Written by Yujia Gao
The Chernobyl disaster was a nuclear accident that occurred in Pripyat, Ukrainian SSR, Soviet Union. The Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded on April 26th, 1986, injuring workers within the plant and causing nuclear contamination in nearby areas.1 The disaster was considered the most severe nuclear accident in history, in terms of casualties and scale of contamination.
The test run that directly caused the accident started at 12:00 AM and the explosion occurred at 1:23 AM.2 However, the decontamination process did not end until May 7th, when 50,000 liquidators had worked on controlling the radioactive contamination. All residents within 10 kilometers were evacuated 36 hours after the initial explosion; 10 days later, the exclusion zone was expanded to 30 kilometers, the same exclusion zone is still active today.3
In order to understand how or why the disaster happened, one must understand why the nuclear power plant was built in the first place. Contrary to the common understanding, the Chernobyl power plant, as well as most of the other plants that operated under the same bureaucratic department, were not constructed for the nuclear arms race between the US and the USSR. The nuclear plants were constructed mainly as a solution to a predicted energy shortage crisis in the 1950s–the same time the idea of nuclear generated electricity was just starting to gain visibility in the international science academia.4
The 1950s also witnessed the emergence of a wave of nuclear scientists who thought they could atone for their role in developing atomic and hydrogen bombs by directing their creative energy toward peaceful applications.5 However, the central authorities who were directing a campaign to fight the Cold War during an economic crisis, were concerned that the nuclear power plants would divert too much money and brain power from the nuclear arms branch.6 The project was also less cost efficient than developing nuclear technologies for military purposes since the plants would require years of planning, designing, theoretical testing, and the plant itself would still take years to build.7 In order to get the project approved, the scientists promised that the nuclear power plants by themselves could be the solution for the energy crisis. It is unknown whether the scientists actually believed that or not; but the promise was never fulfilled.
Although the nuclear power plants were unhelpful to the nuclear arms race directly, they fit with another hope that the USSR believed to be essential in winning the Cold War–to appear to be more technologically and economically (and to a lesser extent, environmentally) advanced than the US.8 The promoters and beneficiaries of the nuclear power plant project–the bureaucrats who would rise in importance if the project were included in the USSR’s long term agenda, the scientists who wanted to develop nuclear power in a way that would align with the USSR’s agenda of peaceful but rapid technological growth, and the commercial designers of the reactors that were sold to the state authority–convinced the Soviet authorities to approve the project. But political and financial incentives meant the seed of the disaster was planted from the very beginning.
The Chernobyl Disaster was the deadliest nuclear accident in history. It was also the only accident that had radiation-related fatalities for a commercial (non-military) nuclear power.9 The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) attributed less than 100 deaths to this accident, all of them workers of the nuclear plant.10 However, beside the staff of the nuclear plant who were near the reactor at the time of the explosion, who were unavoidably injured or killed by the accident, many preventable deaths also happened to civilians and liquidators due to nuclear safety negligence. The 5,000 liquidators who cleaned up 90% of the highly radioactive debris, on average absorbed 50 extra years of natural radiation exposure. All of the 5 million civilians who were evacuated, 36 hours or 10 days after, were exposed to an abnormal amount of radiation.11
UNSCEAR acknowledged the increase in unusually aggressive thyroid cancers among children living in affected areas. Some calculations attributed 1000 cases of thyroid cancer and 4000 cases of other cancers in Europe to the disaster.12 The estimated total eventual death toll, which accounts for radiation-related deaths in the future, counts at least 9000 within Europe.13 However, attributing numbers of deaths to the disaster is more complicated, mainly due to our lack of understanding of radiation’s effect on the human body. For example, in 1996, some living liquidators were found having absorbed six to eight times the textbook definition of a lethal dose of radiation.14 This situation complicates UNSCEAR’s official number of deaths from the disaster.
