The lessons of Chernobyl

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.

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