The Chernobyl disaster, affecting all of Europe to some extent, was a tragic but perhaps inevitable result of decades of government policies that affected plant design, regulation, transparency, governance, training, operating procedures, and the value placed on human safety, and which all permitted inadequate practices to persist without being challenged.
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The impact of the 1986 release of radiation created health problems that are still being investigated. The government’s response to the disaster created social and economic problems that persist to this day.
The attitude of the government in the period right after the explosions can be seen as arising from a military orientation to the development of nuclear energy, This is expressed in the approach taken in researching, designing, building, maintaining, regulating, and operating nuclear power plants in the USSR –While the Soviet government no longer exists in the same form because of the breakdown of the USSR, the world’s nuclear industry has looked to Chernobyl for lessons on what not to do.
There have been positive changes in regulations since then that does make the industry a bit safer, but it is possible that nuclear power can never be truly safe.
The nuclear power generation effort in the former USSR can be viewed as an outgrowth of the Soviet nuclear weapons effort (G. Medvedev 38). Since the early days of World War II, and dating from a letter written by George Flerov to Josef Stalin, recommending that an atomic bomb would help them win the war, the Soviets had been energetically working on such a weapon.
As the war progressed, and the USSR’s failure to create a successful and effective atomic bomb before any Western nation, the Soviets expended substantial resources on understanding nuclear chemistry.
The Soviet Union had been developing and testing nuclear weapons in their continuing efforts to exert control regionally and maintain their status as a major world power. The first successful bomb test was in 1949. This was, humiliatingly, third after the USA and Great Britain.
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The USSR was the first, however, to use nuclear reactors for the generation of electricity. This was a source of great pride to the USSR. The first such reactor was at Obninsk, where the (Z. Medvedev 227). It was experimental and was claimed to have solved the challenge of controlling a fission reaction (Z. Medvedev 227).
This research was paralleled by an effort to use radioactive products in multiple other ways, including steam generation for ship and submarine propulsion, agricultural seed sterilization, and medical technology. (Z. Medvedev 227)
The development of nuclear weapons, as well as all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle, proceeded under the direction of the obscurely named Ministry of Medium Machine Building. This ministry was, significantly, under the control of the military, and was deeply secretive. This ministry handled plutonium processing, and all uses of spent fuel, as well as the development of nuclear power plants (G. Medvedev 38).
This odd pairing of responsibilities, reporting to the military rather than to the civil authorities, as would be the case in most democracies, can be directly related to the development of the catastrophe at Chernobyl. The mindset of the military is not oriented towards openness and sharing of information, nor is it necessarily oriented towards valuing of individual life.
The military orientation meant that all such nuclear research, whether for bombs or peaceful purposes, was conducted on a strictly need to know basis. This meant that only those directly involved in a specific area of study or design were permitted to know about that area of the project.
It certainly meant that no one outside the project was permitted to learn anything about design ideas, safety concerns, comparisons with parallel efforts in other nations, or the results of testing.
The Soviet people were certainly not given any insights into what was being built and operated in their midst. They among the last to know even when the crisis occurred. The rest of the region and the world were certainly not informed even while the fires were burning
Because of the characteristics of nuclear power generation, this approach to creating and operating nuclear power plants was particularly dangerous. Because of the secrecy, any faulty design ideas could be proposed and adopted with no outside or civilian academic oversight or review.
Furthermore, the truth could be bent to accommodate the goals of the ministry. Although this sort of dishonesty is not exclusively characteristic of the military, it is certainly the sort of problem that one hears about the military. As Grigori Medvedev described the culture of dishonesty that prevailed months before the disaster, “We tell lies, and we teach our subordinates to lie” (G. Medvedev 23)
This militaristic, secrecy-shackled strategy has been proven to be devastating for the workers, the people living around the installation, and, indeed, for everyone living in the path of the fallout. The blast released enormous clouds of radioactive particles that were swept by wind around the area.
This increased radioactivity was detectable at substantial distances away, and in other countries as well. When rains fell, the radioactive particles were precipitated out of the atmosphere and fell to the ground, contaminating whatever was there.
Events and factors leading up to the disaster
On April 26, 1986, The Chernobyl Unit 4 Reactor was undergoing a test on the system that was meant to provide electric power in case of a power outage. This reflects the fact that there were, indeed, safety procedures and regulatory bodies that were meant to keep the facility operating safely. However, there had been, from very first construction and launching of the reactor, pressure to do things fast, whether that was safe or not.
As Zhores Medvedev points out, the intense pressure to launch early came from political authorities rather than from any scientific, engineering, or operations expert (Z. Medvedev 12). Thus, it is perhaps not surprising that the reactor suffered from what GreenFacts terms “basic engineering deficiencies (large positive coefficient of reactivity under certain conditions)” (GreenFacts).
The design had been pushed along to ensure that it would come online earlier than the projected start date. This was meant to bring great prestige and honor to the ministers involved and enhance their political careers.
The ministers in the Ministry of Energy, charged with supervising the nuclear sector of the energy industry, had no academic training in nuclear science and their experience was in other types of energy generation such as hydroelectric. This deficiency of leadership was true at the plant level as well (G. Medvedev 24).
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During the test in April of 1986, the operators switched off the safety systems and this action “resulted in a significant variation in the temperature and flow rate of the inlet water to the reactor core” (GreenFacts). This precipitated a cascade of events that resulted in explosions, the release of radioactive steam, and ten days of fires and release of radionucleotides.
Attempts to deal with the accident
Helicopters dumped what GreenFacts reports as thousands of tons of … “boron,…lead,…sand and clay,…dolomite,….sodium phosphate, and polymer liquids”. (GreenFacts). Water was dropped from helicopters as well.
