The Biggest Nuclear Station on Earth

John Lloyd

  • Ablaze: The Story of Chernobyl by Piers Paul Read
    Secker, 478 pp, £16.99, May 1993, ISBN 0 436 40963 1

The explosion at Chernobyl in the Northern Ukraine on 26 April 1986 was less of a disaster for the surrounding inhabitants than for the Communist system. Though far from being the most serious nuclear accident that can be imagined, it suggested that humanity and the environment were less at risk from a catastrophe of this kind than might have been supposed. At the same time it showed that the Communist system was by then so fragile that the removal of faith in its nuclear programme played a major part in its eventual downfall.

Piers Paul Read picks out, then weaves, these two themes with skill and sometimes – notably in his description of the explosion itself – with the vigour of a superior thriller writer. He seems to tire towards the end, which fades into a rehearsal of the failed coup of August 1991, but the preceding narrative, carefully compiled, is excellent. Read is not a ‘Soviet specialist’ and mostly that is to the good. The disadvantage is a certain carelessness: Alexander Yakovlev, whom Read correctly identifies as the most liberal member of Gorbachev’s Politburo, was not made director of State TV and Radio – that was Yegor Yakovlev, formerly editor of Moscow News. More seriously, Boris Pugo, whom Read puzzlingly if charmingly refers to as Pug, was not the Soviet prime minister but the interior minister. A good Soviet specialist might also have thrown more light on the nature of Soviet science. Yet few, if any, would have approached their story with the same narrative flair. A book about Chernobyl could well have been dull: this one is very interesting indeed.

The reactor that blew up at Chernobyl was a direct descendant of the prototype built by the team of scientists, including Andrei Sakharov, which formed around Igor Kurchatov and, shortly after the war, developed an atomic bomb. That reactor was designed to meet Kurchatov’s requirements by the engineer Nikolai Dollezhal and was built at the record speed considered advisable when responding to Stalin’s orders. With important modifications, it was this model – cooled by water, the processes moderated by graphite – that gave rise to the huge RBMK-1000 reactors which began to be constructed in the mid-Sixties.

After an initial RBMK station had been built near Leningrad and judged a success, the Soviet Government designated Ignalina, on the Lithuanian coast, and Chernobyl in the Ukraine, near the border with Belarus, as the next sites. Chernobyl itself was to be the wonder-station; with six reactors on the site, it would be the biggest nuclear station on earth. These decisions were made at Union-level: Ukrainian ministers, including the health ministers, were told next to nothing about the operating, security and safety procedures involved. Building the first two units, under the direction of the station manager, a 35-year-old engineer named Victor Brukhanov, took up much of the Seventies. Delays, due mainly to delivery failures, meant that the first unit went on line late in September 1977, the second over a year later – a few months before the accident at Three Mile Island, itself a cause for celebration in Soviet nuclear circles. By 1986, there were four reactors producing 4000 megawatts for the grid and the plans for the two remaining reactors were well advanced. Brukhanov and his senior colleagues had been decorated, and he was a delegate to the 27th Communist Party Congress in February 1986, at which the policies of glasnost and perestroika were formally adopted. The new and well-appointed town of Pripyat had been built to house the station’s workers. The whole complex had an aura of success.

In the early hours of 26 April, while the reactor was being switched to low power in order to prepare for a test of the turbines, a series of miscalculations led to an explosion in the fourth reactor and a huge dispersal of radioactive particles into the atmosphere. The actions of the operators and their managers had revealed the basic design flaw of the RBMKs: one of the effects of dropping in control rods to halt a power surge was briefly to increase it. This in turn led to a rise in pressure so sudden that the reactor exploded. The direct death toll in the next few weeks was relatively small – 31 people died. There is certain to be a higher number of deaths through cancers of various kinds, but the figure remains a matter of intense debate. Tens of thousands of people and farm animals were evacuated from a 30-kilometre zone around the station. Read quotes studies which suggest that the stress and alcoholism brought on by dislocation have probably caused more deaths than radiation. In Lithuania, Armenia, Ukraine and Russia itself, an environmental movement came into being, and nuclear stations were either closed down or – if they had not yet been built – cancelled. Soviet nuclear physics, the spoiled darling of the Communist period, has never recovered its pride of place.

