While the aftermath of the Japan nuclear crisis continues to unfold, there are two good stories out today casting light on planning for a possible disaster and how the workers coped when it happened.
The New York Times has a terrific piece about the first hours, based in part on a veteran plant worker who was present at the sports stadium where the emergency responders first gathered. The meeting turned into a "panic," he said, as the workers argued about how best to deal with the tsunami and the hot nuclear fuel.
The Wall Street Journal, which has also published a string of penetrating reporting about the accident, today carries a piece looking at the plant's disaster plans. They did not envision something this big.
Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images
The terrible sequence of events in Japan — massive earthquake, and then a tsunami — make the nuclear crisis different from Chernobyl in 1986. The Chernobyl accident was not a consequence of a natural disaster, but happened at the hands of people. The design of the reactor was such that it lacked a protective containment; once it exploded, radioactive debris was ejected into the air. So far, at least, the Japan nuclear crisis does not appear to have reached this level of danger.
Still, Chernobyl is worth pondering for another reason. The accident demonstrated the importance of full transparency at moments like this. Chernobyl was a ramrod against the Soviet Union's whole system of obfuscation and secrecy. It reinforced the value of glasnost or openness in the mind of the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.
When we try to understand the events in Japan, both now and in the months ahead, we ought to ask: have we learned the lessons of Chernobyl?
Chernobyl blew up at 1:23 a.m. on April 26, 1986. In my book The Dead Hand, I recount the events that led to the catastrophe, and its aftermath. The blast blew a hole straight up through the roof of Reactor No. 4, and the explosions were followed by fire. Some debris fell down near the site, but radioactive elements were carried by the winds across Europe. The initial contamination was one nightmare, then came another: the graphite core was on fire and burned for ten days, spewing more dangerous materials into the air.
Hours after the disaster, with the graphite core burning, an “urgent report” arrived at the Central Committee in Moscow from Deputy Energy Minister Alexei Makukhin, who had once been minister of energy in the Ukraine when Chernobyl was first being built. The report said that at 1:21 A.M. on April 26 an explosion occurred in the upper part of the reactor, causing fire damage and destroying part of the roof. “At 3:30, the fire was extinguished.” Personnel at the plant were taking “measures to cool the active zone of the reactor.” No evacuation of the population was necessary, the report said. Almost everything in Makukhin’s report was wrong. The reactor was still burning and was not being cooled, and the population should have been evacuated immediately. What the report did not say was even worse: at the scene, radiation detectors failed, firefighters and others were sent in without adequate protection and officials were debating—but not deciding—about evacuation.
Gorbachev’s initial reaction was slow. He has said he did not have any idea of the scope of what had happened.
But the reason for the lack of information was the Soviet system itself, which reflexively buried the truth. At each level of authority, lies were passed up and down the chain; the population was left in the dark; and scapegoats were found. Gorbachev was at the top of this decrepit system; his biggest failure was that he did not break through the pattern of coverup right away. He reacted slowly, a moment of paralysis for this man of action. He seemed unable to get the truth when he needed it from the disaster scene or the officials responsible for nuclear power.
The Swedes had picked up signs of the radiation, and confronted the Soviet Union at midday on April 28. Up to this point, Moscow had said nothing. At 9 p.m. that evening, the Soviet news media distributed a Kremlin statement so terse as to relay none of the catastrophic nature of the event:
An accident has occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, damaging one of the reactors. Measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of the accident. The injured are receiving aid. A government commission has been set up.
On the next day, April 29, Gorbachev called another Politburo meeting. There was more discussion about what to say to the outside world. The Politburo decided to issue another public statement, which the historian Dmitri Volkogonov described as “terms that might have been used to announce an ordinary fire at a warehouse.”
The announcement said the accident had destroyed part of the reactor building, the reactor itself, and caused a degree of leakage of radioactive substances. Two people ad died, the statement said, and “at the present time, the radiation situation at the power station and the vicinity has been stabilized.” One section was added for socialist countries saying that Soviet experts had noted radiation spreading in the western, northern and southern directions from Chernobyl. “Levels of contamination are somewhat higher than permitted standards, however not to the extent that calls for special measures to protect the population.”
