Tobie Mathew

Disaster by Design

Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy

By

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If one were to hazard a guess as to the largest nature reserve in Europe, Chernobyl would be an unlikely contender. And yet, over the last thirty years, a vast area closed off to all but a few tenacious babushki, clinging to their contaminated homeland, has offered a haven to an extraordinary array of wildlife, from birds to wild boar. The survival and resurgence of the region’s fauna is perhaps the only good to have come out of the unrelentingly bleak story of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster; it serves as a modest form of atonement, if not for the human lives upended, then at least for the deliberate extermination of every single pet during the evacuation of nearby Pripyat.

Chernobyl was a cataclysm of such magnitude that it is hard not to view events through the prism of a modern-day
disaster movie. It is no coincidence that there are two bestselling video games set in the Exclusion Zone. The basic facts, however, are as follows. In the early hours of 26 April 1986, there was an explosion in the plant’s fourth reactor. A turbine test had gone dramatically wrong and subsequent attempts to rectify the problem caused the reactor to overheat. The blast fired out highly radioactive particles over the surrounding area and released a toxic miasma that would eventually spread across half of Europe.

I visited Pripyat, a town of around 50,000 inhabitants that was evacuated in a mere three and a half hours, just prior to the 20th-anniversary commemorations. My guide was Yuri Andreyev, a senior engineer at the plant who was head of the Chernobyl veterans’ association until his death in 2014.

He took me to his former apartment in the town, where, as if on cue, he happened upon an old passport photograph of his wife lying in the dust. ‘From the instant we saw the destroyed reactor we started living a different reality,’ he stated.

Walking the pavements of Pripyat, Geiger counter at the ready, was a deeply unsettling experience. It was impossible to escape the feeling of being on a film set, with the clichéd trappings of a dystopian landscape all around: the Ferris wheel that never turns, swings creaking in the wind, abandoned diaries, like one that I found, completed up to 26 April. All that is left of this once-lauded model town is the structural framework of human existence, stripped of every trace of life to become a hulking monument to transience and folly.

Using published memoirs, original interviews and the Ukrainian KGB archives (declassified in 2015 to spite Russia),
Serhii Plokhy recounts the circumstances of the accident and its aftermath in painstaking detail. His focus is on human stories; this is essentially a worm’s-eye view of events, a story of those most affected by the disaster and how they were abandoned to their fate. The pre-eminent heroes here are the workers, firefighters, soldiers and police who dealt unquestioningly with the consequences of the explosion, even after the dangers had become apparent. In the words of the old Soviet maxim, ‘If not us, then who?’ As Plokhy shows, they were the sacrificial victims of wrongdoing and incompetence at the highest levels.

The Soviet investigation blamed the plant’s managers, three of whom were subsequently imprisoned, but this book leaves the reader in no doubt that ultimate culpability lay with the designers of the reactor and the officials who pushed it into production. In Plokhy’s telling, the station’s directors and operatives were conscientious individuals coping as best they could, while their masters in the party hierarchy not only hounded them with unrealistic demands, but also gave them defective materials with which to get the job done. It is with a feeling of inevitability that one reads that when faced with a choice between the RBMK (a graphite-moderated reactor) and the water-based alternative, ministry officials opted for the former because, although less safe, it produced twice as much energy and was cheaper to build. The Chernobyl disaster is rightly labelled a tragedy. The flaws were built into the system long before the accident occurred.

One year before the accident, Gorbachev had come to power with a promise to inject new life into the flagging Soviet economy. The buzzword of the day was uskorenie – literally ‘acceleration’, but also implying the use of technology to speed up economic development. Nuclear power, key to both energy and defence, was at the forefront of this new policy and in the rush to increase output corners were cut. ‘God forbid that we suffer any serious mishap,’ remarked the director of the Chernobyl power station in early 1986. While the duty managers at the plant were certainly at fault, overall responsibility for the disaster unequivocally lay with the Soviet establishment.

The broad outline of these events is already well known and much of the core evidence that Plokhy uses comes from published sources, often by necessity. However, he tells the story with great assurance and style, and the majority of his material appears here for the first time in English. The KGB archives have also been used to good effect, revealing the lengths to which the security services went to protect the government from any form of political backlash resulting from its handling of the accident. There is a small amount of repetition and the quantity of information can cause a little head-scratching at times. Nonetheless, this is an important work that offers a clear-eyed assessment of the disaster and its consequences.

The inadequate response and cover-up, notably the holding of a May Day parade in Kiev when it was patently unsafe to do so, helped to strengthen popular belief in the deficiency of the Soviet regime. In one of the most original sections of the book, Plokhy shows how the disaster became a source of ethnic and political tension between nascent Ukrainian cultural organisations and the Moscow-based party elite. Resentment at the way in which the affected population was treated fostered nationalist sentiment. In time these organisations turned their attentions towards issues of autonomy and independence. Chernobyl is thus plausibly cited as a factor in Ukraine’s decision to break away from the Soviet Union. Aspects of this resentment are clearly also felt by the author, whose quiet anger permeates the text.

Plokhy states in the prologue that he wrote the book to inform present and future generations about the disaster, but his didactic purpose cannot disguise the fact that this is also a political tract – a fierce and at times personal indictment of the ideology, bureaucracy and overconfidence of the Soviet system, as well as a strident condemnation of all modern states that continue to pursue military or economic objectives to the detriment of their populations and the environment. Plokhy has several governments in mind – indeed, the epilogue contains a list of current transgressors – but it is difficult not to surmise that the real target of this heartfelt lesson in political morality is Russia.

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