Most read History 26.4.2023
17min read

From Engineer To Villain: The Controversial Story Of Anatoly Dyatlov

The Chernobyl disaster of April 26, 1986, is a dark chapter in human history and the name – Anatoly Dyatlov has become synonymous with one of the worst nuclear accidents in history. 

It was a catastrophic nuclear accident that resulted in the release of radioactive material into the environment and caused immense human suffering. At the heart of this disaster was Anatoly Dyatlov, the Deputy Chief Engineer of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. 

Dyatlov’s role in the events leading up to the explosion of reactor 4 has been the subject of much controversy and debate. Was he a dedicated engineer trying to do his job under difficult circumstances, or a villain who prioritized ambition over safety? In this blog, we will delve into the life and career of Anatoly Dyatlov, the events of the Chernobyl disaster, and the legacy and controversies that surround his name to this day.

Who was Anatoly Stepanovich Dyatlov?

ImagePhoto: National Museum “Chornobyl”.

Dyatlov was born on March 3, 1931, in Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union. His family lived near the Yenisei River and the penal settlements of Krasnoyarsk.  His childhood was difficult, as his parents were poor and couldn’t afford much for a proper life. At the age of 14 he ran away from home. 

First, he had studied in a vocational school, at the electrical engineering department of the Mining and Metallurgical Technical School in Norilsk, and had worked for three years as an electrician before, he was admitted to the Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute where he graduated with honors in 1959.

After graduation, he worked in a shipbuilding plant in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, in Lab 23 where reactors were installed into submarines. During a nuclear accident there, Dyatlov received a radiation dose of 100 rem (1.0 Sv), a dose which typically causes mild radiation sickness, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue and reduction in resistance to infections. 

Dyatlov’s wife, Isabella Ivanovna, is an historian by education. In Pripyat, she worked in a kindergarten. Now, she is 91 years old and lives in Kyiv. There were three children in their family – one daughter and two sons. Unfortunately, one of the sons died of leukemia in childhood, his grave is in Komsomolsk-on-Amur. Anatoly Stepanovich never touched on this topic.

ImageChernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1983/1984
Source: Reddit 

One of the most experienced nuclear engineers at the Chernobyl station, Anatoly Dyatlov had arrived in Ukraine from the top-secret Laboratory 23 in the Soviet Far East, where he had overseen a team installing reactors in the USSR’s growing fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.

He quickly rose through the ranks to become the deputy chief engineer. He was seen as a capable and ambitious engineer, with a promising career ahead of him.

Anatoly was known for his hard work and dedication, and his colleagues praised his technical expertise and problem-solving skills. Dyatlov was known for his sharp intellect and his commitment to his work. 

During his time at the Chernobyl plant, Dyatlov oversaw the successful construction and operation of three reactors, which produced a significant portion of Ukraine’s electricity. He also played an important role in the development of new safety protocols and procedures, which were designed to prevent accidents and protect workers.

Despite his successful career, Dyatlov’s legacy has been overshadowed by the catastrophic events of April 26, 1986, when an experiment in reactor number four went wrong and led to a massive explosion and fire. Dyatlov was overseeing the experiment at the time and was later criticized for disregarding safety protocols and pressuring workers to continue with the experiment.

ImageLeft – Paul Ritter as Dyatlov, right – Anatoly Dyatlov.

Anatoly Dyatlov played a pivotal role in the events leading up to the Chernobyl disaster, and his character was portrayed by an actor Paul Ritter in the Chernobyl HBO miniseries. 

What happened on April 26, 1986?

On April 26, 1986, the world witnessed one of the most catastrophic man-made disasters in history. The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, located in Ukraine, experienced a massive explosion and fire, releasing a large amount of radioactive material into the atmosphere. The event was a tragedy that changed the world’s perception of nuclear power and its safety.

An Experiment Gone Wrong

ImageAbove the destroyed reactor 4 at the Chernobyl NPP, April 26, 1986.
Photo: Igor Kostin

The Chernobyl disaster was caused by a combination of technical and human factors. On the day of the disaster, a group of engineers was conducting an electrical-engineering experiment on the Number 4 reactor and Dyatlov was in charge of this test.

The experiment was designed to test the reactor’s ability to generate power during a power outage, in other words to see if the reactor’s turbine could run emergency water pumps on inertial power.

