Jonathon Mayo, Daily Mail

The V.I. The Soviet Union’s pride and joy was the Lenin Nuclear Power Station at Chernobyl with its four RBMK reactors. It generated electricity for 30,000,000 homes and businesses.

The West had rejected it because of safety concerns and design flaws, but the Soviets believed it was safe. Vitali Sklyarov (Minister of Power and Electrification of Ukraine) stated that the chances of a nuclear meltdown were one in 10,000 years in a February 1986 interview.

Chernobyl, a major drama series, sheds new light upon the impact of one the most devastating nuclear incidents in history. — ranked equal with Fukushima in Japan, in 2011 — JONATHAN MAYO reveals, in gripping detail, how the catastrophe unfolded minute by minute…

As a major drama series, Chernobyl, sheds new light on the impact of one of the world’s worst nuclear incidents

As a major drama series, Chernobyl, sheds new light on the impact of one of the world’s worst nuclear incidents

Friday, April 25, 1986 


It has been unseasonably hot in Chernobyl (northern Soviet Ukraine) and cherry trees have already begun to bloom. In the shadow of the power station, scores of fishermen are settling on the edge of a large artificial pond — its waters are used to cool the plant’s four giant reactors. Power station bosses claim the water is safe enough to breed fish in. Fishing is forbidden, but fishermen know that no one will bother their boats at night.

Anatoly Dyatlov, Chernobyl’s 55-year old deputy chief engineer, is now at work. Tonight he will supervise a test authorized by the Soviet Energy Authority to determine the plant’s ability maintain its latest reactor, No 4, cool during power cuts.

The test should have taken place before the reactor became operational in 1984. It is therefore two years late.

Dyatlov is the son of a Siberian farmer and has since risen to be the most prominent nuclear expert at Chernobyl. He is a strict manager who keeps a notebook in which he can record the names and addresses of those who have crossed him.


Sasha Yuvchenko (24) clocks on for night shift. He is one of 176 workers at tonight’s power station. He puts on his regalia white overalls and cap, and then makes his way to his office. It is located between Reactors No 3 & No 4. Here he will be briefed.

He was a former champion rower and has just said goodbye his wife Natasha, their two-year-old son Kirill, in Pripyat. The city was built in 1970 to house the thousands who worked at the plant. It now has a population just below 50,000.

The nuclear industry in Pripyat is highly respected. Pripyat’s supermarkets stock more than any other Soviet Union country. It has excellent schools and sports facilities.

It was an operating system the West had rejected because of concerns about design flaws and its safety, but the Soviets were confident it was secure (pictured: Five-part miniseries Chernobyl)

It was an operating system that the West rejected due to safety concerns and design flaws, but the Soviets were confident that it was safe (pictured: Five-part miniseries Chernobyl).

Saturday, April 26, 1986 


The large control room at Reactor No 4 has fluorescent lights and is brimming with cigarette smoke. The atmosphere is intense. Nobody has ever performed a shutdown test as intense as this.

Anatoly Dyatlov and Alexander Akimov are arguing about the power level at which the reactor can start the test. The greater the risk of an accidental shutdown, the lower the power.

Akimov has a rule book in his hand that states that it should not be less then 700 megawatts. Otherwise, the reactor could become unstable. Dyatlov insists 200 megawatts is safe. Dyatlov outranks Akimov so he reluctantly consents to the test to continue.


Leonid Toptunov (26-year-old reactor control engineer), switches the system from manual mode to automatic. He has only been in his position for a few months. He fails to select the megawatt level at which he would like the control room computer to operate.

The computer defaults to the last level that had been inputted — near zero. Reactor No 4 loses almost all of its power. The reactor is now unstable, and it has the potential of exploding.

Alarms begin to sound. Alexander Akimov claims that the rulebook says the test should be stopped. Dyatlov insists that they continue, even though he wants it to be completed. Dyatlov doesn’t believe the reactor could explode.

More than 1,600 radioactive Uranium-235 metal fuelrods are found in the reactor’s core. Uranium-235 is unstable, its atoms constantly breaking down to release subatomic particles called neutrons — which hit more uranium atoms, so triggering a chain reaction that generates enormous heat and energy.

