An Archaeologist Exploring Chernobyl Risked His Life When He Got Too Close To A Deadly Crane Claw

Ignoring the screeching crackle from his Geiger counter, archaeologist Robert Maxwell tramples over the soggy, fallen leaves and lurid green moss in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone. He is approaching a strange relic: a hefty piece of crumbling, rust-tinted crane machinery that has since been dubbed “the claw.” Later, the expert would even go on to call this discovery “the most dangerous” item in this eerie site. And there is a very good explanation as to why.

Nestled among both untamed vegetation and an array of other decaying pieces of equipment, the claw is just one of the rotting remnants from the clean-up after 1986’s nuclear catastrophe. Maxwell was shown the object in 2011, on his second visit to Chernobyl. And despite being aware of its dangers, he couldn’t help but go and take a closer look.

Now, as you may know, the site of the disaster attracts thousands of tourists each year – especially since the release of HBO’s critically acclaimed TV series Chernobyl in 2019. But it’s likely that very few have actually had the chance to stand in such close proximity to the claw. Yes, the risk associated with it means that if people want to view it, they need to be granted access by authorities in Ukraine. Spooky, right?

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But before we get onto the story behind the claw, let’s delve back in time and revisit the cataclysmic event that occurred in the early hours of April 26, 1986. On the day before the catastrophe, you see, the team in charge of reactor four at Chernobyl’s power plant was getting ready to perform a scheduled test.

They wanted to measure the functionality of the turbines in the event of a mains power cut. More specifically, in fact, whether cool water would continue to be pumped to the reactor. As preparation, then, the staff at the power plant were gradually reducing the amount of power reaching the reactor. And by the evening of April 25, 1986, the power level was at around 50 percent.

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And despite being asked to delay the test by a nearby power station, the staff ignored the request. So, the power reaching the reactor remained at an abnormally low level. What Chernobyl’s employees didn’t realize, however, was that this would lead to a terrifying instability within the core.

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Oblivious to the impending tragedy, operators tried to mimic a genuine loss of mains power to the best of their ability. This meant switching off the safety features that they wouldn’t be able to access without electricity. And perhaps the most important of these key precautionary functions was the turbine that usually fed cold water to the reactor.

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With this system no longer operational, the temperature of the water inside the core increased dramatically, subsequently producing steam. Then, the extent of the heat caused an inevitable and dramatic increase in power within the nuclear reactor – one that the operators could no longer control. Reactor four was rapidly becoming akin to a ticking time bomb.

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The heat caused the pressurized fuel tubes to break and the fuel particles to leak; they then came into contact with the hot water, resulting in sudden combustion caused by steam. But the worst was yet to come. Yes, there were in fact two explosions at Chernobyl on the morning of April 26, 1986.

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You see, once the lid of the reactor had been forced away from the core, the remaining fuel tubes were also compromised. It is this that caused the reactor to explode for a second time, subsequently obliterating its cover and laying bare to the elements its massively radioactive core.

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As a result of the second explosion, chunks of graphite (used in the core to help control nuclear reaction speeds) had been flung from the reactor – and they consequently caught fire. The high levels of radiation that entered the atmosphere actually came as a result of these blazes, some of which raged on for more than a week.

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Without knowing the extent of the risk and what exactly they were heading towards, local firefighters rushed to the scene to try to put out the fires. They were dangerously close to the newly-exposed nuclear reactor core, and, as you would expect, the doses of radiation that they received were extremely high. In fact, just a couple of months after the explosion, 28 people who had come into close proximity to the site on the day of the explosion were already dead.

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Thankfully, then, authorities saw fit to ferry residents away from the surrounding towns. But this didn’t happen until May 14 – a full 13 days after the disaster occurred. Not everyone evacuated the area, either. That’s right, the Soviet Union was forced to call upon the help of humans in the mammoth job that was the clean-up process.

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At first, though, it seems that the Soviets did actually try and prevent humans from getting involved in the most dangerous parts of the ensuing clean-up. In particular, they attempted to shift the debris that had been scattered onto nearby rooftops by reactor four’s explosion with a number of different robotic machines.

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Authorities began by utilizing Russian equipment designed for use in space, and they even reached out beyond the Iron Curtain to West Germany (as it then was) in order to borrow one of the country’s emergency service robots. However, it seems that the Soviets weren’t completely candid about the severity of the situation at Chernobyl. And to some, that unwillingness to reveal the truth about the gravity of the events continues to astonish.

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The creator of HBO’s Chernobyl, Craig Mazin, said that the authorities at Chernobyl and the Soviet Union continued to hide the extent of destruction and danger not just from Germany, but from the rest of the world too. In the podcast that accompanied 2019’s show, he said, “[It’s] mind blowing to me…They refused to tell anyone how bad the situation was.”

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He later added, “After the world knew about Chernobyl and knew what it meant, they were still soft-pedaling just how bad it was, to the point where they refused to tell the West Germans how much radiation was on that roof.” So, just how exactly did the robots cope in such toxic conditions?

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Well, the most well-known robot that was employed in the clean-up even had a name: Joker. And before it had even started its work, a couple of men were required to climb to the roof of a nearby reactor in order to shift debris and in turn create a clear path on which it could travel.

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Little did the men know, however, that their efforts would be in vain. Indeed, Joker couldn’t cope with the amount of radiation to which it was subjected, and it subsequently ceased to function. You see, as Mazin later stated, “[The roof had] 600 percent or 700 percent more [radiation] than it could handle.”

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Interestingly, it’s thought that the Americans had developed technology strong enough to withstand such high doses of radiation. But the fraught Cold War relationship between East and West meant that the Soviets weren’t prepared to approach them in search of aid. So, they decided to use what they obviously viewed as the next best thing, or as the only other option for that matter: humans.

