The Battle of Chernobyl (2006) Movie Script

Friday, April 25, 1986
A beautiful spring day for the 43,000 inhabitants of Pripyat, in the Ukraine.
A day that will remain forever engraved in their memory.
3 kilometers from the city - the Vladimir Ilyitch Lenin nuclear power plant where several thousand people go to work each day.
Tonight, the 176 employees of block 4 have been ordered to carry out a test on a self-fueling system of the reactor.
Something that could save energy.
At 1:23 a.m., the security systems are deactivated and the experiment begins.
A series of detonations go off in the core of the reactor.
While Pripyat sleeps peacefully, the floor of the plant begins to tremble.
The 1200 ton cover of the reactor suddenly blasts into the air.
An ultra-powerful stream of radioactive vapor releases uranium and graphite over hundreds of meters around the plant.
From the gaping hole, a spray of fire charged with radioactive particles in fusion shoots a thousand meters into the sky.
There were a lot of colors and they were really bright: orange, red, sky blue.
Colors like blood... A rainbow...
It was beautiful...
The most serious nuclear accident in history has just taken place.
During the night, early in the morning,
l got the call around 5 AM.
l was told there'd been some accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant.
The first firemen on the scene battle the fire without the adequate protective gear.
They pour tons of water ON this strange fire.
But nothing seems capable of putting out.
They are all exposed to lethal doses of radiation.
Two men die that night, 28 more will follow in the next few months.
They are the first victims of Chernobyl.
Nobody was prepared for such a crisis.
For the next seven months, 500,000 men wage hand to hand combat with an invisible enemy.
A ruthless battle that has gone unsung which claims thousands of unnamed and now almost forgotten heroes.
Yet, it is thanks to these men that the worst was avoided: a second explosion,
ten times more powerful than Hiroshima, which would have wiped out half of Europe.
This was kept secret for twenty years by Soviets and the West alike.
Many of these images have never been seen before.
They were taken by journalists who were also exposed to nuclear contamination, some whom later died.
Those images tell the story of a hidden war whose consequences continue twenty years later to worsen the toll of the disaster.
This is the true story of the Battle of Chernobyl.
By early morning the clouds are already being contaminated by the radioactive column rising one thousand meters into the sky.
Igor Kostine is a photographer with the news agency Novosti.
When a friend and helicopter pilot phones him that morning to offer to fly him over Chernobyl,
all Kostine knows is that something has happened at the plant during the night.
He is the first journalist to witness the gaping hole.
When we got close to block 4 and circled round it, I had no idea of the risk.
When we flew over the block, I opened the window of the helicopter.
I didn't realize then what a big mistake that was.
The thin translucent smoke he sees rising from the ruins is in fact highly radioactive.
Kostine is one of the few Chernobyl reporters on the scene in the early hours of the accident, to had survived serious explosion to radiation.
When I opened the window, I couldn't hear a thing.
The ruins of the reactor were below me.
I felt like I was floating in the space.
Like in a tomb.
A real dead silence.
I couldn't even hear the helicopter anymore.
A black hole.
A tomb and deathly silence.
This is the first picture ever taken of the breach.
All my equipment jammed after a minute.
I couldn't understand what was going on.
I thought my batteries were dead.
I only managed to take a dozen photos.
Once I returned to Kiev, I processed my pictures and I noticed the negatives were black and the colors very poor.
I didn't know it yet, but the photos had been exposed to radioactivity.
At the core of the blown-out reactor, and buried under 14 meters of rubble the graphite surrounding the nuclear fuel burns and melts the uranium.
The radioactive fallout is going be 100 times greater than the combined power of the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
At the Kremlin, eight hours after the explosion Gorbachev only has scant information on the situation.
The first information consisted of "accident" and "fire".
Not a word about an explosion.
At first, I was told there hadn't been an explosion.
The consequences of such false information were particularly dramatic.
Pripyat's 43,000 inhabitants life goes on as usual.
They know nothing about the disaster 3 kilometers away.
The information we got was that everything was sound, including the reactor.
When I asked the academician Alexandrov, he told me the reactor was absolutely safe.
It could even be set up on Red Square.
It wouldn't be any different than a samovar.
Like putting cattle on Red Square.
There are rumors in the town of a fire at the plant and deaths in the night but no official information has been released.
The white flashes on these images are the results of radioactivity on the film.
People in the streets hardly blink an eye at the masked soldiers scattered throughout the city.
Colonel Grebeniouk lead the troops in charge of controlling the situation.
There was a metallic taste in our mouths, an acidity.
They say radiation has no taste.
It was only later we realized it was the taste of radioactive iodine.
While children are still out playing in the squares Colonel Grebeniouk's men spend the day taking the first readings of radioactivity in the city.
In those days, radioactivity was measured in units called roentgens.
Normal atmospheric level is about 12 millionths of a roentgen.
In Pripyat, by early afternoon, readings are already over 200 thousandths of a roentgen.
In other words, fifteen thousand times higher than usual...
By the evening, the level has shot up to 600,000 times above normal.
Boulevard Lenin: 200, Boulevard Ukalna: 250 milliroentgens.
And that night, 7 roentgens.
My subordinates were starting to wonder: if the machines were working properly, or someone was lying to us?
We did not know that the reactor was still burning and radiation was still spreading.
This map is sealed in plastic because it's still radioactive...
It's thought that a human being can absorb up to 2 roentgens per year without being affected.
But, the body is lethally contaminated if it receives over 400 roentgens.
During that first day, the inhabitants absorb over fifty times what is considered to be a harmless dose.
At such a pace, they would have reached lethal dosage in four days.
To understand what is going on, the colonel sends a patrol to take the first readings at the base of the plant.
Their first readings were recorded on this map: 2080 roentgens! I was worried about my subordinates.
How could I send them in there?
