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The Chernobyl Three - Vincent Yao

Chernobyl, 1986. A small-town home to 12,000 residents, and a nuclear facility that would lead to the world's most notorious nuclear disaster. Today, Chernobyl is regarded by many as a ghost town, but the unseen heroism that happened the days following the disaster ultimately prevented the Chernobyl nuclear accident from destroying much more than it had.

On the day of the accident, 20 million litres of water were dumped into the facility in an attempt to control the blazing fire. Although the water did put out the flames, it did not dispose of the molten nuclear material residing in the floors above, which was soon discovered to be melting its way towards the basement of the facility where all the pumped water ended up in. If the radioactive sludge had made contact with the radioactive water, the result would've been a nuclear explosion thousands of times worse than the Atomic Bomb Hiroshima. These two bodies of nuclear substances had to be displaced away from each other, and fast.

Enter Valeri Bespalov, Alexei Ananenko, and Boris Baranov, three men who all worked at the facility, now known as the "Chernobyl Three." On May 4, 1986, just over a week after the initial disaster, these three men stepped forward to undertake a mission that many considered to be suicide. They were going to venture into the basement and pull the valves that would drain out the water. And so they did, stepping into knee-high levels of radioactive water in a gargantuan facility, looking for the valves in the waste, the needle in the haystack. It took a very long time, but in the end, the men found the pipes that led to the draining valves in time. As a result, all the remaining litres of water was drained out of the facility, and no nuclear fallout was to be seen.

Contrary to popular belief, the Chernobyl Three did not die several weeks after attempting the mission. They are still very much alive, apart from Baranov, who passed away in 2005 of unrelated reasons. However, it is thanks to these three men and the many others that helped them on their mission, that the Chernobyl Nuclear Accident did not spiral into a much worse disaster.

Illustration by Gary Dorning.

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