Chornobyl: The Tombstone of the Reckless Empire by Serhii Plokhii

April 21, 2016
VOA Markosian Chernobyl

As the world prepares to mark the 30th anniversary of the worst nuclear disaster in its history – the explosion and partial meltdown of the nuclear reactor at the Chornobyl power station in Ukraine – there is a temptation to celebrate that date as well. The half-life of cesium-137, one of the most harmful nuclides released during the accident, is approximately 30 years. It is the longest “living” isotope of cesium that can affect the human body through external exposure and ingestion. The other deadly isotopes present in the disaster have long passed their half-life stages: Iodine 131 after eight days and cesium-134 after two years. Cesium-137 is the last of that deadly trio of isotopes.

These days, European tour operators offer trips to Chornobyl from Brussels, Amsterdam, or Berlin at the price of a mere 479.00 Euro. Visitors are promised safety, comfort, and excitement while visiting the place where on April 26, 1986, the explosion at Reactor No. 4 ended one historical era and started another. This hastened the end not only of the early, often barbaric stage in nuclear energy development but also of the political and social system that turned out to be less economically effective and more reckless with nuclear energy than its Cold War competitors.

That system was called communism, and the state that embodied it was known as the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics. The Chornobyl disaster marked the beginning of the end of the world nuclear superpower—a little more than five years later this superpower would fall apart, doomed by the inefficiency of its managerial and economic system, as demonstrated by the Chornobyl disaster and the political and ethno-national movements which that disaster helped initiate.

VOA Markosian Chernobyl

The 1986 accident: Nuclear disaster in Chornobyl

The Chornobyl accident took place at the fourth reactor of the Chornobyl power station, which exploded as a result of a turbine test that went wrong. That was the immediate reason for the accident. But its deeper causes should be sought in two major flaws of the Soviet system coming together.

The first was the militarization of the country’s economy: the Chornobyl-type reactors were an adaptation of reactors created to produce nuclear bombs. Volatile under certain physical conditions, the Chornobyl-type reactor was pronounced safe and was actively promoted by the leaders of the Soviet military industrial complex, who then refused to take responsibility for what happened in Chornobyl. The second flaw was the violation of procedures and safety rules on the part of the operational personnel, who inherited the reckless “we can do it no matter what” attitude that characterized the first decades of the Soviet nuclear program and resulted in numerous accidents.

The Chornobyl accident was not the first major nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union. The first took place in the fall of 1957 at the nuclear plant near the town of Kyshtym in the Urals. This plant was tasked with producing plutonium for Soviet nuclear bombs. The explosion of the nuclear waste tank threw 160 tons of concrete lead into the air and released 20 million curies of radioactive material, including cesium-137. At least 80,000 square kilometers were affected by the radioactive fallout, but because of the secretive culture that surrounded the program, the evacuation of close to 10,000 civilians in the environs of the plant did not start until one week after the accident. The information on the disaster itself and its consequences was suppressed and hidden from the Soviet public and the world. The suppression of Kyshtym accident information helped the Soviet military industrial complex to keep producing unsafe reactors and maintain the image of an absolutely safe industry not only among outsiders, but also among the personnel operating the reactors.

One of the creators of the Chornobyl-type reactors, then-president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences Anatoly Aleksandrov, bragged that his reactors were so safe they could be installed on Red Square in Moscow. Instead, the Soviet government put a reactor 140 kilometers away from Kyiv and then denied reliable information about the accident to the city’s two million citizens and the population of the country as a whole. But locating nuclear reactors in the European part of the USSR rather than in the Urals or Siberia meant that it was much more difficult to hide the scope of the accident. Indeed, within days after the Chornobyl explosion, winds brought the radioactive plume beyond the borders of the Soviet Union. During the night of the accident, the wind was blowing in a northwestern direction, carrying the radioactive plume across Ukraine's border to Belarus, then to Lithuania, and finally across the Baltic Sea to the countries of Northern Europe. 

Soviet secrecy and the international response

Chernobyl reactor 1The first to notice the high radiation levels caused by the Chornobyl explosion were nuclear experts in Sweden, 1,257 kilometers away from Chornobyl. At 7:00 am on April 28, 1986, Cliff Robinson, a 29-year-old chemist working at the Forsmark nuclear power plant near Upsala, went to brush his teeth. In order to get from the washroom to the locker room, he had to pass through the radiation detector. The alarm went off. Soon the Forsmark workers were evacuated—it was originally assumed that something was wrong with the plant. In a few hours it became clear that the plant was not the cause of contamination. Because radioactivity was high at other nuclear power stations as well, officials concluded that the radioactivity was coming from abroad. Calculations and wind direction pointed to Soviet territory.