The economic cost of the disaster is also significant, although it is often overlooked. The USSR spent 18 billion rubles in 1986 (4.96 billion dollars in 2019 currency) on containment and decontamination.15 The exclusion zone also removed 784,320 hectares (1,938,100 acres) of agricultural land and 694,200 hectares (1,715,000 acres) of forest from production.16 The financial burden was so severe that Gorbachev wrote in 2006: “The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl 20 years ago this month, even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union.”17
The Chernobyl disaster was a turning point in how Europeans and people within the USSR thought about nuclear energy. The anti-nuclear movements stemming from the disaster prevented more than 100 nuclear-related building projects all across the USSR between 1988 and 1992.18 Although general economic crises in the 1990s were also a critical reason why the nuclear projects were halted, this movement was still a rare case of social activism succeeding in the USSR.
However, the impact that the disaster had on the world’s vision of nuclear energy was not felt by the nuclear industry in the USSR. Nikolai Ryzhkov, the Soviet Premier, said after the disaster that “by focusing attention on ways of achieving greater safety, [nuclear energy] has increased its importance as the sole source that can guarantee reliable power supplies in the future.”19 Electricity generation by nuclear plants that was planned to be doubled in 1990 from its rate in 1985, tripled by 1995.20
The significance of the Chernobyl Disaster extends beyond the accident and its related policies, but also the way this disaster was dealt with by the USSR authorities, which reveals deeper, systemic issues. Immediately following the disaster, the USSR was under fire internationally for the preventable accident. This universal criticism towards the highest level of the USSR’s government was downplayed by high-level “revisionist” politicians and scientists in the USSR. They blamed the western media for dramatizing the damage while (somewhat contradictorily) calling for international support for Gorbachev’s plan to remove all production of nuclear weapons by 2000.21 In the aftermath of the disaster, the Soviet authorities punished the director of the nuclear plant as well as the members of the institute where the reactor was designed — the nuclear oversight committee, and top representatives of the two ministries responsible for nuclear power plants.22 Those decisions were to be reenacted in a “semi-public show trial,” described by Sonja Schmid, author of “Producing Power: Pre-Chernobyl History of the Soviet Union.”23 The London Times commented at the time that the trial was “a superfluous attempt to apportion blame… the chain of responsibility extends far beyond the power station and far beyond Chernobyl.” Judge Raimond Brize, the deputy chairman of the Supreme Court, made it clear on the trial’s first day that his court would focus on the individuals who made the mistakes instead of delving into the details of the reactor design.
This focus had a larger political implication. Blaming the design of the devices, the regulators and top ministerial agents would question the foundation of the Soviet nuclear industry; prosecuting the reactor designers and their organizations would cast doubt on Soviet science and engineering, the cornerstone of the entire communist project.24 Allocating heaviest blame on to individual negligence was the only way to avoid both scenarios. After all, the trial’s particular focus suggested, to some foreign journalists, the vulnerability of the Soviet Union of being “a state built on scientific reason and technocratic ideals.”25
However, the significance of a smaller group of politicians, the “Glasnost” school, should not be ignored. “Glasnost” literally translates into publicity and openness; Gorbechev coined the term in 1986 for his policy that “[allowed] Soviet citizens to discuss publicly the problems of their system and potential solutions.” They criticized the delayed order of evacuation, insufficient protection given to the liquidators, and rapid repopulation within the zone.26 Although the school had no causal relation with the bigger “Glasnost” policy, the school was an early hallmark of the policy, and thus was not persecuted with political charges. In addition, the process of decontamination required cooperation between the US and the USSR, which helped to foster a rare friendly relationship between the nuclear science communities of the two competing superpowers.
In conclusion, the Soviet authorities not only did not reform due to the disaster, they tried to cover it up so the long term agenda could remain unaltered. However, the fact that the Glasnost politicians spoke against the central authority’s policies, and remained un-prosecuted, marked the beginning of a greater tolerance toward political dissent in the USSR, which is the central idea of Glasnost. The Chernobyl Disaster has contradictory significance–the event itself (from the accident to the criminal trials) was suggestive of, or even a symbolism of the problems within the Soviet bureaucratic political system. Yet, its position within the larger Glasnost policy and cooperation with the US also gave it the significance of being a turning point of the USSR’s political agenda within the greater context of the Cold War.