At these astronomical levels 15 minutes is all takes for a human being to absorb a lethal dose of radiation.
At the nuclear institute, the figures provoke a shock.
Such a level of radioactivity has never been seen before.
Gorbatchev hurriedly creates a governmental commission made up of the country's top experts in nuclear energy.
This is led by the academician Legassov, a nuclear physicist of international renown.
He immediately leaves for Chernobyl at the head of a scientific delegation.
We hoped they would be able to evaluate the situation quickly, but for the first couple days, they weren't able to tell us anything.
It was a dramatic situation.
We'd be in session, waiting for information,
we were demanding information, but they weren't able to tell us anything.
Twenty hours after the explosion the level of radioactivity continues to climb.
By now, windows and doors should be sealed and iodine tablets swallowed to counteract the effects of radioactivity.
Yet no such orders have been given.
Despite rising tensions in the city the population has still not been informed of the situation.
Yulia Martchenko was only five at the time.
She lived in Pripyat with her family.
Her father worked at the plant.
My parents took me to the day care center like usual.
Everything was absolutely normal.
My father already knew there'd been an accident, but no precautions had been taken yet.
30 hours after the explosion, the first security measures are enforced.
More than 1000 buses have arrived.
At 2:00 pm the army announces the city to be completely evacuated.
I remember the teachers at the kindergarten gave us iodine pills.
Then parents came to pick up their kids.
Everyone was running around, but they weren't panicking.
We thought we were only going to be gone for three days.
To avoid any panic the authorities concealed the seriousness of the situation.
Inhabitants are given two hours to gather their belongings and assemble in front of their buildings.
They told us to get in the buses.
I remember perfectly well having to choose which toys I was going to take.
I had a lot of dolls and wanted to bring them all, but I couldn't.
We couldn't even take any warm clothes.
People have to leave everything they own, their entire lives, behind.
They will never return...
One old man didn't want to go.
He stayed behind.
They found his body a few weeks later.
People didn't really believe what was happening.
They thought they were being lied to.
They remembered the German occupation and said that in 1941, there were bombs that fell.
But now there was nothing.
The elderly people didn't believe in an invisible enemy and there was no time to explain.
My soldiers and I were simply carrying out orders.
In three and a half hours, 43,000 people are evacuated tearfully but peacefully.
Buses carry Europe's first atomic refugees.
They have been exposed to doses of radiation that may alter the composition of their blood, and engender fatal cancers.
48 hours after the disaster, the only people left in the ghost town are the military personnel
and members of the scientific delegation head quartered at the Pripyat hotel.
As if unaware of the danger, they eat, sleep and work right on the premises.
These were upstanding people, specialists.
I couldn't believe they would do something irresponsible or suicidal.
No, it meant they'd underestimated the situation.
Our old criteria were no good anymore.
There'd been nuclear accidents before, in our country as well as in the US, but that information had been kept secret.
There'd never been an accident of this scope.
They even thought the reactor would be back in service by May or June.
Meanwhile, clouds filled with radioactive particles are being blown North by the wind.
Between 26 and 27 in April, they drift over one thousand kilometers above Russia, then over Belorussia and the Baltics.
On the 28th, they hit Sweden where the rise of radioactivity is detected near one of their nuclear power plants.
Soon after, television news alerts the population.
Radioactive dust from Chernobyl rains down on Stockholm.
The authorities send a squadron of fighter planes to take readings in the clouds.
The level of radioactivity suggests there's been a major accident somewhere.
60 hours after the disaster, still no official word has been reported outside of the Soviet Union.
The Swedish Ministry of Energy phoned me on Monday and I was in my office in Vienna.
And she told me that they had measured very much increased radioactivity near our power plants in Forsemark in Eastern Sweden.
And they had concluded that it must have come from abroad.
Did we know anything about it was her question.
And we said that no, we did not, but we already to contact and others contacted the Poles, they had normal nuclear power plant.
But if there was anything else and it could happened that we contacted the Russians of course.
What had happened? An explosion?
A radioactive cloud? Serious contamination?
It was Sweden that alerted us!
3 days after the accident, while Gorbachev is still trying to gather data,
American and European spy satellites turn to the Soviet Union and discover the ruins of the Ukrainian plant.
The smoke wafting from the gaping hole shows up clearly in thermal vision.
In the evening of that Monday the 28th, we had a message from Mr Petrossian,
the head of the Atomic energy commission in Russia, in which he told us about the accident.
And about the same time, the Russians released the information to the world.
Obviously over at the Politburo, we immediately decided it was essential that all facts be reported to us from then on.
So I called on the KGB.
I told them to follow everything that was happening over there, and to report the conversations the scientists were having.
I told them to report all of that information back.
To me personally.
It has taken over 48 hours to get accurate information about the disaster.
Two days during which the 43,000 inhabitants of Pripyat are exposed to contamination.
The crises continues to grow.
At the bottom of the destroyed reactor, 1200 tons of white-hot magma continue to burn at over 3000 degrees,
sending liters of radioactive gas and dust into the atmosphere.
The whole of Europe is at the mercy of the winds.
On the third day of the crisis, General Antochkine and his fleet of 80 helicopters are sent from Moscow to fight the blaze and put the fire out.
When he arrives the general flies 200 meters above the blown-out reactor.
Because of the fire, the temperature at that height was between 120-180 Celsius.
Our Dosemeter (the instrument for measuring radiation) only went up to 500 roentgens.
The needle was going crazy.
It was completely off the scale.
l think there was at least 1000 roentgens at a height of 200 meters.
Even at that altitude, a half hour of exposure could be lethal.
The strong current of radioactive hot air streaming up from the reactor makes it impossible to get closer.
They will have to improvise some way of carrying out their mission.
Something needed to be done as quickly as possible.
Put out the fire and seal up the reactor to be able to get close enough to do other work.
