Chernobyl: The real-life heroes of nuclear disaster watch TV hit

Vladimir Naumov and Andrey Nasonov, ex-miners from Tula, had not heard about the hit TV series Chernobyl when we called, but they had caught up by the time we reached them – at least on the episode which features them.

The series, a Sky Atlantic/HBO co-production, tells in traumatic detail the complex chain of events set off by the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant on 26 April 1986 – and the heroism and sacrifice of the liquidators sent in to try and contain the radioactive leak.

By the time the miners were drafted in, the first responders – the firefighters who would also be the first to die – had put the fire out.

But the molten core was in danger of melting through the concrete pad on which it sat and seeping into the water table, risking a potential 50 million lives.

Four hundred miners from Donbas (where the war is now in eastern Ukraine) and Tula, 120 miles south of Moscow, were drafted in to install a heat exchanger beneath the reactor to try and cool the core.

Most came from Tula because the ground there was sandy, as it was in Chernobyl. One in four have since died of cancers or radiation-related disease.

Asked whether he ever questioned the sacrifices made, Mr Naumov said: “Who else but us? Me and my fellow workers were brought up that way. Not that we went there to die, we went there to save lives.

“To save our families first and our country, of course. And in the long run it turned out that Europe was affected, and that higher radiation was registered in the Sahara desert and even in South America.”

The two men watched the episode again with us in high spirits. They roared with laughter at the one Soviet joke the miners tell.

They were appalled at the sight of miners drinking vodka straight after a shift, which they said would never have happened.

And they are adamant they never worked naked, despite the searing heat, and were never threatened by soldiers with guns: “This is like an American movie with cowboys!”

But they did like the way they are portrayed as talking tough to the party.

Miners held a special place in Soviet times. The coal they dug powered the Soviet economy. They worked hard, took pride in what they did and did not kowtow to Soviet bureaucrats.

“The job itself, working underground, doing hard labour, increases a person’s sense of inner worth,” Mr Nasonov said.

“There’s already very little difference between life and death for us.

“We have always been braver at dealing with managers.”

The two men preferred the documentaries made over the years which tell the tale in their own words. They pointed to a Russian documentary called Under The Reactor, specifically about the miners.

They have been to France to tell schoolchildren about the work of the liquidators; they want to go to the UK too. But they are glad the series has brought attention to their work in a way they never could.

“I’ll never forget the enthusiasm I saw there,” Mr Naumov said.

“Two minutes to load the cart, drive it 150m, unload it, and drive it back.

“I have never seen anything like that since. I doubt I ever will, it’s unlikely anyone will be able to do that again.”

The job was expected to take three months; it took them six weeks. But in the end, the molten core cooled of its own accord. The heat exchanger they installed was never turned on.

“It was the first time such a thing had happened,” Mr Nasonov said.

“What if the floor had begun to melt and we had not done our job as we were supposed to? Then it would have been worse for everyone, not just for us. It is good that it was never needed.”

The Chernobyl miners’ association in Tula is an office and small museum. School groups visit to see what the miners of their city did for them 33 years ago.

From a faded newspaper clipping of a group of handsome, grinning men, Mr Naumov picked out those who have since died from the effects of the radiation.

Like most of the miners who have survived, he gave up drink and cigarettes years ago.

“Every time I am at a funeral and give a speech I say, ‘he was such a great man, he did such a heroic deed that few people have done! And he did not live his life in vain!’

“I too have not lived in vain. And once I’ve left this world, I will be remembered too,” he added, with tears in his eyes.

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