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22 May 2019

Chernobyl’s political fallout

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster was as much a symbol of a failed ideology as of flawed design and technology.

By Philip Ball

In the city of Pripyat in Ukraine, built for workers at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant, stands a bronze statue of the god Prometheus clasping fire in his outstretched arms. It was intended to symbolise the triumph of human ingenuity in taming and harnessing the forces of nature – in particular, the fire locked inside the atomic nucleus, released in a controlled manner from radioactive uranium to generate power.

Now the statue has taken on a very different meaning. Like Prometheus, Pripyat seems to have been punished for the hubris of stealing this inner fire. It is a ghost town where weeds and wilderness encroach on deserted apartments still scattered with the abandoned relics of a population evacuated suddenly more than 30 years ago, surrounded by an exclusion zone in which the radiation levels from the disaster are still too high for human habitation. Visitors arriving for official tours find scenes straight out of Andrei Tarkovsky’s cult film Stalker. (The survivalist horror game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is set in the Chernobyl exclusion zone.) Swings rust slowly in silent playgrounds; signs saying “meat” and “cheese” still hang in empty supermarkets. Guides with Geiger counters warn of areas still too “hot” with radioactive contaminants to enter.

The explosion of Reactor Four at the Chernobyl plant on 26 April 1986 was the worst nuclear accident in history. The old adage about learning from history so as not to repeat it has a chilling resonance here. But what exactly should we learn? These three books attempt to figure that out. The answer is, unsurprisingly, complicated.

On the reasons for the accident, Serhii Plokhy (a Russian-Ukrainian-American historian) and Adam Higginbotham (a British-born journalist working in the US) are consistent. At the time, the Soviet authorities placed the blame on human error: the mishandling by operators on the night-shift of what should have been a routine shutdown to run basic tests on the safety system. In one of the last show trials of the ailing state during Mikhail Gorbachev’s era of glasnost and perestroika, the personnel concerned were sent to prison – the harshest sentence (ten years) being imposed on the plant’s director, Viktor Bryukhanov, who was accused of “moral collapse… as a leader and as a man”.

But history vindicates the assertions of these accused men that the reactor was poorly designed, with a fatal flaw creating the potential for unstable, runaway behaviour that none of them could have foreseen. That’s what turned a minor error into a disaster. To acknowledge that, however, would mean placing blame on powerful individuals in the Soviet nuclear programme and admitting to the world that its science and engineering were substandard – as well as recognising the dangers posed by other reactors of this type operating in Russia and the satellite states. (They were quietly modified anyway.)

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In this respect, Chernobyl exemplifies the malaise of the Soviet system, where impossible targets were set and imposed by bullying and threats, corners were cut and citizens kept in the dark, sometimes at vast risk. Most deplorable of all was the cavalier attitude of Moscow to the danger and hardship that the accident inflicted on populations in Ukraine and Belarus. Radiation levels were repeatedly minimised or dismissed and decisions about the evacuation of Pripyat and the surrounding region, and of children from nearby Kiev, were made more on the basis of appearance and inconvenience than the safety of the inhabitants. If there are lessons to be learned, one is surely that a political system that depends on fear of authority and reprimand, and that strictly rations knowledge down a chain of expertise, is primed for disasters like this. These shortcomings aren’t just found in authoritarian states.

All the same, some of the confusion and apathy in the aftermath of the explosion of Reactor Four was due to an inability to comprehend the enormity of what had happened: that the reactor and the hall housing it had literally been blown apart, its pieces scattered still glowing across the site and the fiery inner core exposed to the atmosphere. There is a sense in these accounts of the truly unearthly: Higginbotham mentions the “shimmering pillar of ethereal blue-white light, reaching straight up into the night sky, disappearing into infinity” as the intense radiation streaming from the reactor ionised the air itself. Senior figures wandered around the site in a daze, muttering about routine malfunctions even as they kicked aside immensely radioactive debris from the reactor core. Radiation levels at the site were so far off the scale that they defied belief and comprehension. Meanwhile, in Pripyat life went on as normal for a day and a half, children playing in the warm spring sunshine. A film taken of those events is marred by ghostly flashes and white streaks: ambient radiation burning itself into the celluloid.

One of the most terrifying aspects was how quickly workers exposed to the intense radiation succumbed to its effects. Firefighters on the reactor roof attempting to extinguish the flames became sick in less than an hour, experiencing vomiting and nausea, headaches and dizziness. “Every second counted,” writes Plokhy; within hours the victims were “all swollen and puffed up”. We tend to think of radiation poisoning as slow and cumulative, but at this level its effects are instant – even when there is at first no visible sign of trauma. Later, skin turns purple and black from the radiation burns and peels away like old paper.

Higginbotham includes a photo of the “Elephant’s Foot”, a mass of uranium fuel, steel, concrete and sand (dropped on to the reactor to try to smother it) that, while molten, flowed like lava from the reactor hall into the basement. “It remained so radioactive that less than five minutes in its presence was enough to guarantee an agonising death,” he says.

Given the drama, intrigue and horror of the events, it is surprising that the new series on Sky, simply called Chernobyl, is the first major effort to recreate it on screen. But the real-life narrative admits no heroes, unless you count the almost suicidally brave “liquidators” who risked their health and lives at the plant to avert a further, worse explosion or a meltdown that could have contaminated the entire Dnieper basin and beyond. None of the leaders, including Gorbachev, emerges unblemished.