The Soviets first broke their silence fourteen hours after radiation was detected in Sweden. Soviet TV aired a short announcement about the Chornobyl accident as part of its evening news program. The alarm in the West and the readiness of new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who had assumed power in the Kremlin only one year earlier, created the first hole in the Soviet system of secrecy surrounding its nuclear program. Still, the Soviets were reluctant to disclose all the information they had at the time and tried to hide the real state of affairs from their population and the world.

European leaders sounded the alarm. Sweden registered gamma radiation at levels 30 to 40 percent higher than normal. In Oslo, radiation levels were 50 percent higher than normal and in central and northern areas of Finland, six times the norm. But radiation levels had risen in other European countries as well, Austria being close to the top of the list. European political leaders reacted differently to the danger posed by the radioactive fallout. If German leaders (under the pressure from the growing Green movement) demanded the closure of nuclear reactors, the French government (which was heavily dependent on nuclear energy) refused to recognize that Chornobyl clouds brought heightened radiation levels to their country as well.

Hans Blix, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, visited the accident site on May 8, 1986. Instead of travelling by car, in which case he would have detected the high levels of radiation, Blix took a helicopter and flew over the station. He assured the world that the situation was under control and that the rumors spread in the West about thousands of people killed by the nuclear explosion were unfounded. As the head of the organization responsible for promoting peaceful use of nuclear energy, he was not interested in digging deeper into what had happened or what was going on in Chornobyl. He took the Soviets at their word. The Soviets struggled to overcome their culture of secrecy, reinforced by fear that the truth about Chornobyl would spread panic among the population. They were also unable to free themselves from the legacy of anti-Westernism that saturated the Soviet establishment during the Cold War.

It took Gorbachev a full 18 days to address the distressed Soviet people and the world, and even then almost half of his address was dedicated to attacks on the West. Western media criticized the Soviet regime for continuing to withhold vital information, without which it was difficult to protect the population of Central and Western Europe from the Chornobyl fallout. But the Chornobyl accident had broken the Soviet regime’s monopoly on this information. Moscow had to adjust to the new circumstances. That summer, Soviet scientist Valery Legasov, who was in Chornobyl the dangerous days following the accident and was already suffering from radiation sickness, made a four-hour-long report at a conference organized by Hans Blix. Created against the objections of the Soviet military-industrial complex leaders, this report demonstrated to the world that the Soviet government was finally ready to lift the veil of secrecy over its nuclear program.

Chornobyl’s impact: Beyond the radiation

Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the CPSU CC RIAN archive 850809Mikhail Gorbachev later claimed that Chornobyl had changed him. More importantly, it changed Soviet society as a whole. The policy of glasnost, or openness, which gave the media and citizens the right to discuss political and social problems and criticize the authorities, had its origins in the post-Chornobyl days. During this time, the population demanded more and more information from the government, and the government was slowly changing its culture of secrecy. The Chornobyl disaster made the government recognize ecological concerns as a legitimate reason for Soviet citizens to create their own organizations and thereby broke the monopoly of the Communist party on political activity. The first Soviet mass organizations and political parties began in the ecological movement, which engulfed the heavily polluted industrial centers of the Soviet Union.

While Belarus is by far the country most affected by the Chornobyl fallout, nowhere else has the connection between Chornobyl and political activism been more obvious than in Ukraine. The country is the second-largest post-Soviet state in terms of population and economic potential and was the site of the Chornobyl disaster. For Ukraine, the Chornobyl accident ended the love affair with nuclear power that began in the 1960s.

The idea of bringing nuclear energy to Ukraine belonged to Ukrainian Communist party leaders who wanted to create new sources of electrical energy for the rapidly developing Ukrainian economy. By the time the Chornobyl nuclear power station went on line in 1977, Ukrainian intellectuals, including one of the leading Ukrainian poets, Ivan Drach, were welcoming the arrival of the nuclear age in their country. For Drach and other Ukrainian patriots, Chornobyl meant a step toward the modernization of Ukraine. He and other enthusiasts of nuclearization failed to notice that the project was run from Moscow. The republic was getting electrical energy but had little control over what went on at the plant. The plant itself and the accident that occurred there became known to the world under the Russian spelling of the nearest city—Chernobyl, not Chornobyl.

In the days following the Chornobyl accident, Ukrainian citizens suddenly realized how little control they had over their own destiny and that of their republic. The limits of the republican authorities’ power over Ukraine became crystal-clear on the morning of May 1, 1986, when the winds changed direction and, instead of blowing northwest, turned south, bringing radioactive clouds to the capital of Ukraine. Given the quickly changing radiological situation, Ukrainian authorities tried to convince Moscow to cancel a planned parade marking International Workers’ Day. They failed. “He told me: You will put your party card on the table if you bungle the parade,” said the distressed Ukrainian party boss Volodymyr Shcherbytsky to his aides, referring to the telephone conversation he had had with Gorbachev. Despite the rapidly increasing radiation level, Gorbachev ordered his Ukrainian underlings to carry on as usual in order to show the country and the world that the situation was under control and that the Chornobyl explosion presented no danger to the health of the population. The parade went on as scheduled.

