Construction of the first sarcophagus
In August 1986, the decontamination of the power station and the isolation of the reactor began. It was within this perimeter that the levels of radioactivity were highest. The vehicles were covered with lead plates to protect their crews. The liquidators were working with such high levels of radioactivity that they could only remain in place for a few minutes or even seconds. In addition, pieces of graphite that surrounded the reactor fuel rods had been expelled from them during the explosion and were scattered on the roof of the power station and in its surroundings. This highly radioactive rubble could not be recovered by human beings without sacrificing their health. Under such conditions, remote-controlled robots were chosen to carry out the cleanup, but the radioactivity was so high that they broke down after a few missions. The last solution was therefore to send men to do this work.
These liquidators, later called "bio-robots" or "green robots" (because of the color of their uniforms)," took turns approximately every 30 seconds. Their mission was to throw the radioactive rubble into skips or into the destroyed reactor with shovels or, when there were none left, by hand. Once this heavy task had been completed, the work of isolating the reactor could begin. It is estimated that there were 10,000 to 12,000 röntgens per hour on the roof, and thus each liquidator received about 100 röntgens; knowing that the fatal dose is about 400 röntgens in one year, these men endured various health problems once they returned home.
The solution chosen to isolate the destroyed reactor was an imposing steel structure covering the ruins of the reactor building. Because of the radioactivity, the liquidators in charge of its construction could not stay for long. The construction of this first Chernobyl sarcophagus took place from May to October 1986. To celebrate its end, a red flag was hoisted above the cooling tower. The names of the liquidators are mentioned on the last piece of metal attached to the sarcophagus. Only one person rests there: Valeri Kodemtchouk, an employee of the power plant who died at his post in the pumping room and whose body was never found.