As part of their poorly designed experiment, the engineers disconnected the reactor’s emergency safety systems and its power-regulating system. Next, they compounded the experiment with a series of mistakes: They ran the reactor at a power level so low that the reaction became unstable, and then removed too many of the reactor’s control rods in an attempt to power it up again. The reactor’s output rose to more than 200 megawatts but was proving increasingly difficult to control. 

Dyatlov was under pressure to complete the test quickly, as the plant’s managers were eager to meet production targets. Despite warnings from other engineers about the risks of the test, Dyatlov decided to go ahead with it.

At 1:23 a.m. on April 26, the engineers continued with their experiment and shut down the turbine generator to see if its inertial spinning would power the reactor’s water pumps. In fact, it did not adequately power the water pumps, and without cooling water the power level in the reactor surged.

To prevent a meltdown, the operators reinserted all the 200-some control rods into the reactor at once. The control rods were meant to reduce the reaction but had a design flaw: graphite tips. 

ImageRBMK-Core of Reactor 4 : Positions of Control Rods (Insertion Depth in Centimeters) Approximately 1min30(s) before the Explosion on Saturday, 26. April 1986, last Signal of SKALA Control System at 1:22:30(h)

Control Rods (167) -> GREEN
Short Control Rods from Below Reactor (32) -> YELLOW
Automatic Control Rods (12) -> RED
Pressure Tubes with Fuel Rods (1661) -> GREY

So, before the control rod’s five meters of absorbent material could penetrate the core, 200 graphite tips simultaneously entered, thus facilitating the reaction and causing an explosion that blew off the heavy steel and concrete lid of the reactor. 

The test went catastrophically wrong. A series of explosions occurred, destroying the reactor and releasing radioactive material into the environment. Dyatlov was one of the first people on the scene, and he was exposed to high levels of radiation. In the hours and days that followed, Dyatlov worked tirelessly to try to contain the disaster and prevent further damage. But the damage had already been done. The Chernobyl disaster was one of the worst nuclear accidents in history, with far-reaching and long-lasting effects on the environment and human health.

Radioactive cloud over Europe in 1986.

It was not a nuclear explosion, as nuclear power plants are incapable of producing such a reaction, but it was chemical, driven by the ignition of gasses and steam that were generated by the runaway reaction. In the explosion and ensuing fire, more than 50 tons of radioactive material were released into the atmosphere, where it was carried by air currents.

Dyatlov’s role in the events leading up to the disaster has been the subject of much controversy and debate. Some have accused him of being reckless and cavalier in his management of the test, while others have argued that he was simply following orders and acting in accordance with established procedures. So, who’s to blame for one of the worst nuclear disasters in human history?

Who’s to blame: the Individual or the System?


While there were many factors that contributed to the disaster, one man in particular has become synonymous with the Chernobyl tragedy and its aftermath – Anatoly Dyatlov.

Anatoly Dyatlov was the Deputy Chief Engineer of the Chernobyl plant at the time of the accident, with the responsibility for overseeing the operation of the plant’s reactors. He was one of the key figures responsible for the events on that fateful night, but not only one.

Dyatlov was known for his ambition and his authoritarian management style. He was demanding and exacting with his subordinates, and was seen by some as an intimidating figure. Despite these traits, Dyatlov was also respected for his technical expertise and his knowledge of nuclear power.

Some believe that Anatoly was simply following orders from his superiors and was not solely responsible for the decisions that led to the disaster. Others point out that he was warned about the risks of the experiment.

According to reports, he overrode safety protocols, ignored warning signs, and pressed for the experiment to continue despite the risks. His actions have been described as reckless and irresponsible. So, you may ask “Who is to blame then?

ImageAnatoly Dyatlov (seated, leaning forward) is among six defendants attending trial for their role in the Chernobyl disaster.
Photo: Igor Kostin

The truth likely lies somewhere in between. Ultimately, blaming one individual for the Chernobyl disaster oversimplifies the complex factors that led to the tragedy. While Dyatlov made critical mistakes that contributed to the disaster, he was not solely responsible for it. The disaster was the result of a combination of factors, including design flaws, government policies, and a lack of safety culture.

Valery Legasov believed that a major underlying contributor to the Chernobyl accident was an attitude engendered by the lack of individual responsibility for quality. He mentions: slipshod, welding, pipework defects, faulty valves, RBMK channel failures and notes that after a decade of talk about training and five years, at least, of discussions on the development of systems for equipment diagnostics, nothing was done. Across the Soviet Union, 16 RBMK reactors were still in operation.