While the Chernobyl firefighters and others performed acts of heroism, the bosses of the Soviet state obfuscated. An evacuation of the nearby town of Pripyat was begun only thirty-six hours after the explosion; the second stage of the evacuation, including a wider zone that eventually displaced 116,000 people, did not begin until May 5. The Communist Party in Ukraine insisted that May Day parades should carry on as usual in Kiev even though winds were blowing in that direction.
I found in the Kremlin files an amazing report by a journalist, Vladimir Gubarev, who was science editor of Pravda, the party newspaper.
Gubarev, who had good contacts in the nuclear establishment, heard of the accident soon after it happened and called Alexander Yakovlev, Gorbachev’s close adviser and champion of new thinking. But Yakovlev told him to “forget about it, and stop meddling,” Gubarev recalled. Yakovlev wanted no journalists to witness the scene. But Gubarev was persistent, and kept calling Yakovlev every day. Yakovlev finally authorized a group of journalists to go to Chernobyl, including Gubarev, who had a physics degree but also wrote plays and books. He arrived May 4 and returned May 9. His private report to Yakovlev depicted chaos and confusion. One hour after the explosion, the spread of radiation was clear, he said, but no emergency measures had been prepared. “No one knew what to do.” Soldiers were sent into the danger zone without individual protective gear. They didn’t have any. Nor did helicopter pilots. “In a case like this, common sense is required, not false bravery,” he said. “The whole system of civil defense turned outto be entirely paralyzed. Even functioning dosimeters were not available.” Gubarev said, “the sluggishness of local authorities is striking. There were no clothes, shoes, or underwear for victims. They were waiting for instructions from Moscow.” In Kiev, the lack of information caused panic. People heard reports from abroad but didn’t get a single word of reassurance from the leaders of the republic. The silence created more panic in the following days when it became known that children and families of party bosses were fleeing.
When Gubarev returned to Moscow, he gave Yakovlev his written report. It was passed to Gorbachev.
Gorbachev finally spoke about the disaster on May 14, two and a half weeks after it happened, in a nationally televised address. His speech dodged the reasons for the catastrophe, and advanced the line that people had been alerted “as soon as we received reliable initial information.” Gorbachev seemed to lose his cool entirely at some of the wild accusations that spread in the West while the Kremlin had bottled up information, such as early reports of mass casualties in the thousands. He also took umbrage at criticism of his sincerity as a reformer.
In the weeks after Chernobyl, Gorbachev began to shake off his early inertia. At the Politburo meeting July 3, his fury boiled over at the nuclear establishment. He said:
For 30 years you’ve been telling us that everything was safe. And you expected us to take it as the word of God. This is the root of our problems. Ministries and research centers got out of control, which led to disaster. And, so far, I do not see any signs that you’ve learned your lesson from this . . . Everything was kept secret from the Central Committee. Its apparat didn’t dare to look into this area. Even decisions about where to build nuclear power stations weren’t made by the leadership. Or decisions about which reactor to employ. The system was plagued by servility, bootlicking, window-dressing . . . persecution of critics, boasting, favoritism, and clannish management. Chernobyl happened and nobody was ready—neither civil defense, nor medical departments, not even the minimum necessary number of radiation counters. The fire brigades don’t know what to do! The next day, people were having weddings not far away from the place. Children were playing outside. The warning system is no good! There was a cloud after the explosion. Did anyone monitor its movement?
As I concluded in the book, Gorbachev, in his anger after the disaster, did not turn the spotlight of blame on the Soviet party or the system itself. Rather, he responded by blaming individuals and finding scapegoats, including the plant operators, who were later put on trial. Gorbachev wanted to shake off the lethargy of the system, not challenge its legitimacy. Yet the inescapable truth was that Chernobyl offered a glimpse of how the Soviet Union was rotting from within. The failures, lassitude and misguided designs that led to the disaster were characteristic of much else. “The great glowing crater at Block 4 had revealed deep cracks in the state,” Volkogonov said. He described Chernobyl as a “bell tolling for the system.”
Gorbachev’s emphasis on glasnost, or openness, grew significantly when he finally came to grips with what happened at Chernobyl. At the July 3 Politburo meeting, he declared, “Under no conditions will we hide the truth from the public, either in explaining the causes of the accident nor in dealing with practical issues.” He added, “We cannot be dodging the answers. Keeping things secret would hurt ourselves. Being open is a huge gain for us.”
