What Is The Cost Of Lies: Valery Legasov - Chernobyl Hero?

  • 01/09/2020
  • Helga

What is the cost of lies? It's not that we'll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all. What can we do then? What else is left but to abandon even the hope of truth and content ourselves instead with stories? In these stories, it doesn't matter who the heroes are. All we want to know is: Who is to blame? Those are the opening lines of HBO miniseries Chernobyl.

84 years ago, on September 1, 1936 was born one of the most famous Soviet nuclear physicist in the world - Valery Legasov. He led the commission that investigated the catastrophe. Valery was a proponent of transparency between the commission's findings and the public in spite of the Soviet government's efforts to downplay the Chernobyl disaster . Many people credit him as the sole rational, intelligent figure involved in the problem's solution, as it was Legasov who was responsible for launching the immediate remedies to Chernobyl's long-term effects.

Who was Valery Alekseevich Legasov?

Legasov was born in Tula, Russian SFSR, into a family of civil workers. Fate gave Valery Alekseevich Legasov a lot, and then took it away. At 36 he became a doctor of chemical sciences, at 45 - a full member of the Academy of Sciences. For his work on the synthesis of chemical compounds of noble gases, he was awarded the title of Laureate of the State and Lenin Prizes.

Legasov in the early 60's after graduating and starting work on a Siberian chemical plant.
Source: Unknown

By the time of the Chernobyl disaster on 26 April 1986, Legasov was the first deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy. This institute had created the RBMK-1000 reactors used in Chernobyl.

The 50-year-old scientist was a specialist in chemistry and molecular physics. Valery Alekseevich Legasov belonged to the "second generation" of nuclear scientists. Moreover, he did not deal with reactors, but he had no doubts about their reliability. 

He had complaints about the quality of equipment, personnel training, and automation, but if on April 25, 1986 you had asked him: "Is it possible for an accident with the destruction of the core and the release of a huge amount of radioactive products "? He would have told you that you're insane. Like most scientists. 

For a quarter of a century, physicists have been convincing the public of the absolute safety of Nuclear Power Plants and did it so effectively that they themselves did not even admit such a possibility.

… We had received a very bad alarm signal from the station the night before .... 
the following signal:" 1-2-3-4 "; which means that an event had occurred at the station that involved nuclear hazard, radiation hazard, fire hazard, and explosive hazard, ie all possible types of hazards ,  - Legasov.

Chernobyl shocked nuclear scientists of all ranks. It took time to make sure that the impossible had happened. 

The Role of Legasov in the Chernobyl Disaster

Valery Legasov was called regardless because he was the only high-ranking scientist available at that moment as the others were on holiday. 

There could have been another reason for choosing Legasov - several years before this terrible accident, at a meeting of the physics section of the USSR Academy of Sciences he had stressed the importance of a new security methodology for preventing large catastrophes, and pointed to the problems of the RBMK-1000 reactors (the one that exploded), and the risks of operating nuclear reactors, offering to secure them with a protective shield - a proposal was denied by colleagues.

I, as a chemist, was worried about the huge potential for chemical reactions in these devices. There is a lot of graphite, a lot of zirconium and water .

A commission was formed approximately within 3-4 hours to be sent to Chernobyl, and Legasov represented the scientific circles in the commission. He was placed in charge of the group that had to develop measures to localize the accident .

While the commission was on its way, new messages arrived from the station stating that the reactor (and this was the 4th block reactor) was fairly under control. No information was received about the radiation-related injuries.

Dosimetrist at work.
Source: The Legasov Tapes

When Legasov arrived at Chernobyl with the commission members, no one could tell him the extent of the meltdown in the first few hours. Moreover, nobody realized how huge the disaster was.

Recalling this trip now, I must say that I had absolutely no idea that we were moving towards an event of a planetary scale, that would most likely be remembered like events such as famous volcanic eruptions; Pompei for example or something similar to that .