In a controlled chain reaction this heat can be used for water to steam conversion to power a turbine to produce electricity.

Control of the reaction relies on 211 boron control spheres that are distributed throughout the reactor core. They can absorb neutrons, slowing down the chain reaction.

The chain reaction accelerates when the rods get raised. If the rods are removed completely, engineers lose their ability stop the reactor from overheating.

Dyatlov orders Dyatlov to raise the control rods in an effort to increase the power level. Toptunov refuses, fearing that he will lose control.


Toptunov is threatened with Dyatlov’s sack and finally agrees to raise control rods. The reactor is now powered up to 200 megawatts, which is considered safer. It is becoming more unstable.


Although the control room computer demands that the reactor be shut off, the test is still scheduled to start. Alexander Akimov pauses at the controls. “What are you waiting?” Dyatlov speaks impatiently.

In an interview in February 1986, Vitali Sklyarov, the Minister of Power and Electrification of the Ukraine, said: ‘The odds of a meltdown are one in 10,000 years’ (pictured: Chernobyl TV miniseries)

In an interview in February 1986, Vitali Sklyarov, the Minister of Power and Electrification of the Ukraine, said: ‘The odds of a meltdown are one in 10,000 years’ (pictured: Chernobyl TV miniseries)

1.23 seconds and 40 seconds

The temperature in the reactor is now 4,650c — almost as hot as the surface of the Sun. Akimov presses on the button to begin the test. This causes a chain reaction that produces enormous amounts of steam.

Valeri Perevozchenko is an engineer who was on a catwalk above the reactor. He suddenly panics and shouts that he has seen the 350kg (772lb!) caps on the fuel rods jump up and down in their sockets. Then the control room walls start shaking and the men hear a sound like a long, low human moan — followed by a huge explosion as a build-up of steam blasts the 200-ton concrete shield above the reactor into the air.

Akimov shouts from the control room: “Shut down the reactor!” But it is too late.

1.23 seconds and 45 seconds

There is a second, much louder blast as 50 tons of radioactive uranium fuel from the reactor core — ten times the amount at Hiroshima — vaporises and is blasted into the atmosphere. 700 million years is the half-life of Uranium-235. This refers to the time it takes for radioactivity to drop to half its original value.

Another 70 tons of Uranium and 900 tonnes of radioactive graphite are scattered in the surrounding area, including Reactor No3.

800 tons graphite ignite in No 4’s reactor core. This creates radioactive material that reaches 3,000 feet in the night sky. The flames light up the fishermen fishing by the cooling pool.

The control room is filled with dust and debris falling from the ceiling. The technicians are scared and think they are experiencing an earthquake. It could be the reactor, but no one believes it.

The alarms go off, more lights go on, and emergency generators activate.

Sasha Yuvchenko, a senior engineer, is talking to a colleague about a tin paint when a shockwave strikes the room. The concrete walls, measuring a metre thick, were bent like rubber. He later said that he believed war with the Americans had started.

Jessie Buckley plays Lyudmilla Ignatenko, the young wife of Vasily, a firefighter who suffers from exposure to radiation at Chernobyl

Jessie Buckley portrays Lyudmilla, Vasily’s young wife, who is exposed to radiation at Chernobyl.

There is a sonic hissing sound everywhere. Yuvchenko escapes the room, and behind a pile rubble, he finds a badly injured and bloody pump operator. He tells Yuvchenko that he must rescue Valery Khodemchuk who is in the main pump room, which was close to the explosion. “He’s still stuck in there!”

Paramilitary fire station number two is 500 yards away. Firemen who enjoy the cool night air look on in horror as a mushroom cloud of smoke rises out of the power station. In their operations room, hundreds of red lights are flashing — one for every room in the power plant.

The crews race to their trucks. Lieutenant Vladimir Pravik, a young but respected 23 year-old, is in charge. He summons every firefighter in the region via his radio.


Viktor Bryukhanov (director of Chernobyl) is woken up by a phone call at his home in Pripyat. His wife watches as his face turns a pale yellow colour. Bryukhanov is dressed and leaves the room without saying a word.

