THE TRUTH ABOUT CHERNOBYL By Grigori Medvedev Translated by Evelyn Rossiter (HarperCollins, 274 pages, $29.95)
Late last month, the fifth anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was pronounced a day of mourning in the Soviet Union. Declarations aside, however, April 26, 1986, is a day that Soviet leaders have made assiduous efforts to forget. Fortunately, Grigori Medvedev’s book, The Truth About Chernobyl, will make that more difficult. First published in the Soviet Union in 1989 and translated into English this year, the nuclear engineer’s account of the world’s largest nuclear disaster immortalizes the event and its cast of heroes, victims and culprits. It is a tale of mismanagement and corruption that led, with fatal inevitability, to a radioactive blast into the sky over the Byelorussian-Ukrainian Woodlands equal to 10 Hiroshima bombs.
Medvedev brings expertise and bitter experience to the tale. He worked as deputy chief engineer at Chernobyl in the 1970s, at the time of its construction. Later, he watched in frustration as the project fell into the hands of administrators who won prestigious and wellpaid positions despite their lack of experience in the nuclear field. By 1986, Medvedev was deputy director of the Soviet energy ministry’s department of nuclear power-plant construction in Moscow. He returned to Chernobyl in the days following the disaster to investigate
its causes. His research has yielded a meticulous reconstruction of events on a minute-byminute basis, laced together with first-person accounts from people involved in the plant’s operation and management.
The first truth that emerges in Medvedev’s book is that the Soviet nuclear industry was run by incompetents from top to bottom: officials in charge of the construction and management of nuclear power stations simply had no training in the field, while their underlings at Chernobyl were no better prepared. Meanwhile, secrecy surrounded the industry and fostered utter ignorance about its potential dangers. Information about previous nuclear mishaps, including the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, was reserved for high-placed officials unable to draw the appropriate lessons. A state bureaucracy that acknowledged successes but not setbacks was equally damaging. Attention to safety implied the possibility of accidents, and that could only mean that errors might be committed—a possibility that nearly everyone, from minister to technician, wanted to deny. Failure was not in the Soviet vocabulary.
The disease that led to the explosion continued through its aftermath, according to Medvedev. Several costly hours were wasted as the plant’s managers denied incontrovertible evidence that the reactor had exploded, passing on to Moscow the reassuring myth of a minor explosion in an emergency water tank. A day and a half passed before the nearby town of Pripyat was finally evacuated; Chernobyl itself
did not follow until May 5. The accident merely triggered a chain reaction of human errors.
The coverup continues even now. Soviet authorities have admitted to only 31 deaths in the immediate aftermath and have kept secret the numbers who have died since then. But Vladimir Chernousenko, the scientific director now in charge of the 32-km exclusion zone surrounding the Chérnobyl power station, recently estimated that fatal casualties to date number between 7,000 and 10,000.
Just days after the disaster, Medvedev writes, a high-ranking Soviet nuclear bureaucrat declared: “Science
requires victims.” The words are chillingly reminiscent of another say-
ing—“You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs”—which was the code of devout militants in the
early decades after the Soviet revolution. That same spirit runs through the history of the Soviet Union, with its commitment to progress at all costs. More recently, its results have sent many scurrying back to nature for protection. Yet The Truth About Chernobyl conveys, with passion and intelligence, a deeply unskeptical message. A political system, and the men who run it, made Chernobyl inevitable. And the solution to the calamities produced by Soviet science is, ironically, more science.
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