Chernobyl's Warnings: When Hubris Meets "Atoms for Peace"

April 23, 2018
Book Cover for Serhii Plokhii's book - Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe

It's been more than three decades since the worst nuclear disaster in history, the explosion of a reactor at the Chernobyl* Nuclear Power Plant in Soviet Ukraine. The incident unleashed 500 times as much radiation as the bomb used on Hiroshima, contaminating nearly 20,000 square miles of land in Ukraine alone, displacing about 90,000 people in the first week, and affecting tens of millions with radiation fallout, water supply disruptions, and other immediate consequences. Many more have been affected in the years that followed.

Has the world learned its lesson from Chernobyl, an icon of a "reckless empire," as Serhii Plokhii puts it in 2016 article  we reposted from Política Exterior? In other words, have we come to recognize the intensity of the danger posed by nuclear reactors, and the hazard of failing to meticulously maintain all safeguards, best practices, and fail safes? Did anything good come out of Chernobyl?

As we commemorate the 32nd anniversary of the disaster on Thursday, April 26, 2018, Serhii Plokhii will give a talk addressing some of these questions and uncovering the nuances and untold stories of the 1986 tragedy. The talk, "Atomic Energy and the Arrogance of Man: Revisiting the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster," is cosponsored by HURI, the Davis Center, and the Center for the Environment at Harvard University. Free and open to the public, it takes place from 5:00-6:30pm in Room 113, Sever Hall, Harvard Yard.

What makes this talk particularly exciting is the launch of Plokhii's latest book Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe (Plokhy, Basic Books, 2018), which is the first comprehensive history written about the disaster, its causes, and its aftermath all the way through to 2017. Drawing on newly available sources, this is the definitive account of the incident and an essential resource for those who wish to understand its history or consider the potential risks of today's nuclear projects. 

Book description:

From a preeminent historian of Eastern Europe, the definitive history of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster

On the morning of April 26, 1986, Europe witnessed the worst nuclear disaster in history: the explosion of a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Soviet Ukraine. Dozens died of radiation poisoning, fallout contaminated half the continent, and thousands fell ill. In Chernobyl, Serhii Plokhy draws on new sources to tell the dramatic stories of the firefighters, scientists, and soldiers who heroically extinguished the nuclear inferno. He lays bare the flaws of the Soviet nuclear industry, tracing the disaster to the authoritarian character of Communist party rule, the regime's control of scientific information, and its emphasis on economic development over all else.

Today, the risk of another Chernobyl looms in the mismanagement of nuclear power in the developing world. A moving and definitive account, Chernobyl is also an urgent call to action.

"Serhii Plokhy is uniquely qualified to tell this tragic story: he writes not only as a major historian, but also as someone who was living with his family under the cloud of the Chernobyl disaster at the time. The result is as riveting as a novel."
―Mary Elise Sarotte, author of The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall

"Serhii Plokhy has produced a highly readable account of the Chernobyl disaster and its political impact. It is destined to be the authoritative account for years to come."
―John Herbst, Director, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council

"Serhii Plokhy provides the definitive story of the Chernobyl crisis and its aftermath, skillfully covering all angles from the scientific story, the humanitarian and economic costs of the clean-up, the manner in which the explosion forced Gorbachev to jump-start his perestroika reforms, and the igniting of Ukrainian nationalism."
―Andrew Wilson, Professor of Ukrainian Studies, UCL

On sale May 15, 2018. Pre-order on Amazon.

Q&A with the Author

*HURI: Chornobyl is the Ukrainian name for the city, whereas Chernobyl is the Russian form. Why did you use “Chernobyl” for the title of your book? And why are Russian forms for Ukrainian city names better known to the West in general? (Ex. Kiev, Chernobyl)

Plokhii: This is a question I discussed with my publishers more than once! I use both forms of the city’s name in the very first sentence of the book, explaining which of them is Russian and which is Ukrainian. But the title of the book refers not to the city itself but to the accident that took place there on the morning of April 26, 1986, when a nuclear reactor exploded releasing the amount of radiation equivalent to 500 Hiroshima bombs. The accident, which happened to be the worst nuclear catastrophe in the world history, became known in the West and was “codified” in popular imagination and memory under the Russian form of the city’s name, “Chernobyl.” There are a number of reasons for that. Not only Kyiv or Chornobyl, but all Ukrainian place names before 1991 were known in the West in their Russian transliteration. Besides, the nuclear power station itself was directly under Moscow’s jurisdiction, and all key decisions from the construction of the nuclear plant to the evacuation of the city of Prypiat located near the station were made in Moscow. Thus, the name “Chernobyl,” like the thirty kilometer zone itself, is a time capsule of sorts, representing a particular political and cultural situation of the period.

Dnepro GESHURI: Why did the USSR leaders choose this location in Ukraine as the site of a nuclear power plant, rather than somewhere in Siberia if they wanted to remain secretive or closer to home if they felt their reactors were so safe? Who benefited from the power it generated?

Plokhii: The power plant was placed in Ukraine on the insistence of the communist leaders of Ukraine, including the first secretaries of the party Petro Shelest and Volodymyr Shcherbytsky. After all but destroying Dnipro River with numerous dams and hydroelectric power stations, the republican authorities were eager to get new sources of energy for the socialist economy. They were lobbying for years, and finally got what they wanted in 1977 when the first Chernobyl reactor became operational. Three more were added before the end of 1983. After the Three Mile Island accident in the US, which took place in 1979, some Soviet experts advocated the idea of building nuclear power plants in Siberia, away from the densely populated regions of the USSR, but that idea was rejected on economic grounds. It was decided that the nuclear plants were supposed to be no farther than 600 kilometers from their main consumers; otherwise the losses of electricity would be too big. Not only the party leaders, but also some leading Ukrainian writers and poets celebrated the launch of Chernobyl reactors, as they saw in the nuclear power plant the proof that their homeland was joining the exclusive club of nuclear nations.

