Stephen McGinty: Lead coffins and a nation's thanks for the Chernobyl suicide squad

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Three men laid down their lives for millions of others, writes Stephen McGinty

• Part of a fairground that was due to open on May Day in Pripyat, a town evacuated after the Chernobyl explosion. Picture: Ian Rutherford

IN THE jargon of the bureaucrats of the Soviet Union it was known as "counting lives": coldly calculating how many men could expect to die to complete a specific task.

On the evening of 2 May, 1986, six days after a massive explosion devastated the Lenin nuclear power station at Chernobyl, the figure reached was three.

The arithmetic was as simple as the task was hard. The lives of three men weighed against those of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of men, women and children. For the crisis at the nuclear reactor had now reached a new height.

Over the previous few days Russian military helicopters had been flying over the exposed reactor, whose roof had been blown off so it resembled a half-shut eye, one whose pupil glowed blue and was emitting devastating doses of radiation.

Beneath them was the graphite "moderator", 2,500 tonnes of radioactive carbon, which was ablaze and if unchecked would burn for the next three months, sending more radioactive material into the atmosphere with each passing hour. The damaged reactor was sinking and burning through its strengthened floor and was in danger of collapsing into rooms flooded with water. This would trigger a nuclear explosion that, so Soviet physicists calculated, would vaporise the fuel in the three other reactors, level 200 square kilometres, destroy Kiev, contaminate the water supply used by 30 million people and render northern Ukraine uninhabitable for more than a century.

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A group of three men were required to suit up in scuba-gear and swim through the flooded chambers of the basement to the gate valve, twist it open and so allow the trapped water to drain out. It was a "suicide mission". Radiation was at lethal levels.

Until the disaster, staff at the power plant were convinced of the safety of nuclear power, for as far as they knew there had never been an accident in the Soviet Union. In fact there had been 14, all of which had been supressed so as not to damage the image of Communist construction.

It is now understood that the initial trigger for the disaster, which began in the early hours of 26 April, was the control rods, which were made of boron with tips of graphite and had triggered power surges in other plants - a fact also kept secret.

In the first few minutes after the initial explosion the Geiger counters in the central control room were stuck at 3.6, a safe reading. However they were designed only to go up to 3.6. The actual reading was 15,000.

On the first night there were futile acts of heroism. Alexander Akimov, the unit shift chief, and Leonid Toptunov, a technician, falsely believed the water flow to the reactor was blocked by a closed valve, and so they fought their way to where they believed they could pump water back into the reactor and spent hours, submerged to the waist in radioactive water. Both would die a torturous death from radiation poisoning.Later, in hospital, Akimov tried to stand and the skin fell off his leg like a sock.

The first firefighters on the scene were the power station's brigade. While there were later reports that they were unaware of the dangers, one of the firemen said: "I remember joking to the others, 'We'll be lucky if we're all still alive in the morning'."

As they fought for five hours to douse the flames on the roof of the turbine hall, they did so amid clouds of radiation that they said felt like pins and needles on the face. One by one they succumbed to radiation poisoning with coughing, nausea, vomiting and fainting.

By the sixth day, when the Soviet authorities required three men to step forward, all were aware of the risk. According to Grigori Medvedev, author of The Truth About Chernobyl, a group of soldiers were briefed on the stakes if the valves were not turned, the water not drained. There was also a degree of bribery. While they were unlikely to survive, their families would be richly rewarded.

Three men volunteered: Alexei Ananenko, an engineer who knew the location of the valves, and two soldiers, Valeri Bezpalov and Boris Baranov. The trio suited up and entered the radioactive waters of the flooded chamber. All three returned to the surface suffering severe radiation poisoning, but were pleased to see their colleagues jump with joy at the news that the valves were now open. Over the next day 20,000 tonnes of radioactive water was pumped out, and a subsequent report revealed that had this not been done, a thermal explosion would have taken place.

The men's reward, like those others who died at Chernobyl, was to be buried in lead coffins, the lids soldered shut.

The count went up by three.