And he wasn't alone. 600 Soviet pilots exposed themselves to massive radiation in 1986 in order to seal the Chernobyl reactor.
This post first appeared on Russia Insider
Yesterday, November 29, they installed a permanent structure over the radioactive power station at Chernobyl in the Ukraine. The new Safe Confinement Sarcophagus (The Arch) was finally moved into place, enclosing the destroyed 4th reactor of the Chornobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. The Arch, the world’s biggest movable facility, is 110 m high and 165 m long.
The Arch now encases the crumbling concrete sarcophagus constructed after the catastrophe on April 26, 1986, and will prevent the radiation leaks into the environment for the next hundred years.
The world will never forget that 26th day April 1986 when the disaster took place at Chernobyl in the Ukraine when the No.4 light water graphite moderated reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat exploded and the world’s largest nuclear disaster took place. The disaster began during a systems test There was a sudden and unexpected power surge, and when an emergency shutdown was attempted, a much larger spike in power output occurred, which led to a reactor vessel rupture and a series of steam explosions. These events exposed the graphite moderator of the reactor to air, causing it to ignite. The resulting fire sent week long plumes of highly radioactive fallout into the atmosphere over an extensive geographical area, including Pripyat. The plumes drifted over large parts of the western Soviet Union and Europe.
The release of radiation into the atmosphere was very dangerous and was spreading fast. The experts decided that fire had to be quenched and the reactor covered to control the leakage. In the late-1980s, 2-star General Nikolay Timofeyevich Antoshkin was Commander of the Kiev Military District. Antoshkin was at home with Tatyana, his wife, his son Sergey and his daughter Elena when he got an urgent call from the Chairman of the Kiev Military Division State Commission who summoned General Antoshkin and told him that the military was being asked to produce a plan to seal the Chernobyl site. Antoshkin travelled to the Pripyat Airbase and flew his helicopter over the flaming reactor to assess how the problem could be solved. He flew over the site twice that day and returned with a plan.
He realised that the only way to seal the reactor was to drop large quantities of sand and lead over the reactor to put out the fires and suppress the radiation and then to cover the site with a heavy load of concrete to seal it in. All of this had to be done by air, in eighty helicopters. Over the next ten days more than six hundred Soviet pilots flew more than 4,000 flights over the highly radioactive site and dropped thousands of tons of lead, sand, boric acid and clay to cover the destroyed reactor. Antoshkin flew every day and supervised operations from the air.
The pilots were exposed to very high levels of radiation. Antoshkin said “The pilots received potentially lethal doses of radiation that went completely off the scale of their dosimeters while precautions were as basic as changing uniforms, using cream and taking baths. Of course, the pilots knew (they were getting high doses) and the consequences.” The pilots received potentially lethal doses of radiation while only able to take such basic precautions as changing uniforms, using cream and taking baths. Despite their fears and exhaustion they carried on with the task. “"They said 'comrade general, this is not Afghanistan. There you are shot at but you turn back, land and forget. But here the enemy is invisible. How will this affect me, my children in the future? But the pilots knew that the reactor needed to be covered as quickly as possible. You'd tell the pilot to leave but he'd come back." These were very brave and selfless men.
"Every day the crews changed their uniforms. They gave us iodine tablets and some kind of nasty anti-radiation cream from Leningrad for those who flew across the reactor. We used whatever they proposed. Although we knew they were weak precautions. They forced the pilots to take baths to wash away the radioactive dirt. The device for measuring radiation could not cope with the levels of radiation. Its maximum level was 500 roentgen. I estimated that it would be 1,500 at that height and then I was told 'you deceived your pilots. It's 3,000-3,500 roentgen.”
Antoshkin was awarded the honour of Hero of the Soviet Union and the Order of Lenin on 24 December 1986 for his bravery and dedication at Chernobyl. In November 1989 he became commander of the Air Force of the Moscow Military District. He was promoted to lieutenant general on 25 April 1990. On 28 November 1991 he was awarded the Order for Service to the Homeland in the Armed Forces of the USSR. From November 1993 to March 1997 Antoshkin led Russian Strategic Air Force. He was promoted to colonel general on 10 June 1994. On 28 August 1995 he received the Order "For Merit to the Fatherland". He was elected as a Deputy in the State Duma in 2014.
It has been one of the great honours and privileges of my life to know General Antoshkin and to call him a friend. He is a very modest and soft-spoken man but immensely capable. I heard some of the story of the Chernobyl mission in conversations with him and with his friends in the Russian Air Force and among the cosmonauts he included in his circle. I shall never forget the evening when we all went to the banya at the military base built by Stalin’s son in the north of Moscow. I had just been at Zvezdny Gorodok (Star City) at the Yuri Gagarin Training Centre to see the museum and the training setup and came back into Moscow with two cosmonauts. We met up with Antoshkin and two other military officers and we went to the banya for our steam bath. As we were snacking and drinking at the banya I saw that Antoshkin had several large scars across his chest and upper body. I said nothing but he told me that these were the result of several major surgeries caused by his experiences in Chernobyl. In between the jokes I heard part of the story.
I realised that I was sitting among proper heroes - one who had flown over the world’s largest radioactive leak for ten days; another who had spent three months in space; another who was next in line for a six month space journey; and another who was a Hero of the Soviet Union for his bravery in Afghanistan. I felt very inadequate but lucky to have met such brave and dedicated men. When I see the new protection cover being put in place in Chernobyl I cannot help but reflect on the dedication of Gen. Antoshkin and his pilots who covered the site the first time. I hope they get the recognition they deserve for their bravery.
This post first appeared on Russia Insider
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