[Marxism] Chernobyl

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Dec 8 06:43:59 MST 2018

LRB, Vol. 40 No. 23 · 6 December 2018
I don’t understand it at all
by Mike Jay

Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy
Allen Lane, 404 pp, £20.00, May, ISBN 978 0 241 34902 1

‘When you look at it, it looks like any other piece of land. The sun 
shines on it like on any other part of the earth. And it’s as though 
nothing had particularly changed in it. Like everything was the way it 
was thirty years ago.’ This is the first description of the Zone, the 
enigmatic and forbidden locus of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s novel 
Roadside Picnic (1972), filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky as Stalker (1979). 
It’s an uncanny match with Serhii Plokhy’s first impression of Chernobyl 
as a tourist, thirty years after the explosion there in 1986. His young 
guide knows the site well enough, though the Soviet world of thirty 
years ago has faded from memory: she maintains that nobody can recall 
the identity of a figure portrayed on the wall of an abandoned movie 
theatre, whom Plokhy instantly recognises as Viktor Chebrikov, the head 
of the KGB from 1982 to 1988. Some of his companions in the tour group 
have come all the way from Britain to see Chernobyl precisely because of 
the parallels with the Zone: they are obsessed with the shooter-survival 
video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, in which the area is 
filled with radioactive mutants.

‘The further we move in time from the disaster,’ Plokhy writes, ‘the 
more it seems like a myth.’ He aims to replace the myth with history, 
drawing on newly released archive material and interviews with 
eyewitnesses. His narrative is thorough and well organised, but 
consensus is elusive. Those involved were working with different and 
often contradictory sets of facts, in the service of mutually 
incomprehensible agendas and ideologies. (Ronald Reagan, for one, 
believed that the explosion fulfilled a prophecy in the Book of 
Revelation, on the grounds that Chernobyl took its name from the 
Ukrainian for ‘wormwood’.) There is still much disagreement about what 
happened and why; even more alarming, though the emergency was ended, we 
still don’t know precisely how.

The RBMK (‘high power channel reactor’), the type of nuclear reactor 
used at Chernobyl, was developed in the 1970s as a more powerful and 
safer alternative to earlier water-cooled models. It was based on the 
reactors used to produce weapons-grade plutonium, with a huge turbine 
built in to capture the heat the fission reaction generated and 
transform it into electricity. By 1982 RBMKs were in operation all 
across the European part of the Soviet Union, and generated more than 
half of its clean electrical power. They were being built in numbers, 
with an accelerated design and construction schedule of five years. 
Anatoly Aleksandrov, the president of the Soviet Academy of Scientists, 
insisted they were so safe you could instal one in Red Square.

In Prypiat, the industrial new town built in the 1970s outside Chernobyl 
to house the workers at the power plant, the facilities were new and 
well constructed, including excellent schools, sports stadiums and 
swimming pools. Its residents enjoyed the benefits of the nuclear 
industry’s close ties to the military, and in contrast to most Soviet 
cities at that time there were plentiful supplies of meat, dairy 
products and vegetables from the lush surrounding farmland. On Friday, 
25 April 1986, the workers in Prypiat were preparing for the spring 
holiday season. Red Saturday, the ‘voluntary’ day of unpaid labour 
undertaken to celebrate Lenin’s birthday, was behind them and May Day, 
Easter and the 9 May holiday marking victory in the Second World War, 
were ahead. It was unseasonably warm.

The systemic problems of the Chernobyl plant, and of RBMKs in general, 
were known only to a few. In 1979 the KGB had flagged up serious 
concerns about the construction standards of Reactor No. 2, and in 1982 
a fuel channel in Reactor No. 1 had burst during planned repairs, 
releasing enriched uranium into the core of the reactor. Plant managers 
and engineers across the Soviet Union privately admitted that RBMKs were 
‘dirty’, typically suffering around five minor leaks and malfunctions 
per year. The worst accident until then had been in 1975 at the 
Leningrad plant, where a test that involved stopping the reactor led to 
an unexpected and rapid rise in the radiation rate which required an 
emergency shutdown. The underlying design flaw – once the water reached 
boiling point, voids developed in the coolant system that boosted the 
chain reaction rather than limiting it – was kept under wraps. After the 
Three Mile Island nuclear accident in the US in 1979, plants in the West 
adopted higher construction standards and by 1986 cost seven or eight 
times more than older models. Soviet plants stuck with the old 
specifications and the old budgets. At Chernobyl, the construction of 
Prypiat’s public buildings, such as the splendid marble-clad palace of 
culture, was often prioritised over the nuclear complex.

Reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl was the newest and believed to be the safest. 
A shutdown and steam turbine test had long been scheduled for 25 April, 
and had been carefully planned. The powering down of the reactor had 
begun the night before; its nominal output of 3200 megawatts had been 
halved, and was to be reduced further: the prescribed power level for 
the test was 760 MW. The test was supposed to be completed during the 
day shift, but the Kiev grid had made an emergency request for power, 
and now the test would have to wait until after 11 p.m. to be carried 
out, after a rushed handover, by a less experienced crew on the night shift.

Once the shutdown was resumed, irregularities mounted. The level of 
activity in Reactor No. 4 was controlled using boron, which damps down a 
fission reaction by absorbing stray neutrons: insert rods made of boron 
into the reactor core and the power output goes down; withdraw them and 
it increases. The seven-metre-long control rods were moved by automatic 
regulators in and out of the core at 40 centimetres per second. On 25 
April one of the regulators malfunctioned; the rods were stuck in the 
core and the power dropped precipitously to 30 MW. Rather than abandon 
the test, Anatoly Diatlov, Chernobyl’s deputy chief engineer and the man 
in charge on the night, decided to continue. The operators regained 
control of the rods and got the power back up to 200 MW, well below the 
level prescribed for the test, but high enough, Diatlov thought, to 
stabilise the reactor.

Meanwhile, they had been ignoring a problem with the water supply to the 
reactor. They switched on the reserve pumps, which solved the immediate 
difficulty but caused another one: water absorbs neutrons, so increasing 
the supply made the power fall again. They switched the reserve pumps 
off again, and in a further effort to maintain power, continued 
withdrawing the control rods until finally only 9 out of the 167 in use 
remained in the reactor core. At this point, Plokhy writes, the nuclear 
reaction was ‘difficult to control and the reactor highly unstable’.

At 1.22 a.m. the level of water in the reactor dropped too far, causing 
it to boil and turn to steam. The power began to rise rapidly. But 
Diatlov and his colleagues were focused on the turbine test, which began 
at 1.23:04 a.m. By 1.23:40, it was over: for what it was worth, the 
turbine worked fine. But in the 36 seconds it had taken to carry out the 
test, the reactor had spun out of control. An emergency shutdown was 
ordered; Plokhy writes that Leonid Toptunov, the 25-year-old engineer 
who carried out the order, ‘removed the scrap of paper from the button 
and pressed it’. This caused all the control rods available to descend 
into the core at once. That might have worked, but there was one last 
snag. The boron rods were tipped with graphite; as the rods entered the 
core, the tips displaced still more water from the reactor – water that 
had been absorbing neutrons and restraining the reaction – before the 
boron could get to work. This is what had happened at Leningrad in 1975. 
There was an enormous power surge. The rise in temperature caused the 
fuel rods to break. The control rods jammed on the fragments, only a 
third of their way into the core. Having struggled to get above 200 MW 
for so long, the power output of the reactor now shot up to 30,000 MW in 
seconds. A hugely inflated proportion of water in the reactor turned to 
steam, which had, as Plokhy writes, ‘nowhere to go’.

The workers in the control room heard a ‘sudden roar … of a completely 
unfamiliar kind, very low in tone, like a human moan’. Then there was a 
blast, and then, a few seconds later, another. Even at this point nobody 
grasped what had happened. As Plokhy says: ‘No textbook they had ever 
read suggested that reactors could explode.’ The first explosion had 
been caused by the excess steam in the core escaping into the external 
cooling system, destroying the casing of the reactor. The 200 tonne 
concrete lid on the reactor – its ‘biological shield’ – was blown 
through the roof of the building, then landed again, off-centre, so that 
radiation was now being spat into the atmosphere. The second, bigger 
blast destroyed much of the building and threw chunks of burning 
radioactive graphite into the air, which scattered across the 
surrounding area.

