Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe by Serhii Plokhy; Basic Books, 404 pp., $32
In April 1986, I was living and working in a small village in Germany when I heard that radiation from an unknown source had been detected in Sweden. Later that day, the Soviets acknowledged that a nuclear accident had occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. It was one of the worst industrial disasters in world history and today serves as a defining moment of the Cold War. In my German village, we were told not to drink milk or eat blueberries. An uneasy feeling took hold. We didn’t know what to believe.
Serhii Plokhy, a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard, was an up-close observer of what happened at Chernobyl. At the time of the accident, he lived less than 500 kilometers from the damaged reactor, and a later thyroid test suggested he suffered radiation exposure. In his new book, Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe, he casts his lyrical eye on a vast amount of detail, giving readers a sense of dramatic urgency that makes his account difficult to put down.
The town of Chernobyl was founded in 1193, established on lands that belonged to Kyivan princes. The name stems from the ubiquitous wormwood shrub, recognized by its dark color (the Ukrainian word for “black” is chornyi ). After the accident, President Reagan became one of the many people who believed that the Chernobyl disaster had been prophesied by the story of the wormwood star in the Book of Revelation.
When engineers chose the site for a new nuclear power plant, they described the sand hills, pines, and moss as a land of “silence,” where one has “a sense of primeval creation.” Chernobyl’s nuclear workers enjoyed special privileges, such as housing, food, and goods not available elsewhere in the Soviet Union, and overall, a higher standard of living. A bedroom community north of the plant, near the Prypiat River and a railroad station, quickly grew to a population of 12,000 people. Life was so good, in fact, that more than 1,000 babies were born in Chernobyl per year, at a rate significantly higher than elsewhere in the Soviet Union.
By 1985, the year before the meltdown, the future of the Soviet Union and the nuclear industry looked secure. But even then, Viktor Briukhanov, Chernobyl’s plant director, expressed reservations. In a surprisingly frank interview with a Ukrainian journalist in 1985, he said, “We must hope that this will also promote greater attention to the reliability and safety of atomic energy generation at our Chernobyl station in particular. This is most urgent for us.” Plokhy found the comment, although it was notably omitted when the interview was first published.
Despite ongoing technical problems and delays, and a design that did not allow for a concrete containment structure in the event of a reactor failure, censorship prevailed over precaution. Anatolii Maiorets, the Soviet energy minister, proclaimed that “reports on adverse consequences of ecological effects on service personnel and the population … on the environment, are not subject to open publication in the press or in radio and television broadcasts.”
On April 26, 1986, a bright spring day, the citizens of Prypiat were busy. Seven weddings were underway. A resident recalled, “There were lots of children in the street. There were kids playing in the sand, building houses, making mud pies. The older ones were racing about on their bikes. Young mothers were pushing their baby carriages. Everything looked normal.” People were fishing in the cooling pond—touted as a safe place to breed fish—and exploring the neighboring forests along the Prypiat River.
All this despite what had happened the previous evening. Workers at the plant shut down Reactor Number 4 for scheduled system checks and repairs. The planned test was meant to simulate a power failure, and it involved an intentional but temporary switching off of safety controls—a fatal mistake, as it turned out. Design flaws in the reactor itself and operating errors in the control room led to unstable conditions in the reactor core that, in the early hours of April 26, resulted in an explosion followed by an intense fire that raged for nine days, sending a vast plume of radioactive material high into the atmosphere. Within 24 hours of the explosion, radiation levels had risen to 80,000 times the natural background level.
Plokhy allows us to see the event unfold, moment by moment, as the reactor races out of control and workers at the plant and first responders do what they can to combat the flames. Engineer Razim Davletbaev, speaking later, described a “roar [that] was of a completely unfamiliar kind, very low in tone, like a human moan.” A sense of dread permeates Plokhy’s book as he narrates events through eyewitness accounts, particularly from those who took the blame from an authoritarian system that put economic development before human health and safety. Briukhanov, for example, was looking forward to a much-needed weekend of relaxing at home with his wife. Instead, he was awakened by a phone call at two A.M., and then rushed to take the company bus to the plant. As he entered the site, he realized that the top of Reactor Number 4 was gone. His heart sank. “This is my prison,” he thought to himself. His life was over—he knew, guilty or not, he would bear responsibility for the crisis. Anatolii Diatlov, the plant’s deputy chief engineer, was a Renaissance man who kept in shape by walking four kilometers to work and could recite from memory entire works of Russian poets, as well as the pages of technical manuals. When he arrived at the facility, he found himself surrounded by bursting pipes and crackling short circuits. “A picture worthy of the pen of the great Dante!” he wrote later.
Some of the most poignant stories, though, are those of the firefighters. Vasyl Ihnatenko lived in an apartment above the fire department’s garage with his pregnant wife. She woke to see him climbing into the fire truck. “Close the window and go back to sleep,” he told her. “There is a fire at the reactor. I’ll be back soon.” She watched as flames illuminated the night. “Everything was radiant,” she recalled. “The whole sky.” Her husband died of radiation exposure a few weeks later.
Firefighter Hryhorii Khmel, who drove a truck for the fire department, was one of the first to respond to the explosion. His son, Petro, also a firefighter, arrived sometime later and was sent to the roof to help douse the flames—where the escaping radiation was at its worst. Hryhorii spent an exhausting night focused on the disaster before him, only to learn, to his horror, where his son had been. “I went out onto the street, looked around,” he told Iurii Shcherbak, author of the 1989 book Chernobyl: A Documentary Story. “It was light, and everything was visible—and saw my Petro coming in uniform, with a coat on, a fire belt, a cap, and leather boots.” As Petro, sickened and nearly deaf, was taken away for decontamination, he called, “Are you here, Father?” Plokhy suggests that “Hryhorii must have felt like Nikolai Gogol’s Taras Bulba at the execution of his son Ostap, who shouted into the crowd, ‘Father, where are you? Do you hear me?’ before he was put to death.” Petro had suffered significant radiation exposure.
Chernobyl symbolized the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. Just five years later, the superpower fell apart, “doomed not only by the albatross of its communist ideology but also by its dysfunctional managerial and economic systems.” Nine years after the USSR’s collapse, Chernobyl finally closed, but it would be another 25 years before a new containment shelter was built over the damaged reactor—financed, in large part, by the international community. “Relations between the two main actors in the post-Chernobyl drama, the Western funding agencies and the Ukrainian government, were not unlike those in a family with a teenager who promises not to behave dangerously if given an ever larger allowance,” Plokhy writes. “Some scholars referred to it as environmental blackmail.”
The further Chernobyl recedes in time, Plokhy writes, the more it fades into myth. His book, however, should help bring us back to reality. Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years, and all of us are living in its deadly shadow. We need only look to Japan’s Fukushima disaster to be reminded of how ever-present the nuclear danger remains. Two disasters, two exclusion zones. The world, Plokhy cautions, “cannot afford any more.”
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