Chernobyl: The Nuclear Disaster That Helped Destroy a Regime

Harvard Professor Serhii Plokhy Recounts 1986 Meltdown and Its Impact

Chernobyl
Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe by Serhii Plokhy (left). Diorama of damaged reactor on display at the National Chernobyl Museum, Podil District, Kiev, Ukraine (right). Photo credit: Basic Books and Adam Jones / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

When the Chernobyl nuclear accident rattled the world and destroyed the myth of safe nuclear power in 1986, Serhii Plokhy was a young history professor who lived downwind from the power plant. Soviet leaders reflexively covered up the deadly incident but were forced to reveal some information because Sweden and other countries detected radiation from the releases at Chernobyl.

Today, Plokhy is professor of Ukrainian history and director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard. His new book, Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe, is a gripping account of the people responsible for the construction and operation of the nuclear power plant, and the fatal errors that occurred during a planned shutdown of Reactor 3 on April 25, 1986.  

He introduces readers to all the key players in Moscow, in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, and in the Soviet Union’s nuclear power establishment. A central figure is Viktor Bryukhanov, who built the Chernobyl complex, managed the emergency response, and was imprisoned after being blamed for the incident.

The powerful takeaway from Plokhy’s book, and this interview with Peter B. Collins, is that the Chernobyl disaster gave rise to what Plokhy calls “eco-nationalism” in Ukraine. This was a political movement that challenged Gorbachev and the central government in Moscow, and produced the first episode of glasnost, or openness, which ultimately led to the dissolution of the USSR.


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Peter B. Collins: It’s another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. In San Francisco, I’m Peter B. Collins. Today I welcome the author of a fascinating new book about the Chernobyl nuclear accident, and it’s a book about much more than just the nuclear facility, the accident that occurred in 1986, and what we have or have not learned from that.
Serhii Plokhy has authored Chernobyl, The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe, and I just mispronounced his name after practicing, because he schooled me that the K is silent. Serhii Plokhy spelled P-L-O-K-H-Y. He is the Mykhailo Hrushevsky professor of Ukrainian history and director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University. Professor, thanks for being my guest today.
Serhii Plokhy: Well, it’s a pleasure and of course it’s hard enough to have one unpronounceable name, but here in the top is the author who has two, one … his last name and then the name of the person after whom the chair was called. But you did quite well. It’s a pleasure.
Peter B. Collins: Well, I do my best and feel free to correct me as we go along if I mangle any of the other names because your account of the Chernobyl accident and the events that followed it really fascinated me. It is a riveting description of the errors that occurred and the calamity that followed it, the cover up that was attempted, and you really take us there in a kind of first person account, and in a moment I want to get into that account. But there’s something really important that I drew from the book, my biggest takeaway, and that is that you believe that Chernobyl really was a critical element in the breakdown of the Soviet Union.
I find this a fascinating analysis that differs from what was fed to us here in the United States during the 1980s as the Gorbachev government faced many challenges and the Soviet Union ended up being dissolved. Talk a little bit about that, professor, because I think that is the most significant takeaway from your book.
Serhii Plokhy: Well, thanks. Indeed, this is one of key arguments of the book which is based on linking the Chernobyl disaster to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and the broader idea is that major technological disasters, they really can bring about collapse of states, even powerful states. In the case of the Soviet Union it would be off course, absolutely incorrect and irresponsible, especially for a professor, to say that there was just one reason for the fall of a major superpower. So, explaining the fall of the Soviet Union through Chernobyl alone is … it wouldn’t be right, but explaining the fall of the Soviet Union without Chernobyl wouldn’t be right either.
What I do in my book, I demonstrate the way in which first of all, the Soviet handling of the disaster, the refusal to tell to people like myself, who at that time lived behind the Iron Curtain, what kind of dangers we were facing. Eventually it caught up with the regime and the first mass mobilization against the Soviet authority, the authority of Moscow, was taking place in a country like Ukraine or in Lithuania, the country that was the first to declare independence from the Soviet Union under the banner of ecological movement, ecological mobilization. In book I called it eco-nationalism. And in case of, again, Lithuania, this is important because that was the first declaration of independence. In case of Ukraine, because that was the last in a sense that after Ukraine declared independence, the Soviet Union was dissolved within one week.
