Anatomy of a nu­clear dis­as­ter

Business Standard - - OPINION - JEN­NIFER SZALAI

The word “Ch­er­nobyl” has long been syn­ony­mous with the cat­a­strophic re­ac­tor ex­plo­sion of 1986 — grim short­hand for what still qual­i­fies, more than three decades later, as the world’s worst nu­clear dis­as­ter.

As in­fa­mous as it is now, it’s easy to for­get that the calamity seemed to drift to in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion as if by ac­ci­dent. A full two days af­ter the melt­down be­gan in Ukraine, with winds car­ry­ing ra­dioac­tive fall­out into Europe, alarms went off at a nu­clear power sta­tion in far­away Swe­den. Only then did Soviet of­fi­cials deign to re­lease a terse state­ment ac­knowl­edg­ing “an ac­ci­dent has taken place,” while stu­diously ne­glect­ing to men­tion the specifics of what had hap­pened or when.

In his chill­ing new book, Mid­night in Ch­er­nobyl, the jour­nal­ist Adam Hig­gin­botham shows how an al­most fa­nat­i­cal com­pul­sion for se­crecy among the Soviet Union’s gov­ern­ing elite was part of what made the ac­ci­dent not just cataclysmic but so likely in the first place. In­ter­view­ing eye­wit­nesses and con­sult­ing de­clas­si­fied archives — an of­fi­cial record that was frus­trat­ingly mea­ger when it came to cer­tain de­tails and, Hig­gin­botham says, couldn’t al­ways be trusted — he re­con­structs the dis­as­ter from the ground up. The re­sult is su­perb, en­thralling and nec­es­sar­ily ter­ri­fy­ing.

Hig­gin­botham spends the first part of the book nar­rat­ing a pre-dis­as­ter idyll filled with tech­no­log­i­cal op­ti­mism, glow­ing with pos­si­bil­ity. Named for a nearby me­dieval town, the Ch­er­nobyl nu­clear sta­tion was built in the 1970s, in­tended as “the new power plant that would one day make the USSR’s nu­clear engi­neer­ing fa­mous across the globe.”

An “atomic city” called Pripyat was erected, a mere 10-minute drive from the plant, to house the in­flux of nu­clear sci­en­tists and sup­port staff. In a Soviet Union be­set by eco­nomic stag­na­tion and de­pri­va­tion, Pripyat was an “oa­sis of plenty” — “a true work­ers’ par­adise.”

Un­der­neath it all, how­ever, was the creak­ing foun­da­tion of a Soviet em­pire whose nu­clear pro­gramme was gov­erned by a com­bi­na­tion of “ruth­less ex­pe­di­ence” and a per­pet­ual fear of hu­mil­i­a­tion. Nu­clear power was pur­sued as an eco­nomic panacea and a source of pres­tige, with Polit­buro of­fi­cials im­pos­ing pre­pos­ter­ous timeta­bles and equally pre­pos­ter­ous cost-cut­ting mea­sures.

Hig­gin­botham de­scribes young work­ers who were pro­moted swiftly to po­si­tions of ter­rific re­spon­si­bil­ity. In an es­pe­cially glar­ing ex­am­ple of en­trenched crony­ism, the Com­mu­nist Party el­e­vated an ide­o­log­i­cally co­pacetic elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer to the po­si­tion of deputy plant di­rec­tor at Ch­er­nobyl: To make up for a to­tal lack of ex­pe­ri­ence with atomic en­ergy, he took a cor­re­spon­dence course in nu­clear physics.

Even more egre­gious than some per­son­nel de­ci­sions were the struc­tural prob­lems built into the plant it­self. Most fate­ful for Ch­er­nobyl was the baf­fling de­sign of a cru­cial safety fea­ture: con­trol rods that could be low­ered into the re­ac­tor core to slow down the process of nu­clear fis­sion. The rods con­tained boron car­bide, which ham­pered re­ac­tiv­ity, but the Sovi­ets de­cided to tip them in graphite, which fa­cil­i­tated re­ac­tiv­ity; it was a bid to save en­ergy, and there­fore money, by less­en­ing the rods’ mod­er­at­ing ef­fect. Hig­gin­botham calls it “an ab­surd and chill­ing in­ver­sion in the role of a safety de­vice,” liken­ing it to wiring a car so that slam­ming the brakes would make it ac­cel­er­ate.

the book ar­rives at the early hours of April 26, 1986, the ac­ci­dent un­furls with a hor­ri­ble in­evitabil­ity. Weav­ing to­gether the ex­pe­ri­ences of those who were there that night, Hig­gin­botham mar­shals the de­tails so metic­u­lously that ev­ery step feels spring-loaded with ten­sion. What started as a long over­due safety test of Ch­er­nobyl’s Re­ac­tor No. 4 slipped quickly into a full-scale melt­down. An at­tempted shut­down us­ing the graphite-tipped con­trol rods of course had the op­po­site ef­fect; the core grew hot­ter and hot­ter, and the re­ac­tor started to de­stroy it­self.

Hig­gin­botham de­scribes an ex­cru­ci­at­ing af­ter­math, as Pripyat’s res­i­dents were coaxed into a “tem­po­rary” evac­u­a­tion and mid­dle-aged re­servists were drafted into a hap­haz­ard cleanup process — though “cleanup” doesn’t con­vey the perilous, Sisyphean or­deal they faced.

“Ra­dionu­clides,” Hig­gin­botham writes, “could be nei­ther bro­ken down nor de­stroyed — only re­lo­cated, en­tombed or in­terred.” The pro­tec­tive gloves given to the re­servists turned out to be so cum­ber­some that some of the men cleared ra­dioac­tive de­bris with their bare hands.

Amid so much rich re­port­ing and scrupu­lous anal­y­sis, some ma­jor themes emerge. One has to do with how Ch­er­nobyl ex­posed the un­ten­able fis­sures in the Soviet sys­tem and has­tened its col­lapse; the ac­ci­dent also en­cour­aged Mikhail Gor­bachev to pur­sue dras­tic re­forms with even more zeal.

The ac­ci­dent also dec­i­mated in­ter­na­tional con­fi­dence in nu­clear power, and a num­ber of coun­tries halted their own pro­grammes — for a time, that is. Global warm­ing has made the awe­some po­ten­tial of the atom a source of hope again and, ac­cord­ing to some ad­vo­cates, an ur­gent ne­ces­sity; be­sides, as Hig­gin­botham points out, nu­clear power, from a sta­tis­ti­cal stand­point, is safer than the com­pet­ing al­ter­na­tives, in­clud­ing wind.

As for the re­mains of Ch­er­nobyl it­self, they’re now sit­u­ated within an “ex­clu­sion zone” of 1,000 square miles, where wildlife flour­ishes in what Hig­gin­botham calls “a ra­dioac­tive Eden.” Soviet ob­fus­ca­tion com­bined with the un­pre­dictable course of ra­dioac­tiv­ity means that the true ex­tent of the dis­as­ter may never be fully known. Join­ing a body of Ch­er­nobyl lit­er­a­ture Hig­gin­botham’s ex­tra­or­di­nary book is an­other ad­vance in the long strug­gle to fill in some of the gaps, bring­ing much of what was hid­den into the light.

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