June 24, 2004

Chernobyl Explorer: Alexander Borovoi

Dr. Alexander Borovoi is one of the people interviewed (his segment starts at 32:40) in this astounding BBC documentary from 1991, "Inside Chernobyl's Sarcophagus." Borovoi and his colleagues Viktor Popov, Yuri Buzulukov, and other "Stalkers" speak with western journalists for the first time since the accident. The scientists and BBC crew enter the Reactor 4 building taking measurements and video footage of its wreckage, in extreme haste (due to the radiation levels) and incredibly dangerous conditions. Footage had to be shot by actual cameramen working quickly, as the searing radiation and rough ground caused robotic camera rigs to mire or fail within minutes. In one segment we see a clever improvisation: the team jerry-rigged a small videocamera onto a wire remote-controlled child's toy tank. The end of the documentary is an interview with Borovoi and Popov five years later, where we revisit their dire predictions, and the surviving members of the "bio-robot" team.

[UPDATE: Borovoi's 2008 presentation detailing the state of the Chernobyl corium, or "melt." (PowerPoint on SarNet.org] 64-year old Alexander Borovoi is a brave man, and a very lucky one; he is one of the "extreme explorers" who periodically examined the inside of the Chernobyl sarcophagus to spot developing problems. From US News and World Report:
The line between hero and victim was thin in the first frantic weeks after the accident. Firemen fought the flames but lacked instruments to tell them they faced lethal doses of radiation. Military helicopter pilots hovered in the radioactive smoke plume to smother the burning reactor with tons of sand and lead, but their bombing runs missed the mark.

Yet the catastrophe–and the chance for heroism–did not end when the fire burned out. In the months and years that followed, a band of scientists led by physicist Alexander Borovoi explored the reactor's corpse to make sure it could not reawaken. Working in a hot, dark labyrinth where lingering radiation could kill within minutes, they mapped and analyzed tons of reactor fuel remaining. It was heroism of a quieter and more effective order than had come before. "Borovoi knew what he was doing," says Harvard University nuclear physicist Richard Wilson, "and he had the imagination and common sense" to succeed.

To find the remnants, Borovoi and his men had to venture into the heart of the destroyed reactor. Robots were not up to the job; they got stuck in debris or ran amok, circuits scrambled by radiation. "We had only one kind of robots [that worked]," says Borovoi. "Biorobots–ourselves." They called themselves "stalkers." Coveralls, gloves, and a respirator were their protection–lead suits were too bulky for dashes through the reactor. A fall or wrong turn could be fatal.

Late in 1986, beyond a gantlet of highly radioactive rooms and narrow passages, the stalkers discovered a glassy, black formation resembling a giant elephant's foot. Getting a piece to analyze was not easy. It was so fiercely radioactive that the scientists could spend only seconds near it, and its surface shrugged off a drilling machine and an ax. Finally a marksman took aim with a Kalashnikov rifle. The shards gave the first clues to what had happened to the nuclear fuel and the chance of a future catastrophe.

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