It was past midnight, and even at Chernobyl, the vast nuclear power plant overshadowing the quiet Ukrainian town of Pripyat, there was little sign of life aside from two off-duty workers fishing in the darkness on the concrete banks of a cooling pond.
Their lines were still sunk in the warm outflow from the nuclear reactors when a thunderous boom engulfed them, an explosion so loud it sounded like an aircraft breaking the sound barrier.
The ground trembled. They were struck by a shock wave. And they watched as a plume of black smoke and hot debris arced upwards from the ruined plant.
Later, when the smoke had cleared, a shimmering pillar of ethereal blue-white light reached straight up into the darkened sky, disappearing into infinity.
A guard stands by a sign at a closed off road leading to Chernobyl where an explosion occurred on April 26, 1986
Delicate and strange, the phosphorescence was created by the radioactive ionisation of air – an almost certain sign of an unshielded nuclear reactor open to the atmosphere.
The explosion at Chernobyl on April 26, 1986, remains the worst catastrophe in the history of nuclear power. About 30 workers and members of the emergency services died of acute radiation sickness soon afterwards.
The lives of the families living in its shadow were changed for ever, too. But the disaster went far beyond Pripyat.
Blown high into the atmosphere, radioactive debris from the newest of Chernobyl’s four reactors spread across Earth’s entire northern hemisphere, from Czechoslovakia to Japan.
A mile-high plume of the most deadly isotopes passed north and west, sweeping round Scandinavia, Snowdonia, Scotland and the Lake District.
In the three decades since the explosion, thousands of people are thought to have died of various cancers, with the estimates ranging from 4,000 upwards to – according to some projections – hundreds of thousands.
The explosion at Chernobyl on April 26, 1986, remains the worst catastrophe in the history of nuclear power
After years of work in archives around the world and interviews with scores of eyewitnesses, I have pieced together what really happened on that April night and in the terrible days that followed.
There were many episodes of selflessness and courage.
But the destruction at Chernobyl revealed the incompetence, corruption and moral decay that ultimately helped destroy the USSR from within.
The immediate causes were design flaws and a series of human errors made within the space of just a few terrifying minutes.
In some circumstances, the reactors built at Chernobyl were susceptible to a runaway chain reaction – the same process at the heart of an atomic bomb.
Indeed, there had already been a partial meltdown in Leningrad in 1975, where a confidential study made it clear that accidents were not merely possible, they were terrifyingly likely – even in the course of day-to-day operations.
The immediate causes were design flaws and a series of human errors made within the space of just a few terrifying minutes
Yet for more than a decade, the USSR’s nuclear establishment kept these design faults a deadly secret.
In truth, the cataclysm was born of the planned economy and communist bureaucracy itself.
For this was an empire of falsified statistics, of unattainable deadlines easily beaten by corner-cutting, sullen indifference to individual responsibility, terror at conveying bad news to superiors and chains of toadying yes-men clinging to their comfortable party privileges. They made the disaster at Chernobyl almost inevitable.
The control room for the fourth reactor at the plant was a large, windowless box, about 60ft by 30ft with a polished stone floor and low suspended ceiling. Beneath the sickly fluorescent strip lights, a rancid haze of cigarette smoke hung in the air.
It was 11.55pm on Friday, April 25, 1986, and the mood was tense. A time-consuming safety test scheduled to finish that afternoon had not yet begun.
It was designed to check whether the water pumps that cooled one of the four reactors could be kept running in the event of a total power blackout.
In such a dangerous situation, the electricity for pumps that kept water circulating through the core would be cut and, although emergency generators would kick in, it would take time – potentially long enough for catastrophic overheating and a core meltdown to begin.
The test should have been carried out before the reactor was commissioned in December 1983 but, anxious to meet state-imposed deadlines, officials skipped it. Now it was to take place during a scheduled shutdown for maintenance.
The controls were manned by a team of four, a shift foreman at the back and three operators who sat at panels festooned with switches, buttons, gauges, lamps and alarms.
Yet for more than a decade, the USSR’s nuclear establishment kept these design faults a deadly secret
Just two months into the job, he was about to pilot the reactor through a shutdown for the first time in his life – an extraordinary responsibility
It was past midnight when electricity grid officials in Kiev gave the go-ahead and the control room began slowly to reduce the amount of power the reactor was generating so the test could take place.
Stepping up to the instruments on the reactor control desk was 25-year-old Leonid Toptunov.
Just two months into the job, he was about to pilot the reactor through a shutdown for the first time in his life – an extraordinary responsibility.
