Уважаемые товарищи! Городской совет народных депутатов сообщает, что в связи с аварией на Чернобыльской атомной электростанции в городе Припяти складывается неблагоприятная радиационная обстановка.
– Extract from the announcement played during the evacuation of Pripyat.
Like everyone else in the world, I’ve been watching a little series on HBO/Sky called Chernobyl. I’ve always been fascinated by the Soviet Union – both its history and its architecture, add an amateur-level interest in atompunk and Chernobyl is something of a perfect storm. Now, I must warn you that if you haven’t seen the series, this post might contain some spoilers (or, well… as much as you can spoil a historical event which happened over thirty years ago) so if you want to avoid this I’d suggest that you stop reading now, and come back after you’ve watched it. I promise it will be worth it.
Another quick disclaimer here… as I’m sure you know, I’m by no means a nuclear physicist. I’m getting all of my information from the series itself, the accompanying podcast featuring the show’s creator Craig Mazin, and a documentary called The Real Chernobyl, not to mention countless nights of internetting myself into submission trying to understand how the reactor worked and how the series of events surrounding the disaster came to be. Also, all Russian names and some technical terms have been transliterated but also appear in the original the first time they are mentioned, to appease the language nerds among you – I know it was one of the first things I looked up, how to write the names of people and even the name of the type of the reactor in the original Russian. However, there is some overlap with people born in the Belarusian SSR and the Ukrainian SSR who would obviously spell their names differently, but as the Russian versions appear to be most prevalent I have opted to use them. But I hope that gives you something to dig your teeth into, even if soviet history isn’t quite your bag. I won’t be able to cover everything here, obviously, so I’ll be sticking to the specific things that jumped out at me.
The series centers somewhat predictably on the Chernobyl disaster, which took place early in the morning on the 26th of April 1986, just after 1 o’clock in the morning. The reactor core of reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (Чернобыльская атомная электростанция), officially the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin nuclear power plant (Чернобыльская атомная электростанция имени Владимира Ильича Ленина) exploded, causing an open air fire in the main reactor building, spewing radiation and smoke out into the night.
The heroes of the piece (if you can really call them that) are Valeriy Legasov (Валерий Легасов), the real soviet scientist who was drafted in following the explosion at Reactor 4, along with Boris Shcherbina (Борис Щербина), the vice-chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR (Совет Министров СССР), the de-jure government of the USSR. The series depicts the two characters being sent to the Chernobyl site in the wake of the explosion. Shcherbina is initially skeptical, and does not seem to realise the extent of the damage or indeed the danger. He believes the story fed to him by the plant manager, Viktor Bryukhanov (Виктор Брюханов) and the chief engineer, Nikolay Fomin (Николай Фомин), which came in turn from Anatoliy Dyatlov (Анатолий Дятлов), who was the deputy chief engineer supervising the control room on the night of the accident. Dyatlov was overseeing a safety test (irony of ironies) and when the reactor core exploded, had assumed (or perhaps convinced himself) that it was something relatively minor – a hydrogen control tank exploding. The fact that the radiation level was measured at 3.6 röntgen (‘Not great, not terrible’) helped him to sell this lie, both to his superiors and perhaps to himself. Notwithstanding that 3.6 was as high as the available dosimeters could measure. It is revealed later that the operators of the RBMK (РБМК, the kind of reactor in use at Chernobyl – it stands for Реактор Большой Мощности Канальный, meaning High-Power Channel-Type Reactor) were unaware of the fatal flaw present in the AZ-5 (АЗ-5) emergency shut-down system. They had pushed their reactor to its absolute limit, but they thought that the emergency contingency would save them if anything were to go wrong. In fact, it did the opposite. The Chernobyl disaster was the sum of a huge number of bad decisions made by various different people, culminating in the worst possible scenario.
