6 Key People Involved in the Chernobyl Disaster

Today, Chernobyl is synonymous with nuclear disaster and Soviet coverup. Learn about the disaster through 6 key figures.

Jul 6, 2023By Madison Whipple, BA History w/ Spanish minor
chernobyl disaster people involved


In the early morning of April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Reactor Unit No. 4 exploded with a force that blew its steel and concrete roof off. Located about 60 miles north of Kyiv, Ukraine, the plant sat adjacent to the town of Pripyat, which was built initially for the plant workers and their families. The Soviets hoped that Chernobyl, as well as Pripyat, would become beacons of modernity in the USSR, a shining example of an atomic-powered future. However, now the meltdown of Reactor No. 4 remains the world’s worst nuclear disaster in history.


While the Chernobyl disaster was an accident, the USSR officials’ actions that immediately preceded and followed it left something to be desired. While Communist Party officials’ actions are crucial to understanding Chernobyl, so too are the actions of the people who attempted to help clean up the mess. Here are six people who were integrally involved in the Chernobyl Disaster.


1. Viktor Bryukhanov: The Director

Photo of Viktor Bryukhanov
Photo of Viktor Bryukhanov

The Communist Party of the Soviet Union appointed Viktor Bryukhanov the chief administrator of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1970. Bryukhanov was 34 years old and had already dedicated much of his life to the Soviet cause of bringing electricity to the entirety of the USSR. By all accounts, Bryukhanov was a pleasant man to work for and was responsible for Chernobyl’s triumph.


While Bryukhanov was liked by his staff, his Communist Party bosses were notorious for overworking him and keeping him under immense pressure. Despite this pressure, Bryukhanov expected a promotion to Moscow for his success at Chernobyl. The plant was one of the highest-performing nuclear stations in the Soviet Union, and Pripyat was a magnet for specialists and experts based upon its status as a beacon of progress in Soviet atomic energy.


Bryukhanov expected promotion, awards, and recognition in the spring of 1986. He maintained success despite being forced to cut corners, lie about financial numbers to meet his higher-ups’ quotas, and cover up a severe accident in 1982.

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Bryukhanov had approved the launch of the newest Reactor, No. 4, in 1983 despite skipping a safety test that was usually required to be carried out. Instead, it was rescheduled to be carried out during a regular shutdown, which Bryukhanov’s assistant signed off on without bothering to inform his boss. When it became clear that the disaster was not a simple accident, Bryukhanov knew he would be held personally responsible. He knew he would go to prison, and even today, two years after his death, people still know Bryukhanov as the man who was to blame for Chernobyl.


2. Anatoly Dyatlov: The Deputy Chief Engineer

anatoly dyatlov chernobyl
Anatoly Dyatlov, second from the left, sits between Viktor Bryukhanov and chief engineer Nikolai Fomin at their 1987 trial, via Imgur


After a top-secret military laboratory assignment that oversaw the installation of reactors into the USSR’s fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, Anatoly Dyatlov arrived at Chernobyl as the deputy chief engineer of operations.


Dyatlov was a native of Siberia, and his work in military laboratories made his manner of supervision and direction more gruff and commanding than the civilian staff of Chernobyl were used to. The staff feared and hated Dyatlov, as he leveraged his experience over them as law. Those who did not follow his instructions and orders exactly could be punished.


Dyatlov was responsible for overseeing the test of Reactor Unit No. 4. The test was delayed until the early morning hours of April 26th, and by the time it was set to take place, Dyatlov’s demeanor was as sour and ill-tempered as ever. He commanded that the test continue, even after the engineer conducting it made a mistake soon after it began. He was among the six defendants sent to trial for their roles in the disaster.


3. Leonid Toptunov: The Senior Reactor Controller

toptunov grave with mother
Leonid Toptunov’s mother, Vera, mourns over his grave on the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl Disaster, via CBS News


Leonid Toptunov was a graduate of the prestigious Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute and was just 25 years old when he was given the job of senior reactor controller at Chernobyl. On the night of April 25th, he had only been a senior operator for two months and had never manned the reactor through a shutdown test like the one he was to carry out.


Toptunov was well-educated: he wrote his graduate thesis about the detailed points of reactor physics. He was aware of the ways that reactors could be difficult to handle, in theory. However, his inexperience meant that he was unable to account for the reality of what could go wrong with a reactor. He was also unaware of the design flaws that would make disasters more likely during normal reactor operation.


toptunov and dyatlov at plant
Leonid Toptunov, first from the left, with Anatoly Dyatlov, center, and other engineers on their way to the Chernobyl control room, via SME News Blog


Before the test began, Toptunov somehow missed a step in assuming control of the reactor while taking over for the previous shift’s operator. This misstep allowed the power of the reactor to fall so much that there was almost no output. Instead of acting based on his training, Toptunov was made to listen to the commands of Dyatlov, who threatened the young operator until he returned the reactor’s power level to that necessary for the test. This made the occurrence of “reactor runaway,” which could cause a meltdown or explosion, all the more likely. Toptunov then pressed the shut-down button on the emergency safety system, which, due to a design error, resulted in a power surge that caused the explosion.