And, the leaders of the national movements in both republics and in some other republics like Armenia, they would point to you that the origins of their movements, the origins of mass mobilization is in this really protest of the society of people against the regime of secrecy that surrounded Chernobyl.
Peter B. Collins: As you described in the book, this is what pressed Mikhail Gorbachev into the first exercise of glasnost. He had to come clean because the Geiger counters, the measure of radioactivity that came from Chernobyl was picked up in neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark, and it really forced the hand they could not keep this under wraps, using the state organs of propaganda, Pravda and Izvestia, and the ordinary control that they had been quite accustomed to up until this traumatic event.
Serhii Plokhy: Well, yes, Chernobyl caught Gorbachev and people around him right in the middle of that transition from the, old Soviet times, the regime of secrecy, to a new era, an era of glasnost to openness and then perestroika, so the restructuring, so all those words that are markers of Gorbachev’s reforms, they were not in place in April of 1986, when Chernobyl took place, and Gorbachev over all, people around him don’t come across very … as heroes, more like perpetrators in the story of Chernobyl and in particular in my region of Chernobyl.
It took Gorbachev 18 days to address the nation on the issue of what happened at Chernobyl, and even then one third of that speech were attacks on the United States, on western leaders of the rest of European countries for criticizing the Soviet Union for not releasing enough information. First of all, of course, the news about Chernobyl were broken not by the Soviet government, but by the Swedish authorities who detected rising levels of radiation at one of their own nuclear plants and were really alarmed. It took them a while to figure out that it was nothing wrong with the plant, but that the wind was blowing from the wrong direction, from the other side of the Baltic, from the other side of the Iron Curtain.
So really, as you said, Chernobyl and the reaction in the west, and then reaction within the country itself forced Gorbachev’s hand and the policies of Glasnost really started with Chernobyl. If the idea of Chernobyl and the fall of the Soviet Union, this is something that I’m pioneering to a degree or what was bringing to the fore the idea that Glasnost and Chernobyl are closely interconnected. It’s a common place today in the special literature on the history of the Soviet Union and the history of the Soviet collapsed sites as uncontroversial as it gets.
Peter B. Collins: And professor, as I contrast your modesty here, in saying, well, Chernobyl wasn’t the single cause, but you can’t explain the disillusion of the USSR without it, the dominant narrative that was presented here in the United States from the New York Times and the kind of official organs, was that it was the Solidarity Movement in Poland, and that Lech Walęsa who led the strikes in Gdansk, was a key leading figure and this was the leading edge of pressure on Moscow to release control of the satellite nations. And so, I wanted to get your thoughts in contrasting the Glasnost model related to Chernobyl with the narrative that was dominant in the US in the 1980s.
Serhii Plokhy: Well, certainly the events in Poland demonstrated that the Soviet regime in its outer empire in eastern Europe was in trouble, was in crisis, but still it was strong enough to gather forces to suppress the sort of the Gdansk movement, eventually Walęsa ended up under arrest and Gorbachev, when he came to power, eventually allowed Poland and other countries to look for their own way to socialism. He believed that none of those countries would ever leave socialism, but that was a different set of policies from the policies that he conducted within the Soviet Union. Within the Soviet Union, he was of course prepared to use military, something that he refused to do in Poland, and the military was used in the Baltic states and Lithuania, in Estonia at that time, at the beginning of 1991 which led to a major, major conflict between President Bush at that time, Bush senior, and Gorbachev where Bush send Gorbachev a letter saying that unless that stops, he would have to cut all the programs that [fed? 10:07] that place, economic and otherwise, that were supporting or helping the Gorbachev’s regime to survive in 1991.
