Only five days after the explosion, on May 1, 1986, the Soviet authorities in Chernobyl made a terrible discovery: the core of the exploded reactor was still melting. The core contained 185 tons of nuclear fuel, and the nuclear reaction continued at an alarming rate.
Beneath these 185 tons of molten nuclear material was a reservoir of five million gallons of water. Water was used in the power plant as a coolant, and the only thing that separated the core of the melting reactor from the water was a thick concrete slab. The melted core slowly burned through this plate, descending to the water in a smoldering stream of molten radioactive metal.
If this white-hot, melting core of the reactor touched the water, it would cause a massive, radiation-contaminated steam explosion. The result could be radioactive contamination of much of Europe. In terms of the death toll, the first Chernobyl explosion would have looked like a minor incident.
For example, journalist Stephen McGinty wrote: “This would lead to a nuclear explosion, which, according to the calculations of Soviet physicists, would have caused the fuel vaporization in three other reactors, razed 200 square kilometers [77 square miles] to the ground, destroyed Kiev, polluted the water supply system used by 30 million inhabitants and made northern Ukraine uninhabitable for more than a century ”(The Scotsman, March 16, 2011).
The School of Russian and Asian Studies in 2009 gave an even darker assessment: if the melting core of the reactor reached the water, the subsequent explosion "would destroy half of Europe and make Europe, Ukraine and part of Russia uninhabited for about 500, 000 years."
Experts working on site saw that the melting core was devouring that very concrete slab, burning it - getting closer to the water every minute.
The engineers immediately developed a plan to prevent possible explosions of the remaining reactors. It was decided that three people would go in scuba gear through the flooded chambers of the fourth reactor. When they reach the coolant, they will find a pair of shut-off valves and open them so that water completely flows out of there until the reactor core comes into contact with it.
For millions of people in the USSR and Europeans, who faced inevitable death, illness and other damage due to the impending explosion, this was an excellent plan.
What could not be said about the divers themselves. Then there was no worse place on the planet than a reservoir of water under the slowly melting fourth reactor. Everyone knew perfectly well that anyone who gets into this radioactive brew will be able to live long enough to complete their work, but perhaps no more.
The Soviet authorities explained the circumstances of the impending second explosion, the plan for its prevention and the consequences: in fact, it was inevitable death from radiation poisoning.
Three people volunteered.
The three men volunteered to help, knowing that this would probably be the last thing they would do in their lives. They were a senior engineer, a mid-level engineer, and a shift supervisor. The shift supervisor's job was to hold the underwater lamp so engineers could identify the valves that needed to be opened.
The next day, the Chernobyl troika donned their gear and plunged into the deadly pool.
The pool was pitch black, and the light from the shift supervisor's waterproof lantern was reported to be dim and intermittently extinguished.
We were moving forward in the murky darkness, the search did not bring any results. The divers sought to complete the radioactive voyage as soon as possible: at every minute of diving, isotopes freely destroyed their bodies. But they still haven't found the drain valves. And so they continued their search, even though the light could go out at any moment, and darkness could close over them.
The lantern really burned out, but this happened after its beam had pulled the pipe out of the darkness. The engineers noticed her. They knew that the pipe leads to the same valves.
The divers in the dark swam to the place where they saw the pipe. They grabbed it and began to rise, grabbing it with their hands. There was no light. There was no protection against radioactive, destructive ionization for the human body. But there, in the darkness, there were two valves that could save millions of people.
The divers opened them, and water gushed out. The pool began to empty quickly.
When the three men returned to the surface, their work was done. NPP employees and soldiers greeted them as heroes, and they really were. It is said that people literally jumped for joy.
Over the next day, all five million gallons of radioactive water flowed out from under the fourth reactor. By the time the melting core located above the pool made its way to the reservoir, there was no more water in it. The second explosion was avoided.
The results of analyzes carried out after this dive, converged on one thing: if the trio had not plunged into the pool and drained it, from a steam explosion that would change the course of history, millions of people would have died.
Over the next days, three began to show the inevitable and unmistakable symptoms: radiation sickness. After a few weeks, all three died.
The men were buried in lead coffins with sealed lids. Even deprived of life, their bodies were soaked through with radioactive radiation.
Many heroes went to feats for the sake of others, having only a small chance to survive. But these three men knew they had no chance. They peered into the depths where certain death awaited them. And plunged into them.
Their names were Alexey Ananenko, Valery Bespalov and Boris Baranov.
Three people who saved millions.