Read more about Valery Legasov in our blog – What Is The Cost Of Lies: Valery Legasov – Chernobyl Hero?

ImageChernobyl Nuclear Power plant at construction phase, August 1986.
Source: Reddit

The Soviet government’s policies of secrecy and lack of transparency contributed to a culture where safety was often sacrificed in the interest of achieving production targets. The design flaws of the RBMK reactor also played a role in the disaster, making it difficult to control the reaction.

While working at the Chernobyl NPP, Alexander Stepanovych remained the same Dyatlov I knew at the shipyard. He deeply, as they say, knew the equipment of the station, was tireless in his work, and paid a lot of attention to self-education. He did not change his principles of communicating with people. It must be admitted that in this respect he had certain problems, upon first meeting one got the impression that he was a sullen, dissatisfied man. During further communication, it became clear that he is cheerful, likes and knows how to joke, and is a good conversationalist. He always had his own point of view and never changed it at the request of the boss, he persuaded, did not agree, in the end obeyed, but remained with his opinion. Similarly, he had little regard for the opinion of his subordinates. Of course, not everyone likes such a person”, –  says Vadym Vasylyovych Hryshchenko – a veteran of the nuclear power industry, Dyatlov’s friend and colleague from work at the shipyard and the Chernobyl NPP.

Anatoly Dyatlov was a product of this system and this culture. He was operating within this environment, and some believe that the system as a whole was to blame for the disaster, rather than one individual.

Dyatlov treated young specialists quite normally: he taught, instructed, suggested. But on the topic of those who held managerial positions at the station and at the same time did not strive to “rise” to the required level of knowledge in the field of nuclear power, he was categorical and preferred not to communicate. 

So, for example, his relationship with the Chief Engineer of the station, Fomin, was not easy. Outwardly, it looked like an ordinary relationship between a boss and a subordinate, but Dyatlov did not perceive Fomin as a specialist and sometimes frankly ignored the ill-considered orders of his direct superior. Anatoly Stepanovich was a straightforward person, and even if someone was not to his liking, he did not hide it”, – remembers Dyatlov’s friend Vadym Hryshchenko.

In the aftermath of the accident, Dyatlov became a controversial figure, accused by some of being a villain who put his own ambition ahead of safety. Dyatlov himself vehemently denied any wrongdoing, insisting that he was following orders and acting in accordance with established procedures.

ImageChernobyl trial – above real photo (from left to right) of Bryukhanov, Dyatlov and Fomin; below Bryukhanov and Dyatlov from Chernobyl HBO series.

Despite his protestations of innocence, Anantoly Dyatlov was ultimately found guilty of criminal negligence and sentenced to 10 years in prison. 

10 Years Prison

Together with Nikolai Fomin and Viktor Bryukhanov, Dyatlov was criminally charged for the failure to follow safety regulations. The trial began on 6 July 1987 at the Palace of Culture in the town of Chernobyl. Only people invited by the state were allowed to witness the proceedings. 

There were six defendants: Bryukhanov, Fomin, Dyatlov, station shift supervisor Boris Rogozhkin, reactor division chief Alexander Kovalenko, and inspector Yuri Laushkin. Among the defendants, only Dyatlov remained combative, saying that the operators were not responsible for the accident.

Read more about former director of Chernobyl NPP Victor Bryukhanov in our blog.

ImageShot from the trial in the case of the Chernobyl accident. Defendants (from left to right) Bryukhanov, Dyatlov, Fomin.
Photo: from the archive

Anatoly Dyatlov claimed that he was not present when the reactor stalled or when the power level was increased, but this was contradicted by several witnesses. The design flaws in the reactor were not considered by the court, and any expert witnesses involved in the design were keen to avoid blame. All six were found guilty and Dyatlov was given the maximum sentence of 10 years in prison for gross violation of safety regulations. 

He was initially sent to a labor camp in Siberia, where he endured harsh conditions and long hours of hard labor. Dyatlov suffered from health problems during his time in prison and was reportedly diagnosed with leukemia.

Despite his circumstances, Dyatlov maintained his innocence and claimed that he was not solely responsible for the disaster. He argued that he was following orders from higher authorities and that the system as a whole was to blame for the disaster. Dyatlov also expressed remorse for his role in the disaster and the loss of life that resulted.

From prison he wrote letters trying to explain RBMK reactor flaws he had discovered, as well as to restore his and the other operators’ reputations. He wrote a letter to the family of Toptunov, relating how he had tried to restore coolant to the reactor. Dyatlov was granted amnesty in late 1990 due to his worsening health from radiation exposure.