Outside, the ground shook. Locals clustered around the pond just a few 
hundred metres from the turbine hall saw flames shoot into the sky, but 
continued their night-fishing. Firefighters arrived five minutes after 
the explosion – they had heard the blasts and seen the flames from the 
fire department nearby – and climbed onto the turbine hall roof, which 
they found littered with ‘luminous, silvery pieces of debris of some 
kind’. The only doctor on call in Prypiat that night was summoned to the 
site to treat plant workers and firefighters complaining of headaches 
and nausea. At first he suspected alcohol poisoning, but as he saw more 
cases he remembered what little he had been taught in medical school 
about radiation sickness and requested potassium iodide from the hospital.

Meanwhile, back in the control room in the minutes after the explosion, 
Diatlov was trying to make sense of the readings on the instruments that 
were still functioning. He believed the reactor had already shut down, 
and guessed that the control system’s water tank had exploded, in which 
case the fuel rods would be disintegrating. ‘Cool the reactor at 
emergency speed,’ he ordered, at which point he discovered that the 
control rods were jammed and the fission reaction was still going on. He 
rushed to the turbine hall and found it on fire, stars shining through 
its collapsed roof. The radiation levels, he realised, must be extreme. 
He was soaked with water from the broken coolant pipes, and began to 
feel nauseous and unsteady on his feet. Viktor Briukhanov, the director 
of the plant, had arrived and wanted to know what had happened. ‘I don’t 
understand it at all,’ Diatlov replied. It was impossible to admit to 
his boss that the reactor had exploded. (‘The stress was too great’, the 
head of Chernobyl’s Communist Party committee admitted a few months 
later, ‘and our belief that the reactor could not explode was also too 
great.’) Even the following morning, as the reactor continued to spew 
fission products – iodine-131, caesium-137 and xenon-133 – into the 
atmosphere, the bewildered control room operatives remained convinced 
that ‘we did everything right.’


Nobody had any relevant experience and there were no protocols. Only two 
options were available: denial or panic. As reports spread, bureaucratic 
sclerosis took hold. At the 27th Party Congress, the Soviet minister of 
energy, Anatoly Maiorets, had just promised to double the number of 
Soviet nuclear reactors and to build them in record time. The Ukrainian 
government told Moscow that an accident had occurred but was under 
control. Mikhail Gorbachev was told there had been an explosion and a 
fire at Chernobyl but that the reactor was intact. When Maiorets and his 
expert colleagues arrived at the scene, they inherited the burden of 
responsibility from Briukhanov and Diatlov. In impotent fury, one of 
them kicked a graphite block that was later found to be emitting two 
thousand roentgens of radiation per hour, a potentially fatal dose. 
Their eyes smarted and they had difficulty breathing, but they still 
refused to countenance the idea that the reactor had exploded, and with 
it the implication that, if the same thing happened at other reactors, 
most of Europe could be rendered uninhabitable.

It was only when a helicopter flew over the site and had a direct view 
into the reactor, glowing cherry red with heat, that the truth became 
impossible to deny. By this time the staff at Prypiat hospital, alarmed 
by high contamination readings, were scrubbing the wards and corridors. 
Eventually they realised the radiation was being emitted by their 
patients. Radiation sickness on this scale had not been witnessed since 
Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The firefighters who absorbed the highest levels 
of radiation now had deep tans and were vomiting convulsively. Medics 
treated them with milk, nitrite injections and potassium iodide until 
radiation specialists arrived from the Ministry of Health in Moscow. 
They tested white blood cell counts and identified 28 priority cases; 
these people were flown immediately to Moscow for treatment. The 
specialists warned the local medics that symptoms tended to fade but 
could return with greater severity after a latency period of around ten 

