Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy, Serhii Plokhy, Penguin.
Chernobyl (TV miniseries), dir. by Johan Renck, HBO.
After the first American atomic tests Robert Oppenheimer famously evoked the Hindu scriptures to convey the dark enormity of the power unleashed. After the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, many felt inspired likewise to seek understanding in scripture, and it was easy to see a biblical prophecy being eerily fulfilled – namely, the Book of Revelation’s reference to the fallen star of Wormwood. As well as Chernobyl taking its name from the Wormwood plant that grows in the area, the stellar connection was easy to make, for what is a star if not a nuclear reactor?
In Serhii Plokhy’s account of the Chernobyl disaster the damaged reactor takes on the status of something from apocalyptic literature, an almost unimaginable monster. Observers reach for beastly metaphors, Plokhy himself calls it a ‘nuclear monster’, as well as a ‘nuclear hurricane’ and ‘volcano’. The responding firefighters and military seemed to be battling a monster from another dimension, something from a rift in space and time (as in the TV series Stranger Things). They had no prior experience with something so otherworldly – an enemy they couldn’t see, hear or feel and that no-one could hide from – like God, some survivors alternatively said. The apocalyptic descriptions of the almost indescribable were apt. In HBO’s new TV series Chernobyl, this is neatly conveyed through the puzzled and fearful expression of a firefighter as a he gazes upwards to the looming, glowing remains of the reactor hall.
As with apocalypse, a nuclear reactor explosion was for the Soviets unthinkable. The operators had been told that it was an impossibility, which was why initially they were confused as to what had happened. (The harsh portrayal in HBO’s TV series of Anatoly Dyatlov, who was in charge of the control room when the explosion occurred, gives some idea of the arrogance and lack of awareness Plokhy describes). Yet the explanation is simple enough. The reactor was housed in a giant, seventeen storey building connected to a turbine hall. Enriched rods of uranium were housed in a graphite core, with control rods that could be lowered or raised into the core to moderate the rate of fission and slow or speed energy production, surrounded by a water-cooling system. On 26 April 1986 the capability of the reactor to deal with a power outage was being tested. Failures in following procedures and a flaw in the reactor’s design allowed a catastrophic chain reaction during the test process.
Like a bicycle, a reactor is unstable at high speeds but also at low speeds. Operators slowed down the reactor beyond recommended levels during the test, which destabilised the core and the operators’ ability to control the reaction, which then began to accelerate again at an alarming rate. Operators initiated an emergency shutdown, which involved lowering the control rods but a design flaw (which had been noticed at a Leningrad plant in the 1970s but which in typical Soviet style had been kept secret) in the control rod mechanism prompted an initial spike in the reaction. This spike was fatal, cracking the graphite casing and jamming the operation of the control rods. The temperature soared, hot fuel burst through the core casing into the surrounding water, causing a steam explosion. This first explosion blew a 200-tonne concrete lid off the reactor and demolished the cooling systems. The reactor heated further, causing another, larger, explosion which blew the reactor building to pieces, flung radioactive material around the site and started a radioactive fire. Radioactive particles poured into the night sky, like a laser beam, some observers noted.
Like a cyclops emerging from its concrete cave, radiation roved the countryside devouring living things. It had to be somehow corralled, and the military dumped thousands of tonnes of sand on the fire. The merits of this were debated – the sand contained the fire but when dropped from helicopters it also created further clouds of radioactive material. It was also, says Plokhy, a ‘miracle’ that it didn’t collapse the structure underneath the core.
What was happening below the core was another threat. There was a danger that the nuclear fuel – 200 tonnes of it – was heating further, exacerbated by insulating effect of the sand which was necessary to contain the smoke, turning the fuel into a magma which would at some point, scientists feared, create another explosion when it seeped down to the 20,000 tonnes of water that had pooled in the levels below the core. This potential explosion would decimate the surrounding land and render much of eastern Europe uninhabitable. There was also a danger that the radioactive magma would burn down to the groundwater, eventually contaminating Europe’s seas. Inside the concrete cave was a dragon waiting to devour the world.
The knights sent in to battle the dragon were hundreds of miners who in record time tunnelled under the reactor core in order to drain those 20,000 tonnes of water and install a concrete barrier and cooling system. Hundreds of them would die in the following decade from radiation poisoning, but these heroes prevented apocalyptic devastation. ‘Someone had to do it’, one said, and they described the camaraderie and sense of purpose.