Sasha Yuvchenko still searches for Valery Khodemchuk at the reactor building. He looks up and sees stars — the ceiling has disappeared.

Sparks are erupting from severed power cables, and a blue-white beam radiation from the core is sending upwards.

Yuvchenko stated that he remembered thinking about how beautiful it was. There is no sign Khodemchuk.

Dust is clogging the control room at Reactor No 4. Dyatlov, astonished, is trying to figure out what has happened. Unaware of the fact that the reactor is a blazing volcanic volcano, Dyatlov hopes water will save it from destruction and orders Akimov activate the emergency cooling pumps. “We must get water into the reactor!”


Three technicians look down on the blazing reactor from a ledge that is more than 100ft high. Sasha Yuvchenko, a technician from the main reactor hall, is trying to keep the concrete and steel door open a few yards away. It has fallen off its hinges. His three colleagues will be trapped inside if it closes.

Yuvchenko is unaware that radiation from the door is already affecting his skin. The radiation will kill the three men who are on the ledge for less than two weeks, despite the fact that they were only there for a moment. Sasha Yuvchenko, who will die from leukaemia in 2008, will be buried.


Paramilitary Fire Station No 2 arrives at the power station with its fire crews. They are shocked to discover that Reactor No 4’s roof is missing.

Lieutenant Pravik tells Leonid Schavrey, his colleague: “We’ll really have to do our work out here.” Shavrey is aware that they are in danger. He later said, “My hair stood on its end,”

There is a strange gas in the air.


Viktor Bryukhanov is the plant’s director. He drives through the gates to see the destruction for the first time. He knows that his career is over.

He thinks, “I’m going into prison.”

He had overseen the construction of the power station. Like many Soviet officials, he had cut corners and signed off tests that were never carried out. Also, he had reduced the time required to make urgent repairs.

Bryukhanov orders that the power station’s underground bunker — built as a command post in case of nuclear war — be opened, then tells his managers to assess the situation in their departments and report back to him. Soon, 40 men are frantically calling each other from the bunker.

A team of engineers with one torch and a single torch search desperately for their colleague Vladimir Shashenok, in the rubble of the turbine hallway that connects all four reactors. They find him badly burned, barely alive, and his mouth is full of bloody foam. They grab him and take him to safety.

The flames are being extinguished by firemen Leonid Shvrey and Vladimir Pryshchepa, who are standing above the burning turbine hall roof. They refuse to use water due to the danger of exposed electricity cables and are throwing sand on fire and beating them with their canvas hoses.

Contrary to regulations regarding fire, the roof is covered in highly flammable bitumen. Later, Shavrey recalled that the bitumen caught fire as soon as the temperature rose. If you stepped on it, you couldn’t put one foot in front of the other — it tore off your boots.’

The men are not trained in the art of putting out fires like this and they are simply kicking around burning debris with their boots, without realising it is radioactive.


Dr Valentyn Belokon, 28 years old, arrives at Pripyat hospital armed only with painkillers for treating burns. There are still no burn victims. A Reactor No 3 young worker is brought to him with nausea and a severe headache. Belokon suspects that the man had been drinking the night before.


Lieutenant Pravik, a young fire chief, is concerned about the roof of Reactor No 3 which was built close to Reactor No 4 in order to save money, being on fire. A westerly wind could spread flames further to Reactors 1 & 2, which are still operational.

Pravik’s walkie talkie-talkie doesn’t work and they don’t have anti-radiation equipment. He bravely leads his men to the top of Reactor No 3’s roof using a fire ladder.

Leonid Shavrey, a fireman, is becoming so hot that he takes off his helmet. The fishermen stand by the cooling pond to see this and cheer their bravado. ‘He’s taken his helmet off!’ One responds. He’s a true hero!

Anatoly Dyatlov (the dogmatic deputy chief engineer) is told by a technician in Reactor No 4’s Control Room that the reactor has exploded. Dyatlov refuses the technician’s explanation and heads outside to verify it. He is shocked by the apocalyptic scene in front of him.


Lieutenant-colonel Leonid Telitnikov is the local fire brigade’s chief. He has assembled 28 men to help put out the fires. While thoughts of his family flash through him, his main concern is that his men won’t be able to continue until reinforcements arrive.