It also needed to be closed up to stop the radioactive dust from spreading.
It was getting blown off by the wind.
We really needed to act fast.
A gigantic ballet begins.
Top pilots have been rushed back from the Afghan front to fly helicopters carrying soldiers who toss 80 kg sandbags in to the blaze with their bare hands.
They hope to smother the fire by filling the reactor with tons of sand and boric acid, which neutralizes radiation.
The first day: 110 sorties.
The next: 300.
The radiation level above the reactor is over 3,500 roentgens, almost 9 times the lethal dose.
Some of the pilots make up to 33 flights in a single day.
Each time they went, they received 5 or 6 roentgens.
If they were slow, it was even more.
After throwing 6, 7, 8 bags, they were drenched in sweat from the heat.
After a few missions, my soldiers would go wash up and eat.
After a while, they'd start throwing up.
Since the crisis began, radiation victims are being sent to Moscow's hospital number 6.
It has the country's only service which specializes in acute radiation sickness and illnesses linked to massive doses of radiation exposure.
The initial symptoms of radiation sickness: vomiting, nausea and diarrhea
are followed by a latency period.
It's only later that much more fatal symptoms appear, such as deterioration of bone marrow and horrible burns that eat flesh down to the bone.
When they arrived at the clinic, it was very hard, psychologically speaking.
They came straight from the airport.
Almost all of them were young.
They arrived during the latency period.
They felt fine.
They were all dressed alike, wearing the same pajamas.
They were making jokes.
But we already knew that a lot of them were going to die.
27 of them died quite quickly.
They'd all received huge doses of radiation and were suffering from life-threatening burns.
For 15 years, only the first victims will be acknowledged by the authorities.
Thirty kilometers east of the plant, the forest has been scorched by the radioactive blast from the explosion.
But the disaster area already stretches well beyond.
Since the explosion, radioactive particles carried by the clouds have been falling with the rain.
A "leopard-spot" pattern of contamination has affected the Ukraine as well as Belorussia and Russia.
On the first of May, the wind shifts, and areas of Kiev are also contaminated,
as seen from this map drawn up from the readings taken by Colonel Grebeniouk's men.
The seriously contaminated areas appear in red, surrounded by areas where the radiation level was normal.
But the population is still kept in the dark.
There is only one report, a tiny article on the bottom of page three of the Pravda, playing down the accident and claiming the danger has passed.
The roof was caving in, and there we were acting as if nothing was happening.
By going ahead with the May Day festivities, it was like the country refused to acknowledge the situation.
That was the second phase in the huge Chernobyl disaster.
Six days after the accident, despite radiation levels several thousand times higher than normal,
authorities encourage people to participate in May Day celebrations, even in areas they know to be seriously contaminated.
I watched the May Day in 1986 festivities with my own eyes.
I was there and I witnessed it, the parade of death.
It was a parade of death.
Those were terrible deaths.
Disturbingly, all footage of May Day 1986 has now disappeared from the Ukrainian national archives.
All that remains are Igor Kostine's photos.
Cherbitsky, the first secretary of the Ukraine, also went to the festivities with his family and his grandchildren.
It's true that, in theory, that seemed very important to us, to avoid any panic.
But had we known how much radioactivity was already in the air...
How many were contaminated during the festivities? Not a single study has yet been published.
Cherbinsky, first Secretary of the Ukraine Communist Party, Later committed suicide...
One week after the explosion, the exodus continues.
The inhabitants of the city of Chernobyl, seven kilometers from the plant, are evacuated.
So all the villages within a thirty-kilometer radius around the plant.
130,000 people are moved, many of whom have already been dangerously contaminated.
A 300,000-hectare area straddling the Ukraine and Belorussia is abruptly evacuated and isolated from the rest of the world.
A vast region uprooted, an entire culture ripped from its land, a world wiped out in a few days' time by an invisible enemy.
It was worse than a war.
Here, you couldn't see the enemy.
In a war, you see the cannons, the machine guns, the tanks.
Here, you see nothing.
The radiation is everywhere.
It goes right through you.
It gets into you and you only start feeling the effects later.
Sometimes years later.
It's terrifying...
Meanwhile, the radioactive cloud continues to drift over Europe.
It floats over Bavaria and Northern Italy.
Radioactive Cesium 137 and Iodine 131 rain down on the south of France and Corsica.
Crops and pastures are seriously contaminated.
While French authorities deny its presence, the cloud reaches Great Britain and spreads into Greece.
In Chernobyl the level of radioactivity continues to climb.
6000 tons of sand and boric acid have filled the hole.
But underneath this gigantic plug, the white-hot magma continues to smolder.
10 days after the disaster, Gorbatchev personally invites Hans Blix, director of the powerful International Atomic Energy Agency, to visit the site.
He is the first expert - and the first Westerner - to visit Chernobyl.
Well, we have seen the sight from the air, and we have seen that a little smoke is still coming up from the damaged plant.
There was a good deal of talk about the risk of a second explosion.
I remember that, when we were in Moscow, actually we had a friend, a relative of one of my experts,
phoned in and said that you know we have rumor that second reactor might also explode.
At the bottom of the reactor, 195 tons of nuclear fuel is still burning, giving off incredible heat that is gradually melting the sand.
On the surface of the plug, cracks begin to appear.
Once we plugged up the hole, the temperature started to rise.
We were afraid because it could have caused another explosion.
It was terrifying.
Scientists came to take readings.
They were very worried.
They were afraid the critical temperature would be reached and it would set off a second explosion.
That would have been a terrible tragedy.
The cement slab below the reactor core is heating up and in danger of cracking.
The magma is threatening to seep through.
The water the firemen poured during the first hours of the disaster has pooled below the slab.
If the radioactive magma makes contact with the water, it could set off a second explosion even more devastating than the first.