Read describes very well the magnificent awfulness of the Soviet system, and its implications for the scientists and engineers who were responsible for the design and deployment of the RBMK reactors: Anatoly Alexandrov, Kurchatov’s successor, the head of the Kurchatov Institute and, ultimately, president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences; Nikolai Dollezhal, the engineer who designed the turbines; the chemist Valery Legasov, Alexandrov’s first deputy and the real boss of the Kurchatov Institute; the physicist Evgeny Velikhov, still a powerful player in the post-Communist age; Leonid Ilyin, director of the Institute of Biophysics and the foremost authority on nuclear safety. These were men in whom technical and scientific brilliance went hand in hand with that loyalty to Soviet ideology and fervid patriotism which inspired the great achievements of a relatively backward culture.

Three years after the accident, Yuri Shcherbak, a doctor who, as a result of his campaigns to get at the truth about Chernobyl, became the Ukrainian Minister for the Environment, said during a round-table discussion that ‘our science and medicine have turned into servants of the political system. That is the most horrible thing that can happen to science.’ In fact, the party officials and the scientists (a few, like Legasov, were both for a while) believed that the glory of Soviet science lay in its subservience to the Communist ideal – a cast of mind which survived the Leninist-Stalinist period. Ilyin, the safety expert, for example, was a party member and a patriot, ‘proud of the achievements of Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and Lenin, which had thrust his backward nation into the vanguard of mankind’. As it turned out, this did not make him the most suitable figure to preside over nuclear safety.

Such men had either to pretend, or themselves believed, that the highest truth in science was not experimentally demonstrable but resided in the precepts of Marxism and Leninism as interpreted and enforced by the leaders of the Party, often ignorant and philistine men. This was of course a negotiable area. In some fields, such as linguistics and biology, Stalin was able to lay down the party line; in others, including nuclear physics, the Party deferred to the scientists, in Stalin’s time and subsequently, by allowing them to conduct their experiments and draw their conclusions according to the observable rather than the immutable. What use would be made of these experiments was nonetheless the Party’s business, as was the kind of work in which Soviet scientists engaged and the rate at which they did so.

There is a well-known passage in Sakharov’s memoirs where he recalls how, a much-lauded scientist and budding dissident, he made a mild objection at an official banquet to the use of the atomic bomb. A general at the banquet told him to mind his own business – which was to make and perfect the device. The Party would decide when and on whom to drop it. If the civil nuclear scientists were less rigidly constrained than their military colleagues, it was only to a small degree. The same principles of secrecy and submission were enforced. Lenin had remarked that socialism equalled Soviet power plus electrification: nuclear stations were ex officio pillars of the system.

The pillars were badly built, however. Looking back on the Soviet scientific achievement shortly before his death, Academician Legasov remarked that the ‘wholesale construction’ of atomic stations had begun ten years too late. ‘We set off,’ he said, ‘at a gallop, not fully equipped, economising on containment structures and other things, just so there would be a little more money. It’s hard to stop.’ His mask removed and his ambitions destroyed, Legasov revealed himself as a man of the Stalin era, an upholder of the view, so deeply held in the former USSR and in key ways so logical, that it was only under Stalinist conditions that the ideology and practice adopted and adapted by the Russian imperium could give of its best:

Let us think for a moment: when we were far poorer, and the international situation was far more complex, why in a historically short period, from the Thirties to the Fifties, did we manage to astonish the whole world with the rate of creation of new types of technology and be admired for its quality? ... Because ... the creators of the technology of that time were educated in the spirit of the greatest humanitarian ideas. In the spirit of beautiful literature. In the spirit of great art. In the spirit of a beautiful and correct moral sense. And in the spirit of a clear political idea of the structure of the new society, the idea that this society was the most advanced in the world. This high moral sense is there in everything: in the attitude of one person to the other, in the attitude to man, to technology, to one’s duties ... and technology for them was simply a means of expression of moral qualities.

