A Liquidator At Chernobyl Speaks Out About Shoveling Graphite From The Roof Of Reactor 4

Jaan Krinal was among a crew of 200 men sent in to help clean up after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

A sign at the edge of a forest warns of radiation contamination and prohibits the picking of berries and mushrooms on April 4, 2016 near Chachersk, Belarus. Chachersk, located in south-eastern Belarus, is in a zone designated as still contaminated to varying degrees with radiation from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster
Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Jaan Krinal was among a crew of 200 men sent in to help clean up after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

In HBO’s limited miniseries, Chernobyl, men, known as liquidators, were brought in to clear away graphite and other radioactive debris from the roof of Reactor 4 after the devastating explosion in Chernobyl’s Nuclear Power Plant in 1986. Jaan Krinal, a father of two, was one of those men tasked with this job.

Graphite, from the reactor’s core, along with other radioactive debris had to be removed or pushed back into the reactor in order to totally enclose the area and contain further radioactive contamination of the area. This job commenced towards the end of 1986 and spanned several months.

Jaan Krinal, who was working on a state-owned farm in Soviet-occupied Estonia, was called up days after the Chernobyl disaster occurred. Having heard little about the explosion via local news outlets, Krinal initially thought he was being called up to fight in a war against Afganistan, thanks to some recent USSR military retraining he had undertaken.

So, when Krinal discovered he was to be involved with the clean up of the Chernobyl disaster, he was actually relieved.

Krinal, along with approximately 200 other men were taken to a nearby school, where their passports were confiscated before they were loaded onto buses and taken to a forest and told to don new uniforms. On May 8, the group was then sent by train to the edge of the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

Initially, Krinal was tasked with hosing down houses to remove the radioactive dust that had settled on everything within the exclusion zone. This was a job that took up many weeks and the men were offered no days off until June and worked 11-hour days.

At first, the men were not overly concerned with radiation levels. However, as time wore on, concerns did grow. Still, the officials maintained that the crew was safe, some even suggesting that radiation would be good for them.

“They joked that whoever has cancer can now get rid of it — because the radiation helps,” Jaan told ABC News Australia.

Finally, it was rumored that there was one more job to complete before they could return home and the crew actually looked forward to the momentous task of clearing radioactive debris from the roof of Chernobyl’s Reactor 4.

The men were given the option to refuse the dangerous task, although they were not told why they could only spend two minutes on top of the roof of the reactor. Jaan revealed that by this point, the men were committed to the clean up at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and saw it as just another job they had to do in order to return home.

“It had to be done. We couldn’t just leave it. I think everyone realized the longer the reactor would have stayed open, the more dangerous it would have become.”

Men were given two minutes to complete their task and then a bell would ring signaling that their time was up. Each man was shown via a screen which debris they had to pick up during their time on the roof.

A monument outside Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
  1681551 / Pixabay

Krinal also revealed that the scene shown in HBO’s Chernobyl mirrored what actually happened. He then gave his personal experience of what it was like while actually working on the roof of Reactor 4.

“Once I got on the roof, it looked completely different from what was shown on the screen. I just grabbed whatever piece of debris I could.”

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After Krinal’s time as a liquidator at the Chernobyl exclusion zone was completed, he returned to his normal life in Estonia beside his wife and children. Recently given a clean bill of health, Jaan is one of the lucky ones. One-third of those sent to to the area in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster have since died. According to ABC News Australia, the average age of death is 52. Jaan is now 65-years-old.

“Over the past couple of years, just a couple of us have died. But not too long ago it was around 10 men a year,” Krinal said.

“There have been cancers. There have been suicides too, but thankfully not too many.”

Jaan has since visited the Chernobyl exclusion zone twice since his time as a liquidator, once in 2006 and then again in 2011. He is amazed at just how much it has changed since his time there.

“It’s fascinating what nature can do if people leave it be. The town [of Pripyat] has overgrown with trees.”

The limited miniseries, Chernobyl, is currently airing on HBO.