So, yes, it’s part of the global story of the fall of communism, but it’s quite removed from the story of the collapse of the Soviet Union per se which again, happened in 1991, happened as the result of mobilization of the national movements in the first non-Russian republics, and then in response in Russia itself and in Russia it was led by Boris Yeltsin of course at that time. So yes, these all parts of the same big story, but, again, I would say that Chernobyl is much, much more important for fall of the Soviet Union than is Solidarity movement.
It’s also much more important than, for example, Soviet war in Afghanistan. That received a lot of coverage in the West. The comparisons were made between the Vietnam experience of the United States and the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. Well, in reality, the Soviet regime succeeded in keeping the information about the Afghanistan and Soviet casualties there secret, and never the mobilization of the population happened along, over that issue, along those lines. Well, of course, Chernobyl, that affected everybody, the radiation heat, the party members, and non-party members, the members of Politburo and not, and eventually that became a major, major … created a major political earthquake in the Soviet Union.
Peter B. Collins: Professor, where were you on April 26th, 1986?
Serhii Plokhy: Well, I was at that time actually traveling. I was on a business trip in Russia. At that time I lived permanently, I lived in Ukraine approximately 350 miles away from the reactor, but in terms of my memories and memories of everyone, basically almost everyone in the Soviet Union, April 26th doesn’t mean much to us because of course we didn’t learn about the accident until days and days after we were already exposed to radiation. Again, a lot of that information came not from the Soviet government, but from the Voice of America, from BBC, Deutsche Welle, and other western broadcasts.
So, really, I remember the day of May, the fourth, and that’s when I spent most of the day under rain, and a few days later they told me that actually it was the Chernobyl rain, the rain that, on that day was coming from the north. It was coming from Chernobyl. I also remember another day in May of 1986, when rumors were spread and they were partially kind of based on some truth, but they were exaggerated, that the water contaminated by the Chernobyl explosion in the river Dnieper was moving towards the city of, more than one million inhabitants where I lived at that time, and the expectation that everyone had, and I certainly shared them, was that, “Okay, in the next two, three days when the water will reach the city, it will get that city. There could be no one around.”
I remember just looking around at people walking on the streets, the children playing and thinking this is the end of the world, that it comes to an end. 30 million people depend on Dnieper for its water, and the phenomenon that everyone was afraid of was, is generally known as China Syndrome, which means that radiation reaches the underground waters and poisons those waters. That happened to a degree, but not to a degree that people were afraid of, and eventually these radioactive particles, they, and the top one, the bottom of Dnieper and Dnieper reservoirs that time, so, very little reached my town, but was a concern at that time.
Peter B. Collins: Now, professor in the book, you describe how you kept your young children indoors that entire summer. But explain how you wrestled with the fragmentary information and the rumors that were circulating and the official silence, if not denial of a significant incident at the Chernobyl nuclear complex.
Serhii Plokhy: Well, we were listening to the western broadcasts, and again, it’s from there that the first recommendations came that, okay, it would be a good thing to have a kind of wet cloth in front of your door and, clean your shoes when you come into the building or come into your apartment. So it’s, again it was 1986, but the idea, the impression was like you were somewhere in the 18th century. It was about rumors. So, at the end we were trying to do what we could when it comes to our children, for example, and again, I still, and my wife in particular, still remember that element of horror of how we forced them to stay in the apartment for a good part of the summer when of course, everything seemed to be absolutely normal around. That’s another part of the story. You can’t see radiation and you can either ignore that, like a lot of people who ascend to deal with the consequences of the disaster and the so called exclusion zone did and paid dearly with their health and some with their lives.
Others developed this, all sorts of phobias because if the radiation cannot be seen, you can imagine whatever you want to either completely ignore or be afraid of everything, and that is one of the impacts of Chernobyl on the population as a whole, which goes beyond something that can be just measured by the radiation observed by those people. It’s a belief that whatever health issues I might have, it comes to Chernobyl, it comes to the radiation, and, so there is a major psychological impact.