The country's top experts are called into action.
Vassili Nesterenko was one of them.
At the time, he was working on improving the Soviet Union's intercontinental nuclear missiles.
If the heat managed to crack the cement slab, only 1400 kg of the uranium and graphite mixture
would have needed to hit the water to set off a new explosion.
The ensuing chain reaction could set off an explosion comparable to a gigantic atomic bomb.
Our experts studied the possibility and concluded that the explosion would have had a force of 3 to 5 megatons.
Minsk, which is 320 km from Chernobyl, would have been razed, and Europe rendered uninhabitable.
We had to stop the process.
If it continued, it would have been an enormous disaster.
An enormous nuclear disaster...
This second explosion would have been accompanied by a terrible shock wave and a massive rise in radioactivity
that would have claimed thousands of lives in a matter of hours.
Thank God it didn't happen!
There were trains with over a thousand cars in Minsk, Gomel and Kiev, ready to evacuate the population.
The situation is critical.
In Moscow, the state commission decrees two emergency measures.
First: send in a battalion of firemen to drain the water from under the reactor.
They will later be declared national heroes, but will suffer from radiation sickness the rest of their lives.
Second: seal the breach more effectively to bring the temperature down once and for all.
In two days, General Antochkin's men will drop 2400 tons of lead into the reactor.
When we started dumping lead in, the temperature went down right away.
It absorbed well and sealed the hole as it melted, so there was less radiation.
But some of this lead melts when it hits the blaze and vaporizes into the atmosphere.
Twenty years later, traces of it can be found in the sick children of Chernobyl.
It's highly criticized today, but given the situation, there was no better solution.
And all the people - military or civilians, officers or not - worked selflessly.
I participated in this first stage, and I can tell you, it had to be done.
It was heroism.
During this operation, 600 pilots are fatally contaminated with radiation.
All of them will die.
But their efforts only buy a few days.
Although it has been covered over, the fire still isn't out.
Flying over in helicopters isn't solving the problem.
They needed to get closer, go down into the breach.
But how?
With the imminent threat of a second explosion still looming, the makeshift measures continue.
The blueprints of the plant reveal that the "active zone" can be approached through the cable and pipe tunnels built out of thick cement.
A delegation of technicians from the Kurtchatov Institute venture into the labyrinth.
It is tough going. Parts of the tunnels have collapsed in the explosion.
They pierce through the shell of the 4th reactor with a blow-torch, and stick their radioactivity detectors and thermometers in, along with cameras.
The result is terrifying.
The radiation levels are astronomical, and their worst fears are confirmed.
The white-hot magma has cracked the cement slab and seeped into the empty basin.
It is now threatening to sink even further.
There was a five to ten percent risk of explosion.
We'd drained the water from under the reactor, but something absolutely had to be done,
something had to be put underneath the reactor to keep the magma from seeping down,
something had to keep it from falling in.
Nothing is stopping the magma from seeping even deeper into the sandy subsoil.
And beneath the reactor lays a huge stretch aquifer that supplies the entire country with water.
What worried us the most was that the entire mass would sink down and reach the ground water,
which then would pollute the rivers Pripyat, then Dniepre, Kiev...
The Black Sea...
We absolutely needed to come up with a solution!
A new operation is considered.
But it will entail the loss of more lives.
On the 12th oh May, 1986, 17 days after the initial explosion, the miners of Toula, one thousand kilometers from Chernobyl,
receive a visit from the Kremlin from the deputy Minister of the Mining Industry.
The minister spoke to us about the accident at Chernobyl.
He said they needed miners from our region, the Moscow basin.
He gave us 24 hours to gather our belongings.
The next day, we were bused from that very square to the airport in Moscow.
On May 13, our comrades were already at work in Chernobyl.
Their mission: to approach the reactor through what is now the only possible path - underground.
Our mission was this: dig a 150-meter tunnel from the 3rd block to the 4th, a tunnel 30 meters long.
Then dig a room 30 meters long and 30 meters wide to hold a refrigeration device for cooling down the reactor.
To limit their exposure to radiation, the miners dig 12 meters down before making their way over to the burning reactor.
There, they build a room 2 meters high and 30 meters wide where a complex cooling system of liquid nitrogen will be set up.
In one month, 10,000 miners from Russia and the mining regions of the Ukraine are sent down into the tunnel.
They are between 20 to 30 years old.
Inside the tunnel, which has no ventilation, the temperature hits 50C, and radioactivity is at a minimum of 1 roentgen per hour.
We worked without any protective gear.
The miners couldn't used masks, because the filters would get damp after a few minutes.
So everyone just took them off and kept on working without them, with our shirts off too.
We drank water out of open bottles, which was really bad because the radioactive particles were ingested right into our body.
One of our comrades swallowed a grain of sand that was highly radioactive.
He died.
How can we know what each of us breathed in or ingested?
The hardest thing was the lack of oxygen...
...and the incredible heat.
It was hot, hot, hot...
and we had to work really fast.
At a crazy pace.
Faster and faster...
That was the hardest. Go, go, go...
Battalions of 30 miners relay each other every three hours, 24 hours a day.
In one month and four days, they dig a 150-meter tunnel a job that in a mine would have normally taken three months.
The most dangerous places were not underground.
There wasn't as much radiation below the reactor.
But as soon as we came up, we had to run even faster.
Radioactivity at the mouth of the tunnel is three hundred times higher.
Not a single miner is spared from exposure.
Not once are they informed of the real dangers they are facing.
Someone had to go and do it.
Us or someone else...
We did our duty.
Should we have done it? it's too late to judge.
I don't regret anything.
The miners accomplish their mission, but the cooling system is never set up below the reactor.
The underground room is finally filled with cement to solidify the structure.
The official position is that each miner received 30 to 60 roentgens, but survivors claim they received up to 5 times that amount.
