- - Sunday, May 6, 2018

CHERNOBYL: THE HISTORY OF A NUCLEAR CATASTROPHE

By Serhii Plokhy

Basic Books, $32.95, 432 pages



Gross scientific ineptitude, enhanced by dogmatic refusal to admit error, caused the 1986 explosion of a showcase Soviet nuclear power plant that put much of northern Europe — and millions of persons — at risk.

The blunder occurred near the small town of Chernobyl, site of one of several nuclear facilities concentrated in Ukraine, chosen by Moscow bureaucrats as a testing ground for a new technology.

Locked into a hurry-up schedule dictated by communist czars overseeing the program, engineers took shortcuts and ignored numerous construction glitches.

The result: A faulty unit exploded and burst into flames, spewing clouds of deadly radioactive fumes that spread across Scandinavia, plus vast areas of the old USSR.

On government orders and in violation of international protocols mandating disclosure of such accidents, no warnings were issued, not even in Chernobyl and surrounding areas.

As Serhii Plokhy writes, even after thousands of persons were evacuated, “the Soviet Union refused to tell its citizens and the world at large what had happened. Television, radio and newspapers, even local ones in Ukraine, remained silent about the accident.”

The KGB “put a stamp of secrecy on everything from the causes of the accident to its impact.” No mention of radiation exposure was put into the files of the 340,000 soldiers and other persons dispatched for rescue work.

Thus children continued walking to school through a haze of radioactive fallout, while firemen unwitting of the danger worked to extinguish a stubborn fire that raged for days before being encapsulated in a dome of cement.

President Mikhail Gorbachev finally broke the public silence 18 days after the disaster, but devoted much of his talk to attacks on the west, claiming that its vocal concerns were tantamount to “giving the green light to further preparations for war.”

Close to one-third of all Soviet media coverage of the Chernobyl accident during the first months after the disaster was dedicated to attacks on the West.

Radiation was at such a level that exposure “over a period of five hours meant certain death,” Serhii Plokhy writes in his gripping and exhaustively researched account of the disaster.

The bare outline of the Chernobyl fire and the Soviet silence have been well covered by the media in the U. S. and elsewhere. Mr. Plokhy, who directs the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard, adds much detail to the slothful construction that caused the failure, and the false assignment of blame to operating engineers.

The Soviets did not wish to admit defects in nuclear plants intended to became a major addition to the country’s power supply.

Mr. Plokhy’s most telling disclosures deal with how the Soviet subterfuges played a major role in Ukraine’s decision to become an independent nation once the Soviet Union disintegrated.

Activists spurred by journalists and other writers began investigating the Chernobyl explosion during Mr. Gorbachev’s “glasnost” period and uncovered much damning material previously withheld from the public.

Perhaps the most effective was a woman journalist named Alla Yaroshynska, who believed in the overall soundness of the Soviet system, but recognized that it had flaws. Although she refused to join the Communist Party, she worked for a party newspaper.

She and other activists found alarming material.

Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, the three newly independent countries, the areas most affected, estimated their financial losses in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

In Ukraine, some 38,000 square kilometers — 5 percent of the country’s entire territory, with 5 percent of its population — were contaminated. Much-smaller Belarus had 23 percent contamination; Russia, 60,000 square kilometers.

Her newspaper refused to publish her adverse findings, so she wrote letters to Leonid Brezhnev, head of both of both the party and the state. The KGB tried to intimidate her into silence; she responded by winning a seat in the Duma.

In Ukraine, cases of cancer among children increased by more than 90 percent following the first five years after the explosion. The World Health Organization estimated 5,000 cancer deaths due to Chernobyl.

Environmental damages caused by cesium were estimated to prevail for at least 180 years. For plutonium-239, the half-life was put at an incredible 24,000 years.

Why the attempted cover-up? The economy could not afford to replace flawed nuclear power plants. But opposition swiftly morphed from words into action, with mass rallies in the affected areas.

Outspoken politicians accused Moscow of ignoring the welfare of the Ukrainian people by overloading their area with dangerous nuclear plants. A tidal wave of indignation swept the region.

As Mr. Plokhy observes, “The shock wave of Chernobyl was about to destroy the foundation of the Soviet Union.”

Such is what happened in 1991, when Ukrainian deputies voted 346-2 to declare Ukraine an independent state.

Mr. Plokhy concludes with a sober warning: While proliferation of nuclear weapons draws world attention, “an equally great danger looms from the mismanagement of ‘atoms for peace’ in the developing world.”

He argues for international control of the construction and management of such facilities. Otherwise, another Chernobyl is perhaps inevitable.

The bottom line: Chernobyl stands as a warning signal. Will the disaster be heeded?

• Washington writer Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 19 non-fiction books.

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