Dr Belokon believes that the condition of the young man is getting worse. He is extremely pale and constantly mutters “The horror of it!” The horror of it! Belokon gives him an anti-sedative. Similar symptoms are seen in many more men.

Petr Shavrey, Leonid’s younger brother, is also a fireman and arrives at the station without any protective gear. He was not on duty when the emergency call came. Petr puts two hoses under his arms as he hears Leonid yell from the turbine hall roof. Then he climbs up to the fire ladder. He said later that while protection was not important, it was vital to stop the flames spread.


Lieutenant Pravik and his men descend from the roof at Reactor No 3 as they all feel sick. Someone calls an ambulance. Pravik is assisted inside and a colleague calls his wife to tell them to close their apartment’s doors. Pravik’s eyes are now blue. He has just days to live.

Alexander Petrovsky (24 years old) has taken Pravik’s spot and is now making his way up to Reactor No 3. He is shocked to discover that only one hose is functioning.


Serafim Vorobyev is the civil defense chief at the power station. He uses a military radiometer to measure radiation. It shows levels 100 times higher than the normal. Viktor Bryukhanov the director of this plant, runs to him and tells them to warn the residents of Pripyat not to go outside.

Bryukhanov tells him to go away — he needs time to think.


The electric pumps have failed, and the firefighters on the roof have run out of water. Petr Shavrey, who is still without protective gear, decided to use the cooling ponds water as his only option. First, he must guide large firetrucks around the enormous amount of debris that has been ejected from the blast at the power station.

Petr races in front of the truck, moving obstacles out of his way. The truck’s tyres become punctured with metal spikes as Petr sprints towards it. He grabs one with both of his hands and the skin that was between his palms starts to peel off.

Alexander Petrovsky, a firefighter and rescuer, becomes blind after being placed on top of Reactor No 3 for 30 seconds. When his sight returns, he says to his colleague: ‘Let’s get the f*** out of here!’


All the operators who went missing after the explosions were over have been found. Valery Khodemchuk was the only one who was not found by his colleagues and was vaporised.

Anatoly Dyatlov, a control room employee, joins the search along with Valeriy Perevozchenko, a turbine engineer. Concrete rubble and a falling crane slow down their progress through engine room.

Perevozchenko manages to partially open an office door — and as he shouts Khodemchuk’s name, he is showered by radioactive water cascading from broken pipes overhead. His search for Khodemchuk is ultimately futile.


Viktor Bryukhanov (the director of the power plant) is calling his bosses at Moscow to update them.

He minimized the impact of the explosion by saying that only a portion of the turbine hall roof collapsed. His engineers are cooling the reactor down.

Finally realising the firemen and nuclear workers he is seeing are suffering from the effects of radiation, Dr Belokon calls the hospital in Pripyat to ask for potassium iodide — a drug that offers some protection from radiation — to be brought to Chernobyl.


Serafim vorobyev (the civil defence chief of the power station) is still measuring radiation levels. However, his clothes are so contaminated that it is impossible to get an accurate reading. Vorobyev confronts Viktor Bryukhanov, his boss, angrily.

“There is no mistake!” We must act!

Bryukhanov pushes him away. “Get out!” Your instrument must be thrown out!

Fire chief Leonid Telyatnikov starts vomiting. He said, “I thought I was tired from running around so much.” “I was sure that I wouldn’t get sick, because there were so many things I had to do.”


After watching the firefighters work for nearly three hours, the fishermen fishing near the cooling pools are beginning to feel sick.

5 a.m.

Mikhail Gorbachev (General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) is woken up by a call from his phone. It informs him that there has been a fire at the Chernobyl nuclear energy plant. Even though he is not told all the details, he is awakened by a phone call.

Gorbachev later said that he did not understand that the reactor had exploded or that there had been a large nuclear emission into the atmosphere within the first hour and day.

Leonid Telyatnikov, fire chief, and his crew have arrived at Pripyat medical center. They chat and smoke.

They believe they are going to a routine post-fire inspection, but they will soon develop radiation burns to their face, hands, and feet.