Peter B. Collins: And how did it affect you…?
Serhii Plokhy: …with a disaster like that.
Peter B. Collins: Oh, I’m sorry Sir. How did it affect you politically? Before Chernobyl were you a pragmatic communist, a loyal communist, a true believer? Or, were you never active and aligned with the Communist Party?
Serhii Plokhy: I was a young professor at the university at that time, and a particular professor of history, so, the membership in the Young Communist League, and then the party was basically almost obligatory for someone like me but by the time when I did my graduate courses, I don’t remember actually meeting anyone of my age who would be a true believer. So, the regime by that time was already so corrupt, thats again, the believers were almost absent. Maybe there were believers in the older generation people around Gorbachev, but not in my generation, but, what Chernobyl did is, the trust in the new leader in the Gorbachev, and there was a lot of excitement about Gorbachev and his views, and his ideas. That trust was really undermined, and, I remember people around me saying that “Well, Gorbachev is finished after hiding that from his own people, he will not be trusted in the West, he will not be trusted at home. He’s done.”
It turned out to be not the case again, he was able to regain his … the level of credibility in the country to launch his reforms. But I was really surprised when I was working now on the book to go through the KGB files and KGB archives now they became open in Ukraine after the protests, the Euromaidan revolution. So, and I see KGB reporting on the rumors among the general population and especially among the dissidents and they are quite accurate. That’s exactly what I heard from my friends and colleagues in the academic circles, that Gorbachev would be finished and KGB then reported that. Again, it didn’t turn out to be the case, but that was the reaction, that was the mood at the time among university professors, university students.
Peter B. Collins: Professor, as we look back at that period of time you referenced the KGB Archives, what other source material were you able to gain access to, and was this released by the Poroshenko government? Or, was it on some sort of a scheduled basis that had been put in place by previous leadership in Ukraine?
Serhii Plokhy: Well, the documents that I got access to were again KGB files and also the materials and proceedings of the government commission, the Ukrainian government commission that dealt with the issues of, not the scientific part of the problem itself and what to do with the reactor, but what to do with the population, for example, resettlement, the question of what levels of radiation are acceptable for the milk and what to do with contaminated milk and meat, and so on and so forth. Some of those materials were really, the process of the opening of the Ukrainian archive started a long time ago. The KGB archives is a more complex story. They started the process under President Yushchenko after the Orange Revolution of 2004. Then, the process was slowed down under the President Yanukovych, so the president against whom the protestant maidan took place in 2013 until he eventually found exile in Russia today.
After those Euromaidan protests, really a flood gate was opened, and the people were put in charge of the KGB archives was, real mission is to make them as open as possible, and, in that sense I was … the timing of my work on Chernobyl turned out to be really, I turned out to be quite lucky that I got access to the documents that otherwise probably I wouldn’t be able to see.
Peter B. Collins: One of the central figures in your book is Victor Bryukhanov, and he was an engineer but not a nuclear engineer, who was promoted to build and manage the complex that ultimately featured, what, four or five reactors at Chernobyl. Describe him for our listeners because he is a fascinating character who really did his best. He ended up doing jail time as one of the fall guys for the Chernobyl incident.
Serhii Plokhy: Well, one of the director of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant is the character that normally doesn’t appear in any major work or any book on Chernobyl because he is so controversial. On the one hand, he is the one who is responsible ultimately for what happened at the plant and was sent to prison for that. On the other hand, he is one of the victims as well, was exposed to radiation and really had relatively little to do with the accident itself. So, some people were just blaming him for what happened. Other people didn’t know what to do with him and i thought that his story is really very, very interesting and can be very productive in looking at this complexities of the picture as there is no just white and black in all that story.
