On 26th April 1986 the No 4 nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Soviet Union descended into an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction. This resulted in a huge steam explosion that blew apart the reactor, blew off the roof and started an uncontrolled reactor core fire.
Great plumes of radioactive material were blown across the Ukraine and Belarus, into Western Europe and onto the hill farms of Wales. Swedish nuclear power workers, who set off alarms as they came into work, were the first to raise the alarm outside the USSR two days after the accident; they were carrying radioactive traces from the outside on their clothes.
The world’s worst civil nuclear catastrophe and the struggle to contain it is brilliantly portrayed in a recent HBO-Sky Atlantic mini series available on Now TV and as a DVD. It is a surprisingly accurate docu-drama that takes viewers through the night of the accident and the struggle to contain the fire and radioactive discharges. It finishes with the trial of the Director and chief engineers who were made scapegoats for a flawed design and disastrous bureaucratic system of control.
There is now little dispute about the causes of the accident that at the time was shrouded in secrecy - a deputy chief engineer under pressure to deliver on time carried out a safety test incompetently. When the RBMK reactor went out of control the “fail safe” button, that was meant to deliver all the boron rods back into the core to control the reaction, had the opposite effect. Their graphite tips accelerated the reaction and heat, the rods jammed and disintegrated. This was the fatal design flaw in the RBMK reactor. On top of this the reactor had no concrete protective dome that might have contained the radiation from the explosion – the reactors were built this way for cheapness.
The nuclear ministry itself and the engineers in charge had virtually no preparation or equipment to deal with such a major nuclear accident – soviet design was considered so superior that such accidents could not happen. It was a bureaucratic lie that cost tens of thousands of lives.
The first response of the Director and his engineers was denial; they downplayed the seriousness of the accident. The dosimeters available to measure radiation could not measure the massive amounts being produced, so the danger was underestimated. The CP bureaucracy and KGB ordered an immediate black out on information and refused to evacuate the nearby city of Pripyat for 36 hours, despite dozens of people falling ill with headaches and vomiting shortly after the accident. Fire fighters were called in to fight the core fire with no protection and little knowledge of what was happening. A lot of these fire fighters died within weeks.
A commission of scientists and the military was set up to deal with the accident, working with the nuclear engineers, but they had no real idea how to stop the fire. They came up with a plan to use helicopters to drop a mixture of sand, lead and clay on the core to suppress the fire. Most of these pilots, flying backwards and forwards, took huge doses of radiation in unprotected machines. Later, hundreds of miners were brought in to dig under the nuclear plant to pump out water flooding the basements in case the core burnt through the concrete floor causing an even bigger explosion. Working with picks and shovels because machinery was too dangerous over a quarter died within a few years.
Robots could not work on the massively radioactive roofs that needed to be cleared of radioactive graphite so “bio-robots” were used - young soldiers conscripted to physically shovel graphite back into the core. Even with rough and ready protection humans could not work for more than two minutes at a time on these roofs before taking lethal radiation doses. By the time the 30 kilometre exclusion zone had been set up and a massive clear up and burying process undertaken – including removing topsoil, trees and road surfaces – over 500,000 so called “liquidators”, mostly conscript soldiers, had been involved.
The series rather typically develops the “lone hero” scientist theme, spotlighting the character of Valery Legasov, a director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy. Legasov was indeed an active, on the spot member of the scientific commission coming up with solutions. He was certainly a heroic character taking lethal doses of radiation while he worked and reported back to Moscow. But in fact he was one of a team and some of his decisions, such as sand bombing the core, were questioned at the time and since, as possibly doing more harm than good.
A more detailed and balanced picture of the crisis can be gained from reading Serhii Plokhi’s “Chernobyl: history of a tragedy” (Penguin 2018) which puts the accident in the broader context of the economically strapped and bureaucratic Soviet Union of the 1980s. In this account Gorbachev comes across as far from the dynamic and reforming Soviet leader beloved by the west. Rather he is a leading apparatchik, part of a bureaucratic caste, desperate to keep the lid on what happened at Chernobyl. He is only too willing to look for scapegoats rather than tackle the dangerous nuclear/military complex in the USSR that had covered up serious accidents and design flaws in nuclear reactors since the 1950s.
Legasov himself was to fall foul of Gorbachev’s displeasure for being too open at a Vienna International Atomic Energy Agency conference to discuss the Chernobyl accident. He did not, as the HBO mini series has him, attend the final trial. He was already in disfavour and suffering from serious radiation effects, which brought on severe headaches and depression. He committed suicide on his second attempt in 1988.
Despite these quibbles the Chernobyl mini series is a fine drama and provides important lessons and warnings about the dangers of nuclear power, whether it is run by a bureaucratic dictatorship as in the USSR or by a privatised for-profit system in the west.
Dulwich and West Norwood CLP