Six of the men are expected to die. The survivors, which includes Telyatnikov, are later taken to a special sterile unit at Moscow’s Hospital No 6. He won’t feel well enough to leave the hospital for eight months.

“Chernobyl taught us that not everyone is as conscientious or upright as they should be. He said that they did what was necessary and that was enough.


Anatoly Diatlov, weakened by sickness and with radioactive water soaking his shoes, reports to Viktor Bryukhanov the plant’s director. He asks him how the tragedy happened.

“I don’t know.” Dyatlov replies, “I don’t understand any of this.” Bryukhanov and Dyatlov will both be sentenced for their roles in the disaster.


The sun has now rose, revealing the horror of the wrecked V.I. Lenin nuclear power plant.

Thanks in part to the cooling pool, the fires are under control. Leonid Shavrey and Petr Shavrey are exhausted. Petr is desperate to drink water and grabs a waterhose. “What are your doing? It’s filthy! He yells at his colleague.

Petr is well aware that the water is radioactive, but he doesn’t care. ‘It seemed that if I didn’t take a few gulps I would collapse and wouldn’t be able get up again.

Petr’s digestive system will be permanently damaged by this brief drink.

The deputy chief fire chief for the area declares that the emergency is over optimistically.


Leonid Toptunov and Alexander Akimov, two control-room technicians who had argued before the test began are now in the bowels at Reactor No 4 on an futile mission to get water to the reactor.

As they struggle to turn large valves, radioactive waters are falling on them. Toptunov has to stop Toptunov often to vomit because they are becoming more weak. Akimov will become black and will die in hospital on Tuesday, May 11. He shared with a colleague that his conscience hurt more than the pain. Toptunov will pass away three days later. Chernobyl’s most courageous were those who were most likely to die.


Pripyat, the capital of Ukraine, was evacuated on Sunday 27 April. The residents were informed that there was a ‘unsatisfactory radioactive condition’. They were asked to evacuate their homes and to take enough food and clothing for three more days. They never returned.

Nearly 350,000 people were evacuated from the Chernobyl region.

The disaster was not known to the outside world until Monday, April 28, when Cliff Robinson a Swedish chemist working at a nuclear plant near Stockholm passed through a radio detector as he went to clean his teeth after a shift. Surprised, an alarm went off. Radiation was found on his shoes and those of other workers.

The Soviet Union was immediately suspected of being the source of contamination after it was discovered that a radioactive cloud was drifting westward across Scandinavia.

Later that day, the accident in Chernobyl was the seventh news item on Soviet state television news.

The radioactive cloud eventually spread north to cover the entire of Scandinavia and into Germany, Czechoslovakia and Czechoslovakia, and toxic rain began to fall. Demark pharmacies ran out of potassium iodide pills.

One week after the disaster, radioactive rain particles fell on North Wales. All Welsh lamb that was produced for human consumption was radioactively monitored for over a quarter of century.

Today, 33 years after the Chernobyl disaster, there is still an exclusion zone of 30 km around the site. This is due to the high radiation levels in the soil. This so-called “dead area” is now open to tourists who visit on day passes.

The natural environment has thrived and there is a lot of wildlife. It is illegal to reside in the zone. However, up to 150 people – mainly elderly subsistence farmers – continue to live there. In recent years, a few Ukrainian families — some of them fleeing the Crimean conflict — have moved to live in homes abandoned just outside the exclusion zone.

Looters have taken valuable metal from buildings in the abandoned city Pripyat. Toys, shoes, and gas masks can be found on the ground among the buildings, schools, shops, and offices that are falling apart.

Chernobyl saw the deaths of 31 firefighters and other workers. Because of the radioactivity in their bodies, some were buried in lead coffins with their lids welded shut.

A World Health Organisation report concluded that of the 600,000.00 people in the Soviet Union who were exposed to the highest levels radiation, only 4,000 would die.

It is claimed that if Chernobyl’s nuclear reactors had been damaged by the explosion all life on Earth could have been eradicated.

  • Chernobyl will air on Sky Atlantic at 9pm on Tuesday, May 7.

Jonathan Mayo is the author of Hitler’s Last Day: Minute by Minute (Short Books, £8.99).