On the morning of Sunday 27 April, with radiation levels still rising, 
it was decided that Prypiat had to be evacuated. Many of its residents, 
who had been assured time and again of their safety from nuclear 
accidents, refused to believe in the invisible threat. ‘What sort of 
danger is this?’ they wanted to know. ‘When the Germans were here, that 
was real danger. But now? It’s sunny and warm; we need to tend our 
gardens.’ Film footage of a wedding in town that day shows young people 
in summer clothes playing football on sports fields and eating ice 
cream, but flashes and sparks in the images are evidence of radioactive 
particles penetrating the lens. Some residents noticed a metallic smell 
in the air, and as army trucks and helicopters moved in they had their 
first presentiment that, as one of them put it, their world was changing 
‘from the old, clean world we used to know, into our new poisoned age, 
the age of Chernobyl’.

The following day, radiation levels in Kiev were five times the norm. 
The May Day parade was scheduled for the following weekend and tens of 
thousands would be taking part. Party leaders in Moscow decided to 
proceed as planned, and Pravda ran a brief official statement claiming 
that the situation in Chernobyl was improving. On May Day morning, 
radiation levels rose rapidly, especially on Khreshchatyk, Kiev’s main 
street (it runs through a valley, which has the effect of concentrating 
radiation). Some of the marchers noticed that the party members’ podium 
was half-empty, and wondered ‘where are the energy people?’ Others 
reported dizziness and dry throats. When the truth finally emerged and 
the cover-up was exposed, the parade was recalled with a fury that 
eroded the authority of the regime it had been designed to glorify. As 
one Kiev resident later wrote to the Ukrainian parliamentary commission: 
‘My government deceived and betrayed me. When the Chernobyl disaster 
took place, I learned of it not from my government but from a foreign 
one abroad.’

By early May the Soviet media was losing control of the story. On the 
morning of 28 April the Forsmark nuclear power plant in Sweden had 
detected high radiation levels emanating from Ukraine. The next day 
there was a report in the New York Times and a briefing from the CIA 
announcing the worst nuclear accident in history, with hundreds if not 
thousands of deaths. Moscow shifted from denial to drastic action. A 30 
kilometre exclusion zone was imposed around the site, and the Central 
Committee ordered helicopter airdrops to cover the exploded reactor with 
sand, lead, clay and boron, to quell the activity in the reactor. If 
temperatures and pressure kept rising, the radioactive core would burn 
its way down to the water table, after which the River Dnieper would 
carry the contamination into the Black Sea and on to the Mediterranean.

On 21 May Yefim Slavsky, the 88-year-old head of the Soviet nuclear 
programme, was put in charge of ‘burying’ the reactor: sealing it 
permanently to stop any further emission of radiation. He ordered that 
the whole reactor building be encased in a concrete ‘sarcophagus’. 
‘Whole towns’ rose up in the area, Plokhy writes, ‘new roads and railway 
lines, as well as entire concrete-production plants’. The highly 
contaminated square kilometre around the reactor was scrubbed clean, and 
a concrete wall six metres thick was built around the reactor, to make 
it safe enough to work in the area. Slavsky’s plan was to cover the 
reactor with an eight tonne aluminium cupola lowered by helicopter onto 
the perimeter wall. But the helicopter dropped it from a height of 400 
metres on the way to the site, and it smashed. In the end the ceiling of 
the sarcophagus was made of concrete too. The job was finished by 
mid-November; 200,000 workers had been used to build the 400,000-tonne 
structure. They had worked in shifts to minimise their exposure to 
radiation, but no one was under any illusions: the ‘liquidators’, as 
they were known, had accepted a sacrificial role in the cause of damage 
limitation. Many approached it as they had their service in the Red 
Army, as a moral and patriotic duty, though the authorities undermined 
their sense of heroism by rewarding conspicuous risk with financial 
bonuses. One of the divers who released contaminated water from the 
underground chambers at the plant, when publicly presented with an 
envelope of cash, crumpled it up in embarrassment. ‘He found it 
inconvenient to refuse the money,’ but had taken on the risks ‘not 
thinking of any incentives’. He was dead within weeks.

