in the local Belarus press and the boy nicknamed ‘the Chernobyl Child’. It was then subsequently printed in German magazine Stern and became a world-famous image. The child was adopted by a British family, underwent several operations and is now living a relatively normal life:
Contaminated apples hang unharvested from a tree within the 30km no-go area around the nuclear site, three years after the explosion:
1991 – Kostin can be seen here, reflected in the window of a control post at the Pripyat entrance. The ghost town contained very high radiation levels of 171 microroentgen/hour five years after the catastrophe:
1992 – A villager who refuses to leave her home within the no-go area continues to live off the land, despite a high concentration of radioactive cesium-137 in the soil:
1997 – The former director of the Chernobyl site, Viktor Bryukhanov, with his wife in their apartment on returning home after serving a ten-year prison sentence for his involvement in the catastrophe:
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Photographs by Igor Kostin / Boris Yurchenko / Laski Diffusion / Volodymyr Repik.
Sources: The Guardian, The Atlantic.