I visited the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone last year. This 2,600 sq km (1,000 sq mi) region spanning Ukraine and Belarus is the ghastly site of the greatest peacetime nuclear disaster in history. Yes, it’s safe enough to visit—with precautions, of course. [Read travel writer Cameron Hewitt’s worthwhile trip-report.]
Chernobyl is a gripping testimony to the perils of hubris and a poignant monument to the untold misery it imposed upon swathes of people.
To round out my learning from the trip, I recently read Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy (2019,) Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy’s haunting account of the nuclear disaster.
An Accident That Was Waiting to Happen
At 1:21 A.M. on 26-April-1987, an experimental safety test at Unit 4 of the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant complex in Chernobyl went dreadfully wrong. The test instigated a power surge. The reactor exploded and burst open, spewing a plume of radioactive elements into the atmosphere.
The discharge amounted to some 400 times more radioactive material than from the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Deputy Chief Engineer Anatoly Dyatlov, who was in charge of the calamitous test, called the ensuing meltdown “a picture worthy of the pen of the great Dante.” Sixty percent of the radioactive fallout came to settle in Belarus. Winds carried radioactive elements all the way to Scandinavia.
Right away, hundreds of firefighters and security forces consigned themselves to stabilize the reactor and stop the fires from spreading to the other reactors. In so doing, they exposed themselves to fatal doses of radiation, spending the rest of their lives grappling with serious health problems.
The world first learned of the accident when abnormal radiation levels were detected at one of Sweden’s nuclear facilities some 52 hours after the accident. It took the Soviet regime three days to acknowledge the meltdown publicly, “There has been an accident at the Chernobyl atomic-electricity station.” Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev addressed the nation 18 days after the accident, “The first time we have encountered in reality such a sinister force of nuclear energy that has escaped control.”
A Soviet Dream Town Then, a Graveyard of Dreams Now
The ghost town of Pripyat, a purpose-built workers’ settlement a mile from the nuclear plant, seized my mind’s eye. It was one of the Soviet Union’s most desirable communities, and 50,000 people lived there when the accident happened. Today, it’s a post-apocalyptic time warp—full of all kinds of dilapidated civic structures that once showcased the ideal Soviet lifestyle.
Pripyat was evacuated entirely on the afternoon of the disaster. Left to rot, the town has been completely overtaken by nature. A Ferris wheel—completed two weeks before the explosion, but never used—has become an enduring symbol of the inflictions. So have unforgettable images of deserted houses engulfed by forest, loveable stray dogs in dire need of medical attention, and a day-nursery strewn with workbooks and playthings.
A Human Tragedy: Disaster, Response, Fallout
Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy (2019) is a masterful retelling of the episode and its aftermath. Author Serhii Plokhy, who leads the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, grew up 500 kilometers south of Chernobyl. He later discovered that his thyroid had been inflamed by radiation.
Plokhy offers deeply sympathetic portrayals of the plant’s managers and engineers, the first-responders who risked their lives to contain the damage, and the civilians in the affected areas of Ukraine and Belarus.
Drawing upon the victims’ first-hand accounts as well as official records made available only after Ukraine’s 2013–14 Euromaidan revolution, Plokhy meticulously reconstructs the making of the tragedy—from the plant’s hasty construction to the assembly of the “New Safe Containment” structure installed in 2019.
The cleanup of the radioactive fallout could continue for decades. Robotic cranes will work in intense radiation and dismantle the internal structures and dispose of radioactive remnants from the reactors. The damage from the disaster may last for centuries—the half-life of the plutonium-239 isotope, one constituent of the explosion, is 24,000 years.
Design Flaws, Not All Operator Errors
The Chernobyl nuclear plant was hailed as a jewel in the crown of the Soviet Union’s technological achievement and the lynchpin of an ambitious nuclear power program. The RBMK (high power channel-type reactor) was flaunted as more powerful and cheaper than other prevalent nuclear power plant designs.
Anatoliy Alexandrov, the principal designer of the RBMK reactor and head of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, reportedly claimed that the RBMK was reliable enough to be installed on the Red Square. The communist czars skimped on protective containment structures in a great hurry to commission the Chernobyl reactors.
Commissars at the Ministry of Medium Machine Building, the secretive agency in charge of the Soviet nuclear program, knew all too well of the fatal flaws in the design and the construction of the RBMK reactors. Viktor Briukhanov, the Chernobyl plant’s director, had complained, “God forbid that we suffer any serious mishap—I’m afraid that not only Ukraine but the Union as a whole would not be able to deal with such a disaster.”
Yet, the powers-that-were assumed that clever-enough reactor operators could make up for the design’s shortcomings. Little wonder, then, that the Soviets ultimately attributed the accident to “awkward and silly” mistakes by operators who failed to activate the emergency systems during the safety test.
The Fallings of the Soviet System’s Internal Workings
Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy dwells on Soviet leadership and the ubiquitous disconnects and the vast dysfunctions in the Soviet state’s affairs.
Chernobyl is a metaphor for the failing Soviet system and its reflexive secrecy, central decision-making, and disregard for candor. The KGB worked systematically to minimize news of the disaster’s impact. KGB operatives censored the news of the lethal radioactive dust (calling it “just a harmless steam discharge,”) shepherded the tribunal hearings, and downplayed the political outcomes of the disaster.
Even the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Russians evacuated from the thirty-kilometer zone weren’t given full details of the tragedy for weeks. In the days following the accident, the Communist Party’s apparatus, well aware of the risks of radiation, did not curtail children’s participation in Kyiv’s May Day celebrations and parades.
Author Plokhy’s most insightful chapters discuss the historic political fallout of the disaster. Moscow downplayed the design flaws in the reactor and made scapegoats of a handful of the plant’s engineers and operators—just three men received 10-year prison sentences in 1987. One of the three, Deputy Chief Engineer Anatoly Dyatlov (whom I quoted above referring to Dante,) was granted amnesty after only three years. He died five years later from a heart failure caused by radiation sickness.
Chernobyl’s outstanding narrative feature is the interpretation of the disaster in the framework of the fate of the Soviet Union. Plokhy explains how Chernobyl was a decisive trigger to the unraveling of the Soviet Union. Chernobyl served as an unqualified catalyst for Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (“openness.”) Too, it fanned the flames of the nationalist movements in the soon-to-break-away republics of Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltics.
Recommendation: Read This Captivating Account of a Great Human Tragedy
Serhii Plokhy’s Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy (2019) is a must-read record of human fallacies and hubris. It’s a poignant narrative of the courage and helplessness of the thousands of firefighters, police officers, doctors, nurses, military personnel, and the communities who risked their lives to mitigate the aftermath of the disaster, investigate, and “liquidate” the site. On top, Chernobyl is an edifying thesis on how the disaster accelerated the decline and the downfall of the Soviet Union.