It is estimated that a fourth of these men died before the age of 40.
2,500 lives lost that don't appear in any official statistic.
While the miners are still digging below the reactor, Hans Blix with Soviet authorities organizes a press conference in Moscow.
Let me say that on behalf of the IAEA, we have expressed profound regret at the tragic accident.
The loss of lives and the damage which has been caused.
We have now agreed with the Soviet authorities to come to Vienna for a post-accident analysis...
In front of 500 journalists from all over the world, he announces an international conference that will be held in Vienna,
where the Soviets have agreed to share all their data on the disaster.
The most important effect of the press conference was that the Russian people felt that we can believe these guys.
They were used to having a government that they did not believe one word in, and accidents and disasters were usually suppressed.
They didn't inform about them, so what they heard about this just kept them worried, that it may be even worse.
I was it was bad enough to be sure,
but they felt that these guys we trust, so this was a victory for Glasnost.
The Soviets agree to cooperate fully with the West.
A historic change that begins an era of openness, which became known as Glasnost.
A political victory for Gorbatchev, who sorely needs it.
Because in Chernobyl, although the fire is now being kept in check, the breach and tons of highly radioactive rubble lie exposed to the elements.
It is of the utmost urgency to cover the broken structure and clean up the zone.
But for that, more men will be needed - many more men.
18 days after the disaster, Gorbatchev finally addresses the Soviet people.
The entire country was mobilized.
No bureaucratic formalities.
If someone had what we needed, we took it.
No formalities.
We'd worry about the cost later.
We took whatever we needed, it was a front-line situation.
General Nikolai Tarakanov is sent to command the land troops.
In one year, a hundred thousand soldiers and officers passed through Chernobyl.
They were all reservists.
They were summoned up by top administration in their cities and sent to the front.
Military personnel or civilians, officers or simple soldiers, all of them are "liquidators", a term invented for the Battle of Chernobyl.
Their mission: clean up - liquidate - the radioactivity.
Igor Kostine was one of five war reporters authorized by the Kremlin to cover the battle.
A first in a country that kept everything hidden.
Three of his colleagues are now dead.
There were no titles.
No ministers, generals or soldiers.
No one was saying, "I'm a general, do what I say..." Everyone was honestly doing what they could.
And so they were be name "the liquidation of the Chernobyl accident" was set in motion.
100,000 troops as well as 400,000 civilians, workers, engineers, nurses, doctors and scientists from every Soviet republic pass through Chernobyl.
The Soviet Union is waging its last major battle.
Five hundred thousand people.
The troops in Chernobyl were bigger than Napoleon's.
But our army got contaminated.
From the sky, helicopters drop tons of a sticky liquid dubbed "burba": a mixture that coagulates and plasters the radioactive dust to the ground.
Meanwhile, brigades of liquidators are put in charge of cleaning up the zone and, house by house, of removing the layer of radioactive dust that covers everything.
Special hunting squads were formed.
They patrolled the countryside and forests with rifles, killing cats and dogs.
All the animals have to be killed, because when they wandered through highly contaminated zones, their fur soaked up the radioactivity.
They could contaminate the liquidators.
"A man is living in this house. Do not destroy..."
The last villages with people still remaining in the zone are evacuated.
The houses are knocked down one by one and buried.
At night, the trucks and the machines, and the men, are covered in radioactive dust.
We would wash five to six times in the shower.
We helped each other.
We used a hemp glove and the roughest soap available.
We scrubbed away.
We put on new clothes, then we ate.
We ate really well there,
...because you need to keep your strength up to fight the ionizing radiation.
Ionizing radiation seeks out the weak spots in your body.
That's where it finds a way in and knocks you out.
Around the plant, a colossal operation is set in motion.
It goes on 7 days a week without a single day off.
300,000 cubic meters of contaminated earth are bulldozed into huge ditches and covered over with cement.
This spot, around the 4th reactor, is where the most dangerous missions of the zone took place.
Eight weeks after the explosion, the liquidators tackle the heart of the problem:
in order to neutralize the toxic waste for the long-term and prevent it from spreading even more, the entire blown-out reactor has to be isolated.
Lev Bolchakov was one of the engineers who designed the enormous structure that would entirely cover the fourth reactor.
A "sarcophagus" of steel and concrete 170 meters long and 66 meters high.
It was a one-of-a-kind and unique project.
No one had ever built such a structure in a zone this radioactive.
You could only work a few minutes at a time.
That had never been done before.
It is an enormous challenge: How do you build a monumental structure in a place
where humans can work for only a few minutes, or even just seconds, at a time?
This utterly new situation will require more improvisation from the liquidators, and put more lives at risk.
It has now been more than 12 weeks since the initial blast at Block number 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
To stop the deadly contamination, the final attack is launched.
Radioactivity in this sector is so high that only remote-controlled machines can be sent in.
But people will have to get the machines into position.
Workers can only stay a few minutes without receiving a fatal dose of radiation.
With each second, their lives are more and more threatened.
Here's one of the armored vehicles.
It looks primitive, but we had to build them ourselves.
We lined the cabs entirely with lead to protect our soldiers from the radiation as best we could.
Each metallic piece of the structure is prefabricated, sometimes hundreds of kilometers away, then brought one by one onto the site for assembly.
An extraordinary jigsaw puzzle: Beams 150 tons and 70 meters long.
Buttresses 45 meters high.
That's the DEMAC 4000.
Look at the size of this crane.
We couldn't work very long on the site and there was no room for error.
The slightest miscalculation and it would have been impossible to fit it all together.
Despite the extreme conditions, work progresses.
100,000 cubic meters of cement are used to make the structure.
But the discovery of a new problem forces the work to a halt: the roof of the plant is covered in highly contaminated pieces of graphite.
These pieces of graphite enveloped uranium rods.