No matter what happens in Japan, being open about it is a huge gain, still, a quarter century later.
Remember that computer outage last October at a nuclear missile launch control center? Now, according to the Air Force Times, an investigation has pinpointed the cause.
It was a loose circuit card.
The newspaper reports the card had not been properly locked into place after maintenance work, and was knocked out of place by heat and vibration.
The outage affected 50 nuclear-armed Minuteman III missiles at Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming, last Oct. 23. The disruption lasted 59 minutes. The newspaper quotes Lt. Col. John Thomas, a spokesman for the Global Strike Command at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, as saying that the outage was in the 319th Missile Squadron of the 90th Missile Wing.
Each launch control center has primary responsibility for 10 missiles, but redundancies built into the system allow each center to electronically maintain the status and command and control over all 50 missiles in a group, he said.
Thomas compared the communication to a BlackBerry constantly connected to its server to check for e-mails. The launch control centers are continuously checking and updating data including temperature, alert status and security situation for each missile.
About 1:35 a.m. Oct. 23, the disruption caused the communication to get garbled.
“The system was still up, there were still queries pinging and occurring, but what was happening was like if your cell phone was breaking up; it was not ideal,” Thomas said shortly after the incident occurred. “The suspect launch control center was apparently trying to communicate on top of the other launch control centers trying to communicate.”
During the incident, the crew on duty used cameras to check the 50 missiles and sent crews out to inspect the missiles. There was no evidence of tampering, intrusion or damage at any of the 50 sites.
The investigation recommended improvements in hardware and procedures, the newspaper added.
No doubt, there will be breakdowns in any complex machinery like this. It is inevitable. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, the failure of a simple computer chip once triggered a false alarm when Jimmy Carter was president. Another time, the insertion of a training tape into a slot set off a mistaken alarm.
But why in these times are missiles still on launch-ready alert, ready to go within four minutes of an order from the president? This is a legacy of the Cold War, and no longer makes sense. The United States and Russia should build in a delay, say a few hours or a day, before missiles could be launched. This “de-alerting” would have to be done by both sides, and would have to be verifiable. But it would give us an extra margin of safety the next time a simple computer card decides to come loose.
The four statesmen of the nuclear age are back with a new op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, published today, suggesting that we take some of the nuclear out of nuclear deterrence. The piece is signed by George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn, who have jointly authored earlier op-eds calling for measures to reduce the nuclear danger.
Their new piece follows a conference last fall at the Hoover Institution on ways to establish deterrence with fewer nuclear weapons, or, eventually, with the elimination of them. It's a looming problem, worthy of some hard thinking. No one has come up with an easy and quick substitute for nuclear deterrence, which we've maintained for decades. At the same time, we can't go on forever relying on method for insuring security that was invented for the Cold War. It is outmoded and risky and does not deter some of the most potent threats that exist today. I wrote about this recently in The Independent of London.
As mentioned in an earlier FP article, what's interesting about these four is that they all had deep experience in the earlier era of Mutual Assured Destruction, known as MAD. They were wise men of the atomic age, and now they are thinking about how to exit that epoch.
Their new piece is not the last word on this--a lot of details remain to be sketched in--but is a welcome attempt to broach the subject of what comes after MAD.
Here's the essence of their article:
The first step is to recognize that there is a daunting new spectrum of global security threats. These threats include chemical, biological and radiological weapons, catastrophic terrorism and cyber warfare, as well as natural disasters resulting from climate change or other environmental problems, and health-related crises. For the United States and many other nations, existential threats relating to the very survival of the state have diminished, largely because of the end of the Cold War and the increasing realization that our common interests greatly exceed our differences. However, an accident or mistake involving nuclear weapons, or nuclear terrorism fueled by the spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear materials, and nuclear know-how, is still a very real risk. An effective strategy to deal with these dangers must be developed.
The second step is the realization that continued reliance on nuclear weapons as the principal element for deterrence is encouraging, or at least excusing, the spread of these weapons, and will inevitably erode the essential cooperation necessary to avoid proliferation, protect nuclear materials and deal effectively with new threats.