I put together his story on the basis of numerous interviews that he had been giving to journalists. He was released from prison in 1991, and he was of course, and his wife on the mission to basically present themselves and their records as not as the record of perpetrators, but to a degree of victims. I understood that, and my main goal was to bring together the personal stories, people like Bryukhanov, with the archival documents that I found and make these things work and work together. But returning to Bryukhanov’s background as an engineer who was not an engineer specially trained in nuclear industry, this is a very interesting phenomenon generally for the Soviet nuclear industry at the time and something that is, again, very important for where we are today with our nuclear industry.
So, Bryukhanov is the so called first generation engineer when it comes to nuclear industry. People who, at the time of the mass kind of explosion and expansion of nuclear industry have been recruited there, they don’t have training, appropriate training. They don’t have … They were not groomed in that safety culture that has to be in the nuclear industry, have this can-do attitude no matter what and, in that sense that entire phenomenon of first generation nuclear engineer is enough, there’s not enough training and safety culture, is one of the contributing factor to Chernobyl.
When we will look today what is happening with the nuclear industry in the world, very few, it seems to me only two reactors are now under construction in the United States. Germany is going nuclear free. The same goal was set for, in front of Japanese government, Chinese were the main, kind of a contributor to the construction of new reactors in the last 10 years but now even they become cautious more and more cautious, and the new frontier is Middle East, so they just declared plans for the construction up to 40 reactors in the Middle East. This is the story which is very close to what we saw in Chernobyl on a number of levels.
One of them was, okay, there is just no trained, enough trained nuclear engineers, this nuclear safety culture doesn’t exist and, most of those places are authoritarian regimes that of course have complete control over the information. They are the ones who build the reactors. They’re the ones also who control the reactors, which is, again creates a quite dangerous situation, and this is one of the takeaways also and maybe lessons that come from Chernobyl that can be of use today.
Peter B. Collins: Well, and when we look at the tsunami, earthquake, and meltdown in Japan and we see the state of play here in the United States where there hasn’t been a plant built and brought in at the bid cost in at least 30 years. We have not resolved the issues of nuclear waste disposal or storage here in the United States, and, as I look at it, the best practices, the strongest models really are in France where the government has complete control of the nuclear industry and they completely reprocess all of the spent fuel, and that seems to me to be the state of the art. Can you comment?
Serhii Plokhy: Yeah, France depends on the nuclear energy probably more than any other country in the world. 75 percent of all electricity produced in France from nuclear; seems to me the nuclear industry here in the United States amounts for 20 percent or something like that; and the French didn’t have accidents of any notice since the beginning of their nuclear program. They’re now in charge of the construction. One of the firms is in the charge of the construction of the new shelter of the Chernobyl reactor, the firm called Novarka, so, in that sense, they’re really an example and part of that success is really the really strong role of the government in overseeing this program, so in that sense, they provide one possible way of how to deal with the dangers that come from nuclear industry.
Another factor that can help us is that, you don’t need really a nuclear disaster to happen in your own country. Once Chernobyl happened again, they were affected in Sweden, they were affected in Britain, they were affected in Poland, and now is the international community that picked up the bill for dealing with the disaster. The state that built the reactor that benefited from it, the Soviet Union is not there anymore. So what I’m trying to say is that the idea would be to take the best practices like they exist in France and bring them to other countries as well, especially to the countries where there is the first generation, as I said of nuclear engineers where there is no tradition of nuclear safety culture.
So, enforcing the … making even stronger than they’re today, the instruments for the international control over nuclear industry in other parts of the world because again, the nuclear industry is managed nationally as long as things go well, but it becomes an international problem once they don’t go well, and in that sense again, I look at two-prong approach, strengthening the role of the state, but also strengthening the role of international overseers in general.
Peter B. Collins: Well, I take your point and I submit that in Fukushima, we have not learned much.  We have downplayed the risk of radiation approaching the western coast of the United States. We had a system of radiation detectors and it turns out that many of them are not functional here, and, the radioactive water that has been pumped into the Sea of Japan from Fukushima gives me grave concern, but our official leaders and even our scientific leaders don’t appear to be helping the public understand the risks to any great degree. Would you agree?