Plokhy’s book, which won the Baillie Gifford Prize last year, is the most minutely detailed of the three and sustains a tone of thoughtful observation that is neither too detached nor heavily invested in a particular agenda. But his prose is plain and sometimes reads like a clunky translation stuffed with clichéd phrases (“Time was of the essence”) or barely comprehensible verbatim transliterations. Higginbotham brings more flair and pathos to the story, and is more sure-footed with the science and technology.

Plokhy delves deeper into the political fallout of Chernobyl, which played a significant role in the break-up of the Soviet Union as dismay grew in Ukraine and Belarus about how public safety was at the whim of party politics in distant Moscow. The catastrophe stimulated the emergence of environmental activism, which motivated many of the demands for reform and freedom of expression in the Soviet states: the habitual cover-ups and scapegoating would not be tolerated for a disaster of this magnitude.

The immense cost of the accident also contributed to the economic crises that forced Gorbachev’s hand over perestroika. But independence posed some difficult choices for nuclear policy once states had to stand on their own feet. The cash-strapped Ukrainian leader and rocket scientist Leonid Kuchma, elected in 1994, felt compelled to keep the other reactors at the Chernobyl plant running – forcing workers to operate in the highly contaminated environment – despite insistence by US president Bill Clinton that the whole plant be mothballed.

As someone with a passing professional interest in the Chernobyl accident, I had developed the impression that it was disastrous for the immediate region in the Ukraine and for the people forced from their homes forever, but that the long-term health impact has been surprisingly limited – official figures endorsed by UN agencies say that only 54 people at most died directly from the accident and resulting radiation sickness. The effect of fallout on cancer rates has elicited widely divergent estimates, but all things told – the conventional narrative went – it could have been worse.

Kate Brown, an American historian of the Soviet Union and of nuclear technology, challenges that narrative. Puzzled by those disparate figures while in no sense on a crusade to demonise the risks of nuclear power, she has spent years trying to uncover the truth. That task has seen her travelling around Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, speaking to villagers, officials, medics, scientists and archivists, as well as experts and witnesses in the West. She has obtained documents and records that seemingly no one else had ever read, including some that were plainly meant to stay as buried as the contaminated Chernobyl waste. The result is an extraordinary and important – if controversial – book.

To say that it fills in the spaces left by Plokhy and Higginbotham is to underplay the achievement: what I mean is that Brown brings home the effects of Chernobyl on individuals and communities. In doing so, it uncovers a deeper and more disturbing tale.

Scandalous as it is to hear in all of these books about the deceit and cover-ups among officials, leaders and scientists in the Soviet states, nothing there comes as any great surprise. But Brown argues that a conspiracy of silence extends far more widely. One might have expected American experts on nuclear technology and radiation hazards in the 1980s and 1990s to play up the consequences of the disaster at the expense of their Cold War rivals, and indeed the Soviets frequently accused them of it. But Brown argues that the health impacts were in fact systematically downplayed. For one thing, to acknowledge the true effects of exposure to radioactive fallout would raise difficult questions about the American nuclear bomb tests of the 1950s and 1960s. Higginbotham concurs that data on the long-term effects of relatively low-dose radiation on human populations is woefully inadequate.

Brown asserts that the conventional view of Chernobyl’s limited long-term consequences stems from a combination of habituated expectations, selective amnesia, poor methodology and outright suppression of information. It seems clear now that rates of cancer, especially of the thyroid, as well as other debilitating illnesses, increased in swathes of the population in the affected countries. Brown estimates that premature deaths from Chernobyl-related health problems in Ukraine alone are at least in the range of 35,000-150,000, as claimed by some Ukrainian authorities. Both those numbers and Brown’s claims about the errors and shortcomings in understanding of the effects of low-dose radiation have been strongly and cogently criticised by some specialists in radiation epidemiology, and it would be unwise to take them as definitive. But although the real cost to human health will probably never be known, Brown’s sleuthing makes a compelling case that the impact of Chernobyl was immense and only partly accounted for by official death tolls.

Chernobyl does not show us the inevitable future of nuclear power; neither does the 2011 Fukushima accident in Japan following a tsunami, the only other event to be given the highest “major incident” rating in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s International Nuclear Event Scale. Both events reflect the sometimes abysmally poor planning, engineering and management prevalent in the industry decades ago: in the case of the former Soviet Union, as Higginbotham says, the key problems were “the culture of secrecy and complacency, the arrogance and negligence, and the shoddy standards of design and construction”. Chernobyl was a potent symbol of a failed ideology, which is why it is fitting that it played a part in its demise. Higginbotham gives a balanced account of the arguments for continued investment in nuclear power: the fatalities as well as environmental degradation caused by fossil-fuel power stations, and the substantial improvements that have been and will be made in reactor design, safety and efficiency. It is not naively optimistic to say that the technology has come a long way since 1986.

But we must call time too on the junk science that proclaims Chernobyl a minor affair, if not in fact a demonstration of how safe nuclear power is. Claims such as that of the US leukaemia specialist Robert Gale – whose bone-marrow transplants for Chernobyl victims had no demonstrable benefits – that, medically, “basically nothing happened here” are nonsensical. Chernobyl was a disaster, the effects of which are still felt today, and we owe it to the world to face that fact honestly. 

Philip Ball’s books include “Beyond Weird” (Bodley Head)

Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy
Serhii Plokhy
Penguin, 432pp, £9.99

Midnight in Chernobyl
Adam Higginbotham
Bantam Press, 560pp, £20

Manual for Survival
Kate Brown
Allen Lane, 432pp, £20