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Thousands of men were suited and booted and made ready to make their way out onto the extremely dangerous and radioactive roof. After being grouped together, each man had just 90 seconds to do his bit in the clean-up effort. This aimed to prevent lengthy exposure to the insanely high radiation levels.

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The objective was to clear the roof of radioactive debris by launching it off the edge of the building and on top of the still-gaping reactor core. In total, authorities wanted the soldiers to rid the roof area of 100 tons of contaminated material. And this mainly consisted of graphite.

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Sadly, even after their brave efforts, no one decided to officially keep track of the fate of the men. So we can never be sure exactly how badly their health was compromised by the mission. If and how they died, as well as how long they lived, will, therefore, remain unknown. But what of Joker?

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Well, the German robot actually lies abandoned somewhere inside the spooky site. And this isn’t uncommon; if you were to explore the entirety of Chernobyl’s exclusion zone, for instance, you’d probably come across an array of decaying pieces of machinery – including the infamous claw.

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Yes, the claw – just like Joker– played an important role in the aftermath of Chernobyl’s disaster. It, too, was used to clean up the radioactive graphite that had been violently dispersed during the explosion. And it was its part in this mission that makes the claw one of the most deadly remnants left on the site today.

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In a 2019 interview with news.com.au, archaeologist Robert Maxwell explained just how the claw came to be so deadly. He said, “The three rooftops alongside the exploded reactor four were, at the time, the most lethally dangerous places on earth. One of the rooftops was measuring in the tens of thousands of roentgen[s], which was the measurement of radioactivity back then.”

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He continued, “So this claw was deeply involved in all the intensely radioactive material as it moved the material back into the core. To say the claw is highly radioactive and dangerous is not an exaggeration.” And that’s why getting so close to it can pose a risk to a person’s health.

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But as we already know, that didn’t deter Maxwell from checking it out. You could say, for instance, that the archaeologist had a sort of morbid curiosity to view the claw, as he wanted to take a reading of the radiation being emitted by the machine some 33 years after the event. So, both the academic and his guide didn’t hesitate to set off in search of the crane.

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What’s more, in his interview with news.com.au, Maxwell has since described in detail his time viewing the claw. Apparently, while he hesitantly approached the hunk of metal, his guide was repeatedly instructing the archaeologist not to touch it. Maxwell said, “It wasn’t easy to get a reading, because the Geiger counter was climbing so fast.”

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The archaeologist continued, “Eventually I got some numbers, we yelled ‘Now!’ and I pulled my hand out.” His reading came back as 39.80 microsieverts per hour (uSv/h). Now, this might not mean much to the average individual, but as Maxwell went on to explain, Sydney, Australia has a background radiation level of just 0.17 uSv/h. This also means that daily, the crane claw is emitting a whopping 950 uSv.

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It may come as no surprise, then, that Maxwell went on to describe the claw as being “screamingly radioactive.” Warning people against getting as close to the eerie piece of machinery as he did, he said: “There are many things in the zone today for which contact for any prolonged period will definitely kill you, and the claw is definitely the most dangerous of all.”

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And there is another reason for this. Namely, it’s not cordoned off in the same way that most of the other treacherous relics are. That, however, does not mean it’s particularly easy to find. After “the claw” had served its purpose, Chernobyl’s liquidators – the title of the men left to clean up the site – hid the piece of machinery among trees where they thought it wasn’t likely to be found.

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So, when Maxwell and his guide came across the relic, they felt it only necessary to take numerous photos. The archaeologist said, “The claw was so unusual and so little seen that I was taking several photos. Then my guide was taking photos of me taking photos, and both my guide and driver were taking photos themselves because it was the first time they’d seen the claw in person. It was a bit like seeing a mythical creature.”

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Despite his rather positive description of the claw, however, Maxwell certainly wouldn’t encourage visitors to try and find it. “There’s a very good reason why the claw is kept in a very secluded part of the forest, away from anyone and anything,” he said. “There are plenty of less dangerous things to see in Chernobyl.”

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There is, for example, specific areas where both vehicles and robots that were abandoned at Chernobyl are now being displayed. But tourists should also bear in mind that to get close to these relics would still pose a health risk. Yes, they are still hazardous – even if they aren’t hidden away like the claw.

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So, what happened after Maxwell took a closer look at this “potentially lethal” artefact? Well, the archaeologist took precautionary measures in order to guard himself against harm. He even noted that encountering the claw made him more wary about the level of radiation to which he was being exposed on his trip to the site.

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In the same interview with news.com.au, he said, “When you’re in the zone, you become very aware of radioactive contamination, especially on surfaces where there is dust, as these are microscopic radioactive contamination that is landing on things, being absorbed into the surface.”

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This is why he recommends staying clear of artefacts such as these, as well as performing what he describes as the “Silkwood scrub down.” Inspired, rather obviously, by the 1984 film Silkwood, Maxwell went into detail about exactly this involved. And the advice may come in handy if you’re planning a visit to the site. After all, it’s becoming increasingly popular among tourists.

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The archaeologist recommended that after exposure to radiation, you should wash yourself with soap and be mindful of not scrubbing too forcefully. This is to prevent actually contaminating yourself further with radioactive substances and, according to Maxwell, “is the best way to mediate the effects [of being in a hazardous environment].”

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But you may be wondering, what will happen to the infamous claw? Maxwell suspects that it will remain eerily rooted to its spot forever. Why? Because it’s just too contaminated and dangerous to relocate. He said. “It’s essentially just sitting in a forest clearing for the rest of time. It’s severely, potently lethal.” So, knowing what you know now about the claw, would you venture off the beaten track to find it? Or are you sensible enough to stay well away?

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