On April 26th 1986 the nuclear power station at Chernobyl in the Ukraine suffered a massive explosion releasing vast amounts of radiation. The Soviet Union sent in robots to clear the radioactive waste off the roof but when these failed they sent in troops to do the job. These troops then became known as “bio-robots”
Vadim’s eyes peered through the clear plastic goggles affixed to his face at the grey coloured concrete wall of the room where they had gathered inside the Chernobyl power station. Where once his comrades had been standing, there now only stood machines devoid of emotion and independent thought clad in thickly padded overcoats, helmets and lead panelling. As he perceived it, all traces of humanity had been wiped clean in them and he now only sensed his own emotions and thoughts as he felt trapped inside his own 30kg protective suit that he had been instructed to create himself the night before.
His legs already felt weak from his nerves trying to give out on him and he wondered if they would function at all when he climbed out on to the radioactive roof of the Chernobyl power station to begin his work. An army Lieutenant had briefed them before they suited up and his words rang in Vadim’s mind like an echo that refused to subside.
“Yes it is scary,” the Lieutenant said honestly. “The first time at least. Once you are up there you will be so busy concentrating on your job and doing your duty that you won’t even notice. You will just want to make that extra effort that may make all the difference. You should be proud, comrades.”
Vadim was not fooled by the usual patriotic speech from an officer. Even being in the Soviet Union’s reserve forces he had been bombarded by the wealth of stirring speeches and heroic stories of past glories. It was exciting when he was 18 but after five years in the service he had developed a sense of cynicism about it that seemed to be enveloping Soviet society everywhere in the 1980s. What worried him was that first, honest remark by the officer. It was the truth and Vadim knew that strictly speaking he should have omitted this part to them after all it was his job to rouse them up and make them want to go up on the roof. It was an unsettling and wholly new experience for him and with that one sentence his world seemed to have irreversibly changed.
Now fully suited, Vadim and his comrades turned clumsily in their lead-clad suits and made their first steps towards the staircase. There were ten of them in total including one Lieutenant who had the added responsibility of commanding them as well as doing his bit. Looking through the goggles gave Vadim a strange, almost disjointed feeling at what he was undertaking which actually went some way towards helping him cope with his anxiety.
He had barely ascended three flights of stairs and already he was beginning to feel his body becoming sheathed in sweat from the suit. This fact served only to make his mind question how effective it would be. He had made the suit himself just like the rest of them going up on to the roof of the power plant. They had been given the materials and brief instructions on how to assemble it but as the roof got closer and closer he wondered if he had done everything right and that he hadn’t left a part of it open for radiation to seep in to. A cruel joke emanated in his thoughts; how stupid are you going to look if you die in this?
“I’m not going to die up there,” he found himself uttering under his breath in defiance of his thoughts. “Loads of guys have been up there already. They didn’t die.”
They reached the top floor where the door to the roof was shut tight. A hastily painted sign instructed them to close it as quickly as possible once outside to limit the amount of radioactive dust could fall down the staircase. The Lieutenant leading them turned to face the nine soldiers including Vadim as they assembled at the top. Vadim watched the officer lift his left hand up to look at his watch which had to be sticky taped to his suit’s wrist as the strap was not big enough to go around the padding of his protective clothing.
“You’ve got 45 seconds!” bellowed the officer, his voice muffled by the protective respirator covering his mouth. “We need to be back behind this door within one minute.”
45 seconds! What could we possibly do in 45 seconds?
Vadim was sure that he was not the only man asking himself that question although no one aired their thoughts. They simply watched as the Lieutenant checked his watch again no doubt making a mental note of the time everyone needed to be back inside. Vadim’s adrenalin was now surging and he felt like he was about to storm an enemy stronghold as the Lieutenant opened the door. As sunlight burst through they went one by one outside.
Vadim’s eyes squinted at the bright light as he followed them outside to what looked like the scene of a collapsed house. Propped up against the grey wall next to the door were their weapons in this war against the forces of nature, a shovel, which they each grabbed as they burst out. Stone fragments littered the flat roof intermixed with charred pieces of metal hurled outwards when the nuclear reactor exploded. He could barely hear anything except his own heartbeat which seemed to throb in both his chest and his head.
In almost complete chaos they scrambled with their shovels to find some of the debris they could scoop up and throw over the side of the damaged power station. Vadim rushed to a few stones and dust sat beneath a piece of metal framework and stabbed his shovel into them. He then lifted it up gathering just a few rocks before seemingly stumbling his way to the end of the roof where he threw his pitiful collection over the side.
His mind racing at a million miles an hour, he swore that his next load would be better even though he spied that no one had really been able to achieve anymore then he did. He rushed to just a few yards from the edge of the roof where a pile of rubble was sitting. Others had already worked on this pile as he could see scrapes from their shovels leading up to it. He hurled his shovel in to this pile and putting his back in to the job he took out a huge mound of broken rock much to his satisfaction.
He turned and began walking towards the edge of the roof but as he clumsily did so his collection of debris began to fall off bit by bit. He tried his best to keep it all on but the suit refused to cooperate with the commands he was giving his body. By the time he reached the edge of the roof about a third of his initial amount he had collected had spilled off and he sullenly threw it over the side.
Waiting for the debris below were remote controlled diggers that would scoop up the highly radioactive debris and then bury it. Originally, robots were on the roof too but the radioactivity had damaged their circuits rendering them useless. That was why Vadim and his fellow army reservists were drafted in to do it. It was also why they were referred to as bio-robots.
Vadim returned to the mound of rubble and again tried to take a hefty amount of debris but his hands were now simmering in pain as though he had been shovelling all day. He had heard rumours about this happening. The radioactivity affected the hands first because they were closest to radioactive debris they were shovelling even though their hands were most covered part of their bodies. Or something to that effect at least. Whatever it was it made this third scoop extremely difficult to both collect and to manage.
He had made it to the end of the roof and threw it off. His mind reasoned that he must have scooped up around seven or eight kilos at that point. As he turned around he again questioned just how effective all this effort was but he threw himself in to trying to make another shovel-load. He managed to scoop up another amount but now his hands were having trouble keeping hold of the shovel.
Down over the side went his fourth shovel-load. It had been closer to the rather poultry first load he had thrown than the other two sending a singe of disappointment into his stomach which appeared to manifest in to a feeling of nausea. Or maybe something else was causing that sick feeling he was getting? As he made his way back for one final load he began to truly fathom the fact that he was becoming unwell from being on the roof of the power plant at Chernobyl. It wasn’t overpowering in anyway like he believed it would be. At least not yet. Instead he likened it to feeling slightly travel sick.
He put the shovel back in to the debris but as he did so he heard a voice scream almost panic stricken, “Back inside! Back inside!”
Vadim looked up to see the rest of his comrades rushing towards the door. The Lieutenant had opened it again and was screaming at them nearly hysterically to get back in. Vadim dropped his shovel as he ran back to the door. He was not only the one as a near blind panic set in as though they were all about to be machine gunned if they weren’t back inside in the next few seconds.
Vadim suppressed all thought that didn’t involve getting back inside. He gathered the very last piece of energy he could and transferred them to his wobbly legs that rather ungracefully carried him back. He seemed to fall through the doorway crashing in to a few of his comrades who were waiting to start their way back down the stairs. As he picked himself up on to his feet he turned around in time to see the Lieutenant closing the door on the radioactive roof. His last view of it was of the distinctive red and white smoke stack that was still towering in the sky looking down over the disaster at Chernobyl.