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Nuclear Disaster at Chernobyl: Reality and Unreality

Photo by Martijn.Munneke | CC BY 2.0

With the escalating doom of climate change hovering over us, it is tempting to push nuclear horror to the back of our minds.  To those of us who grew up in the 1950s, it was omnipresent.  Nuclear war could not exist without nuclear power and on April 26, 1986 the world experienced a form of nuclear horror it will never forget.

Why did Unit 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear plant explode on that day?  Did operator error cause it? Was design flaw the reason? Should we look deeper into the Soviet system for the cause?  Or should we look deeper still into the very existence of nuclear power?

On May 14, 2018, Basic Books released Serhii Plokhy’s Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe.  It could well become the definitive story of that disaster.  Chernobyl will raise eyebrows.  The book features detailed interviews with key actors, meticulous research, and then a big “uh-ooh.”

Plokhy delves into the background of the infamous nuke, including its site selection in 1966, its location by the river and town both named Prypiat, and intense discussions over the type of reactor to build. Should they construct the safer but more expensive VVER (Water-Water Energy Reactor) or the cheaper and more powerful RBMK (High Power Channel Reactor) which lacked a cement containment shield?

The author goes beyond looking at the people involved in building the plant and describes their mutual relationships and their interactions with construction problems and delays.  These personal relations figured heavily into the uncertainty and miscommunication regarding a turbine test that led to the explosion – something unexpected that plant operators had been assured was impossible.

The book could also gain widespread attention from its documentation of the spreading levels of disbelief.  Not knowing that burning nuclear material is completely different from other fires, dozens of firefighters were exposed to lethal and near-lethal levels of radiation.

The night of the explosion plant director Victor Briukhanov closed his ears to reports of radiation measurements.  When he finally understood how dire the situation was, politicians refused to heed his advice to evacuate the neighboring town.  Even as plant workers were admitted into the hospital with acute radioactive poisoning, seven Prypiat weddings went on as scheduled.

The terror was multiplied as actors began to realize that the “experts” had no idea of what to do.  Some said the reactor should be covered with sand, clay, boron and lead. Others replied that would needlessly sacrifice the lives of helicopter pilots dropping the mixture and could increase the chance of a new explosion.

Some identified the main threat as the reactor burning down to the water table and causing a new steam explosion.  They focused on removing the water.  Others said that was not possible.  The unsure politicians decided to try virtually everything.

Spreading disbelief gave rise to wave after wave of cover-ups.  Attempts to conceal the dangers from Prypiat residents morphed into hiding them from all of the Ukraine.  Hoodwinking efforts spread to Russia and then to the entire world.

The cover-ups turned into blame games that festered in the Ukraine from 1987 on.  Hoping to sidetrack discussion of the faulty plant design, Moscow bureaucrats put Ukrainian operators on trial.  But Ukrainians knew that designers of the RBMK had promised that it was so safe that it had no need for a concrete containment structure and could be installed on Red Square in Moscow.  Events were seen as an assault on Ukrainian national pride.

While nationalists wrote of Chernobyl as a malicious plot by Moscow, literary artists and academics who had previously praised the “modernity” of nuclear power now joined in its vilification.  At the end of the 1980s Ukrainian environmentalists were portraying Chernobyl as a symptom of Moscow’s eco-imperialism.

By 1990, many political candidates linked denuclearization with Ukrainian independence and the new parliament approved a five year moratorium on new nukes.  That moratorium was annulled in 1993 as rulers of the newly independent Ukraine decided that the country’s market economy needed energy and employment and that nuclear power could provide both.

The big factor factor that could advance the popularity of Plokhy’s Chernobyl is its constant portrayal of the Soviet system as the ultimate cause of the disaster with the alternative being the safer nukes constructed by western countries.  Count on the US nuclear industry to give a standing ovation to that conclusion.

This is the “uh-ooh.” Do we really need cold war propaganda masquerading as insight to bring down the nuclear behemoth? Instead, let’s take a realistic account of problems with the full life cycle of nuclear power:

+ mining uranium exposes every living creature in its path to radiation;

+ milling radioactive material exposes workers and nearby residents;

+ transporting nuclear fuel by rail or truck to a plant potentially exposes every living thing along the route;

+ everyday operations of nukes exposes people to radiation leaks and “near misses;”

+ the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima catastrophes continue to be devastating for millions;

+ decommissioning a nuke affects workers as it permanently degrades the surrounding area;

+ transportation of nuclear waste to a storage site again threatens every living thing en route;

+ storage of radioactive waste for millions of years has the same potential to unravel the web of life as does climate change and poses the question: How can the short term economic benefits possibly outweigh the costs of nuclear storage for eternity?