The causation of the Chernobyl Disaster can be categorized into three levels. First, the immediate causation–what happened to the people and the machines involved on the day of the explosion. Second, the direct causation–the immediate aftermath of the explosion: how the state authority responded and how the decontamination process was carried out. Third, the underlying causation–the institutions involved and the central authorities of the USSR that could have prevented the accident through internal reform.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the international organization that led the investigation for the disaster, the accident was caused by “[i]nadequate safety analysis” performed by the operators, “insufficient attention to independent safety review,” “[o]perating procedures not founded satisfactorily in safety analysis,” and safety information not adequately and effectively communicated between operators, and between operators and designers.27 About the reactor specifically, the IAEA reports “specific physical characteristics of the reactor…[and] control elements…made possible its unstable behaviour.”28
This official international report was not recognized by the Russian authorities when it came out in 1992; however, much evidence indicates that the USSR, back when the first trial took place, knew the report was not entirely wrong. By the time the trial started, the Soviet nuclear industry had secretly initiated reforms that addressed all these areas–the industry improved their training programs, introduced performance incentives, and made more general management reforms and technical upgrades.29
Within the causations listed by the IAEA, each of the technical mistakes reflected a more fundamental flaw within the political system. First, the claims about safety standards not being met can be attributed to the way project deadlines were set up by the higher bureaucratic committee. The race to fulfill plans by a centrally set date, typically the last day of the year or quarter, put enormous pressure on those trying to “overcome problems caused by production bottlenecks, delivery delays, and an unstable, transient workforce.”30
This could lead to the negligence of safety standards on days approaching the deadline, which was the case on April 12, 1986. Second, the operators who performed these tasks were also inadequate for various reasons. According to a nuclear scientist’s testimony, many supposed nuclear scientists hired to work on the plant were trained on site. For example, Nicolai Fomin, a chief director at the nuclear plant, was originally an electrician. He relied on his deputy Anatoly Dyatlov, who was a former operator of naval nuclear reactors, for all the operations. He was named by the official Soviet court as the person most responsible for the Chernobyl Disaster.
Although there were undeniably human errors involved, there was an important reason why IAEA put the final blame on the reactor, instead of the operators. The designers of RBMK reactors to economic and military planners saw the design of RBMK reactor as a machine that could easily be converted from electricity generation to plutonium production–the core element in atomic bombs. But the operators of the nuclear plant claimed this reactor was safe and used solely for generating electricity.31 The very design flaw that caused the Chernobyl explosion was pointed out by individual scientists to the head of the Kurchatov Institute, which oversaw the development and construction of the reactor design. But the complaints were dismissed and deemed as divisive to the collaboration between the hired scientists and designers of the RBMK reactor.
The designers of the RBMK reactors were not the only group with interest involved in this case. The nuclear power plant project was lobbied into the Five Year Plan by nuclear scientists and their related bureaucracies with false promises of nuclear energy.32 The USSR at this time was not financially capable enough, nor did they have a mature industry specifically for nuclear power production. The “lobbyists” argued that implementing nuclear energy into the country’s civilian life would earn international recognition for Soviet science, the Soviet economy, and ultimately the country’s political leadership.33 The fact that nuclear energy was a frontier in the international academia helped the lobbyists to persuade the political decision makers to approve their project. Around the 1960s, the Soviet nuclear physicists had also created a “culture” of atomic energy, creating an optimism without much basis that aligned with the ambitious Five-Year Plan itself.34 A world fueled by nuclear power became a part of the “the bright Communist future” that Soviet citizens envisioned.35
However, the ideological talk was not enough to persuade everyone. Unlike the central decision makers, the state-level bureaucrats who managed the resources the nuclear power plants needed to use mainly cared about economic efficiency. The lobbyists persuaded them by painting the picture of an energy crisis–“asymmetric distribution,” the fact that most energy resources are located in eastern Russia and most people lived in the west, and the unreliability of natural gas, as understood at the time.36 Their arguments were covered by media and were so persuasive that public opinion on nuclear energy changed from an utopian vision into seemingly science-based optimism. This was of course placed in doubt by the Chernobyl Disaster.