They've been blown from the reactor during the explosion.
One single piece gives off enough radioactivity to kill a man in less than one hour.
They absolutely have to be gotten rid of before construction continues.
Robots are sent onto the roof to shove the lethal debris over the edge.
60 meters below, other robots gather it up and burry it in ditches.
But after a few days, the ambient radioactivity begins to affect even the machines.
Their electronic circuitry can't hold up.
They go berserk and break down.
One of them hurtles itself into the breach.
On the roof, robotic machines are no longer an option.
Men will have to replace them.
Russian soldiers, nicknamed "bio-robots" for the occasion.
This battalion of young reservists is preparing to go up onto the roof of the third reactor for the first time.
They're between 20 and 30 years old, all of them reservists called to the front for the most dangerous and deadly battle of Chernobyl.
No human has ever worked in zones as radioactive as this.
General Nikolai Tarakanov is in command of the operations,
and personally oversee every detail.
down to the hand-sewn lead suits that every soldier is forced to make the night before the attack.
On their front, on their back, in their boots - they were covered in lead.
A helmet, a mask to protect against beta rays and a special apron.
Double layers of protection on the hands.
The whole uniform weighed 26 to 30 kilos.
Obviously, some people didn't want to go, but they had to.
They were reservists.
They had to go.
For me, there was no question: I had to go to my duty.
Who was going to do it for me?
Who is going to clean up this disaster and stop the spread of radioactivity all over the world?
Somebody had to do it.
Two and a half weeks of hell.
But hell only lasted 2-3 minutes for each soldier, or sometimes even just 40 seconds when the level was too high.
We were careful to calculate out the time to save as many lives as possible.
When the siren blows, a crew of 8 soldiers rushes up on the roof along with an officer.
Their mission is simple: shovel up the radioactive debris as quickly as possible and throw it off the roof.
According to General Tarakanov's calculations, the level of radioactivity estimated to be 7000 roentgens per hour
only allows bio-robots 45 seconds on the roof only enough time for a couple shovelfuls.
We were like ants: just as some were finishing their task, others would immediately take their place.
Everyone did their job, no matter how small it was, and that's how, together, we were able to fight the radioactivity.
For ten days, a new crew of bio-robots climbs on the roof every ten minutes.
According to military personnel, 3,500 people participate in the clean-up.
Some, like Igor Kostine and Constantin Fedotov, went up on the roof five times.
We'd pick up pieces that were 1,500 roentgens.
After a day of work, our hands would ache and we couldn't make a fist.
The first time I went up on the roof, I was struck by the mystical feeling there.
It was like being on another planet.
The whole thing was covered in radioactive waste.
My hands were shaking.
I didn't know what world I was in, and I started snapping photos.
If you look close, you can see traces of radiation on the film.
I was holding the camera like this, and it was coming up from the ground, like that.
Your eyes hurt and there was a metal taste in your mouth, those are the two things you felt.
And once you felt that, you knew you'd gotten more than your dose.
You couldn't feel your teeth up there.
Your mouth was full of this lead taste.
You went like this, but you couldn't hear anything.
Everything was covered in lead.
Even today, twenty years later, I can still taste the lead in my mouth.
Thousands of them will discover that this peculiar taste means the invisible enemy is attacking.
As the bio-robots are sacrificing their lives on the roof of the plant,
the clean-up continues throughout the 30-kilometer zone,
24 hours a day, rain or shine.
Where normally it would take one man one hour to do a job, here in Chernobyl, it took sixty people.
When we came down off the roof, it felt like our blood had been sucked dry by vampires; we were drained, we couldn't move.
Some people would have nosebleeds.
The firemen were right there.
If someone's nose started bleeding, they got sent to the hospital.
If we collapsed, we got sent home, but we wanted to hold out.
But at the time, we were young and strong.
Our health is shot, we've lost everything.
They wrote in my record that we'd got 20.5 roentgens.
But what did that mean? That number was several times lower than the actual dose.
As reward, each soldier received a liquidator certificate from the army.
and a 100-rouble bonus the equivalent today of about 100 U.S. dollars
They had risked their lives.
But they have only reduced the radiation level on the roof by 35%.
When they sent all those people up onto the roof, no one knew exactly the actual level of radiation.
Now we know it was between 10,000 and 12,000 roentgens per hour.
At that level of radioactivity, people never should have been sent!
Seven months after the explosion, the zone has been cleaned up and the sarcophagus completed.
500,000 people, military and civilians, have participated in the operation.
l told the commission that, for having confronted such levels of radioactivity,
having cleaned up all that graphite, and having accomplished such heroic tasks,
our soldiers needed something symbolic like putting up our flag.
Putting the flag up was like putting the flag on the Reichstag when the Red Army conquered fascism.
For them, the flag was a symbol of their triumph over radioactivity.
Each team of liquidators celebrates the end of the operation in their own way.
Bocharov and his men etch their names onto the final metal piece to go up on top of the sarcophagus.
Our sarcophagus is a Pantheon.
A tomb... A mausoleum...
Our second mausoleum! After that, we stopped building nuclear power plants.
A bitter victory.
The country will never recover.
It cost us 18 billion rubles.
At that time, a ruble was worth one dollar.
18 billion! That's huge!
And if you consider that, shortly after, the price of oil collapsed,
you can imagine the trouble our country and perestroika were up against.
The first snow has started to stick on Chernobyl.
For authorities, this proves the sarcophagus is airtight.
At least for 30 years, or so they predict.
The liquidators have gone home.
Reactors 1, 2 and 3 are back up and running.
The first battle of Chernobyl has ended in a victory that heralded the end of the USSR.
But for many, it also marks the beginning of a war that, 20 years later, still hasn't ended.
Twenty years later, Pripyat is still a ghost town.