While local authorities struggled to contain the spread of radiation, national authorities tried to contain the spread of information, in order to, they later said in justification, prevent panic. Plokhy describes how the old attributes of the Stalinist beast came into play – bullying, misinformation, denial, paralysis. The government kept the level of the danger from those who did the cleaning up. As with the Minotaur of Greek legend, humans were sacrificed to the monster. The early clean-up crews, labelled ‘liquidators’, were given little protection as they shovelled radioactive material onsite, a job they could only be exposed to for seconds at a time. Most fell ill with radiation poisoning. These victims became radioactive material themselves, and in hospital were not allowed near loved ones. They had become zombies, living dead, capable of spreading death to others.
Officials were sacrificed too. Scapegoats were needed. Designers blamed operators. Moscow blamed the designers. And those telling the truth were punished. The deputy of the atomic energy institute (and main character in HBO’s Chernobyl TV series), Valery Legasov, the top scientific advisor at Chernobyl after the accident, seen by some as a ‘careerist’ and ‘believer’ in the Soviet system, criticised his fellow scientists rather than government policy, which initially endeared him to Gorbachev, though when he attended a conference in Vienna months after the accident and was lauded by the international press for revealing the failures at Chernobyl, he was ostracised at home for being too honest. Suffering from radiation sickness, he committed suicide two years after the accident, a victim of both the Chernobyl beast and the Soviet animal that ate its own.
Later a giant concrete sarcophagus would be built to contain the nuclear dragon. No-one quite knew what the core was up to because monitoring equipment would fail under the bombardment of radiation. The Chernobyl ‘Zone’ would be, like the Zone in Adrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, a place of mystery. In 2017, finally, an enormous arched hanger covered the old sarcophagus, at a cost of 1.5 billion euros. This is one of the few costs easily accounted for. Although the initial disaster caused relatively few immediate deaths, thousands of workers died prematurely in the following years, children suffered deformities, lingering physical and mental health problems remain, tens of thousands of kilometres of countryside were contaminated, thousands of residents were uprooted and the exclusion zone will be uninhabitable (by humans, anyway) for 20,000 years. Even more substantially, one beast devoured the other. Radiation, Plokhy memorably says, dissolved Soviet ideology. Although initially Mikhail Gorbachev played by the Soviet rulebook, he said that he realised soon after that Chernobyl spelled the end of the USSR.
Communists turned back to God. The designer of the concrete sarcophagus reportedly crossed himself and mumbled ‘Glory to God’ when a huge aluminium cupola that was meant to crown the sarcophagus crashed to the ground from a helicopter but no-one was hurt. Many thought God had spoken against Soviet hubris. How else could one conceptualise the scope of the disaster? In her oral history book Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich describes the accident as prompting an existential crisis. People turned back to religion from a faith in science.
Soviet ideology has always been entwined with atheism, but the USSR also had a religious belief in technological progress (which was not confined to the USSR. The Americans, as the Apollo program showed, thought that post-war technology was ushering in an era when anything was possible). Technology came first, before the people, and before the natural environment. Plohky notes that Chernobyl galvanised action for green issues in the USSR, in the new space opened by Gorbachev’s glasnost. In 1988 there were mass protests against the environmentally destructive Soviet technological policies, and Plokhy suggests that the freedom to talk about such issues was what brought the USSR down.
If one were inclined to American comic book simplicity one might suggest the cartoon villain that unleashed the monster was eventually consumed by it. In the Chernobyl television series, the Legasov character says, ‘there was nothing sane about Chernobyl’. But the danger of nuclear power was not a uniquely Soviet phenomenon (nor is keeping information from the general public). Alexievich writes that Chernobyl ‘cracked’ the global perception of nuclear power and showed its uncontrollability. Yet nuclear power plants continue to be built. Some might contest Plokhy’s assertion that the generation of nuclear power is no safer that in 1986, but there is no denying the global proliferation of nuclear plants and therefore the increased potential for emergencies caused by terrorism or natural disaster (as at Fukushima), even if, as Plokhy says, recent global attention has been on weapons rather than power plants. And the hubris of those who think technology can answer any problem we currently have has only been renewed in recent years, as is evidenced by the talk of tech billionaires colonising space or eradicating ageing so they can live forever. Plokhy writes that the new arched ‘shelter’ over the still-active core (a corpse still with breath, says Alexievich) stands as a warning against the dangers of putting all our faith in technology.