He wrote a paper published in Nuclear Engineering International in 1991 and a book ( Anatoly Dyatlov, “Chernobyl. How it happened“, 1995) in which he claimed that poor plant design, rather than plant personnel, was primarily responsible for the accident.

He wrote a paper published in Nuclear Engineering International in 1991 and a book ( Anatoly Dyatlov, “Chernobyl. How it happened“, 1995) in which he claimed that poor plant design, rather than plant personnel, was primarily responsible for the accident.

“This program had to be executed, that was a demand of regulations and the project design documents…. The accident was caused by completely inappropriate characteristics of the reactor that weren’t clear enough at that time. … They blamed us that we had violated the regulations by increasing the reactor power after power loss. There was no violation. Everything had been done according to the regulation demands… the reactor protection system designed to stop the fission in an emergency situation… played the role of the atomic bomb detonator” – wrote Anatoly Dyatlov in his book.

While the initial Soviet investigation put almost all the blame on the operators, later findings by the Ministry of Atomic Energy and the IAEA found that the reactor design and how the operators were informed of safety information was more significant. However, the operators were found to have deviated from operational procedures, changing test protocols at will, as well as having made “ill judged” actions, making human error a major contributing factor.

Dyatlov’s experience in prison was a difficult one, marked by harsh conditions and health problems. However, his letters and writings provided valuable insights into the Soviet nuclear industry and the culture of secrecy that contributed to the disaster.

Dyatlov died of bone marrow cancer in Kyiv, Ukraine in 1995, which was almost certainly caused by his radiation poisoning from the accident. He was 64.

The Legacy Of Anatoly Dyatlov

ImageConcrete sarcophagus over the destroyed fourth power unit of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, 1989.
Photo: Alexander Klimenko

The legacy of Anatoly Dyatlov, the Deputy Chief Engineer of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant at the time of the disaster, remains significant to this day. Dyatlov’s role in the events leading up to the explosion of reactor 4 and the subsequent release of radioactive material into the environment has been the subject of much controversy and debate. Some see him as a villain who put his own ambition ahead of safety, while others view him as a scapegoat, unfairly blamed for a disaster that was the result of systemic failures and flawed technology.

The significance of Dyatlov’s legacy lies in the lessons that can be learned from his story:

  • Nuclear safety: The Chernobyl disaster was a wake-up call for the nuclear industry worldwide. It exposed the vulnerabilities of the Soviet-era RBMK reactors and highlighted the dangers of inadequate safety measures, flawed technology, and human error. It was a reminder of the need for strict adherence to safety protocols and the critical role of human judgment in complex technological systems.
  • Ethics in work: Dyatlov’s role in the disaster raises ethical questions about the responsibilities of engineers in ensuring the safety of their work. It underscores the importance of ethical decision-making in work, including considering the potential consequences of actions and upholding professional integrity in the face of pressure or authority.
  • Organizational culture and leadership: Dyatlov’s management style, which was described as authoritarian and demanding, has drawn attention to the influence of organizational culture and leadership on safety outcomes. It serves as a reminder that fostering a culture of open communication, accountability, and collaboration is crucial in high-risk industries like nuclear energy to prevent catastrophic incidents.
  • Personal accountability: It raises the issue of personal accountability in the context of leadership and decision-making. While he argued that he was following orders, the consequences of his actions resulted in immense damage and loss of life. It highlights the need for individuals in positions of authority to take personal responsibility for their decisions and actions, especially in safety-critical industries.
  • Public perception and media portrayal: Dyatlov’s legacy also highlights the role of the media in shaping public perception and narratives. He was often portrayed as a villain in the media, and his controversial legacy has been the subject of ongoing debate. It serves as a reminder of the importance of critical thinking and considering multiple perspectives in evaluating complex events and individuals.

Anatoly Dyatlov’s controversial role in the Chernobyl catastrophe serves as a reminder of the importance of prioritizing safety over profits and national prestige, the risks of authoritarian management styles, and the need for transparency and accountability in the aftermath of large-scale disasters. It became a cautionary tale that has the potential to inform and shape the way we approach technological progress and safety in the future.

ImageAnatoly Dyatlov in prison.
Source: Reddit

Regardless of where one falls on this debate, it is important to consider the wider implications of Dyatlov’s story. In the end of this blog we want you to ask yourself only one question:

Was Dyatlov solely responsible for the events of that fateful night?





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