The series is painstakingly researched, though it does make some artistic changes. For example, in the second episode we are introduced to the character of Ul’yana Khomyuk (Ульяна Хомюк). Khomyuk is entirely invented, and included as a composite character intended to represent a huge number of other scientists and researchers who aided Legasov in the aftermath of the disaster. The decision to make her female was taken to reflect the fact that a high proportion of scientists, academics and doctors in the Soviet Union were female – the show’s creator notes that this was probably proportionally greater than in the USA in 1986. Also, neither Legasov nor Shcherbina (nor indeed Khomyuk by virtue of her non-existence) were present at the trial of Bryukhanov, Fomin and Dyatlov, and so Legasov’s heart-wrenching speech to the courtroom is entirely a work of artistic license. Critics of the show have noted that this wouldn’t actually have been needed, because most of the members of the scientific community at the time would have been aware of the flaw in the RBMK. Legasov’s true heroism took the form of the tapes we see him recording at the beginning of episode one, before he commits suicide – notably two years to the day after the disaster. We never find out what happens to the tapes – and while we can assume that they were somewhat less poetic than what is shown in the series, I’ve not heard what information they contain. But they were presumably distributed throughout the scientific community of the USSR.
During the course of my very sparse research, I stumbled over a couple of things that completely blew my mind (if you’ll pardon the expression). After the explosion at reactor four, reactors one, two and three continued to produce power and remained functioning throughout the cleanup effort. They were vital to the energy needs of Ukraine and especially nearby Kyiv, and were not decommissioned until 1991, with the last being fully decommissioned in the year 2000. Even more bizarre… on the Chernobyl site at the time, construction was underway to build two more reactors – a project which wouldn’t be abandoned until 1988, due to the high levels of radiation around reactor four which was not yet contained. It also shocked me to hear that there are still ten RBMKs in operation, at Kursk (Курская АЭС), Leningrad (Ленинградская АЭС), and Smolensk (Смоленская АЭС); the last of which is planned to be taken out of service in 2034. Howver I must stress that all of the remaining RBMKs were retrofitted with safety improvements in the wake of Valeriy Legasov’s suicide in 1988.
Listening to the accompanying podcast, they brought up something that I’d never really thought about before. The USSR was decidedly anti-religion… however in this vacuum, science became a kind of religion, with nuclear energy forming a huge part of that. A quick google search will bring up a huge number of propaganda posters featuring ‘the atom’, seemingly with a focus on how it should be used for peace – presumably in the aftermath of the American attacks on Hiroshima (広島市) and Nagasaki (長崎市) in Japan. The world had seen the huge destructive power of nuclear weapons, but this was all about the great force for good that nuclear energy provides. And it could have always been that way – another fascinating point they raise is in the podcast that… up to about twenty three minutes past one in the morning on the 26th of April 1986, the word ‘Chernobyl’ didn’t actually mean anything. It was just a place in Ukraine that, unless you lived there, you’d more than likely never heard of. To you and me, it conjures numerous horror films and grainy news footage of a disaster which is almost synonymous with radiation poisoning. Now don’t get me wrong – there had been nuclear accidents before, but nothing on this scale – in the series, Valeriy Legasov says ‘you are dealing with something that has never happened on this planet before’.
In fact, the INES (International Nuclear Event Scale) categorises the disaster at Chernobyl as a 7, the highest grade on the scale. It was actually the only accident to receive such a high grading until the events at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (福島第一原子力発電所) in March 2011.
This ended up being a bit of a marathon… the host of The Chernobyl Podcast was entirely correct, this is a show that you are going to want to talk about. I didn’t even have time to get into the first responders or the story of Lyudmila Ignatenko (Людмила Игнатенко), the wife of Belarusian-born fireman Vasiliy Ignatenko (Василий Игнатенко). Or the interview with Oleg Bryukhanov (Олег Брюханов), the son of Victor Bryukhanov, whose mother urged him to put on his woollen hat as he was leaving the house to go to school on the morning following the accident to protect him from the radiation. If you’re like me and want to discuss it, please feel free to leave a comment below or hit me up on Twitter (@sprakskatan). I know this is a little different from the stuff I usually post, so I hope you enjoyed it – it’s nice to break the mould every once in a while. Thank you for making it this far, and as always, I’ll see you next month.