On the way to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Legasov saw the glow over Pripyat and instantly knew that it was bad news:

When we were just nearing Pripyat, about 8-10 kilometers from it, I was struck by the appearance of the sky. It was like mulberry or even crimson maybe, glowing above the station, which made it absolutely unlike how it should be in a Nuclear Power Station. It is known that Nuclear Power Stations are very clean and accurate, with all their facilities and pipes which usually do not output anything visible into the air. And a nuclear station for a specialist is usually an object that doesn't produce any gases. This is its distinctive feature, if we exclude some specific facilities. But this one looked like a metallurgical factory or a giant chemistry plant with a huge crimson glow over half of the visible sky. This was very disturbing and made the situation very unusual .

Two explosions happened at the Power Plant and that caused the destruction of the reactor building. The 1st and 2nd blocks continued to work despite their internal rooms having a relatively high level of contamination which was around tens, or even hundreds of milliroentgens per hour. That internal contamination had happened because of the ventilation intake.

The Nuclear Energy Institute and the Energy Ministry took active part in the discussions about what to do. There was no experience in the elimination of such accidents in the world.

A special Soviet Governmental Commission had to develop non-traditional ways of solving many problems:

  • How to distinguish the fire?
  • What is the temperature inside the wrecked block?
  • How to stabilize the temperature inside the destroyed core?
  • How to stop the spread of radiation?

Legasov realized that he had to reach a swift decision otherwise thousands of lives would be in jeopardy.

It was Legasov, who convinced the chairman of the government commission, Boris Shcherbina, that the first thing they should do in the next 24 hours is to evacuate people from Pripyat. But the evacuation only started 36 hours later after the explosion. Buses were brought in from all the nearest large cities and 50 thousand people were taken out, which saved many lives. After that, officials established a 30-km Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which is said to be unsafe for human habitation for the next 20,000 years as a result of the disaster.

Evacuation of Pripyat
Source: Unknown

At 11 am, we were officially informed that the whole city would be evacuated by 2 pm. All the transport had been gathered; all the routes had been identified; and at around 2-2: 30 pm the entire city was empty. Except for the station workers, and some workers that were needed to operate public services .

Valery Alekseevich quickly determined the cause of this damage - a volumetric explosion of the power of 3 to 4 tons of TNT. With intense scrutiny, he began his work on how to decrease the level of radiation coming from the reactor.

Under his command, it was decided to fill the burning reactor with sand, lead, and dolomite clay, and to dump boron carbide in large quantities from helicopters to act as a neutron absorber and prevent any renewed chain reaction.

Helicopters were allotted to do the task, however, the choppers struggled to stay in place at the height of 200 meters with up to 200-degrees heat emanating from the reactor. 

Response work at Chernobyl NPP
Source: Igor Kostin / Sputnik

"Sealing" the reactor, the helicopter pilots dropped over 5,000 tons of materials on the reactor, including about 40 tons of boron compounds, 2,400 tons of lead, 1,800 tons of sand and clay, and 600 tons of dolomite, as well as sodium phosphate and polymer liquids (Bu93).

Later came the steps to prevent the melted radioactive material from reaching the water in the lower cooling system, so a tunnel was built to prevent radioactives from reaching the groundwater.

Valery Legasov would fly over the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant 5-6 times a day. An on-board Geiger-Muller Counter (dosimeter) with a maximum scale of 500 roentgens per hour went off the scale…

The academician came to the Chernobyl NPP 7 times. He was unwell: he was constantly sick, and he had a dry cough and headaches. He had a weakened immune system. However, he continued to work 12 hours a day.

Legasov near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
Source: Unknown

Although it was allowed to spend a maximum of two weeks at the site, the scientist spent 4 months (!) There, and was exposed to 100 REM (Roentgen Equivalent Man) - four times the allowed maximum of 25 REM. On May 5, he already showed signs of radiation sickness (nuclear tan and hair loss) and by May 15, a cough and insomnia began to kick in. However, he went back to Chernobyl regardless, knowing well that his life had ended there.

