Premium

Nuclear disaster as classical tragedy: Chernobyl by Serhii Plokhy

A former home in the empty zone around Chernobyl 
A former home in the empty zone around Chernobyl  Credit: Getty Images

April 26 1986 was so nearly Europe's Armageddon. In the same month that its largest shopping mall opened - the MetroCentre in Gateshead, no less – and George Michael's A Different Corner basked for three weeks at number one, in an unknown corner of the continent the clock started to tick on the end of Europe as we knew it.

The nuclear explosion at Chernobyl at 83 minutes past midnight on that Saturday morning looks inevitable, more than three decades later.

It was the result of a mishandled safety test in one of the power station's High Power Channel (RBMK) reactors, which happened in the wake of almost scripted signposts: a bullish Party Congress in Moscow two months earlier; a demand for more RBMK power stations to defibrillate a lifeless Soviet economy; an accelerated schedule to build them; the over-confidence of technocrats who - with that Russian gift for untamed metaphor - claimed the design was so safe you could build one under a newly-weds' bed. It was an accident begging to happen.

The aftermath, of a disaster eventually averted, feels inevitable too, with radiation deaths, yes, and 350,000 people evacuated, and radioactive plumes billowing for weeks across Belarus and north-west Europe; but ultimately business as usual. As I write, Russia still operates 11 RBMK reactors, in St Petersburg, Kursk and Smolensk.

But we live in the present, with its array of unknown possibilities, and as the sun rose on April 26, the status of the present was that no one at Chernobyl knew what had happened or how it would end. Firefighters kicked aside luminous silvery debris on the holed reactor roof, not knowing that it was graphite and radioactive fuel. They pulled fuel rods out of their punctured truck tyres and the skin peeled off their hands. They had excruciating headaches and nausea.

A few days later, as radiation borne on the breeze drifted into the hollow of Kiev's main avenue, Mikhail Gorbachev threatened Ukraine's leader, Volodymyr Shcherbystsky, with expulsion from the Communist Party if he did not start the annual May Day parade.

Chernobyl stricken reactor number four as it looks today  Credit: Andrew Osborn 

Just 55 miles away, the temperature of the broken reactor was rising by 100 degrees a day, terrifying Gorbachev's advisers with the prospect of a second, huge steam explosion that would hurl enough radiation into the atmosphere to poison, fatally, the whole of Europe, if not most of the world.

Armageddon was prevented by three engineers, who dived into the water reservoir beneath the reactor and opened the valves to drain away 20,000 tons of radioactive water. They were aware that it could be a suicide mission, because the water was emitting one curie of ionising radiation per litre in places.

Indeed, all three died within weeks from radiation poisoning, according to Serhii Plokhy in his fascinating, if wordy, hour-by-hour history of the disaster. He details many acts of individual bravery, and they were countless: 340,000 military and scientific personnel helped to decontaminate the site.

In the years afterwards, you could always find someone in Ukraine with a Chernobyl story to tell. In the mid-Nineties I got helplessly drunk for several nights in a row on a riverboat down the Dnieper with a friendly engineer who was dying from leukaemia, emptying glass after glass of vodka, having flown for several days and nights over the reactor in an unshielded helicopter, directing the dumping of sand and lead into its raging core.

But the bigger picture of Chernobyl is seen most clearly in the classical terms of tragedy, as an expression of the fatal flaws of a Soviet state and its leading actors. One figure stands centre-stage in Plokhy's account. Valery Legasov was a 49-year-old nuclear scientist, who served as chief adviser on the ground in Chernobyl after the explosion. He initially believed blindly in the safety of RBMK reactors. But he was also brilliantly able, conscientious, and - his tragic flaw in the Soviet system - a believer in the truth.

Working at the reactor site, he convinced his political bosses to evacuate all civilians and eliminated the threat of a catastrophic poisoning of the water table by insisting on filtering all the water pumped from underneath the reactor. Having become aware of fatal safety issues that had enabled the explosion, he reported truthfully to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna that summer on the RBMK reactor's design flaws. His scientific colleagues in Russia shunned him. In April 1988 he hanged himself.

One of Legasov's last articles had been about the necessity for the priority of science over production quotas. His argument perfectly encapsulates the inhuman opposition that has run through Russian history and politics for hundreds of years, between the demands of the state and the individual intellect, crushed like "a rose under a bulldozer".

A warning sign at the entrance to the Chernobyl exclusion zone Credit: Petr Shelomovskiy

As a Ukrainian, Plokhy rightly identifies Chernobyl as a moment of awakening for his country. Ukrainian writers stopped writing novels to lead mass protests against the building of new reactors on Ukrainian soil, and "the shock wave of Chernobyl [started] to destroy the foundations of the Soviet Union".

In his last book, Lost Kingdom, a study of Russian nationalism, Plokhy pointed out how the imposition of force by a centralised power trying to preserve its status led to both Chernobyl and Russia's 2014 invasion of Ukraine, and that such force will eventually only betray that power's weakness.

A prolific author - at least a book a year for the past five years - Plokhy must be a thorn in Russia's side, a tenured Harvard professor firing annual intercontinental historical correctives targeted at the Kremlin, Russia's Great-Power attitudinising and Putin's vanity.

Chernobyl is full of those correctives, and no one in Moscow, notably Gorbachev, comes off well, although I was surprised that one story I inquired further into, about the fate of the suicide-squad divers, looked pretty wobbly: Andrew Leatherbarrow's 2016 book, Chernobyl 01:23:40, persuasively rejects the claim that they died from acute radiation poisoning, with evidence that all three lived on well into the next century.

One of the most compelling perspectives the bigger tragedy gives us is that individual fates matter hugely, alongside the grand thematising about planetary destruction, political hubris, and the ultimate feebleness of centralised power.

We read it in the backstories of scientists, of Party men and KGB officers, of generals, conscripts and firefighters. Of the firefighters' wives, who followed their husbands to Moscow and forced their way into the radiation hospital to see them. Of the old man with his horse, ploughing alongside men frantically filling sacks with sand. It's as if the implacably monstrous story demands the continuous animation given to it by the presence of humans, in order for us to make emotional sense of it.

The Nobel Prize-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich understood that necessity instinctively in her marvellous oral history, Chernobyl Prayer (2005).

If Plokhy stages his tragedy in history's amphitheatre, Alexievich puts it in a Soviet kitchen or living room, where a member of the tragic chorus suddenly breaks ranks and speaks in a small, sweet voice of unimaginably awful things and the desperate grief that comes after.

A phrase in Alexievich's book chimed repeatedly with a sensation I had when reading Plokhy's. "I felt like I was recording the future," she writes. For Chernobyl reminds us again, repeatedly, of how we live in the present and how our future, particularly our technological future, is completely unknown to us. We know human beings can create unexampled feats of science and engineering. But nobody has yet worked out how to stop human beings cutting corners, chasing deadlines and quotas, putting output or profit before safety, evading responsibility, embracing hubris. Right at this moment, another Chernobyl could be in preparation, and you and I have no idea.

Chernobyl by Serhii Plokhy is published by Allen Lane for £20.  Call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookstore to order for £16.99