Learn the true story behind Valery Legasov, the scientist who led the containment efforts after the Chernobyl disaster and paid with his own life.
By Beatriz Esquivel
Much like it was shown in the successful miniseries by HBO, Legasov ended his own life on April 27, 1988, two years and one day after the accident at Chernobyl. The reasons behind his suicide are not entirely clear, but many believe that Legasov was pushed to do it because of what he had seen during that terrible time.
Valery Legasov was born in Tula, Soviet Russia, on September 1, 1936. From 1949 to 1954, he went to School No. 56 in Moscow, graduating with a gold medal. This school would later adopt his name and place a bronze statue of him in its entrance. He graduated from the Faculty of Physicochemical Engineering at the Mendeleev Moscow Institute of Chemistry and Technology in 1961 and worked as a secretary in the Moscow Institute of Chemical Technology for a while after that. By 1962 he joined the Department of Molecular Physics of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy.
His career steadily thrived from then on by fully cooperating with and adapting to the standards of the regime, receiving his doctorate degree in 1972. He later joined the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union and worked as a professor at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology in 1983 until he became chair of the department of Radiochemistry and Chemical Technology at the Faculty of Chemistry at Moscow State University in 1983. A truly remarkable career at the time.
When disaster struck
As an expert in radiochemistry with a PhD in Chemistry, he was one of the foremost radiation experts in the Soviet Union, which is part of the reason why within 24 hours of the incident he was chosen to lead the investigation at the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin nuclear plant in 1986. He was also tasked with determining and overseeing the measures to contain the spread of radiation, as well as safely extinguishing the reactor 4 fire.
From the moment he joined the official commission at Chernobyl, he became a crucial figure in crisis management—even though he wasn't an expert in RBMK-1000 reactors (as depicted in the series). Tens of thousands of people, who would've otherwise been exposed to lethal doses of radiation, were evacuated to safety from what became known as the Exclusion Zone thanks to his efforts. We must remember, though, that in spite of Legasov's tireless attempts to get the evacuation going, it took the government over two days to start evacuating Pripyat and the town of Chernobyl proper. Many casualties might have been prevented if more efficient measures had been taken at this point.
Evacuation efforts aside, Legasov and his colleagues (most of whom were represented as a single composite character on the show), were quick to find the underlying causes behind the accident.
Simply put, the reactor featured a complex series of design flaws, chief among which were the control rods that were meant to decrease the core's radioactivity levels. These roads were supposed to be made of boron to secure a safe reaction when introduced into the core. However, for monetary reasons, the tips of the rods in the Soviet Union had graphite on them, which helped boost reactor output by displacing water. This was fine in regular operations, but it was catastrophic if the rods were introduced to decrease the energy output in the core, which is what they were meant to do in the case of an emergency. The initial increase in the core's reaction rate caused overheating and subsequent rupturing in the rods, which led to the hydrogen-induced explosion of the reactor.
On top of everything else, the reactor didn't have a protective structure to prevent radiation leak in case of a meltdown, so when the reactor lid was blown wide open, fire was able to spread rapidly, graphite pieces were thrown beyond the plant's walls, and radioactive wastes made their way towards the atmosphere unimpeded.
Design flaws weren't the only culprits behind the disaster, however. As shown in the miniseries, for the accident to occur a series of other circumstances had to align into place. The plant's operators and administrators were negligent and irresponsible by pushing for the test to be done at night, when it should have been completed during the dayshift. In other words, when you combine design flaws with human error, the whole thing became the perfect storm.
A heavy sacrifice
Unlike many others in the aftermath of the accident, Legasov chose to remain on site while the containment and rescue efforts were ongoing. He knew this would have devastating effects on his health, and he did it anyway. As he was exposed to high levels of radiation for a long time, his DNA structure was damaged beyond repair, which reduced his life expectancy to only a few years afterwards instead of decades. His colleagues weren't so daring: they rotated their visits to the exclusion zone in order to prevent self-exposure. Legasov couldn't afford such a luxury: the whole operation relied on him.
After a hard-fought battle to come up with near-miraculous solutions to the problems Chernobyl faced, and after watching how tens of people sacrificed their lives for the well-being of others, Legasov was sent to the special meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. That's the very same agency that regulates and oversees all nuclear plants in the world to this day.
As the representative of the Soviet delegation for the meeting, he had no choice but to be as honest as possible about the details of the catastrophe. But it was nearly two years later, in what is referred to as his Testament (which was published soon after his suicide) that he explained the context of the accident more thoroughly. This exposed a series of oversights and negligence on the part of the Soviet government in general, and the plant's personnel in particular.
"After I had visited Chernobyl NPP I came to the conclusion that the accident was the inevitable apotheosis of the economic system which had been developed in the USSR over many decades. Neglect by the scientific management and the designers was everywhere with no attention being paid to the condition of instruments or of equipment... When one considers the chain of events leading up to the Chernobyl accident, why one person behaved in such a way and why another person behaved in another etc, it is impossible to find a single culprit, a single initiator of events, because it was like a closed circle."
Though this was published after his death, his overt recrimination of the government in the months following the accident led to his exile from the Soviet scientific community. Legasov was thoroughly disappointed with the USSR's failure to confront and solve the design flaws that caused the Chernobyl disaster, and he did not hold his opinion back in his suicide confession.
Legasov would not be honored as a Hero of Socialist Labor, the highest honor in the Soviet Union which was awarded to many others involved in the cleanup of Chernobyl. He would not be recognized as Hero of the Russian Federation (the equivalent post-Soviet honorary title in Russia) until 1996, 10 years after the catastrophe took place.
The human cost involved in the Chernobyl disaster, and the immense suffering, uncertainty, and fear that followed, echoed in Legasov's life until the very end.
Translated by Oliver G. Alvar