Chernobyl – History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy
Published 2018 Allen Lane (Penguin)
This is the story of how a technological disaster contributed to the collapse of a superpower, covering the period from just before the Chernobyl accident in 1986, through Ukrainian independence in 1991, to the completion of a nuclear shelter in 2018.
Professor Serhii Plokhy opens with his recent visit to Chernobyl and quickly becomes engagingly personal. A tourist guide is unable to identify the portrait inside a long-abandoned movie theatre; the author recognises Victor Chebrikov, head of the KGB at the time of the disaster. The reader is clearly in competent hands as the author deftly illuminates the historical and political context of the 1986 tragedy and its repercussions.
The writing is assured. Each character is brought to life in swift, light pen strokes. Key events are animated through the reactions of witnesses and we are guided smoothly from astutely observed contemporary detail to lessons of timeless global significance, from personal to political, from uskorenie (acceleration) to perestroika (restructuring). It reads like a thrilling relay race, with an expert cameraman zooming in as the baton is passed from character to character, then pulling back to display the big picture.
In Mikhail Gorbachov’s 1986 speech to the twenty-seventh Communist Party Congress, his first as general secretary, he bemoaned the zastoi (stagnation) of the Soviet Union economy and called for a speedier shift from fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) to nuclear power. Viktor Briukhanov, director of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station, listened to the speech as one of 4993 delegates to the congress. His plea for “greater attention to the reliability and safety of atomic energy generation” was already far too late.
The RBMK nuclear technology, selected in the 1970’s for the Chernobyl Power Complex, started life as military technology to produce weapons grade plutonium from uranium. A turbine was added to harness the steam and turn it into electrical power. The chief designer of the RBMK, Ukrainian born Nikolai Dollezhal, argued vociferously against building these types of reactors in the densely populated western part of the USSR. He was ignored.
The bulk of the book documents the events in the days immediately after the explosion of Reactor Number Four. It conveys a vivid sense of the utter confusion, denial and delay, the power struggles and disagreements, all pointing to a total lack of preparedness for such a catastrophic event.
The bravery of individuals, including three engineers who knowingly undertook a suicide mission in diving suits to release water under the stricken reactor, is movingly described, but Serhii Plokhy is at his best when getting inside the minds of politicians.
The initial Soviet response to the catastrophe is captured in a single grim vignette: an air force general and two engineering experts reduced to filling sandbags under the hectoring shouts of politician Boris Shcherbina – the deputy prime minister of the Soviet Union sent from Moscow to lead the commission of inquiry – “running the show like an ancient despot…bully(ing) subordinates into submission…demand(ing) fulfilment of unrealistic…quotas.”
The chief of operative group of the special zone General-major P. I. Kuzovkov with the first Deputy head of Main political Directorate of the Soviet Army and of the Navy Admiral of the fleet A. I. Sorokine. Photo Wikimedia by MMArkhipov
The struggle to bury the stricken nuclear core under sand, clay, boron and lead was no more effective than the effort to hide the severity of the accident from the outside world. Monitoring stations in Finland and Sweden alerted the international community within hours of the accident. The additional weight of 5,000 tonnes of material dumped by helicopter onto the damaged structure caused fears of overheating and further explosions or a “China Syndrome” descent of nuclear fuel into the water table, contaminating the groundwater, rivers and sea.
I learned much that was new to me in this book: the closeness of Ukrainians Anatolii Aleksandrov – president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and Yefim Slavsky – Ministry of Medium Machine Building and their refusal to countenance faults with the RBMK reactor design; the complex circumstances leading to the suicide of scientist Valeri Legasov a year and a day after the accident; the trial of the six scapegoats inside the 30km exclusion zone – “an ‘open’ trial in a ‘closed’ zone”; the role of the KGB as undercover quantity surveyors spying on construction projects; the rise of Ukrainian eco-nationalism; the reversal of the Ukrainian moratorium on nuclear power after independence; the pressure from the west to close the remaining Chernobyl reactors; and the enormous cost of that assistance.
Professor Plokhy is not himself a scientist, but he has made an excellent job of mastering his subject. If I had a criticism, it is that even a scientifically literate reader must work very hard to put the quoted radiation numbers into perspective and we are not helped by the variety of units. Notes on Radiation Impact and Measurements is crying out for a succinct comparative table. A whole paragraph is devoted to the simple arithmetical conversion from kilometres to miles and metric tonnes to US tons, while the much more complex absolute versus time-based measurement of radiation barely gets a mention before skipping hastily over curies and becquerels (radiation emitted), rads and grays (radiation absorbed), rems and sieverts (biological damage). I might take issue with the statement that “Caesium-137 is not decaying as quickly as predicted” a slip of the tongue rather than a fundamental misunderstanding of the immutability of half-life and “…other radionuclides will perhaps remain in the region forever” fair enough if your time scale is historical rather than geological. The biblical warning about wormwood (artemisia absinthium) is too good a story to let mere botanical facts stand in the way, but, as the author admits, there are no biblical predictions about mugwort (artemisia vulgaris) which is the actual shrub that gave its name to Chernobyl.
Nit-picking aside, this book is a tremendous achievement and a captivating read. The exploration of the rift created between Russia and Ukraine, shows how the Chernobyl disaster hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union. The author is particularly insightful in showing how both the stricken reactor and the three working nuclear power plants became a political football between Ukraine and the west.
The book does not dwell on the legacy of the accident in terms of human health. The different approaches of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus towards their own citizens makes clear the difficulty in reaching a sensible conclusion. A range is quoted: between 4,000 and 90,000 early deaths due to radiation related causes.
The author leaves us with grim warning. “Most new (nuclear) reactors under construction today are being built outside the Western world…twenty one…in China, plus nine in Russia, six in India, four in the United Arab Emirates, and two in Pakistan… (also two in Egypt). Are we sure that…the autocratic regimes running most of those countries will not sacrifice the safety of their people and the world as a whole…to ensure rapid economic development? That is exactly what happened in the Soviet Union back in 1986.”
This book is an important milestone, communicating clearly the dangers of nuclear nationalism and the crucial lessons that can still be learned from the Chernobyl disaster for those who are willing to listen.
© Alexey Akindinov
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Fiona Erskine’s debut thriller “The Chemical Detective” will be published by the Oneworld imprint, Point Blank Books in early 2019.