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.

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