A short time after writing his extraordinarily revealing memoir, Legasov committed suicide; he had been denied the honours he felt he deserved. The memoir illuminates the contradictory nature of the scientific-industrial world in which Chernobyl was born, grew up and exploded. It was in many ways a Stalinist world: Stalinist in the inextricable mixture of patriotism and Communism, in the straining of every sinew to accomplish difficult tasks at impossible speeds (with the result that the work was often completed but botched), in the displays of both official and real courage, in fear of the Party and unquestioning obedience to its leaders; in a commitment to work which combined servility, idealism, ambition and intellectual curiosity. The realities of the Brezhnev era tempered all of these. Stalin’s holocausts were a thing of the past; in their place came a deepening cynicism about official ideology, spreading corruption and a carelessness about the most elementary decencies of work and life.

Read’s narrative brings these elements to life in an understated – occasionally too understated – manner. Brukhanov, the station manager, was given the task not just of running the station but of constructing and running the town; of bargaining and wheedling for supplies; of determining privileges (should a fireman be allowed to buy a motorcycle?). This had been the Stalinist way – to name a boss with absolute authority. But it had also been the Stalinist way to dispose of him, sometimes execute him, if he was deemed to have failed. In the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, the controls were lighter and less arbitrary. Brukhanov, who emerges as an honest if limited man, tried to resign but was denied an exit. He struggled on with a task that was beyond him.

His deputies, however, especially Nikolai Fomin and Anatoly Dyatlov, chief and deputy chief engineer respectively, were men in the Soviet manager mould: proud of their hardwon skills, self-confident, harsh and intolerant. The station was grossly overmanned, as was everything else, in order to sop up surplus labour. The solution was to adopt the common Soviet practice of developing an inner core of personnel who did the work and an outer core of people whose contribution was occasional or nominal and who, understandably, played cards or read on duty. Yet even this inner core ran the station according to procedures which they had developed, not according to the book. Read says that ‘over the years of running the RBMKs, the engineers had decided that the parameters recommended by the designers bore as much relationship to the reality of running the reactors as did the Communist rhetoric to the realities of life in the USSR.’ Like Communist rhetoric, these recommendations could not be challenged by objections that they did not work. The ‘fact’ that the RBMK reactors were the safest in the world was simply promulgated and accepted. When Ilyin, the safety expert, wrote a manual on nuclear safety, a thousand copies were published but barely distributed. ‘To prepare too well for an accident might lead people to believe it could happen.’

The inability to countenance failure was compounded by the obsessive secrecy of Soviet (and post-Soviet) society. Failures and near-disasters in one plant were not communicated to the personnel, even to the managers, of another. Read says that after the accident happened, Boris Scherbina, the Soviet Deputy Prime Minister sent to take charge of the operation, hesitated to evacuate the town of Pripyat because of ‘the effect it would have on the prestige of the Soviet Union’. When the Politburo met to discuss the issue, the crisis which faced it ‘was not so much the accident itself, as whether or not to admit the accident had taken place’. Swedish diplomats, responding to their government’s alarm at unusually high radioactive readings, asked if there had been an accident. At first they were brusquely told that there had not. A little later, however, a communiqué was put out on Tass announcing that an accident had occurred and a commission to investigate it appointed. A further message declared that the Chernobyl accident, whose seriousness it did not disclose, was the only one to have happened in the Soviet Union (a lie) and went on to say that over two thousand had occurred in the United States.

Read believes the explosion ‘could not have come at a worse time’ for Mikhail Gorbachev, a bare year into his job as General Secretary and only three months after he had launched his policy of ‘openness and reconstruction’. His Politburo was only partially purged of reactionaries and his own second-in-command, Yegor Ligachev, was a reformer in the Andropov mould – probably genuinely opposed to corruption, but determined to fight it with repression while presenting a stony front to the outside world. According to Read, the gist of his argument in the post-Chernobyl Politburo was that ‘science was the basis of Communism, and Communism the religion of the Soviet state. Like the space programme, atomic power was one of their most dramatic achievements. To admit that it had failed – that rather than helping people it had harmed them – would undermine their trust in scientific socialism, not just in the Soviet Union but throughout the world.’ As chief of ideology, Ligachev could not permit truth to tarnish belief and to begin with, at least, his line prevailed.