In essence, the causation of the disaster on a political level was the very foundation of the Soviet bureaucratic structure. Lobbyists who promised results did not need to take much risk for the potential failure of the project since they would not personally suffer financially. And since every major project was decided by the central authority, it alone held the key to make the project happen. It also had difficulty checking the credibility of the promises. The lobbyists were keenly aware of these hindrances and exploited them for the Chernobyl project. The communist economic system also had a weakness of being directly influenced by the grand political agenda. In the 1940s, there was an obvious need for the USSR to prove its technological prowess to international communities and to its people. This need, or even desperation, arguably led the central authorities to trust the lobbyists who obviously had the incentive to lie.
The impact of the Chernobyl disaster extends beyond the explosion. Most deaths and other damages occurred after the explosion, during the decontamination and containment stages. Most of them were deemed preventable.
The manager of the power plant first contacted his superior 8 hours after the explosion, and the report purposefully minimized the damage to the site. Valentyna Shevchenko, then Chairwoman of the Presidium of Verkhovna Rada Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR, recalled that Ukraine’s acting Minister of Internal Affairs Vasyl Durdynets phoned her at work at 09:00 to report current affairs; only at the end of the conversation he added that there had been a fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, but it was extinguished and everything was fine.37 When Shevchenko asked “How are the people?,” he replied that there was nothing to be concerned about: “Some are celebrating a wedding, others are gardening, and others are fishing in the Pripyat River.”38
The exact reason why Vasyl Durdynets or people who reported to Durdynets tried to minimize the damage caused by the explosion was unknown. But inferring from the authorities’ later response to the disaster, who also tried to contain the news, the authorities of Chernobyl probably had anticipated the central authority’s desire to keep the publicity of the event down, most optimally resolved at a local level, in order to maintain public optimism. The local authority also had the incentive to minimize an event for which they were responsible. Regardless, attempting to cover up the disaster had unintended, grievous consequences.
The authorities also ordered for early and thus dangerous decontamination, without waiting for the natural decay to occur. The process turned out to be fatally harmful to the liquidators. This decision was made on the idea that the land must be repopulated and brought back into cultivation, although the land was not in any way fertile in the first place. Within fifteen months 75% of the land was under cultivation, and a third of the evacuated villages were resettled despite being inside the radius of radiation pollution.39 The central authorities had a psychological purpose for the clean-up: they wished to forestall panic regarding nuclear energy, and even to restart the Chernobyl power station.
In the early 1990s, some $400 million was spent on improvements to the remaining reactors at Chernobyl, considerably enhancing their safety. Energy shortages necessitated the continued operation of one of the reactors (Unit 3) until December 2000. (Unit 2 was shut down after a turbine hall fire in 1991, and Unit 1 at the end of 1997).40 The New Safe Confinement (NSC) structure was completed in 2017, having been built adjacent and then moved into place on rails.
All in all, the Chernobyl Disaster was an example of “death by a thousand cuts,” as Soviet history historian David Marples puts it: “if anyone involved had done something differently, we would not know the name of Chernobyl today.”41 The latter point is debatable, since in the process of analyzing the causation of the disaster, many systemic problems, detailed or grand, were found.
The only thing one can say with certainty is that the Chernobyl Disaster did not happen out of mere accident, unlike what many people would like to believe. There were some faults within the greater economic and political framework that allowed, if not facilitated, this disaster to occur. This makes the legacy of the disaster especially important. But the Chernobyl Disaster is not just the most deadly nuclear accident in history. It is a lesson to humanity that we should handle nuclear technology with the utmost caution both scientifically and politically, regardless of what it is promised to be used for.
