From across the Kakhovka reservoir, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant – the largest in Europe – looks like a fortress, its six reactors squatting like watchtowers along the shore. But it was never designed to withstand the attack visited upon it on 3 March, eight days into the war in Ukraine. Russian planes bombed it from the air, damaging buildings around one of the reactors. That it has not become another Chernobyl was more down to chance than intention.
Ukraine is the country of Chernobyl, and Serhii Plokhy is the pre-eminent historian of that disaster. His new book, Atoms and Ashes: From Bikini Atoll to Fukushima, is a history of the nuclear age, told through analysis of six of its worst disasters. For Plokhy, professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard and the author of several best-selling books, the common theme of secrecy connects each catastrophe.
“No one really loves to deliver bad news,” he told me during an interview at his publisher’s in London. Two of the accidents – Chernobyl and the 1957 explosion at Kyshtym – happened in what was then the Soviet Union. Kyshtym only became public knowledge in 1989, even though it was second only to Chernobyl in the amount of radiation released.
The authorities, he said, “were really able to get away with murder, because all the media was controlled. The atmosphere of secrecy that came from the Cold War really expanded far beyond the area of military production… whether they produced bombs or electricity, it was still top secret. And we see, to a degree, the same sort of a situation… in Russia today.”
The past three months have been “a never-ending nightmare” for Plokhy, who was born in Russia but raised in Ukraine; he gained his doctorate from the University of Kyiv. He found out the war had begun via email; a colleague in Ukraine was asking to send his files for safekeeping because he was leaving the city.
“You go to bed and you hope you wake up to the ‘normal’ world, and you wake up into the nightmare going on. I found some sort of a balance by really continuing my work and talking to audiences, to journalists on the subjects that I researched before. So that was a way for me, emotionally, to stay focused and not to fall apart,” he explained.
Having fallen from favour after the blasts at Fukushima, Japan in 2011, nuclear power is becoming popular again – as a way of reducing both Europe’s energy dependence on Russia and carbon emissions. The UK energy strategy released in April envisages the building of up to eight new reactors, even though the Hinkley Point C power plant now under construction is £3bn over budget and delayed by more than a year.
Plokhy acknowledged the value of nuclear in limiting climate change but maintains his reservations, partly because of the cost of waste disposal. Design flaws contributed to the Chernobyl disaster, but even the best-designed reactor can be overwhelmed by an unforeseen event: war, as in Ukraine, or a tsunami, as at Fukushima. He criticised Germany for shutting down its nuclear reactors – any environmental damage from their construction was already done – but said that now is the time to look at renewables.
“I don’t think it makes much sense to invest in the technology of the 20th century,” he argued. “Let’s look at the technologies of the 21st century… We don’t have unlimited capability, so we have to think about investing money in the industries that can fight climate change without creating the sort of risk to the environment that nuclear creates.”
Plokhy rejected the distinction between “atoms for war” and “atoms for peace”. Every nuclear reactor in use today, he pointed out, was built to a design adapted from military purposes. None was designed specifically with the task of boiling water. New reactors are now being developed specifically for civilian purposes but even then, “anything you think about starts with a really rough period of trial and error and learning”.
Looming throughout our conversation, however, was Chernobyl and the giant concrete sarcophagus encasing the wreck of what is still the world’s worst nuclear accident. On the very first day of the war in Ukraine, the ruins of Chernobyl were taken over by soldiers in unmarked uniforms – Russians, but not declared as such. The tracks of their armoured vehicles churned up highly radioactive dust but as Plokhy pointed out, Russia, “the power that was responsible for bringing war to the nuclear sites for the first time in history”, initially said nothing. As with the nuclear plant’s explosion in 1986, secrecy – or at any rate deniability – prevailed.
[See also: How Putin weaponised the environment in Ukraine]
Four of the six accidents profiled in Atoms and Ashes resulted from the nuclear ambitions of democratic powers: Windscale (the UK), Fukushima (Japan), Three Mile Island and Bikini Atoll (the US), and Plokhy does not exempt them from criticism. However, democratic governments have more of an incentive to be open with their citizens because they will face a political reckoning, he said.
“The authoritarian government, of course, to stay politically alive, engages in as much cover-up as possible,” he said. “In societies where the information is limited, the negative impact on health, on the environment, is much, much bigger than in the open and democratic societies.”
The bottom line? “When an accident happens and you are a person living in the vicinity, your chances of protecting yourself are much better if you live in a democracy.”
The unchecked authoritarian penchant for secrecy manifests itself in other ways. Russia’s army expected to conquer Ukraine within days; instead, more than three months on, it finds itself bogged down in a grinding war of attrition, destroying town after town at a horrifying cost in lives and materiel. The Ukrainian military, on the other hand, placed more confidence in field commanders to make their own decisions, drawing on years of training with Nato countries.
“The miracle on the Dnieper [river],” Plokhy called it, visibly proud of his country.
“Ukraine was one of the very few post-Soviet countries where, actually, democracy prevailed,” he said. “There were two attempts to introduce some form of authoritarianism, and they were rejected through two revolutions on the Maidan,” he added, referring to the protests in Kyiv 2004-05 and 2014.
“This is the case where this Nato philosophy of waging the war and Ukrainian political philosophy clicked and produced this miracle,” he said. “And we see now the army that no one ever knew existed fighting the most feared army in the world and winning.”