Anatomy of a Meltdown

After the Chernobyl reactor exploded, conflicting political, economic, and public health priorities only deepened the crisis.

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July-August 2018

Volume 106, Number 4
Page 250

DOI: 10.1511/2018.106.4.250

CHERNOBYL: The History of a Nuclear Disaster. Serhii Plokhy. xvi + 387 pp. Basic Books, 2018.

One of the most striking photographs from the history of nuclear energy depicts three men on trial, flanked by guards. Among them is Viktor Briukhanov, former director of the nuclear reactor facility at Chernobyl, in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine. The others are deputy chief engineer Anatolii Diatlov and chief engineer Nikolai Fomin. At the time of the photograph, the full weight of responsibility had fallen upon them, and they faced charges of gross negligence.

Igor Kostin, Sputnik Images.

Their vacant expressions reflect resignation and hopelessness. Prison was a fate that seemed inescapable from the day the disaster began on April 26, 1986. They and a few others were held responsible for the explosions, reactor meltdown, and unprecedented environmental and human health debacle that turned Chernobyl into a global household word. By holding them personally responsible, the Soviet justice system decreed that human error had caused the accident.

In his absorbing history of the Chernobyl disaster and its aftermath, Harvard historian and director of the university’s Ukrainian Research Institute Serhii Plokhy reminds us that the historical verdict is more complex than the legal one. The Chernobyl managers, he makes clear, were scapegoats in a time when assigning blame and avoiding responsibility were paramount. There were errors, certainly, but there were also structural problems in the nuclear industry and the political bureaucracy of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Even as the crisis unfolded, Plokhy contends, there were continued tensions between economic priorities and human health needs and an overriding fear of taking decisive action.

Since 1986, commentators outside the Soviet Union have blamed the accident on design flaws in the RBMK reactor. The RBMK (or Reaktor Bolshoy Moshchnosti Kanalnyy, the Russian term for high-power channel-type reactors) relied on graphite to moderate the reaction and used plain water as a coolant—an unusual combination that reduced costs by allowing the reactor to be fueled by natural uranium. Plokhy affirms the design problems, but his treatment is nuanced, connecting design choice to government fiscal priorities, overconfidence in safety, and visceral defense of the nuclear sector among Soviet officials. The reactor’s chief cheerleader in the 1970s, physicist Anatolii Aleksandrov, had convinced government officials that it was no more dangerous than a samovar. Plokhy writes that such overconfidence undermined the ability of workers to respond appropriately during the accident. They began to clean up debris long before anyone realized they were picking up the very guts of the nuclear reactor.

The scale of the Chernobyl disaster is difficult to overstate. At 1:23 AM, an initial explosion blew the roof off of one of the reactor buildings, and soon a second, more powerful explosion sent debris all over the reactor site. The accident led to acute radiation exposure to the operators of the plant and to those who were called in to put out fires. The wrecked site also continually sent harmful radioactivity into the air, contaminating nearby cities and threatening human health in Ukraine, Belarus, and other countries. Plokhy explains that “altogether, 50 million curies of radiation were released by the Chernobyl explosion, the equivalent of 500 Hiroshima bombs.” Scholars and activists still debate the numbers of people affected. Estimates of Chernobyl-related deaths range from a low of 4,000 to a high of 90,000.

Rather than weigh in on these estimates, Plokhy shows us the heart-​rending consequences of decisions in the minutes, hours, days, and weeks following the first explosion. Firefighters kicked random bits of rubble out of the way, not knowing that these were the graphite and fuel rods from the reactor core. Workers peered over the side of a rooftop, only to receive enormous doses of radiation from below. Managers such as Diatlov assigned pointless tasks that exposed employees to fatal doses of radiation. Soldiers and others volunteered for dangerous, even suicidal work in exchange for cars and nice apartments for their families. Plokhy points to the fatal machismo of tough young men refusing to wear protective gear, and the timidity of those who were slow to acknowledge that the unthinkable was happening.

Igor Kostin, Sputnik Images.

The desperate attempts to contain the disaster went in so many directions that there is still controversy about what improved or worsened the situation. The plant operators flooded the reactor with water to prevent its destruction before realizing that it had already exploded. Workers later had to dive into that radioactive water. Similarly, helicopters tried to blanket the reactor with sand. That may have contaminated the atmosphere further, while taking a tragic toll on the lives of the helicopter pilots. Soldiers and firefighters donned self-made lead aprons, yet still absorbed radiation far in excess of any permissible dose.

Drawing on memoirs, letters, and other accounts, Plokhy extends his tale beyond the immediate disaster to include the trial of the managers, the politics of the late 1980s, and much beyond. Some Chernobyl victims died in hospitals, but others died by their own hands, or of grief: Briukhanov’s mother suffered a fatal heart attack during her son’s trial. Others were caught up in political opportunities, as with the activists in Ukraine who tied Chernobyl to the rhetoric of independence. Still others were emotionally crushed by experience. Fomin attempted suicide. A few months after the accident, the Soviet government sent physicist Valerii Legasov to Vienna to explain to the world what had transpired. Although his explanation was lauded in the West as a positive example of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, or “openness,” Legasov’s candor was interpreted as betrayal back home. He too attempted suicide in 1987 and finally ended his own life the following year.

Officials were anything but candid about the dangers of Chernobyl to the people of Ukraine. Plokhy relates the self-interested conversations among officials about whether to evacuate the nearby city of Prypiat. They wondered whether it was worth causing widespread panic: After all, they contended, if the scientists were wrong, the enormous cost would ruin the career of anyone issuing the order. Meanwhile, on that sunny April weekend, radioactive clouds contaminated the city even as weddings took place, sunbathers basked outside, and children played in the streets. The officials finally conceded to nuclear scientists’ pleas, and the government began evacuating the whole city Sunday afternoon, 36 hours after the explosions had occurred, with the promise that residents would be permitted to return in three days. Decades later, Prypiat is still a nuclear ghost town.

Such dereliction of responsibility during the disaster—along with blame mongering that allowed many to avoid professional consequences—is perhaps the most powerful motif in Plokhy’s thoughtful and engrossing book. Officially, a handful of reactor operators shouldered the blame and were punished, but the full scope of responsibility for the disaster was much wider. Afterward, resentment of Soviet officials’ sluggish, even callous attitudes fueled nationalist sentiment in Ukraine in the late 1980s. Ironically, Ukrainian independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 let Moscow avoid responsibility, saddling the Ukrainian government with the costs of health care for its huge number of claimants. In a further twist, Ukraine then reversed course, its own officials refusing to shut down the other Chernobyl reactors, as their own desperation for economic solutions grew more intense. To Plokhy, the decision was a haunting reminder of the tension between protecting human lives and promoting economic growth, a more fitting culprit for the Chernobyl disaster than any scapegoat.

Jacob Darwin Hamblin is professor of history at Oregon State University. His most recent book, Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism, won the Birdsall Prize from the American Historical Association and the Davis Prize from the History of Science Society.