Serhii Plokhy: Well, I certainly agree, and I can give you one example on how countries and governments react very differently to the nuclear danger depending on how dependent they are on nuclear energy at home. So the radioactive clouds that came from Chernobyl, they of course passed the entire Europe all the way to Britain causing a lot of anxiety and all sorts of measures, protective measures in Poland or in Germany, in Britain, but not in France. In France, there was complete silence. Allegedly, there were no Chernobyl effect or impact on France at all. The reason for that was that the importance and the power of the nuclear industry in that country. In Japan that depended enormously on nuclear power, when they were issuing in 1986, all sorts of comments, including it was G-7 on Chernobyl, the words that could potentially provoke some uneasiness of panic in Japan over their own nuclear industry were actually struck from the document a few months ago, that’s …  a very interesting work on that was published.
So, again, the governments react to very same phenomenon, to … is very different responses. One thing that is happening now is the nuclear industry which is worrisome for different reason and on a different level, in the last two years a number of major nuclear companies, including Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy. They can’t compete and they can’t compete not only with Shell gas, but today it would be easier to get a unit of energy produced by or cheaper to buy a unit of energy produced by renewables in Mexico than a unit of energy produced by a nuclear power plant in the United States. So for the first time we see the phenomenon where it’s not just the issue that the nuclear industries maybe not competitive on the basis that it is so dangerous, but it’s also economically, it’s difficult for them to compete.
I know that in Ukraine, the country still depends, 50 percent of its energy comes from …  50 percent of its electricity comes from nuclear energy. So the workers at the nuclear power plants, including one of them is the largest in Europe went on strike because they were not paid, and I just think what that means for the nuclear industry as a whole where there is no money, there is no resources, but there is this dangerous technology there, and as you said, the spent fuel. This is the problem with which we are burdening our children and grandchildren for, for thousands of years to come. I think that, well, nuclear energy never recovered from Chernobyl.
If you look at the graph of how many reactors were being built in the world, the peak comes in 1985, 1986. Then Fukushima delivered another major blow to the nuclear industry, and, now they really, the rise of renewables because the, before that the nuclear energy had this claim that, well if you, if you don’t like the climate change, we have clean energy, we can actually deliver that. Now it becomes more and more difficult to advance that claim and, there is a change in the industry and like any change it, especially with the nuclear industry, it’s the time to be very careful and to look what is happening there, and maybe intervene if necessary.
Peter B. Collins: Professor Plokhy, in the book you sum up the long term impact of Chernobyl. In Ukraine alone, close to 38,000 square kilometers, about five percent of the entire territory inhabited by about five percent of the population were contaminated by the explosion, even hit harder was Belarus with more than 44,000 square kilometers of land severely contaminated, about 23 percent of that republic’s territory, 19 percent of the population. And you talk about the impact in other areas of Russia contaminating up to 60,000 square kilometers. Then when you look at the official death toll, the total comes up to about 50 who died of acute radiation syndrome, another 29 or so from the immediate incident itself, but the long term impact on populations is much harder to track, and UN agencies have suggested as many as 90,000 people were subject to early mortality. Am I getting that right as a result of Chernobyl?
Serhii Plokhy: Yes. The UN estimate is low, it seems to me around 6,000 green pieces around 90, 000, and indeed it’s very difficult to basically figure out what the overall impact has been. We know for sure some of the figures and the number of people who died is one of them and now there is the spike of the cases of thyroid cancer among children in particular, so there are between four and 6,000 additional cases were registered, so that we know for sure that everyone agrees on that. With the rest it’s really very difficult to judge. The reason for that is that most of what we know about radiation comes from the explosions of nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The idea is that, it’s an enormous amount of radiation released over a very short period of time. Chernobyl is the other way around. It’s a lower dosages of radiation released over a longer period of time, and then getting into the soil, and living there for decades and hundreds of years, so, the poll, that the final poll of Chernobyl maybe we will be able to talk about that 40,000, 50,000 years from now, if the world is still around.