HURI: Did the Chernobyl disaster have any role in the fall of the Soviet Union?

Plokhii: Yes, it did. That role was much more profound than that of the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan. The first popular mobilization in Ukraine during the perestroika years took place under the banners of ecological movement, which demanded truth from the authorities about the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. Some of the same Ukrainian writers who originally welcomed the arrival of the nuclear power in Ukraine now agitated for the shutdown of nuclear reactors. Ivan Drach the leader of the Rukh (Popular Movement of Ukraine), and the poet who first praised Chernobyl and then cursed it, stated more than once that the origins of the Rukh were in the ecological movement triggered by the Chernobyl disaster. The protests against the nuclear energy in Lithuania, which were also triggered by the Chernobyl disaster, had set that republic on the road to independence. Lithuanians were the first to declare the independence of their country from the USSR in March 1990. The Ukrainian independence referendum, which is impossible to imagine without the Chornobyl mobilization, delivered a final blow to the Soviet Union in December of 1991. In that sense the nuclear superpower became one of the main victims of the Chernobyl disaster.

Kyshtym MemorialHURI: What do you think might have happened differently if the wind hadn’t blown the radioactive cloud west of the Iron Curtain?

Plokhii: Chances are that we would not know the full story of what had happened in Chornobyl for quite a while, and the damage caused by the accident would be significantly more severe. After all, it was the Swedish and not the Soviet authorities who alerted the world to the rising radiation levels, and people in Ukraine and Belarus learned from foreign broadcasts and not from the Soviet media how to protect themselves from the radiation. It was only after the fall of the Soviet Union that the world learned about the 1957 nuclear accident at Kyshtym in the Ural Mountains. As a result of the accident at the Plutonium production plant there, 20,000 square miles of territory that was home to 270,000 people was contaminated. Today it is considered to be the third largest nuclear disaster after Chernobyl and Fukushima. The cover up lasted for more than forty years, and the first documents on the accident were released only in 1989 in the wake of the Chornobyl protests.

HURI: In your article “Chornobyl: Tombstone of a Reckless Empire,” which we posted on the 30th anniversary, you write, “The sarcophagus that European visitors can see on their trips to the exclusion zone stands today as a monument to the failed ideology and political system embodied in the Soviet Union. It is also a warning to leaders and societies who put military or economic objectives above environmental and health concerns.” – Do you see concerning trends in this regard today?

Plokhii: Today, the chances of another Chernobyl disaster taking place are increasing as nuclear-energy technology falls into the hands of rulers pursuing ambitious geopolitical goals, who are eager to accelerate economic development in order to overcome energy and demographic crises while paying lip service to ecological concerns. While world attention is focused on the nonproliferation of nuclear arms, an equally great danger looms from the mismanagement of “atoms for peace” in the developing world. Most new reactors under construction today are being built outside of the Western world, which is known for the relative safety of its reactors and operating procedures. A whopping 21 new reactors are under construction in China, nine in Russia, six in India, four in the United Arab Emirates, and two in Pakistan. Only five new reactors are currently being built in the United States, and none in Britain. The next great nuclear-power frontier is Africa. Volatile Egypt is currently building two reactors—its first in history.

HURI: You were in Ukraine when the Chernobyl disaster happened. What was your experience?

Plokhii: I wrote the book both as a historian and as a contemporary of the events discussed there. At the time of the explosion I lived less than 500 kilometers downstream of the damaged reactor. My family and I were not directly affected by the ordeal. But a few years later, doctors in Canada, where I was a visiting professor at the time, told me that at some point my thyroid had been inflamed—a possible sign of radiation exposure. Fortunately, my wife and children were fine. Radiation acts in unpredictable ways.

Chernobyl todayHURI: Have you been to Chornobyl?

Plokhii: Yes, I visited Chornobyl and the thirty kilometer exclusion zone a few years ago. It was a memorable experience—seeing with your own eyes places and objects, the layout of the land that you have read so much about. It was there on that trip to Chornobyl that I decided to return to the book that I began to research earlier and complete it.

HURI: You draw on new sources for this book, which has been called the definitive account of the disaster by many reviewers. What kind of new sources did you find? Can you give an example of something you learned from them?

Plokhii: My book is a work of history—in fact, it is the first comprehensive history of the Chernobyl disaster from the explosion of the nuclear reactor to the closing of the plant in December 2000 and the near completion of the new shelter over the damaged reactor in 2017. As I embarked on my research of the history of Chernobyl, I was helped enormously by the recent opening of previously closed archival collections dealing with the disaster. Certain government archives opened their doors more widely than before, making it easier to consult documents issued by the Communist Party and government agencies at the time and in the aftermath of the disaster. The Maidan uprising and the Revolution of Dignity of 2014 in Ukraine also produced an archival revolution that allowed unprecedented access to previously closed KGB files. Among them I found a KGB report on the National Geographic team visiting Ukraine in the aftermath of the disaster. Among its members was Tania D’Avignon, a long standing friend and associate of the Institute, which is also mentioned in that report. The KGB was very concerned that Tania was meeting with Soviet dissidents who could share “secret” information with her about popular attitudes toward Chernobyl. That episode is in the book, which also features the author’s photo taken recently by Tania D’Avignon.

Serhii PlokhiiSerhii Plokhii is the Mykhailo S. Hrushevs'kyi Professor of Ukrainian History, the Director of the Ukrainian Research Institute, and a Faculty Associate of the Davis Center at Harvard University. He is an award-winning author of numerous books, including The Gates of Europe and The Man with the Poison Gun. He won the Shevchenko National Prize in 2018.