What did Legasov say in Vienna?

Conference IAEA in Vienna
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The European countries accused Moscow of contaminating the whole region and concealing the extent of the disaster. The Soviet government, in an attempt to salvage its reputation, formed a team to compile a special report detailing the scale of the fallout to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world's main nuclear watchdog.

In August 1986, Valery Legasov presented the Chernobyl report at the five-day meeting of the IAEA in Vienna. Initially, it was the head of state Mikhail Gorbachev who should have done it, but the leader decided it should be Legasov, the scientist who had worked at the site.

A whole team of specialists worked on the report. Legasov wanted to make sure all of the information was absolutely true, that's why sometimes scientists and specialists would spend a few days at Legasov's home. 

The conference was attended by more than 600 nuclear experts from 62 countries and 21 organizations, and government officials who were experts in nuclear engineering, radiation safety and health care. The meeting was also attended by government representatives from Belarus, the Soviet Union and Ukraine.

Legasov delivered a five-hour oral report on the causes of the disaster.

The collected 2 volumes of materials were an honest and detailed report that calmed down the international community, but angered colleagues at home.

Conference in Vienna (1986)
Photo: Rudi Blaha

Legasov believed that a major underlying contributor to the Chernobyl accident was an attitude engendered by the lack of individual responsibility for quality. He mentions: slipshod, welding, pipework defects, faulty valves, RBMK channel failures and notes that after a decade of talk about training and five years, at least, of discussions on the development of systems for equipment diagnostics, nothing was done. Across the Soviet Union, 16 RBMK reactors were still in operation.

In his report, Legasov wrote: "Neglect by the scientific management and the designers was everywhere with no attention being paid to the condition of instruments or of equipment."

According to his report, Chernobyl was caused by multiple factors:

  • The RBMK reactor was faulty and unstable and actually banned from use anywhere else besides the Soviet Union.
  • The reactor lacked a protective layer to contain any radioactive materials in the event of a leak or exposure.
  • The plant was operated by untrained workers whose improper handling of the reactor equipment only added to the disaster.

He did, however, stress that human negligence and unpreparedness were the bigger factor in what caused the incident.

Legasov refers to transcripts of conversations between operators from the night before the accident, which show that they were planning to carry out actions which had been crossed out in the operating manual:

The level of preparation of serious documents for a Nuclear Power Plant was such that someone could cross out something, and the operator could interpret, correctly or incorrectly, what was crossed out and perform arbitrary operations, Legasov observes.

But Legasov that it is not only operators that were to blame. He notes, for example, that although representatives of the regulatory body, Gosatomenergonadzor, were present at the plant, they were not informed about the experimental program.

" I myself drew a precise and unequivocal conclusion that the Chernobyl disaster is an apotheosis, the pinnacle of all the mismanagement that has been carried out for decades in our country " .

But the blame was not a purely abstract concept. There were, in his view, genuine guilty parties. Designers had failed to modify the reactor safeguard systems quickly enough, even when problems were recognized. One station director is quoted as saying that a nuclear reactor is like a “samovar” (kettle) and much simpler than a conventional plant.

At the conference he also brought with him a 25-minute videotape entitled simply "26 April," which was shown to the conference on the opening morning and then twice again by overwhelming demand. The film offered a grim contrast to the Soviet television documentary being shown in the delegates' lounge. The doggedly cheerful documentary devoted most of its time to the efforts of the workers at the site and at Hospital 6 in Moscow. Legasov's videotape, however, recounted all too starkly the events of April 25-26 that had made all the subsequent heroics and cleanup efforts necessary. It described the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and the RBMK-1000 reactor design; it then followed the course of the last experiment on Chernobyl Unit 4, to its catastrophic denouement.