Third, the U.S. and Russia have no basis for maintaining a structure of deterrence involving nuclear weapons deployed in ways that increase the danger of an accidental or unauthorized use of a nuclear weapon, or even a deliberate nuclear exchange based on a false warning. Reducing the number of operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles with verification to the levels set by the New Start Treaty is an important step in reducing nuclear risks. Deeper nuclear reductions and changes in nuclear force posture involving the two nations should remain a priority. Further steps must include short-range tactical nuclear weapons.
The full article is behind a WSJ paywall. Here's a link. It goes on to address some of the problems of a nuclear build-down.
Update: The full text (in a .pdf) can be found at the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images
On Mikhail Gorbachev’s 80th birthday, he is deservedly being praised for glasnost, perestroika and the end of the Cold War. All have earned their place in the history books. But here’s a question: why did it happen that Gorbachev, and not someone else, was selected on a night in March, 1985 to be the new Soviet leader?
This was a key moment, yet one that is still not widely understood.
It had a lot to do with Gorbachev, the man, and the sorry state of the Soviet leadership and the country at the time.
First the revolution, then the reality.
It has been exhilarating to watch the Arab spring, spreading from Tunis to Cairo, to Manama, Benghazi and elsewhere. These images of people demanding simple freedoms and fresh air after decades of autocracy are reminiscent of the collapse of Communism two decades ago. Then, too, there was a sense of liberation from arbitrary, suffocating rulers. There was a sense of enormous possibility if individual initiative could be set free, if democracy and markets could take hold.
But for those feeling liberated in the Arab world today, a caution: to realize your dreams is going to be a lot harder than it has been so far. It is going to be painfully, maddeningly, frustratingly difficult. One of the useful lessons you can draw from the collapse of Communism is that
tearing down the old order is really just the first step of revolution. What follows has to be built brick-by-brick, may take a generation and is not guaranteed to succeed.
PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images
The latest report on the anthrax letters of 2001 comes down to this: "it is not possible to reach a definitive conclusion" about the origin of the letters, based on the science alone. That's the thrust of a report by a panel of experts of the National Research Council.
They raise some fresh doubt about the firmness of the FBI's conclusions linking the anthrax spores in the letters to a flask in the laboratory of Bruce Ivins, the U.S. military researcher whom the U.S. government blamed for sending the letters. The panel says they did not review the entirely of the massive law-enforcement investigation into the letters -- only the science -- and thus reached no new conclusion about whether Ivins was the perpetrator. Ivins committed suicide in 2008.
But the new report offers a potent reminder about bioterrorism: pathogens leave few fingerprints. You can figure out the identity of the organism, but it is a lot harder to determine where it came from or why. The contaminated letters in 2001 resulted in five deaths and sickened at least 17 others. The subsequent probe by the FBI and others involved many years of interviews, evidence gathering and laboratory work, yet, nearly a decade later, is still not conclusive.
In any future biological attack, it could be difficult if not impossible to identify the perpetrator. There is always a sense of chaos in any emergency, and helping the victims will be first priority; preparation is critical. But it makes sense to prepare for the forensics, too. A decade ago, there was not a clear scientific plan to guide the gumshoes. The new report suggests that the government create a science go-team, always on standby with the proper clearances, ready to swing into action alongside the detective work. Not a bad idea.
Russia's parliament has approved the New START treaty. The Senate has ratified it. You might think that it's time to stop worrying about The Bomb, arms control and all that mind-numbing stuff from the Cold War. You know: Mutual Assured Destruction, Dr. Strangelove, the Evil Empire. It's all been tossed into the trash bin of history, right?
While the new treaty is a small step in the right direction, there will still be as many nuclear warheads in the United States and Russia uncovered by this treaty as those which are covered. The treaty limits each side to a total of 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads, for a total of 3,100. But it does not cover several thousand Russian tactical nuclear warheads, about 500 U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, nor the U.S. strategic reserve, about 2,000 warheads, not deployed, which are being kept on hand, just in case.
So before everyone in the stadium gives the new treaty a big cheer, keep an eye on what's lurking in the parking lot. That's the next problem for arms control: make sure there are no weapons out of bounds, beyond the playing field, where they can escape verification.
David E. Hoffman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy.