When Grigori Medvedev arrived at Chernobyl in 1970 to take up his post as chief engineer at the new nuclear plant, he was recovering from a bout of radiation sickness incurred in his work with nuclear materials.
This fact, mentioned as a casual aside by Medvedev, becomes ominous in retrospect. Sixteen years later, Medvedev was again to expose himself to high levels of radioactive contamination on returning to Chernobyl as part of a government commission to investigate the worst nuclear accident in history.
On April 26th, 1986, the plant’s number-four reactor exploded. Contamination from the accident irradiated entire populations of nearby towns and polluted the fertile breadbasket of the Soviet Ukraine and vast areas of Europe and Scandinavia.
Attempts were made at every level to hide the full implications of the disaster. Apart from the scant and largely discredited information provided by official reports, everything known about the catastrophe comes from Medvedev.
A lone crusader for truth in a regime of self-serving complacency and secrecy, Medvedev exposed himself to massive danger in his investigation. He insisted on going into the destroyed plant shortly after the accident to investigate what had happened. He also interviewed most of the workers involved, including many who died from radiation sickness within days or weeks.
Medvedev traces the disaster to a series of absurd mistakes by inexperienced or inept operators. The chain begins with bad policy decisions made by the plant’s director, Viktor Bryukhanov. Bryukhanov, a turbine expert, knew little about nuclear technology. Perversely, he surrounded himself with other personnel from thermal stations, rejecting Medvedev’s recommendations of experienced nuclear operators.
Among the many unsuitable workers Bryukhanov hired was Nikolai Fomin, a thermal expert who announced at his interview that there was nothing to running a nuclear power station. Both Bryukhanov and his protégé Fomin were to be heavily implicated in the disaster.
Naïve as Fomin’s interpretation of nuclear technology appears, it merely repeats official Soviet assurances that nuclear power stations were safer than the simplest of samovars. This comforting axiom was kept alive in the atmosphere of secrecy that permeates the nuclear industry. Since the start of the nuclear program, accidents at plants were never publicized. Even within the industry, no one knew of them, so no one could learn from them. “It was as if no accidents had taken place at all; everything was safe and reliable,” Medvedev writes.
Medvedev’s book shows how this secrecy, evolved by the industry for its own self-protection, proved paradoxically self- destructive. It bred a generation of falsely confident operators who, in spite of their long list of errors leading up to the explosion, fully expected the reactor to come to their rescue.
The explosion was caused by a simple test of the emergency systems to be used in a power failure. Anyone who had any knowledge of nuclear technology would have known that the test program was inherently unsafe. Fomin, having no such knowledge, approved it. He also made the fatal mistake of disconnecting the emergency core cooling system. If this system had been allowed to do its work, the blast could have been prevented.
One of the agonizing ironies of the accident was that it may have been avoidable as late as a minute before the explosion—if the operators had agreed to scrap the experiment, switch on the emergency cooling system, and slowly shut down the reactor.
Two of the operators, Leonid Toptunov and Aleksandr Akimov, saw the danger of an explosion approaching and recommended that the reactor be shut down, but they were overruled by deputy chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov, another of Bryukhanov’s incompetent personnel. Neither Toptunov nor Akimov had the confidence or experience to stand up to their superior. This conformist thinking in the operators, who had lost the habit of thinking for themselves, proved a strong contributing factor to the catastrophe. As it happened, the operators’ errors and shortcomings were compounded by a serious design fault in the reactor, which meant that a late attempt to shut down the reactor had the opposite effect of causing a massive power surge.
Medvedev’s matter-of-fact documentary approach has the unexpected effect of throwing into high relief the pathos and tragedy of the Chernobyl story. For example, there is Akimov, the operator whose mistakes contributed to the reactor’s getting out of control. Bewildered at the first shock waves felt from the reactor, he could only say, “I don’t get it.… We did everything right.” Later, as he lay dying at Pripyat Medical Center, his skin tanned dark brown by radiation, he repeated automatically in answer to questions, “We did everything properly. I don’t understand why it happened.”
Then there is Dyatlov, who stubbornly maintained his wishful belief, against all the...