Stationary helicopters experienced levels of radiation that were too high to make this practical. The sand that was dropped may have increased the fire. Equipment broke down from the radiation and made the heroic efforts of the workers less than effective (GreenFacts).
Impact on human health
The impact of the blast on people in the immediate area, the region, and Europe was worsened by the secrecy imposed by the government. Numbers of the dead and wounded have been difficult to determine. The Soviet government has never been forthcoming. Twenty-eight emergency workers are known to have lost their lives in the immediate aftermath of the blast. Another 19 died within a year or so of the accident.
These were among many thousand workers who went into the inferno over the ten days following the accident and attempted to offset it somehow. These “liquidators,” as they were called, numbered in the hundreds of thousands. They were given little protection from the radiation. Sadly, some of their efforts, for example, the dumping of sand on the fire, may, certain instances, have exacerbated the problem, adding to the tragedy of their sacrifice.
They were certainly not all officially warned of the real danger of their task, nor were their families, according to the testimony of those interviewed by Alexeivich (Alexievich viii).
At least 1152 thyroid cancer cases in young people were attributed to drinking milk from cows that had been contaminated. Had the local population been warned by the governmental authorities, children could have drunk an alternative beverage or been removed to another location. Additionally, children and adults could have taken supplementary iodine to prevent some of the uptakes of the radioactive particles.
Most of the thyroid cancers were treated successfully in the short run, but long-term impacts may not be known until these people reach middle age and beyond (Peron 36). The numbers of people who developed other cancers, as a result, are very difficult to determine.
Estimates of the degree of exposure have suggested that, outside the immediate areas that experienced fallout, people living in certain parts of Nevada might receive more radiation exposure (Peron 35).
As Svetlana Alexievich describes the situation, “it was an accident that produced, in a way, more survivors than victims” (Alexievich vii). Much of the blame lies with the way that the government initially covered up the accident and only revealed information when forced to do so.
The local populations have certainly been labeled as victims, based on this exposure. Because of the poor living conditions in the area that had existed previously for decades, local people jumped at the chance to obtain government support and subsidies. This contributed to an inflation of the numbers of those reported as affected (Peron 35).
This phenomenon is attributable to the way that the Soviet government handled both the disaster and the way that aid and support were distributed customarily in the USSR. Once the truth of the disaster finally became public, the local population saw an opportunity to better their situation and exploited the fact that the Soviet government would only help them if there were an emergency (Peron 36).
Additionally, the victim label and the subsidies have created a long-term culture of dependency based on a perception that the local people, being sick and therefore somehow helpless, can do nothing for themselves. It has also encouraged fatalism.
This means that the people believe that they are doomed and that therefore nothing that they do or avoid doing (such as smoking, drinking, exercising, or taking other health and safety precautions) will make any difference in their lives. This combination of attitudes has prevented local people from moving on with their lives and rebuilding the regional economy.
As a result, this region has not rebounded economically to the extent it could have in the intervening years (Peron 35). The economic hardship and dislocation arising from evacuation from what they called their “motherland” and loss of homes and livelihoods have added to the problems of the area’s population (Alexievich 64).
It is directly attributable to the policies of the USSR, because the government initially tried to hide the problem, and then when it was impossible to conceal, evacuated many more people than perhaps was strictly speaking necessary (Peron 35). Again, the government’s policies were responsible for making the situation worse.
Impact on the environment
Wherever the radioactive steam or smoke cooled down, it precipitated out radioactive materials. This left residues on buildings and streets. These were washed down to clean up the problem. However, this meant that the water used in the process was contaminated. This water and other run-off have contaminated the sewage system and related materials. Untreated soils continue to contaminate the air above them with elevated levels of radiation (GreenFacts).
As noted earlier, the radioactive fallout contaminated plants consumed by grazing animals such as cows, and their milk, with very slow declines. The process occurs through weathering and radioactive decay. Some regions retain reportable levels of radiation. Simple changes in agricultural practices could help, such as more sophisticated plowing and fertilization (GreenFacts).
Forested areas as far away as Scandinavia, because they are not disturbed by agricultural activities, retain the fallout longer. The indigenous populations in these regions forage for wild food, increasing exposures. Their tradition of eating reindeer meat also concentrates the radioactivity from the reindeer’s diet of lichen (GreenFacts).
Water bodies were contaminated variously. Lakes with no inflow or outflow are worst affected, concentrating the radioactivity in fish bones. Each species of animal and plant has responded uniquely. Some species have rebounded and thrived because they have taken back habitat, and no one is hunting them (GreenFacts).
However, this seemingly positive finding does not make everyone confident. The past dishonesty of the authorities leads some to worry that people will be relocated back into contaminated areas before it is truly safe.
This could be disastrous for the people, and, sadly, for the species that are making a small comeback. The tendency of the government to misstate and conceal both numbers and impacts for political reasons continues to create problems for everyone involved.
At every point from the first use of nuclear materials to generate energy to the continuing attempts to deal with the accident, politics, and ideology, rather than science and good sense, have dominated.
A military culture of secrecy and paranoia set the pattern for nearly every decision, from design to construction, from the inappropriate qualifications of ministers and managers to the routine obliviousness to safety and technical issues, from the accident cover-up to the obliviousness to the liquidators’ safety. Human error, compounded by poor management and a culture of disregard for human life led to the catastrophe at Chernobyl.
Alexievich, Svetlna. Voices From Chernobly. Trans. Keith Gessen. 2nd. London: Dalkey Archives Press, 1997. Web.
GreenFacts. Chernobyl Nuclear Accident. 2014.
Medvedev, Grigori. The Truth about Chernobyl. I.B.Tauris, 1991.
Medvedev, Zhores. The Legacy of Chernobyl. New York: W.W.Norton, 1992.
Peron, Jim. “Chernobyl in Perspective.” The Freeman October 2006.