Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster
Senior Lieutenant Alexander Logachev loved radiation the way other men loved their wives. Tall and good-looking, twenty-six years old, with close-cropped dark hair and ice-blue eyes, Logachev had joined the Soviet army when he was still a boy. They had trained him well. The instructors from the military academy outside Moscow taught him with lethal poisons and unshielded radiation. He traveled to the testing grounds of Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan, and to the desolate East Urals Trace, where the fallout from a clandestine radioactive accident still poisoned the landscape; eventually, Logachev’s training took him even to the remote and forbidden islands of Novaya Zemlya, high in the Arctic Circle and ground zero for the detonation of the terrible Tsar Bomba, the largest thermonuclear device in history.
Now, as the lead radiation reconnaissance officer of the 427th Red Banner Mechanized Regiment of the Kiev District Civil Defense force, Logachev knew how to protect himself and his three-man crew from nerve agents, biological weapons, gamma rays, and hot particles: by doing their work just as the textbooks dictated; by trusting his dosimetry equipment; and, when necessary, reaching for the nuclear, bacterial, and chemical warfare medical kit stored in the cockpit of their armored car. But he also believed that the best protection was psychological. Those men who allowed themselves to fear radiation were most at risk. But those who came to love and appreciate its spectral presence, to understand its caprices, could endure even the most intense gamma bombardment and emerge as healthy as before.
As he sped through the suburbs of Kiev that morning at the head of a column of more than thirty vehicles summoned to an emergency at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Logachev had every reason to feel confident. The spring air blowing through the hatches of his armored scout car carried the smell of the trees and freshly cut grass. His men, gathered on the parade ground just the night before for their monthly inspection, were drilled and ready. At his feet, the battery of radiological detection instruments—including a newly installed electronic device twice as sensitive as the old model—murmured softly, revealing nothing unusual in the atmosphere around them.
But as they finally approached the plant later that morning, it became clear that something extraordinary had happened. The alarm on the radiation dosimeter first sounded as they passed the concrete signpost marking the perimeter of the power station grounds, and the lieutenant gave orders to stop the vehicle and log their findings: 51 roentgen per hour. If they waited there for just sixty minutes, they would all absorb the maximum dose of radiation permitted Soviet troops during wartime. They drove on, following the line of high-voltage transmission towers that marched toward the horizon in the direction of the power plant; their readings climbed still further, before falling again.
Then, as the armored car rumbled along the concrete bank of the station’s coolant canal, the outline of the Fourth Unit of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant finally became visible, and Logachev and his crew gazed at it in silence. The roof of the twenty-story building had been torn open, its upper levels blackened and collapsed into heaps of rubble. They could see shattered panels of ferroconcrete, tumbled blocks of graphite, and, here and there, the glinting metal casings of fuel assemblies from the core of a nuclear reactor. A cloud of steam drifted from the wreckage into the sunlit sky.
Yet they had orders to conduct a full reconnaissance of the plant. Their armored car crawled counterclockwise around the complex at ten kilometers an hour. Sergeant Vlaskin called out the radiation readings from the new instruments, and Logachev scribbled them down on a map, hand-drawn on a sheet of parchment paper in ballpoint pen and colored marker: 1 roentgen an hour; then 2, then 3. They turned left, and the figures began to rise quickly: 10, 30, 50, 100.
“Two hundred fifty roentgen an hour!” the sergeant shouted. His eyes widened.
“Comrade Lieutenant—” he began, and pointed at the radiometer.
Logachev looked down at the digital readout and felt his scalp prickle with terror: 2,080 roentgen an hour. An impossible number.
Logachev struggled to remain calm and remember the textbook; to conquer his fear. But his training failed him, and the lieutenant heard himself screaming in panic at the driver, petrified that the vehicle would stall.
“Why are you going this way, you son of a bitch? Are you out of your fucking mind?” he yelled. “If this thing dies, we’ll all be corpses in fifteen minutes!”
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