The test sounded simple enough: operators would press a button cutting power to the cooling water pumps, simulating a power blackout. Moments later, emergency diesel generators would start and the pumps would circulate water through the reactor core once again.
But then, at 12.28pm, Toptunov made a critical mistake and the computer began reducing the power beyond his control.
A series of alarms sounded, but Toptunov couldn’t stop the numbers from falling.
Within two minutes, the display was almost at zero – he had all but shut down the reactor before the test had even begun.
It should have been abandoned there and then, but it was not. Instead the order was given that the power should be increased once again ready for the procedure – leaving the reactor now disastrously unmanageable.
It was 1.22am. The control room was calm. It would all be over in seconds. But, by now, Chernobyl Reactor Number Four was a pistol with the hammer cocked.
Then, as the test began, every one of the design flaws moved into a deadly confluence.
Water passing through the core moved slower and grew hotter, and more and more of it turned to steam; reactivity increased further, releasing more heat and creating more steam.
But then, at 12.28pm, Toptunov made a critical mistake and the computer began reducing the power beyond his control
Inside the plant, the surviving workers were met with an apocalyptic sight. Broken glass, shattered concrete panels, tumbled blocks of graphite and lumps of metal lay everywhere
After just 36 seconds, the test was complete, and the order came to shut down the reactor.
But it was too late. Deep inside the reactor, the chain reaction was already out of control. The process leading to meltdown had begun.
A frightening succession of alarms began to sound. Warning lamps flashed red. Electric buzzers squawked angrily. Toptunov shouted a warning: Power surge!
There was a roar and the building started to vibrate. The reactor was destroying itself. Within three seconds, its power leapt to a hundred times maximum. There was a loud bang. The uranium fuel pellets were melting.
The temperature inside the reactor rose to 4,650C – almost as hot as the surface of the sun.
A blast equivalent to 60 tons of TNT demolished the upper walls of the reactor hall and tossed the vast 2,000-ton steel and concrete lid of the reactor into the air like a flipped coin.
Almost seven tons of uranium fuel, together with pieces of zirconium and radioactive graphite, were hurled into the sky, together with a mixture of gas and aerosols containing some of the most dangerous substances known to man –iodine 131, neptunium 239, caesium 137, strontium 90 and plutonium 239.
Inside the plant, the surviving workers were met with an apocalyptic sight. Broken glass, shattered concrete panels, tumbled blocks of graphite and lumps of metal lay everywhere.
A few dazed operators ran here and there through showers of sparks and geysers of scalding steam.
A few dazed operators ran here and there through showers of sparks and geysers of scalding steam
The gigantic steel water tanks had been torn apart like wet cardboard, the ends of fractured pipework hung in mid-air and, above the wreckage, where the roof of the huge reactor building had once been, there were only stars. Reactor Number Four was gone.
When the first ambulances filled with firemen and workers from the plant pulled up at Medical-Sanitary Centre Number 126 in the early hours of Saturday morning, the staff were quickly overwhelmed.
At first, no one understood what they were dealing with. The faces of some victims were a terrible purple; others, a deathly white.
Soon all of them were retching and vomiting, filling wash basins and buckets until they had emptied their stomachs, and even then unable to stop. The triage nurse began to cry. By morning, 90 patients had been admitted.
When the first ambulances filled with firemen and workers from the plant pulled up at Medical-Sanitary Centre Number 126 in the early hours of Saturday morning, the staff were quickly overwhelmed
The worst affected would later be taken to Moscow’s Hospital Number Six. They had been attacked by radiation from both inside and out.
As their white blood cell counts collapsed, infection crawled across the skin of the young operators and firemen. Thick black blisters encrusted their lips and the inside of their mouths. The skin of their gums peeled back, leaving them the colour of raw meat.
Unlike heat burns, which heal slowly over time, radiation burns grow gradually worse – expanding from wherever radioactive material had touched them, eating into the tissue below.
The men’s body hair and eyebrows fell out, and their skin darkened – first red, then purple, before finally it became a papery brown-black and curled away in sheets.
Inside their bodies, the radiation ate away the lining of their intestines and corroded their lungs.
As the scale of the crisis became clear, the Soviet authorities reacted with calls for patriotic sacrifice – and secrecy.
When an official at Chernobyl said the 50,000 inhabitants of Pripyat should be warned, the director of the station cut his telephone lines.
As the scale of the crisis became clear, the Soviet authorities reacted with calls for patriotic sacrifice – and secrecy
The town knew something was wrong for sure by nightfall when even the radio speaker boxes in every apartment remained silent
Nuclear engineers on the morning shift tried to warn their families. Some managed to reach them by phone and told them to stay indoors, even though they knew the KGB was listening.