A rift opened up between the authorities in Ukraine, which advocated 
openness and energetic solutions, and Moscow, which was focused on 
controlling information and minimising disruption. Nearly a third of 
Soviet media coverage was dedicated to countering Western exaggerations 
of the scale of the disaster. Gorbachev worried that ‘a kind of mass 
psychosis is developing … the name of Gorbachev is starting to get a 
thrashing throughout the world in connection with that accident.’ He was 
being pushed further and faster into glasnost than he wished, but he had 
little choice.

In early July, the Politburo convened to hear testimony from experts. 
The systemic failures were largely glossed over; the disaster was blamed 
on procedural violations by the workers in the control room. Briukhanov 
and Diatlov were among six staff charged with negligence. Their trial 
was held that month in Chernobyl; despite the radiation levels, Soviet 
law stipulated that the proceedings must be held at the site of the 
alleged crime. Both were sentenced to ten years in prison. (They served 
five years. Briukhanov is still alive; Diatlov died in 1995 of heart 
failure.) On 25 August, at a conference of the International Atomic 
Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Valerii Legasov of the Kurchatov 
Institute of Atomic Energy came clean, with a 388-page report that 
exposed many of the secrets, and the defects, of the Soviet nuclear 
programme. He received a standing ovation.

The political fallout from Chernobyl contributed to, and perhaps 
hastened, the collapse of the Soviet Union. On 26 April 1988 the first 
non-state-controlled rally in living memory assembled on the Maidan in 
Kiev under banners that read ‘Atomic energy stations out of Ukraine’ and 
‘We do not want dead zones.’ From it emerged an ecological pressure 
group which grew into a People’s Movement of Ukraine, with an 
‘eco-nationalist’ agenda that linked the campaign to close Chernobyl 
with demands for political autonomy. After independence in 1991, 
however, Ukraine’s economy collapsed along with Russia’s. By 1994 its 
GDP had halved, and the only way to meet its energy needs was to return 
to nuclear power. The parliament of eco-nationalists that had enshrined 
the rights of Chernobyl’s victims in law was obliged to reverse its 
moratorium on building new nuclear plants. The cost and responsibility 
for making Chernobyl safe devolved to the international community and 
the World Bank.

In 2000 the Chernobyl power plant was finally decommissioned. Like the 
fictional Zone, it has become a silent, abandoned industrial wasteland, 
slowly being reclaimed by nature. The disaster is both history and myth: 
it has been exhaustively investigated, yet the basic facts have still 
not been established. The death toll, for example, has been fixed at 
just two from the explosions themselves and a further 29 from radiation 
sickness during the three months afterwards: close to Soviet reports at 
the time, and far short of the thousands claimed by Western media and 
intelligence sources. But the long-term figure can only be guessed at. 
The United Nations’ estimate in 2005 of four thousand deaths is at the 
low end of a spectrum which extends, in Greenpeace International’s 
estimate, to ninety thousand. Assessments of the present and future risk 
continue to diverge. According to Igor Gramotkyn, the current director 
of the Chernobyl power plant, the site will be a no-go area for at least 
20,000 years; other sources think it may be habitable in three 
centuries, and observe that populations of wolves, bears, beavers and 
otters are already thriving. By 2000 3.5 million Ukrainians were 
claiming state benefits as radiation sufferers; yet dozens of elderly 
former residents have returned to live (and die) in the exclusion zone, 
and the World Health Organisation has determined that 
radioactivity-related mutations and birth defects are statistically 

As for the lessons to be learned from Chernobyl, Plokhy’s conclusion is 
anything but reassuring. ‘Even today,’ he writes, ‘we do not know which 
of the strategies the Soviets tried and the technological solutions they 
implemented actually worked. Could some of them have made things worse? 
The eruption of the nuclear volcano stopped for reasons that the 
scientists and engineers could not comprehend, just as they were 
initially at a loss to explain why the reactor had exploded in the first 
place.’ There are 11 RBMKs still in operation today, in Kursk, Leningrad 
and Smolensk.

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