Pripyat amusement park VOA 256The explosion and partial meltdown of Chornobyl's fourth reactor released about 50 million curies of radiation into the atmosphere—the equivalent of 500 Hiroshima bombs. In Ukraine alone, more than 50,000 sq. km. of land were contaminated—a territory larger than Belgium. The exclusion zone around the reactor alone accounted for 2,600 sq. km., from which more than 90,000 inhabitants were evacuated in the first weeks after the explosion. Most of them would never see their homes again. In Ukraine, 2,300 settlements and more than 3 million people were directly affected by the radiation fallout. Close to 30 million people who relied on the Dnieper and other rivers for their water supply were affected by the explosion.

The Chornobyl accident sharply increased discontent with Moscow and its policies across all party and social lines—radiation affected everyone, from members of the party leadership to ordinary citizens. As the Ukrainian party bosses mobilized the population to deal with the consequences of the disaster and clean up the mess created by the center, many asked themselves why they were risking their own lives and those of their family members. Around their kitchen tables, they grumbled about the center’s failed policies but shared their frustration only with people they trusted. The only group that would not remain silent was that of the Ukrainian writers. In June 1986, at a meeting of the Ukrainian Writers’ Union, many of those who had welcomed the arrival of nuclear power a decade earlier now condemned it as an instrument of Moscow’s domination of their republic. Among those leading the charge was Ivan Drach, whose son, a student in a Kyiv medical school, had been sent to Chornobyl soon after the accident without proper instructions or protective gear. He was now suffering from radiation poisoning.

The Chornobyl disaster awakened Ukraine, raising fundamental questions about relations between the center and the republics, the Communist Party and the people, and fueling the first major public debate in a society struggling to regain its voice after decades of Communist control. Ukrainian writer Yurii Shcherbak not only wrote a book about the Chornobyl disaster that was exceptionally candid by the standards of the time, but also organized an environmental group one year after accident. This group evolved into the Green Party—Soviet Ukraine’s first legal political party since the 1920s. The ecological movement, which presented Ukraine as a victim of Moscow’s activities, became one of the first forms of national mobilization in Ukraine during the years of the Gorbachev reforms. Not only did the new man in the Kremlin alienate the Ukrainian party leadership, he also empowered democratically minded intellectuals and the nationally conscious intelligentsia to mobilize against that elite.

As things turned out, the two conflicting groups in Ukraine—the communist establishment and the nascent democratic opposition—discovered a common interest in opposing Moscow in general and Gorbachev in particular. In December 1991, when the Ukrainians went to the polls to vote for the independence of their country, they also assigned the mighty Soviet Union to the dustbin of history—it was officially dissolved a few weeks after the Ukrainian Referendum. While it would be wrong to explain the rise of glasnost in the Soviet Union, or the rise of the national movement in Ukraine and other republics, to the Chornobyl accident alone, it is difficult to overestimate the impact it had on those interrelated processes. 

A monument to the past and a warning for the future

A monument in front of a fire station to the 32 firefighters who died responding to the explosion at Reactor No. 4, Chernobyl, Ukraine, March 19, 2014. (Steve Herman/VOA)After the Maidan protests of 2013 and 2014, the Ukrainian parliament set up a commission charged with the task of removing the Communist leaders' names from the names of Ukraine's cities, towns, villages and streets. The commission adopted recommendations with regard to the entire internationally recognized territory of the country, including the rebel regions in the east and the Crimean peninsula that has been annexed by Russia. The only exception was the Chornobyl exclusion zone, which still today remains the preserve of the Soviet past, captured by radiation and never released.

The city of Prypiat, which housed close to 50,000 construction workers and power plant operational personnel, remains deserted even today—a modern-day Pompeii memorializing what would become the last days of the Soviet Union. Images of Vladimir Lenin and the builders of communism, along with slogans celebrating the Communist Party, still remain on the walls of Prypiat. 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.

While the thirty-year anniversary of the disaster marks the half-life of one of the deadliest isotopes released by Chornobyl, cesium-137, the harmful impact of the accident is still far from over. With tests revealing that the cesium-137 around Chornobyl isn’t decaying as quickly as predicted, scholars believe the isotope will keep harming the environment for at least 180 years—the time it will take for half of the cesium to be removed from the affected areas in Ukraine and beyond through the natural means, weathering and migration. Other radionuclides will stay in the region almost forever. The half-life of plutonium-239, the traces of which were found as far away as Sweden, is 24,000 years.

This article was originally published in Spanish in the March/April 2016 issue of Política Exterior, under the title “La lápida del imperio temerario” by Serhii Plokhy.