Accompanied by Igor Kostine, Yulia wanted to see the apartment where she lived with her family up until the fateful day of their evacuation.
Contrary to what they'd been told not a single inhabitant was ever able to come back to live in the deserted buildings.
For Igor Kostine as well, the visit stirs up painful memories.
He was fatally exposed to radiation during the seven months he spent covering the battle.
Since then, he's had to be hospitalized for over two months each year.
For the hundreds of thousands of atomic refugees,
as for the hundreds of thousands of veterans from the Battle of Chernobyl the fight against the invisible enemy hasn't let up.
Everyone who went to Chernobyl is still suffering from the radioactivity their bodies absorbed.
In the months following the accident the liquidators flooded into hospitals all over the Soviet Union.
Twenty years later, those who are still alive continue to frequent hospital number 6.
They're all victims of what specialists have since named "The Chernobyl Syndrome."
We've all got a bunch of symptoms: heart, stomach, liver, kidneys, nervous system.
Our whole bodies were radically upset by the metabolic changes caused by radiation, and chemical exposure.
When the liquidators went back home, they were exhausted, incapable of going back to a normal life.
Twenty years later, many of those who survived are disabled and unable to work.
And the authorities appear to be ignoring their plight by cutting down their welfare money.
The veterans of the war in Afghanistan are still alive, while we are slowly wasting away.
l have written a poem about this:
"Sadness fills me, nostalgia and anguish,
Like a bullet in the temple,
Nothing can ever stop.
The mother prays in secret to God,
To spare his life... "
These men weren't even thirty when they were sent in to battle the atom.
Today, the survivors are not yet 50 years old, but they struggle like senior citizens.
According to the military, of the 500,000 Chernobyl liquidators 20,000 have already died.
200,000 are officially disabled.
You don't know how long you have to live, or what disease is going to kill you.
You don't know what effects it will have on your children, if you have any.
We know all that, and we know the invisible enemy is eating away inside of us like a worm.
For us, the war continues, and little by little we're slipping away from this world.
Yet for two decades, only 59 deaths had been officially attributed to the Chernobyl disaster.
Not a single study has been carried out on the 130,000 refugees from the zone.
Not a single statistic on the state of the 500,000 liquidators.
No figures on the population that continues to live around Chernobyl and in the contaminated areas.
The real amount of radiation these people were exposed to has never been revealed to them.
A deputy of the Supreme Soviet discovered the systematic cover-up of the true consequences of Chernobyl when the Soviet Empire dissolved in 1991.
Taking advantage of the anarchy in the country she managed to get her hands on a copy of top secret documents.
600 pages of a report to the Central Committee written while the Battle of Chernobyl was still raging.
When I read these documents, I discovered everything happened differently.
I realized just how huge a lie the Party leaders told.
Decree No.12 stated that on May 12, 1986, 10,198 people had already been hospitalized,
345 showed signs of radio-lesions.
Yet at the same time, they were telling us everything was fine, that it was nothing serious, and I realized the scope of the lies.
According to Alla, another passage reveals that authorities had arbitrarily changed the standards.
Multiplying by five what was considered the acceptable dose of radiation for the human body.
When they raised the standard, suddenly people were miraculously cured.
They were released from the hospital and sent home.
It was criminal.
The tendency to manipulate the numbers was not unique to the Soviets.
In late August 1986 the first international conference assessing Chernobyl took place behind closed doors.
It was presided over by Hans Blix, No journalists or outside observers were admitted into the amphitheater.
The Russian delegation was led by Legassov the man who'd been in charge of the governmental commission during the Battle of Chernobyl.
When we put him in charge of preparing the report for the IAEA, we gave him the duty of reporting everything.
He came up with a very detailed report that put everybody in a state of shock.
Legassov spoke for three hours.
His report concluded that in the decades to come, about 40,000 deaths from cancer caused by Chernobyl were to be expected.
The Western world refused flat out to accept this estimate which spurred a genuine East-West negotiation.
These are theoretical calculations based upon the Hiroshima model.
That you say that if you have certain radio-activity, you know from Hiroshima,
that the long term effect, that so or so many would die from it.
And if you then increase it by tenfold, you assumed that it will be tenfold.
That's the calculation.
This is not I think an exact, it is not empiric...
There again, the figures were surprisingly flexible.
By the end of the conference, people were no longer talking about 40,000 but rather 4000 probable deaths.
Nearly twenty years later in September 2005, this figure became the official death toll of the disaster.
The staunchest opponents to the Soviets' policy of transparency were the French,
who went as far as to deny that the radioactive cloud passed over their country.
Twenty years later in France and especially in Corsica,
cases of thyroid cancer of the same nature and severity as those around Chernobyl are being reported.
The most dangerous element that came out of the Chernobyl reactor wasn't cesium or plutonium, but lies.
"The Lie of '86", that's what I call it.
A lie that was propagated like the radioactivity - throughout the whole country and the entire world.
On the 27th of April, 1988 the second anniversary of the disaster,
Legassov who'd worked so hard to unveil the entire truth decided to put an end to his life.
Today, as perfect metaphors of the institutionalized lie the radioactive particles hurled from the reactor in the explosion continue to poison the land.
Twenty years after the disaster, the area of Chernobyl remains uninhabitable.
In five years, the radionuclides sink five centimeters into the contaminated soil.
So twenty years later, they're 20 cm under the ground.
They continue to contaminate all the plants.
To clean it up, we'd need to remove 20 cm of soil and seal it underground in burial sites.
And that's too big of a job to do.
It's impossible ...
Today, eight million people live in contaminated areas of Ukraine, Russia and especially Belorussia.
For twenty years, they've lived off the radioactive food that continues to contaminate them little by little.
This issue, raised in 1986 by the Soviet delegation at the Vienna conference, has been systematically ignored.
And yet, 1,152 children were treated for thyroid cancer between 1986 and 2002 at the specialized center in Minsk.
