- - Sunday, February 17, 2019


By Adam Higginbotham

Simon & Schuster $29.95, 538 pages

Although not recognized as such at the time, the deadly explosion that wrecked the Soviet Union’s showcase nuclear plant in Chernobyl in 1986 was an advance obituary both for the country and the very concept of the communist doctrine.

With overabundant braggadocio, Soviet leaders called Chernobyl “the new power plant that would one day make the USSR’s nuclear engineering famous across the globe.”

Famous? Nope, infamous is the better term. The much-hailed facility turned out to be one of the more spectacular failures in technological history.

Author Adam Higginbotham, a skilled science writer, puts much of the blame on “the monolithic power of the Communist Party.” Political loyalty out-ranked technical expertise, even in such a highly sophisticated endeavor as nuclear energy.

Mr. Higginbotham’s book reflects extensive on-the-scene research, including access to previously secret Soviet documents and interviews not only with plant engineers but also with countless persons driven from their homes. Although intensely technical at times, his account is highly readable.

A checklist of shortcomings is staggering. Start with the location. Despite crushing failures of several earlier nuclear facilities, Soviet engineers chose to build the Chernobyl plant in close proximity to a community intended to house workers. To say that the location put thousands of persons in harm’s way is an understatement.

Ah, the engineers in charge. One high executive was so ill-schooled in nuclear energy that he hastened to take a correspondence course before undertaking his important new job. No problem: The fellow, in his mid-20s, was a sterling member of the Young Communist League.

The construction itself. The reactors in similar nuclear plants in other nations were surrounded by thick concrete domes to prevent radioactive contamination escaping in the event of a serious accident. Installing such safeguards would have doubled costs, so they were omitted.

There was more, much more. During an early shake-down test, engineers found that “the serpentine plumbing of the reactor was riddled with faults ” Coolant pipes were corroded and numerous safety features were simply omitted.

“Safety inspections” were a sham. Few members of the technical staff knew what they were doing, and the helter-skelter design made eyes-on checks virtually impossible.

One study showed that malefactions “were not merely possible but also likely.”

One man did recognize the inherent dangers of the array of reactors. “How can you possibly control this hulking piece of [expletive]?” he stormed to a superior. He was ignored.

Early on, predictable leaks spewed radioactive materials onto the ground surrounding the facility. Bosses from the Atomic Energy Authority had a solution: They ordered that the contaminated areas be sluiced with water, then covered with soil and leaves. Affected portions of a road were given a fresh coat of asphalt.

This incident, and many others, was concealed. Engineers who knew the truth were forced by KGB officers to sign gag orders.

Such was in keeping with Soviet policy nationwide. As Mr. Higginbotham writes, “every accident that did occur at a nuclear station in the Soviet Union continued to be regarded as a state secret kept even from the specialists at the installation where they occurred.”

Disaster was inevitable, and Mr. Higginbotham vividly describes the futile attempts of engineers to bring a runaway reactor under control. “Safety drills” had not begun to prepare the staff for such a calamity.

Helicopters spent days dumping sand into the remnants of the failed reactor, while caravans of buses hauled residents from the area.

And, understandably, Soviet secrecy — nay, call it denial — prevailed even as the disaster spread beyond its borders. A terse statement said only that “an accident has taken place” but did not mention the word “nuclear.” Aid is being given, the statement said, and “a government commission has been set up.”

Meanwhile, thousands of terrified residents were fleeing Chernobyl and environs. And thick clouds containing high levels of radiation were wafting northward over Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Still, no hint that a nuclear disaster was underway.

Perhaps ironically, the CIA was the first outside party to discover what was going on. Photographs taken from a U-2 plane showed details, including fire hoses laid in the direction of the “cooling canals” around the plant. As Mr. Higginbotham writes, “CIA analysts knew that the scale of the catastrophe was far greater than Moscow acknowledged.” President Ronald Reagan offered the Soviets whatever help American scientists could provide but was refused.

The Soviets never offered a formal tally of the victims. Perhaps 15,000 persons died almost immediately; many more surely perished from radiation poisoning. Another eventual victim, a political one, was President Mikhail Gorbachev. He would maintain in retirement that Chernobyl was the key reason for his downfall.

Chernobyl and environs are now a permanent “exclusion zone” that covers an estimated 1,000 square miles. The desolation seems an appropriate memorial site for Soviet communism.

• Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military matters.

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