April 26th, 1986, is a day that will live in infamy. When Reactor Number Four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, the resulting fire left a cloud of radiation hanging over Europe. Chernobyl was the world’s worst nuclear disaster, but ten years earlier, there was an accident at a similar Soviet-built reactor – this time in Czechoslovakia - that could have been equally devastating, had it not been for the actions of two men. For years the case was shrouded in secrecy. Only now has the story come to light.
Bohunice power station, about an hour’s drive north of Bratislava, was Czechoslovakia’s first nuclear power plant, a symbol of faith in Soviet technology and the progress offered by communism. But in January 1976, a full ten years before the Chernobyl disaster, the village of Jaslovské Bohunice and much of Eastern Europe could have suffered a nuclear catastrophe after a routine operation went wrong.
Workers at Bohunice were replacing fuel rods at the plant’s Reactor Number One when one of the four-and-a-half-tonne rods shot into the air like a rocket, hitting a crane and shattering into pieces. Carbon dioxide gas automatically began filling the room to cool the reactor, but the gas was escaping through a shaft that had been forced open by the accident, neutralising the cooling effect. Milan Antolík, one of the Bohunice technicians who sprang into action, had this to say in an interview with Czech Television.
“The noise was incredible. It was so loud – a ship’s siren was nothing compared to this. The whole building started shaking and there was just this incredible cacophony of sound.”
Milan Antolík told reporters if the shaft could not be closed, within half an hour all the gas would have escaped and it would no longer have been possible to cool the reactor down. The fuel rods would have melted, ending in a disaster that Mr Antolík says would have been far worse than Chernobyl. He and a colleague – Viliam Pačes – donned anti-radiation suits and cleared the remains of the shattered fuel rod in order to close the open shaft. The radiation was so high, he says, their equipment wasn’t even capable of measuring it. Two men died in the operation to bring the reactor under control.
For years the communist regime hushed up the incident. Workers at Bohunice were even questioned by the police for sabotage, so unthinkable was the idea of Soviet technology being somehow flawed. Only in the last few days – when Milan Antolík and Viliam Pačes were given state honours for bravery by the Slovak president – have details of the case emerged.
The two men deny being heroes, but seem grateful for some recognition. In 1987, they received a Soviet-era award for services to construction from the then prime minister Lubomír Štrougal. “He was sweating and his hands were shaking and he couldn’t speak,” Milan Antolík told Právo newspaper - “I think he was worried I was still radioactive.”