At first the hall was buzzing, those present shouted something from their seats. But starting from the 15th minute of the lecture, the hall was completely silent. They listened to Legasov with bated breath. And they wrote down the numbers after him. The experts were struck by the awareness of the Soviet academician. When Legasov finished his speech, he was greeted with a standing ovation for his efforts to contain the situation and even presented with the IAEA flag. He was ranked in the world's top ten scientists.

One of those days in Vienna he gave this interview to the American television company NBC.

Legasov's report contrasted greatly with the narrative of the Soviet Government, who had tried to downplay the scale of the disaster to the rest of the world.

Scientist broke through the veil of lies and silence around Chernobyl. Having revealed the true nature of the disaster, he, in fact, saved the country from multimillion-dollar lawsuits.

Why did Valery Legasov kill himself?

The next two years after the Chernobyl catastrophe were difficult for Legasov, both mentally and physically. As a result of Legasov's determination to tell the truth, he was ridiculed by his scientific peers and was depressed by the lack of initiatives to prevent more catastrophes like Chernobyl in the future.

He was a patriot and grieved for what that happened, for the country, for people that suffered… His empathy was disturbed and, it seems, it did 'eat him up from the inside. Gradually he stopped eating, stopped sleeping… He knew well what will follow next, how painful it will be. Probably, he didn't want to be a burden on my mother, - said the daughter

And on April 27, 1988, on the second anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, Valery Legasov was found hanged in his home office. The official version "death cause - suicide". This was not Legasov's first suicide attempt. David R. Marples has suggested that the adversity of the Chernobyl disaster on Legasov's psychological state was the factor that led to his decision to die by suicide. 

Of course, only one important question remains, "Why Legasov hanged himself?"
The Soviet government did not give an answer. Reading the opinions of his colleagues, reviewing interviews with his family members, one gets the opinion that there were many reasons.

Suspected causes of death are:

  • He was exposed to dangerous levels of radiation while investigating the disaster, that's why he decided not to wait until really "bad times";
  • Destroyed career by his attempts to reform the Soviet scientific system. All subsequent years Soviet officials tried to forget about the disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant;
  • Harassment by colleagues from the scientific field;
  • Constant harassment and pressure from the country, especially by the KGB.

All these alleged reasons could have provoked a deep depression that led to his death.

Valery Legasov in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
Source: Wikipedia

There was no suicide note, but he left a series of recorded tapes detailing how disillusioned he had become of the government which attempted to suppress key details of the Chernobyl disaster. 

His recordings revealed crucial undisclosed facts about the catastrophe. In this posthumously published memoirs he revealed that Chornobyl suffered from significant design flaws that had long been known to scientists at the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, of which he had been deputy director prior to his death.

Legasov's Tapes

In all my life, it never occurred to me that I would have to start this part of my life. At least not at the age that I currently am, just into my fifties. I have to start the part where I create my memoir. And this part is tragic, confusing and incomprehensible , - from Valery Legasov's tapes.

On April 28, Legasov was supposed to disclose to the government the data of his own investigation into the causes of the Chernobyl disaster. According to some reports, some of the recordings that Valery Alekseevich read on a dictaphone had been erased.

It is not known for certain what was erased. The family's archive has survived. There are many transcripts of records on the Internet that really belong to the scientist, but there are also those that have nothing to do with him.

On the record tapes was the inscription: "Volodya Gubarev". Legasov's records were intended for the scientist's friend, writer Vladimir Gubarev. After the scientist's death, they, of course, were taken by the committeemen. 

 Transcripts of Legasov's records were published in Pravda by his friend, Vladimir Gubarev, two days after his suicide. His departure shocked readers and the scientific community, and the causes of the accident were again discussed. But investigators and friends believed that he voluntarily passed away not because of the disaster.

The memoirs, however, also reveal his deep concerns about the safety aspects of the nuclear industry in the Soviet Union . While Soviet equipment was, in certain conceptual respects, better than that from the West, "there was a marked shortage of control and diagnostic systems." Also, rigorous analysis of the Nuclear Power Plant risk was almost exclusively the preserve of Western scientists and engineers. There was no organization in the USSR which could competently address these problems, he claimed.

