In Photos: Photos: The 1986 Chernobyl Disaster

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Thirty-three years ago, on April 26, 1986, a series of explosions destroyed Chernobyl’s reactor No. 4, and several hundred staff and firefighters tackled a blaze that burned for 10 days and sent a plume of radiation around the world.

More than 50 reactor and emergency workers were killed in the immediate aftermath. The workers and emergency respondents were not the only ones to risk their lives—a handful of photographers went to the scene as well – check out these images!

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Liquidators clean the roof of the No. 3 reactor. At first, workers tried clearing the radioactive debris from the roof using West German, Japanese, and Russian robots, but the machines could not cope with the extreme radiation levels so authorities decided to use humans.

In some areas, workers could not stay any longer than 40 seconds before the radiation they received reached the maximum authorized dose a human being should receive in his entire life.

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An aerial view of the damaged Chernobyl nuclear-power plant, photographed a few weeks after the disaster, in May 1986

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The majority of the liquidators were reservists ages 35 to 40 who were called up to assist with the cleanup operations or those currently in military service in chemical-protection units.

The army did not have adequate uniforms adapted for use in radioactive conditions, so those enlisted to carry out work on the roof and in other highly toxic zones were obliged to cobble together their own clothing, made from lead sheets and measuring two to four millimeters thick.

The sheets were cut to size to make aprons to be worn under cotton work wear, and were designed to cover the body in front and behind, especially to protect the spine and bone marrow.

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Liquidators clear radioactive debris from the roof of the No. 4 reactor, throwing it to the ground where it will later be covered by the sarcophagus. These “biological robots” have only seconds to work—time to place themselves by a pile of debris, lift a shovel load, and throw it among the ruins of reactor No. 4.

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A military helicopter spreads sticky decontamination fluid supposed to reduce the spread of radioactive particles around the Chernobyl nuclear plant a few days after the disaster.

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A team of human liquidators prepares to clear radioactive debris off the roof of the No. 4 reactor.

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A liquidator, outfitted with handmade lead shielding on his head, works to clean the roof of reactor No. 3.

© Igor Kostin / Sygma via Getty

The remains of the No. 4 reactor, photographed from the roof of reactor No. 3

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