+ military use of nuclear material has always lurked behind claims of economic benefits, meaning that all nuclear power plants increase the likelihood of war; and,

+ perils of the destructive potential of nukes inherently require a monolithic and controlling state, as opposed to wind and solar power which are vastly less risky.

By catering to the crafted misperception that explosions are the single, solitary danger of nukes and barely mentioning or ignoring these obvious hazards, the book sidesteps the big picture.

Plokhy briefly notes that Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” nuclear weapon expansion forced the USSR to escalate in response, even though it was seeking an opposite course.  In doing so, the author refutes his own claim that the root cause of the Soviet plan to increase nuclear power was its internally driven urge to expand production.

If the ultimate cause of the Chernobyl explosion could be shifted from operator error and design flaw to an alleged Soviet fascination with nukes, then why not shift the cause further to the US-sponsored nuclear expansion which provoked the response by the USSR?  An honest analysis of the devastation of Chernobyl would identify nuclear technology itself as the fundamental problem, regardless of the country employing it.

Even though the book refers to the 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown in the US and Japan’s 2011 meltdown at Fukushima, it continuously blames Soviet incompetence for Chernobyl.  Clearly the author has an axe to grind against the bureaucratic mode of production and this muddles his explanations.

In particular, it muddles interpretation of nasty efforts to cover up the catastrophe at every step of its unfolding. Yes, Soviet bureaucrats were less than forthcoming in the extreme. Interpreting this as a symptom of Sovietism implies that rulers of capitalist society are beacons of truth and openness. To put it mildly, this is false.

Immediately after the Three Mile Island meltdown US citizens were told that there were no radiation releases; then “informed” that the radiation was “insignificant;” then told that fuel inside the core did not melt and no one needed to evacuate the area.  Similarly, volumes could be written of cover-ups of agrochemicals and other toxins, climate denial, and under-reporting of species extinctions in the US and they would still barely scratch the surface of what we do not hear.

Asking readers to believe that Western nukes are somehow “safer” than Chernobyl is a bit like saying that a high school shooter who kills 4 students is “safer” than one who kills 17.

In the 1950s, my parents heard the promise that nuclear plants would soon be producing electricity that was “too cheap to meter.” When an elementary school student, I participated in absurd “duck and cover” exercises.  As the sirens were going off, we marched into the hall, sat with our backs to the wall, ducked our heads down and covered them with our hands. As if that would protect us from a nuclear fallout.  A decade later, others who had the same childhood experience created the famous poster including those instructions and ending with the command to put your head down between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye.

Though assuring readers that US reactors are safer than Soviet-era ones, the author fails to mention the Price-Anderson Act, passed in 1954 at the dawn of the nuclear era to encourage private companies to build nukes by limiting total liability to $700 million.  The hushed-up fear was that no one would insure a nuke if the power company had to pay out untold billions of dollars in damages. If US nukes are “relatively” safe, then there is no need for Price-Anderson and it should be repealed. The fact that no power company advocates this is proof that they could never pay out-of-pocket for the full damage one of their nukes could cause.

How can a statement be true and false at the same time?  It is true if the facts given are correct.  It can simultaneously be false if it cherry-picks those facts in order to manufacture a broad interpretation divorced from reality.  Plokhy shows how to do this in an account of Chernobyl.

One of the biggest pieces he leaves out of the Chernobyl puzzle is the number of deaths caused by the accident.  Plokhy briefly quotes the estimates of 4000 by the UN and 90,000 by Greenpeace International.  But he relies most heavily of the figure of 5000 cancer deaths by WHO in 2006.  He does not even mention the far more thorough 2009 study by Yablokov, Nesterenko and Nesterenko published by the New York Academy of Sciences. That analysis cites much more research, covers a much larger area, includes projected future radiation poisoning, examines a broader range of cancers and birth defects, and estimates 985,000 deaths.

After documenting the incredible suffering in the Ukraine, the author of Chernobyl makes an astounding call for more international cooperation in EXPANDING nuclear power.  Though providing a fascinating story of what happened there, he ends up amplifying the very problem he condemns.

More articles by:

Don Fitz (fitzdon@aol.com) is on the Editorial Board of Green Social Thought, where this analysis was originally published. He was the 2016 candidate of the Missouri Green Party for Governor. His articles on politics and the environment have also appeared in Synthesis/Regeneration, Monthly Review andZ Magazineas well as many online publications.Don Fitz writes for theNew York Journal of Bookswhere a brief version of this review appeared.  

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