- “Chernobyl Nuclear Accident”. www.iaea.org. 14 May 2014.
- Steadman, Philip; Hodgkinson, Simon (1990). Nuclear Disasters & The Built Environment: A Report to the Royal Institute. Butterworth Architecture. p. 55. ISBN 978-0-40850-061-6.
- Schmid, Sonja D. PRODUCING POWER : The Pre-Chernobyl History of the Soviet Nuclear Industry. S.L., MIT Press, 2019, p. 18.
- Schmid, 19.
- Schmid, 20.
- World Nuclear Association, “Chernobyl | Chernobyl Accident | Chernobyl Disaster – World Nuclear Association,” www.world-nuclear.org, April 2020, https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/chernobyl-accident.aspx#:~:text=The%20accident%20destroyed%20the%20Chernobyl.
- “UNSCEAR assessments of the Chernobyl accident,” www.unscear.org.
- Petryna, Adriana. Life Exposed Biological Citizens after Chernobyl ; with a New Introduction by the Author. Princeton, NJ, Princeton Univ. Press, 2013, p. xiii.
- Cardis, Elisabeth; Krewski, Daniel; Boniol, Mathieu; Drozdovitch, Vladimir; Darby, Sarah C.; Gilbert, Ethel S.; Akiba, Suminori; Benichou, Jacques; Ferlay, Jacques; Gandini, Sara; Hill, Catherine; Howe, Geoffrey; Kesminiene, Ausrele; Moser, Mirjana; Sanchez, Marie; Storm, Hans; Voisin, Laurent; Boyle, Peter (2006). “Estimates of the cancer burden in Europe from radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl accident”. International Journal of Cancer. 119 (6): 1224–1235. doi:10.1002/ijc.22037. PMID 16628547.
- Peplow, M. (1 April 2006). “Special Report: Counting the dead.” Nature. 440 (7087): 982–983. Bibcode:2006Natur.440..982.. doi:10.1038/440982a. PMID 16625167.
- Petryna, p. xiii.
- Johnson, Thomas (author/director) (2006). The battle of Chernobyl. Play Film / Discovery Channel. (see 1996 interview with Mikhail Gorbachev)
- “Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts” (PDF). Chernobyl Forum. IAEA. Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 February 2010. Retrieved 21 April 2012.
- Mikhail Gorbachev, “Turning Point at Chernobyl,” The Japan Times, April 21, 2006, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2006/04/21/commentary/world-commentary/turning-point-at-chernobyl/#:~:text=MOSCOW%20%E2%80%94%20The%20nuclear%20meltdown%20at.
- “The Russian Anti-Nuclear Movement,” Alisa Nikulina, Russian Analytical digest, 101 (1), August 2011.
- David R Marples, The Social Impact of the Chernobyl Disaster (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990), p.104.
- Marples, p.102.
- Schmid, p.4.
- Schmid p.5.
- H., Hunt, Michael (2015-06-26). The world transformed : 1945 to the present. p. 315. ISBN 9780199371020. OCLC 907585907
- Marples, p.102.
- “INSAG-7: The Chernobyl Accident: Updating of INSAG-1″ (PDF). IAEA. 1992. Archived (PDF) from the original on 20 October 2018. Retrieved 8 November 2018.
- Schmid, p.4.
- Schmid, p.8.
- Schmid, p.11.
- Schmid, p.21.
- Schmid, p.20.
- Schmid, p.21.
- Schmid, p.22.
- Валентина Шевченко: ‘Провести демонстрацію 1 травня 1986–го наказали з Москви’. Istorychna Pravda (in Ukrainian). 25 April 2011. Archived from the original on 26 April 2016. Retrieved 20 August 2011.
- Marples, p.78-79.
- World Nuclear Association.
- Marples, p. 18.
Image credit: Paweł ‘pbm’ Szubert, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons