Who was Valery Legasov, the Soviet scientist who saved the world from Chernobyl?

One of the first to understand the scale of the disaster was Valery Legasov, he was called in the first days after the accident to quickly evaluate and indicate further actions to eliminate the consequences of the disaster. His decisions helped save millions of lives, but he paid a heavy price.

A man in a sweater and large horn-rimmed glasses sits in the kitchen, listening to his own voice coming from a cassette player. Having recorded five audio tapes with information about Chernobyl, he goes out into the street to hide them from the watchful eyes of KGB agents. Having inserted the tapes into the ventilation system of the house, he returns home, feeds his cat, smokes a cigarette and hangs himself .. This is how the series Chernobyl HBO Valery Legasov showed in the first minutes of the film.

This first scene of the HBO Chernobyl mini-series sets the tone for the horrifying story of the 1986 nuclear disaster and the famous Soviet chemist-academician Valery Legasov, who played a key role in the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident and the subsequent investigation of its causes.

Город Припять эвакуировали благодаря решению Легасова
The city of Pripyat was evacuated due to the decision of Legasov

It was he who insisted on the evacuation of the city of Pripyat so that people would not die from radiation. Legasov was also the man who delivered a five-hour oral report on the causes of the disaster at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna – an honest and detailed report that reassured the international community, but caused dissatisfaction among colleagues in the USSR.

But how did an inorganic chemist and radiochemistry specialist find himself at the site of a nuclear disaster? And what made him commit suicide?

Road to Chernobyl

Valery was born in 1936 in Tula (173 km south of Moscow) and chose his profession as a child. An excellent student and a born leader, he could choose any university, thanks to his high grades at school, but decided to focus on the Moscow Chemical-Technological Institute. Mendeleev, who trained specialists for the nuclear industry and energy.

After a brilliant dissertation, Valery received an offer to do a doctoral dissertation. at the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, but did not immediately accept the proposal – he wanted to go to the Siberian Chemical Plant in Tomsk (aka Seversk) to start developing plutonium for nuclear weapons.

Чернобыльская атомная станция, 2019 год
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, 2019

After two years at the factory, he entered the Kurchatov Institute. At the age of 36, he was awarded a doctorate in chemistry, and at the age of 45, he became one of the youngest members of the Russian Academy of Sciences. There Legasov built his name as one of the most prominent scientists in the field of inorganic chemistry. For work in this area (especially the Bartlett-Legasov effect), Valery received many state awards.

Despite his considerable work, Valery did not specialize in nuclear reactors. Almost by accident, he joined the state commission on response to the Chernobyl disaster on April 26, 1986, recalls his daughter Inga Legasova. “He should not have been in Chernobyl. His specialty was “physical chemistry”, he worked on explosives, ”she explains.

“April 26th was Saturday. And dad attended a meeting of the Presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences with academician Anatoly Alexandrov (who was then president of the Russian Academy of Sciences). Anatoly was called on a closed telephone line. To join the state commission, a scientist was needed, and all the deputies of Aleksandrov from the Kurchatov Institute were inaccessible. The state plane was already waiting. Therefore, my father went to Vnukovo and the same day left for Chernobyl.

Perhaps there was another reason for choosing Legasov – before the disaster, he emphasized the importance of a new safety methodology to prevent major disasters and, as his daughter recalls, pointed out the problems of RBMK-1000 reactors (exploded) and the risks of operating nuclear reactors, suggesting that they be protected with a protective shield – proposal rejected by colleagues.

ЧАЭС 26 апреля 1986 года, фото И. Костин
Chernobyl NPP April 26, 1986, photo I. Kostin

Like in 1941, but worse

Upon arrival, Valery plunged into emergency response work: he insisted on the evacuation of the population of Pripyat nearby (which happened on April 27) and worked to reduce the consequences of the reactor explosion. By the morning of April 26 and the arrival of Legasov, the fire was extinguished, but a huge amount of radioactive elements were released into the atmosphere, and what remained of the reactor continued to pose a serious threat. “There was such unpreparedness, such a mess, such a fear. Like in 1941, but even worse, ”Legasov later recalled.

Legasov worked without rest, often not paying attention to the dosimeter, a device that measures the absorbed dose of external ionizing radiation. “He was the only scientist working on the site,” recalls his daughter. “He understood very well what he was doing and how much he was irradiated.”

He would fly over Chernobyl several times a day, and it was under his command that it was decided to drop large quantities of boron from helicopters in order to act as a neutron absorber and prevent any renewed chain reaction. Later, dolomite was also added as a heat sink and carbon dioxide source to suppress fire. Lead was included as a radiation absorber, as well as sand and clay, which were hoped to prevent the release of particles. The total amount of materials discharged into the reactor weighed about 5000 tons, including about 40 tons of boron compounds, 2400 tons of lead, 1800 tons of sand and clay and 600 tons of dolomite, as well as sodium phosphate and polymer fluids. Later, measures were taken to prevent the ingress of molten radioactive material into the water in the lower cooling system of the reactor, so a tunnel was built to prevent the ingress of radioactive substances into groundwater.