The world owes him an eternal debt, but for Chernobyl hero Alexei Ananenko, it was just part of the job.
Engineer Alexei was one of three men who volunteered to wade through radioactive water to prevent a second cataclysmic explosion at the stricken nuclear reactor.
They were dubbed “suicide divers” over the perilous mission.
Decked from head to toe in protective clothing, they descended into the bowels of Reactor 4 on a doomsday mission as the world held its breath.
Their heroism gripped viewers of Sky Atlantic drama Chernobyl. But with great understatement, 60-year-old Alexei insisted last night: “It’s nothing to brag about. Why should I feel a hero?
“I was on duty and it was my job. I was trained in what to do.”
It was five days earlier, on April 26, 1986, that the lid blew off Reactor 4 at Chernobyl, in Ukraine – then under Soviet control.
A fire was extinguished within six hours but the air was contaminated with radioactive material.
Russian scientists then discovered that the core was still melting and burning through to the basement, where five million gallons of water were stored.
Experts believed that if 185 tons of molten nuclear lava hit the water below it would cause a radioactive steam explosion of 3-5 megatons – so massive that it would leave much of Europe uninhabitable for 500,000 years. Alexei was one of the few employees who knew where the latches and valves were located to drain water from the coolant system.
He, senior engineer Valeri Bespalov and shift supervisor Boris Baranov were tasked with turning them off.
Firefighters drained a huge volume of water so the men would not have to swim, but they were still forced to walk through radioactive fluid three metres below ground level.
The image of them carrying search lights as they wade through a toxic soup is captured in the TV drama
But even today, Alexei looks back calmly and shrugs off all the attention. He added: “I did my job and it’s nothing to brag about.
“I wasn’t scared because I focused on my duties. I had worked at Chernobyl for three years.”
His wife Valentina, however, has revealed a little more. She said the level of secrecy and fear in the old USSR meant Alexei was terrified of failing.
Valentina, 51, said: “He told me before. He was more scared of being fired for not fulfilling his duties. This was Soviet times, and such a fear was real.”
After the explosion a cloud of radioactive strontium, caesium and plutonium affected mainly the Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus, as well as parts of Russia and Europe. Between 1987 and 1990, 530,000 workers – known as liquidators and conscripted from across the USSR – worked in and around Chernobyl to clear up the toxic mess.
Some estimates suggest almost three-quarters of a million deaths can be traced back to the radiation leak.
Alexei has previously described the heart-stopping moment he went underneath Reactor 4.
He told BBC Ukraine that he feared he would not be able to find the valves – or that they would refuse to open.
Alexei, who still works in the nuclear industry, said: “I entered the water with Bespalov and it was knee deep. We were trying to move as quickly as possible. The corridor was flooded with radioactive water, which merged from higher levels.
“I was worried that we would not find the right fittings but that fear quickly disappeared when the valves were marked. They opened relatively easy.
“We just opened the latches and immediately there was a noise. We understood the water was gone and we just had to go back.”
Despite their momentous mission, Alexei and his colleagues never kept in touch after the disaster.
He added: It is a mistake to think we were close friends. We were just colleagues on the same shift and never kept contact outside work. We don’t have much in common. I know Bespalov lives not far from my home but we are not in contact at all.”
Baranov died of a heart attack in 2005, in his mid-60s.
In the TV drama viewers see the trio volunteer for the job as the nuclear plant spews out toxic smoke.
Soviet chemist Valery Legasov, chair of the investigating committee, and prominent politician Boris Shcherbina are shown appealing for men to take on the task.
They are depicted offering 400 rubles, promotion and a promise that the men’s families would be looked after. But Alexei disputes this version of events.
“There was no such meeting,” he said. “Nor did anyone applaud us when we came out. And nobody drank vodka. I didn’t drink at all.”
Alexei, meanwhile, would go on to cheat death a second time.
Two years ago he was hit by a car, spent 36 days in a coma and had to learn to walk again.
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