Chernobyl disaster worker: "We had no instructions or action plan"
April 26 marks the anniversary of the nuclear disaster at Chornobyl, Ukraine, in 1986. The accident exposed fundamental flaws in the Soviet system, including widespread professional incompetence, lies at all levels of Soviet society, and a stale and secretive bureaucracy that ran all the way to the top. An estimated 4000 Soviet citizens either died immediately as a result of the disaster, have prematurely died from cancers and other such long-term illnesses caused by toxic radiation, or could be expected to die in the future as such.
At 1:23am on April 26, 1986, nuclear reactor number four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near the Ukrainian town of Pripyat, exploded. Vast amounts of dangerous radioactive material were flung near and far, descending especially on the Soviet Socialist Republics of Ukraine and Belarus, and to a lesser extent the rest of the Soviet Union and Europe.
The blast and ensuing fire produced a radioactive cloud ten times deadlier than that produced by the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The explosion, which ironically occurred during a failed safety test, was caused by a combination of a flawed reactor design and inadequately trained personnel. These deficiencies, it turned out, were just the tip of the iceberg.
A criminal cover up
“No special measures, including evacuation of the population, are needed” read the initial report received by General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev on April 26 from the first deputy minister of energy and electrification. The fire had been contained, and the power station remained intact. A commission to investigate the incident was formed, but no further action was taken.
This false assessment from Chornobyl officials came out of fear of blame for the accident, and could not have been further from the truth. The reactor was destroyed, people were dying, and life in the affected regions was under threat.
Over the coming days, the seriousness of the situation became apparent. More than 336,000 residents were eventually evacuated from danger zones, but for many this came too late as their bodies had already absorbed dangerous levels of radiation.
Some 600,000 so-called ‘liquidators’, including military personnel, engineers, doctors, miners, and scientists, took part in the effort to contain the disaster and secure the surrounding area in a 30-kilometer exclusion zone. Their actions, which included removing contaminated soil and rubble, securing rivers from radiation, and providing critical medical care for hundreds of thousands of affected civilians, were nothing short of heroic.
They were not, however, well prepared for their task. Valdis Zatlers, a medical officer who participated in the decontamination operations and later became the President of Latvia, recalled his first night in Chornobyl:
“They told us to go to bed under the open sky. We spent the first night in the Chernobyl zone on the ground, which was saturated with radioactive elements – 30 kilometres from the reactor”.
Of his work in the zone, he recalled:
“It would be naïve to think that as doctors, we dealt with medical issues there. No one examined the liquidators. Our main task was to remove… the top layer of radioactive contaminated soil, then load it onto trucks, which in turn transported it to [waste disposal sites]”.
He and his comrades were shocked at the incompetence of the military leadership overseeing the operation. “We had no instructions or action plan”, he claimed. “There was only one rule – think how to cope on your own”.
The noble self-sacrifice of the liquidators contrasted starkly with the inaction displayed by the Soviet Government. The world did not learn of the accident from Soviet officials, but from Swedish nuclear engineers. Only two days after the accident was a small public announcement on the explosion made, but only to reassure the people that the necessary steps to manage the emergency were being taken. As usual, Soviet state media sought to make the bad news go away by simply ignoring it.
Despite his recently announced policy of glasnost ('openness' or 'transparency'), Gorbachev did not front his country on national television until weeks later on May 14, and even then much of his talk focused on attacking the Western press. Government secrecy had deadly consequences for Soviet citizens.
By May 1, the Politburo was much better informed on the real state of affairs. But by the time the official silence was broken, it was too late. The traditional May Day (International Workers’ Day) celebrations were allowed to go ahead in cities in range of the fallout. Thousands gathered in nearby Kyiv, many children among them. As they and citizens across the Union marched in celebration of Soviet glory past statues of Lenin in public squares, they were immersing themselves in a poisonous cloud of radiation.
The disaster cost the already struggling Soviet budget 8-10 billion rubles. The political fallout was enormous. Gorbachev, who only visited Chornobyl in February 1989, made scapegoats out of the Soviet atomic industry, lambasting them for their “servility” and “bootlicking”.
In fact, this criticism was misplaced. The Soviet nuclear science industry was one of the few branches of the state that could boast world-class achievements. Nevertheless, Gorbachev used the accident as a springboard to attack the party bureaucracy and argue for revolutionary changes in Soviet state structures.
None of this political posturing mattered much to the thousands that were displaced, disabled, or killed by the Chornobyl disaster. For all their valour, liquidator veterans were not well looked after. Zatlers alleged:
“At first, they promised the liquidators that they would work a bit in Chernobyl and then they would receive two months of sanatorium in Sochi, where they would bathe, sunbathe, etc. They also promised an apartment after returning home, a bonus, cash allowances. Nothing like that happened, these were just empty promises”.
Zatlers would, only decades later, be awarded the Order of Freedom by the President of Ukraine for his role as a liquidator.
The disaster tarnished the domestic reputation of the Soviet Government. It strengthened anti-Soviet sentiment in the affected republics, especially Ukraine, whose calls for increased autonomy grew into demands for complete independence. This ideal was finally achieved with the Soviet collapse in 1991.
Nevertheless, the ‘Chornobyl deception’ was maintained, in part, by the Soviet Government for years to come. From 1988 to 1991, a secret decree was issued prohibiting Soviet doctors from citing radiation as a cause of death. The decree was issued by Boris Shcherbina, the deputy Prime Minister who himself had been exposed to high doses of radiation from his time in Chornobyl. When Shcherbina died in 1990, the cause of death was marked “unspecified”.
Duke University Department of Political Science. “Collapse - The Fall of the Soviet Union with Vladislav M. Zubok”. Duke University History and International Security Series event, 1:09:09. https://youtu.be/OFjQpGXm56A
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Remnick, David. Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire. New York: Random House, 1993.
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Taubman, William. Gorbachev: His Life and Times. London: Simon and Schuster, 2017.
Zubok, Vladislav M.. Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021.