How many in other cities? No global statistics have yet been made public.
One doctor, Youri Bandajevski has been studying illnesses among the populations in the contaminated areas ever since the disaster.
When his findings were published in 1996, they were immediately condemned.
Arrested and officially sentenced for "corruption", he spent the next five years in jail.
In November 2005, he was still under house arrest.
Look what happened when the mother was contaminated with cesium during pregnancy.
In one single family, look how many deformations: hare-lips, missing eyes, deformed skulls.
These embryos come from hamsters that were fed only contaminated grass from the region of Gomel.
The result: entire litters of deformed animals.
l was horrified by how many deformed embryos developed in animals that had eaten cesium-contaminated food.
l obtained a horrible number of deformations in two weeks.
Usually, when you encounter a "monster", you describe it.
You're certainly familiar with Peter the Great's Kunstkamera museum in Saint-Petersburg.
Quite frankly, I myself could create as many "monsters" as I wanted.
There's been no official study of genetic mutations stemming from Chernobyl.
Yet despite the thousands of miscarriages and abortions that took place following the disaster,
there seem to be hundred of children who suffered the effect of radiation.
The deformations we see among these children are similar to those of Bandajevski's hamsters.
In Belorussia, 300,000 children are currently suffering the consequences of contamination.
NGOs, like the International Green Cross founded by Gorbatchev after he was sidelined from the government in 1991,
have opened treatment and support centers for victims of Chernobyl.
They also organize therapeutic camps aiming to teach the new generations in contaminated areas
how to live with radioactivity like here, testing the contamination of their food.
How many years is this going to go on? 800 years? 800 years.
Until the second Jesus Christ is born? Until his return?
Yes, Chernobyl played an important role for us all.
And of course, we must keep searching and not skimp on means.
We must strengthen international cooperation, and create international scientific centers to find new sources of energy which are safer.
That's the essential issue...
I wouldn't wish for anyone, not my friends or my enemies, to experience such a tragedy.
No one deserves to live through what we did in Chernobyl.
We're all human beings and no one deserves that.
In the heart of the zone, ten kilometers from the nuclear power plant and hidden in the forest, lies Chernobyl 2.
Twenty years ago no one could get near this huge military radar: Moscow's hidden eye meant to spot American missiles.
The fact it was put out of service after the explosion tallies with what the Chernobyl accident seemed to foreshadow.
Using weapons is a terrible thing, and nuclear weapons are even worse.
Chernobyl was an accident involving one single reactor - a limited accident - whose consequences are still with us.
We've had two bombs: Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
There again, the consequences are still being felt today.
Chernobyl showed us the true nature of nuclear energy in human hands.
We'd calculated that our most powerful missile, the SS-18, was as powerful as 100 Chernobyls.
The SS-18 was the warhead the Americans feared the most, and we had 2,700 of them.
And these were the missiles we'd intended for the Americans.
2,700! Imagine the destruction...
Mister Gorbatchev was probably right in saying that Chernobyl was a big illustration of radioactivity let loose.
And in this sense, suggested to people more vividly that we ought to do away with nuclear weapons.
A year and half after Chernobyl, Gorbatchev retired all nuclear warheads with a range of 500 to 5000 km.
Ten years later the Total Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was ratified by the entire world, with the exception of India.
Chernobyl marked the beginning of disarmament for the world's greatest nuclear rivals.
Chernobyl convinced everyone.
Soviets and Americans alike realized once and for all the magnitude of the atomic volcanoes our countries were sitting upon.
Not just our two countries, but the entire world.
The entire world!
Yet twenty years later the Chernobyl disaster and its lessons seem to be fading from memory.
Meanwhile, beneath the aging sarcophagus of reactor number 4 the poison remains deadly.
Since 2001 the three Chernobyl reactors have been shut down once and for all.
But twenty years after the explosion a dosimeter flies off the chart at the base of the sarcophagus.
High levels of radioactivity, a hundred times above normal, are still contaminating the plant's surroundings.
The structure has been weakened by rain and erosion.
Since its construction, 3000 liquidators have been watching over it, trying to ward off damage.
We built this sarcophagus to last 30 years, thinking that 30 years after the explosion,
we could build a new sarcophagus without people having to run because of high radiation levels.
Twenty years have gone by and nothing's been done yet.
And it's urgent that it get replaced.
But the Ukraine doesn't have anymore money.
Neither do we.
A new sarcophagus is underway.
But its construction is already ten years behind schedule.
A structure 108 meters high meant to entirely cover the first sarcophagus.
It will cost: one billion dollars.
An international fund led by Hans Blix has been set up.
We still have not put the new sarcophagus on it that will be ready in a couple of years' time.
When that is done, allow they can do later on to remove the masses of spent fuel, the melted fuel which is still there...
Twenty years after the explosion, the cooled magma at the reactor's core 14 meters underground is still a terrible threat.
And will remain so for years to come.
I pray God the sarcophagus never collapses.
That would be the worst thing that could happen.
Because inside, there are 100 kg of plutonium.
One microgram is the lethal dose for a human being.
That means there's enough plutonium to poison a hundred million people.
The half-life of plutonium, in other words the time it takes for half of the plutonium to disappear, is 245,000 years.
It's something we could thus consider eternal.
There are areas where there will never be life again...
Despite this terrible warning the nuclear disarmament sparked by Chernobyl is clearly coming into question today.
If nuclear development for civilian uses is being put forward as a solution to the problems of fossil fuels and global warming,
this landscape reminds us that such an option is not without consequences.
It requires the greatest caution and clear information on the real risks it presents.
Chernobyl also reminds us that if we must live with radioactivity and its unavoidable dangers,
we also need to spare future generations from any risk of nuclear apocalypse.
Captions by: Doneko 2011
- in memory of the liquidators -