One packed his family into the car to take them to safety, only to be turned back by armed police. The city had been sealed off.
The town knew something was wrong for sure by nightfall when even the radio speaker boxes in every apartment remained silent.
These ‘radio points’ hung on the walls of homes throughout the Soviet Union, piping in propaganda just like gas and electricity.
But it was a full 32 hours after the accident before the order was given to evacuate, at 10am on Sunday, April 27.
By then Pripyat had already been dusted with nuclear fallout. (Apartment blocks in Kiev – 110 miles away – where the residents of Pripyat were rehoused, were later found to have hundreds of times the normal level of radiation.)
And there was no official statement from the Politburo until Monday evening, almost three days after the event.
‘An accident has taken place at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant,’ said an announcer from Radio Moscow. ‘Measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences.’
But it was a full 32 hours after the accident before the order was given to evacuate, at 10am on Sunday, April 27
The cloud of contamination had continued north and spread west to envelop Scandinavia, before drifting south over Poland and forming a wedge that moved down into Germany
The following evening, the Soviet Council of Ministers conceded that two people had been killed, that a section of the reactor building had been destroyed, and that Pripyat had been evacuated. There was no mention of a radioactive release, yet there was no escaping it, either.
The cloud of contamination had continued north and spread west to envelop Scandinavia, before drifting south over Poland and forming a wedge that moved down into Germany.
Chernobyl was headline news in the West.
Supported by the KGB, the Soviet nuclear industry was determined to suppress the truth – that the Chernobyl disaster was the conclusion to years of lying and ingrained incompetence.
Initially, the Soviets stated that it was the result of an all-but-impossible coincidence of events.
Then, three months later, following a secret commission of inquiry, the Politburo issued its verdict: ‘The accident had been caused by a series of gross breaches of the operational regulations of the reactor by workers at the atomic power station.’
In other words, the workers were to blame. Court proceedings followed and the control room officials who had somehow survived the blast and radiation sickness were sent to prison camps.
There was no mention of any design faults in the reactor. But behind closed doors, Gorbachev and the Politburo already knew the facts – and that the Soviet nuclear industry had been hiding a terrible secret.
They had known since 1975 and the Leningrad accident that one of their reactors was likely to explode – and with unspeakable consequences.
Constructed as giant cylinders of graphite, the Chernobyl reactors were more than 20 times the size of Western equivalents and capable of producing so much electricity that each one could power at least a million modern homes – a tribute to the Soviet obsession with colossal architecture and engineering – ‘gigantomania’.
The USSR’s evangelical nuclear scientists had proclaimed this model the ‘national’ reactor and rushed it into production at stations planned from the Gulf of Finland to the Caspian Sea. They didn’t even bother with a prototype.
Yet, for all the boasts about the power of the ‘red atom’, the design of the massive Chernobyl reactors was hopelessly flawed. They were unstable and capricious, particularly at low power.
Initially, the Soviets stated that it was the result of an all-but-impossible coincidence of events
They had known since 1975 and the Leningrad accident that one of their reactors was likely to explode – and with unspeakable consequences
It is a particular irony that by spring 1986, Chernobyl was, officially, one of the best-performing nuclear stations in the Soviet Union, and scheduled to receive the Order of Lenin, the state’s highest honour.
Even the destruction unleashed by Reactor Number Four could not match the explosive political consequences that would follow.
Gorbachev’s personal reputation in the West as a reformer had been tarnished.
Now, on the third floor of a gloomy Kremlin office block, he accused the Soviet nuclear establishment of presiding over a secret state.
‘For 30 years, you told us that everything was perfectly safe. You assumed we would look up to you as gods,’ he said. ‘That’s the reason why all this happened, why it ended in disaster.’
It was devastating assessment. Even the Soviet nuclear bureaucracy had been undermined by secrecy, incompetence and stagnation. He knew now that the entire Soviet apparatus was rotten, and it intensified his drive for reform.
The Soviet public, too, began to discover just how deeply it had been misled.
Chernobyl finally shattered the illusion that the Soviet Union was a global superpower armed with technology that led the world.
Even the most faithful citizens faced the realisation that their leaders were corrupt and that the communist dream was a sham.
© Adam Higginbotham, 2019
Adapted from Midnight In Chernobyl: The Untold Story Of The World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, by Adam Higginbotham, is published by Bantam Press, priced £20. Offer price £16 (20 per cent discount, with free p&p) until February 24. Order at mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640. Spend £30 on books and get FREE premium delivery.