Toptunov was dismissed from the scene but left the control room to manually open valves in an attempt to supply the reactor with an increased supply of water. This action exposed him to a fatal dose of radiation, and he died on May 14, 1986, from acute radiation poisoning.


4. Vasily Ignatenko: The Firefighter

vasily ignatenk uniform
Photo of Vasily Ignatenko in uniform, via Chernobyl Place


As a firefighter in Pripyat, Vasily Ignatenko was one of the first people on the scene after the disaster. At 25 years old, he had been awoken to a call in the middle of the night on April 26th, and he told his wife he would be back soon as he raced with his squadron to the plant.


Ignatenko was determined to contain the fire despite risks to his well-being. He mounted the building’s roof and fought the fire from there. After a few hours, all of the fires at the plant had been contained except for the graphite fire within Reactor No. 4. Unfortunately, amid his quick work on the roof, Ignatenko received a deadly dose of radiation.


While bureaucrats and scientists argued about how best to put out the graphite fire in the coming weeks, Vasily Ignatenko, along with 27 other firefighters who had been exposed to fatal doses of radiation, was dying of radiation poisoning in a Moscow hospital. For weeks, Ignatenko’s wife, Lyudmila, sat by his side while he slowly succumbed to the poisoning.


lyudmila ignatenko ceremony
Photo of Lyudmila Ignatenko attending a ceremony for the victims of Chernobyl, via The Daily Mail


Shortly after a solution was found to the problem of the still-burning graphite fire, Vasily Ignatenko died on May 13, 1986. His wife courageously spoke about the build-up and the aftermath of her husband’s death, saying that the morgue could not put a suit or shoes on her husband. Ignatenko’s radiation sickness had made it difficult to even be buried properly, so he, like the other 27 first responders, was buried barefoot under layers of concrete and zinc to protect the public from his still radioactive body.


While the story of fatal radiation sickness was common after the disaster, so too was the experience of acute radiation sickness, which affected over 200 other first responders on the scene of the Chernobyl disaster.


5. Boris Shcherbina

chernobyl disaster boris shcherbina
Boris Shcherbina, via All That’s Interesting


While preparing to give a speech to workers in Siberia, Boris Shcherbina, head of Soviet fuel and energy industries and deputy head of the Soviet government, was called to Chernobyl. His task was to control the incident and deal with the consequences.


Shcherbina became the chairman of the USSR’s Chernobyl commission, and nothing could happen in the wreckage of Chernobyl without his approval. He had arrived 18 hours after the explosion to find that none of the local ministers wanted to be responsible for the consequences of declaring the reactor dead.


Shcherbina came into the disaster with the misplaced arrogance of many Soviet leaders. He refused to wear nuclear protection, and his first suggestion to contain the graphite fires was to pour water on them (which would have caused the fires to expand). He dismissed advice to evacuate the city of Pripyat as weaklings’ fear-mongering. Only after three more explosions, almost 36 hours after the initial disaster, when a thick wind of toxic radionuclides came from the reactor, were the citizens allowed to escape. Buses had been waiting for hours between Chernobyl and Pripyat, and still, the town’s people were not allowed to leave until the early afternoon of April 27th, when radiation levels had reached 180 to 300 milliroentgens per hour, a number that could have already begun to affect vulnerable residents.


6. Maria Protsenko: Leading the Evacuation after the Chernobyl Disaster 

chernobyl disaster maria protsenko
Maria Protsenko, via India Times


The city’s chief architect of Pripyat was a force to be reckoned with. Maria Protsenko was small but mighty and carried a ruler around with her while she walked through the city, taking measurements and scolding workers if they were not precise. Protsenko helped the city of Pripyat grow into an example of communist beauty and modernity with the scant material afforded to her by the government. She supervised the city’s expansion from a town of 50,000 to a larger city of 200,000.


On the night of April 26, 1986, Protsenko was one of the first to urge immediate evacuation. When Scherbina finally authorized the townsfolk to leave, Protsenko was put in charge of the evacuation organization. She planned the escape of every single person in every apartment block in the city and instructed the waiting buses where to take the citizens. Protsenko was the last to leave the city when she was satisfied that everyone else was safe.


chernobyl plant after disaster
The Chernobyl Power Plant after the explosion in 1986, via The New York Times


After the Exclusion Zone was established around the scene of the disaster, Protsenko was approached by the KGB for her help in sealing off the city. Years later, Protsenko would be diagnosed with paraparesis (weakness of the legs), and her husband and son would die due to the effects of radiation. Protsenko and her daughter lived in Kyiv until 2022 when they fled to Germany to escape the Russian invasion.

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By Madison WhippleBA History w/ Spanish minorMadison is a contributing writer with specialties in American and women’s history. She is especially interested in women’s history in the context of the American Civil War. In her free time, she enjoys going to museums, reading, and jogging.