According to an analysis of the recording for the BBC TV movie Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster, Legasov claims political pressure censored the mention of Soviet nuclear secrecy in his report to the IAEA, a secrecy which forbade even plant operators having knowledge of previous accidents and known problems with reactor design. 

From the tape recordings dictated by academician Legasov:

... as of today, we do not have safe nuclear energy, or a concept of safe nuclear energy, or even a concept of a safe nuclear reactor that is completely ready .

Is Legasov Chernobyl Hero?

Legasov won the right to honestly look people in the eye. And first of all, to those who survived in the tragedy of Chernobyl in Pripyat and Kyiv, in Gomel and dozens and dozens of Belarusian villages. And people felt it.

He made the decisions that helped to limit the impact of the catastrophe that threatened Europe.

The son of a leading Party ideologue, Legasov was a true believer in communism and politically beyond reproach. What Legasov witnessed in Chernobyl would change the course of his life: The chaos and incompetence he saw shook his confidence in socialism

It was clear that in the first few days, because of the way air masses were flowing and because of the material drops in the reactor, the contamination was spreading with the dust.

Scientists understood that the wind would take dangerous amounts of radiation to Kyiv in a few days, which was preparing for Labor Day celebrations on May 1, set to be attended by thousands. Legasov insisted that the authorities should not hold the celebration , saying it would endanger people's lives. However, Moscow concealed the facts of the disaster not only from the residents, but also from the rest of the world. They say - canceling the May Day celebration would make people suspicious.

Just five days after the blast thousands of people marched in Kyiv. It was believed that they exposed themselves to large doses of radiation. The officials up to this very day denounced this claim.

If you'll see the KGB's safety instructions during business trips to the Chernobyl Zone since April 1986, you would be shocked:

... before entering rest places, clothes and shoes need to be cleaned ... Wearing headwear is compulsory ... Resting on the grass, other open areas is strictly forbidden ...

On the second or third day, Legasov offered to organize an information group within the Government Commission. He invited two or three experienced journalists to it. They had to gather the needed information about the medical, technical, and radioactive situation from the specialists in the quantity they needed, be it full or partial, to deal with imprecisions when we ourselves didn't have enough information. This wasn't rejected, but no such information group has been created. The truth about Chernobyl was not to everyone's taste. 

A journalist on the site in June '86.
Source: Unknown

Twice the scientist was nominated for the title of Hero of Socialist Labor and both times was struck off the lists. General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee, Mikhail Gorbachev, personally crossed out Legasov's name, citing the fact that " other scientists do not advise ."

The academician's wife, Margarita Mikhailovna, remembered that the first time Valery Alekseevich returned to Moscow on May 5. Thin, bald, with a characteristic "Chernobyl tan" - a darkened face and hands. Closely admitted that at the scene of the disaster there were no respirators, supplies of clean water, medicines, clean reserve food, as well as iodine preparations for the necessary prevention. 

After returning from Chernobyl, his eyes became extinct, - says his daughter Inga Valerievna. - He lost a lot of weight. He could not eat due to the strongest stress. He understood the scale of the tragedy and could not think of anything other than the Chernobyl disaster.

The radiation dose he received shattered his health. And his subsequent attempts to reform the Soviet scientific system destroyed his career. All subsequent years they tried to forget about the disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The country did not need its heroes.

The Valery Legasov Monument
at School № 56 named after academician VA Legasova
Source: Unknown

Only eight years after his suicide on 20 September 1996, the then-Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, posthumously conferred on Legasov, the honorary title of Hero of the Russian Federation, the country's highest honorary title, for the "courage and heroism" shown in his investigation of the disaster.


We deeply respect and thank this brave man who did everything possible, paid a high price, so that we can live.

Radioactively yours ChernobylWelcome.