Lessons Of The Soviet Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster, On KZYX Renewable Energy Hour

Jun 25, 2018

It's been 32 years since the world's worst nuclear disaster -- the explosion, fire and partial meltdown of the Soviet-era Chernobyl nuclear power station at Pripyat, 100 km north of Kiev -- and disastrous public safety response by the secretive Communist government that followed.

On Monday 25 June 2018, Doug Livingston of the KZYX Renewable Energy Hour revisited the Chernobyl catastrophe in an extraordinary interview with Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy about his new book, "Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe," which is being called the first comprehensive history of Chernobyl. Serhii Plokhy is professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard University and director of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute.

Serhii grew up in Ukraine. On April 26, 1986, he was a young University professor living less than 500 km from the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. When the reactor exploded, Serhii was on a train, returning from a trip with University colleagues. It was clear that something big had happened, but he and his colleagues, including scientists and physicists, were at a loss to reconcile this disaster with their basic belief that nuclear reactors were so safe as to be “idiot proof.”

The professors and researchers decided to meet a few days later, with their wives. Serhii remembers that, as they were walking to a café in the rain, the wind was blowing in from Chernobyl. Later, Serhii’s scientist colleagues would discover that contaminated water from Chernobyl was going downstream, toward their town. Serhii predicted that in two days, the city would be empty: people would have evacuated or died. Yet, there were no official announcements; everything Serhii knew was because of his university connections.

Along with others in his community, Serhii kept his children -- then 2 and 3 years old -- indoors all summer. And the horror subsided eventually. As Serhii says, “At the end, you have to live your lives.” Yet he is still full of disgust with the government for hiding crucial, potentially life saving, information.

Now a Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard, Plokhy has written the first comprehensive history of the Chernobyl disaster from the explosion of the nuclear reactor on April 26, 1986, through the closing of the plant in 2000, to the completion of a new shelter over the damaged reactor in late 2017.

Plokhy’s use of newly available archival materials (including from the KGB), recently published government documents, as well as conversations with eyewitnesses, has allowed him to present a long-term perspective on the disaster and its political, economic, social and cultural effects.

Presenting multiple views of the events described, he moves from the control room of the damaged reactor to the abandoned villages of the exclusion zone and the offices of those in power in Kiev, Moscow and Washington. Placing the Chernobyl disaster in the context of international history allows him to draw lessons of global significance.

The immediate cause of the Chernobyl accident was a turbine test gone wrong. But its roots lay in the interaction between major flaws in the Soviet political system and as well as in the nuclear industry more generally. This is a deep analysis, and Serhii is well prepared to offer it.

Serhii has published 12 previous books on the history of Eastern Europe and on the Cold War. In The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, he challenged the interpretation of the collapse of the Soviet Union as an American Cold War victory, arguing, instead, that Ukraine and Russia were the two republics responsible for the end of the USSR. This new work, Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe, is a continuation of that work in that he argues for the rightful place of the Chernobyl accident among the causes for the fall of the USSR. 

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