In the acclaimed US mini-series “Chernobyl”, Oleksiy Ananenko is hailed as one of three men who helped avert an even greater disaster after the worst nuclear accident in history.
Now living in a modest one-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Kiev, Ananenko insisted that what he did was not heroic.
“I never felt like a hero. I was doing my job,” said the 59-year-old former engineer who in the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster took part in a risky operation to drain water from under the power station to prevent a further explosion.
In one of the most dramatic episodes of the HBO mini-series, actors playing Ananenko and two other engineers, Valeriy Bespalov and Boris Baranov, wade through flooded corridors to empty a water tank located three metres (10 feet) below the burning reactor.
On screen, officials inform workers of the imminent danger and the three men volunteer for the mission to prevent “millions” of deaths.
Nuclear experts fear a second explosion from super-hot radioactive fuel burning through a concrete floor and reacting with the large amount of water in the tank.
In reality, while there were fears of a second explosion, the scale of the potential disaster was unclear at the time.
And the three men depicted in the series as volunteering for a suicide mission simply obeyed orders, without being clearly informed about the risks they incurred, he recalled.
“I was ordered to go there, so I went,” said Ananenko, who with his brown hair and brown eyes does not resemble the blond Icelandic actor Baltasar Breki Samper playing him in the mini-series.
“I wasn’t afraid,” he said.
‘We went faster than that’
Protected only by diving equipment and simple respirators, the three men negotiated the partially flooded corridors under the reactor.
Using flashlights, they managed to find the locks for the water tank in the dark and quickly opened them.
“Immediately I heard a noise that meant the water was draining. That was amazing,” Ananenko said.
Watching the same scene on screen, he pointed out inaccuracies.
“We didn’t have them,” he said, pointing to the divers’ oxygen cylinders.
“And we walked quicker than that. Why quicker? Because if you went slowly, the dose (of absorbed radiation) would be higher.”
Despite carrying two dosimeters with him, Ananenko said he does not recall the exact figure for the amount of radiation his body absorbed.
“That means it wasn’t very high,” he said.
One of the other men on the mission, Baranov, died in 2005 but the third, Bespalov, is still alive and lives in the same district as Ananenko.
Ananenko did not suffer any serious health problems straight after the mission and he was able to continue to work in the nuclear sector until 2017.
But then the Chernobyl veteran was forced to retire because he was involved in a serious car accident that plunged him into a coma for a month and affected his memory.
Decorated with Soviet and Ukrainian medals and full of life and robust despite it all, Ananenko now receives a monthly state pension of around $417 (369 euros).
Meanwhile another former Chernobyl worker, Oleksiy Breus, who was a technician at the fatal fourth reactor, told AFP his impression of the mini-series was “positive on the whole” although he had some specific criticisms.
“The nuclear scientists are shown as people who are afraid of everything and afraid of their bosses, but in reality they were very resolute,” he insisted.
None of the operators fled after the explosion. On the contrary, “new people came to help,” he said in Pripyat, the nuclear workers’ town near the power station that was evacuated after the incident.
In the disaster’s aftermath, “we had to run through a building that was unlit and half-destroyed to save injured colleagues and bring them up to doctors” as well as battle the fire, he recalled.
Sergiy Parashyn, a former director of the Chernobyl power station who headed its Soviet Communist Party cell when the disaster occurred, also commented on the show.
He spoke to journalists inside the renovated underground bunker that is shown in the series as hosting meetings between power station senior staff and officials, scenes he insisted were unrealistic.
“In fact, the specialists were trying to work out what to do, but in the series they are just (shown as) rejecting information,” he said.