Peter B. Collins: Well, professor, I want to thank you for a fascinating book that unlocks a lot of the secrets and the hidden history of the nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl in 1986. The result of a testing during a planned shutdown that went horribly awry, and, as I say, you introduce us to many characters, you define the frame of Soviet operations at the time, the way the government worked and didn’t work, and it is just a fascinating look that is a very interesting read and you bring these characters to life in such a fascinating way.
As we close the interview, I just can’t resist asking you to spend a minute or two telling our listeners about Efim Slavsky, and maybe this is just the curiosity of transliteration, but his job title was Minister of Medium Machine Building, and he was a central figure in the Soviet nuclear weapons and nuclear generation industries. Is that correct?
Serhii Plokhy: Yes, yes. He was not just one of the most powerful, he was the most powerful figure and minister in the Soviet government for at least 30 years, so, he was one of the early participants of the Soviet Atomic Project, one of the fathers of the Soviet atomic and then hydrogen bomb, and since late 1950s he was the minister of this strange creation Ministry of Medium Machine Building, which was basically a Soviet nuclear industry, top secret Soviet nuclear industry. Under him were military units and, so he was presiding over the entire empire. The Institute of Nuclear Energy was not the institute or, that belonged to the Academy of Sciences, like most of the institutes did, but belongs to Slavsky’s ministry, and the director of that institute, Mr. Alexander, one of the scientific advisors for the creators of that Chernobyl type reactor, he was also the president of the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union.
Slavsky owned … Alexander [inaudible 00:41:33] owned the Institute and owned the Academy of Sciences, so that was the power of the nuclear project in the Soviet Union and the person who was presiding over it since the late 1950s. Eventually he was also put in charge of creating of this, what became known as sarcophagus, so burying the reactor, he did that and was quietly retired after that, so the entire era ended with that. But his dream was to stay in his position until he was 100 years old. He was already in his 80s, still in good health and was exposed and over exposed dozens of times to high levels of radiation. Again, he started in the 1940s and 1950s where the nuclear safety was nonexistent, and, again, his career ended with Chernobyl, which I also write in the book that, that was also turning the page on a particular, the most dangerous part of the Soviet nuclear program.
Peter B. Collins: Well, professor, thank you for joining us today. Thank you for a fascinating book. I highly recommend Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe. We’ve been speaking with Professor Serhii Plokhy.
Serhii Plokhy: Thank you.  It was a pleasure. Thanks for having me Peter.
Peter B. Collins: Thanks for listening to this conversation with Professor Serhii Plokhy. I welcome your comments and feedback. You can email Peter at  Peterbcollins.com , and if you’re able, I hope you’ll make a financial contribution to support the investigative journalism here at WhoWhatWhy.

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2 responses to “Chernobyl: The Nuclear Disaster That Helped Destroy a Regime”

  1. Thomas says:

    Why any leader of any country would want to release a nuclear attack on another nation shows they are not really in power for the long haul. One can look at pictures of and read reports on areas that had been subjected to the devastation that is left behind. Just Google the Chernobyl disaster.
    Can anyone imagine the major cities of the USA or of any country being destroyed to the point of being uninhabitable for many decades?
    Any nuclear attack anywhere on the world would leave nothing for the conquering world power to use.

  2. dutch says:

    I look forward to reading the book. Just a couple of comments on the interview: The radioactive contamination in air and water reaching the US from Fukushima was measured very accurately and was in fact trivial. Peter’s concerns are misplaced. Our lab in Albany, NY measured airborne contamination in real time during the event and obtained results consistent with other laboratories around the world. There were certainly no potential health effects outside of Japan. As for the economics of nuclear vis a vis renewables it’s hard to say how this will play out, especially since public perceptions weigh heavily on the regulatory costs imposed upon nuclear. Even so we must not forget the enormous footprint that will be required in order to replace all the power generated from nuclear with renewables. Large swathes of countryside will necessarily be given over to renewable power plants.