Thus Gorbachev spoke to the nation about Chernobyl, the ‘misfortune which has befallen us’, three weeks after the misfortune actually befell. He stated, falsely, that the surrounding areas had been evacuated in hours and gave too low a figure for the numbers already dead. Much of his speech was devoted to a denunciation of the Western media for the exaggerations they were peddling; and some were gross: a famous UPI report had the streets of Kiev filled with panic-stricken radioactive refugees. Arguably, the absence of panic was a benign side-effect of official mendacity. Gorbachev assumed, or claimed, that the Western media reaction was black propaganda.

Yet the bravery and, once the machine had been started, the organisation were astonishing. Read’s researches show quite clearly that men walked into certain death or injury not merely because they had been ordered to but because they wished to save comrades or to mitigate the worst of the disaster. The military personnel who were soon pouring into the area, especially the helicopter pilots flying over the burning reactor core to bury it in sand, performed prodigies and most became ill, some of them seriously. When Pripyat was finally evacuated, it was done in two hours – a tribute, as Read says, to the organising skills of the general in charge and ‘the docility of the people’. The hyped-up anger against authority which seems the almost universal reaction of Americans to natural or man-made disasters only came much later.

Though it took place in the early days of glasnost, the trial of the officials involved was more or less a Soviet set-piece. The lines were firmly drawn and policed by the judge, Raimond Brize. It was made clear that the outcome would have to establish personal guilt: nothing could be seen to be wrong with the design or the working of the reactors themselves. Thus, when Deputy Chief Engineer Dyatlov invoked the faulty design as part of his defence, Brize ruled it out of order. Instead, the prosecution made much of the ‘card-playing workers’, lax safety standards and the violation of operating norms, as if these were peculiar to Chernobyl rather than a function of the bad reactor design or of the nature of the Soviet industrial system. The fact that major modifications of the design were being made – in secret, of course – in order to correct flaws which the designers themselves had finally perceived was not regarded as material. Since the procedures were not followed and since the senior managers could be shown to be lax, the verdict was in long before the court sat.

Read’s own verdict is acute. The case, he says, ‘proceeded as if in Soviet society, legality was the norm ... In this sense it was the last of the show trials.’ It was a way of thinking and acting that casts a long shadow. Nikolai Ryzhkov, prime minister for most of the Gorbachev years, was later to say that ‘we were all heading for Chernobyl.’ He was perhaps more right than he knew, for Soviet society, so much of its energy diverted into maintaining appearances, had lost touch in significant ways with what was really to be done, professionally, technically, even morally, to keep itself on the road.

On the other hand, so great has been the reaction against all things Soviet, especially in the non-Russian republics, that the aftermath of Chernobyl has been made worse than it might have been by the sheer force of those seeking for the ‘truth’ about the effects. A bevy of Western experts have testified that the final official Soviet version, after the lies and evasions had been run through, is more or less true. Some five hundred scientists gathered in Vienna in May 1991 to say that the genetic abnormalities which had occurred since Chernobyl were not statistically higher than they would have been, had there been no accident, and that the incidence of cancers was relatively low. They were simply not believed, nor are they still, by many in Ukraine and Belarus, who see them as collaborators in the whitewash job performed by the Soviet nuclear establishment. That whitewashing was a natural reflex of this establishment adds weight to their scepticism.

In January of this year I visited the moth-balled nuclear station some thirty kilometres outside the Armenian capital of Yerevan, a gaunt, neglected-looking plant surrounded by sloppy barbed wire. We were not allowed inside, although an ITN team which later gained admittance professed themselves horrified. The Armenian Government had already indicated that the station would be restarted, and indeed the logic for doing so was all about us. People were shivering in front of improvised braziers in their flats, burning the trees about them. Armenia has no other domestic source of power and is denied energy imports because it is at war with Azerbaijan, from which most of its power was supplied. Ignalina, in Lithuania, may be restarted for similar reasons. When and if they start, the plants will have been dangerously lacking in maintenance. They will also lack the necessary complement of trained specialists and they will probably be run flat out. Both are of the RBMK type.