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History through a Fissionable Lens: 35 Years of the Chernobyl Disaster

Anushka Saxena is a graduating student of History from Lady Shri Ram College for Women. Her research interests include Maritime Geopolitics, International Trade and Security Studies.
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  • June 10, 2021

    On April 26, 1986, the fourth reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, while undergoing safety tests, suffered an explosion and went up in flames. A day prior, a workers-day-off at Chernobyl had disrupted the overall flow of work. Safety tests mandated to be run in the day-time were scheduled for the night-shift. The purpose of these tests was simple — to test if the plant can run on a generator if there is a disruption in the electric power supply. These tests, however, resulted in the catastrophic accident.

    The wind-blown radioactive isotopes were first registered and detected by Scandinavian countries, mainly Sweden and Finland.1 The news of the accident was made public by the Swedish National Institute of Radiation Protection. The Soviet government clamped down heavily on the flow of information relating to the accident. Even the USSR report of the incident, presented at the Chernobyl conference in Vienna in 1987, was never released to its citizens.2

    The destruction of Chernobyl’s Reactor 4 released a cloud of radionuclides that contaminated large areas of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. Thousands of workers participated in the mitigation efforts, and got exposed to substantial radiation doses. Nearly eight lakh hectares of agricultural land was rendered unusable in these countries, and timber production was halted on nearly seven lakh hectares of forest.3

    The accident highlighted the deficiencies in Soviet nuclear reactor safety protocols, along with inadequacies in reactor design. Valery Legaslov, the Chief of the Commission that investigated the Chernobyl disaster, expressed concern about the safety of similar nuclear reactors operating in Russia and around the world.4 Anatoly Dyatlov, the leading scientist responsible for the tests conducted on the Chernobyl reactors in April 1986, was tried and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment in 1987, for violating safety standards.

    The primary issue of concern in the immediate aftermath of the accident was the laxity shown by the authorities in evacuating people from the affected zone. The evacuation of the town of Pripyat, where plant workers lived, for instance, did not start until 36 hours after the disaster. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, in a television address on May 14, 1986, however, affirmed that the government had dealt with the evacuation and safety procedures effectively and criticised Western media for spreading “lies” and “misinformation”.5

    Lessons Learned

    In the aftermath of Chernobyl, robust efforts were undertaken to strengthen nuclear safety. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), for instance, started the Fuel Incident Notification and Analysis System (FINAS), in 1992. It is jointly managed by the IAEA and the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).6 FINAS helps participating countries exchange best practices to improve the safety of nuclear fuel cycle facilities. FINAS has become a significant source of information for nuclear regulators and their technical support organisations.

    The IAEA Operational Safety Review Teams (OSART) — which first began functioning in 1982 after the Three-Mile Island accident in the US, review the operational safety of nuclear power stations on the territory of member states.7 As of December 2020, the IAEA had conducted 210 OSART missions at 118 nuclear power plants in 37 Member States, with 151 follow-up visits as part of the missions.8

    OSART monitoring process involves technical and organisational reviews by international experts, who identify lacunae and key areas needing improvement on nuclear sites, and provide relevant recommendations. Safety-issues of nuclear plant(s) are monitored on a case-by-case basis as well, not just for government nuclear facilities, but for corporate facilities as well (through the Corporate OSART Missions). The safety culture can also be assessed, either as part of OSARTs or a standalone request, by an additional mechanism known as the Independent Safety Culture Assessment (ISCA).

    The Chernobyl Forum was formed in 2003, made up of the IAEA, the World Health Organisation (WHO), the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the World Bank Group, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), along with representatives from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The Forum released a comprehensive report in 2005, along with a set of guidelines and recommendations for the governments of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine to mitigate the long-term impact of radiation, including New Safe Confinement (NSC) shelters.9

    A massive containment structure made of shelter and steel was constructed around Chernobyl’s Reactor 4 in 1986. With aid from the G-7 and the European Commission, a new safe confinement structure was completed in 2019.10 Recent reports note that there is an increase in neutron formation inside Chernobyl’s Reactor Four containment structure due to seepage of rain water and that scientists are contemplating using technological solutions like robots to manage the situation.11

    Collectively, EU countries have contributed approximately €600 million for Chernobyl projects since 1991. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development set up a Nuclear Safety Account (NSA) in 1993, so as to seek international cooperation in mitigating the impact of nuclear disasters like that at Chernobyl. Funds collected account have been used to improve the functioning of nuclear power projects in countries like Bulgaria, Lithuania and Russia.12

    The EU also provides assistance (technical, educational, and regulatory) to nations under the nuclear safety component of the Technical Assistance to the Commonwealth of Independent States (TACIS) programme, which has now evolved into a separate programme called European Instrument for Nuclear Safety Cooperation (INSC).13

    Popular Narrative and Perception Management

    Given that the Chernobyl incident happened during the closing stages of the Cold War, it became an important event for highlighting the inadequacies of the Soviet nuclear industry and the government. The propaganda around Chernobyl, even after the end of the Cold War, remains alive. The dramatic incident has been adapted into many film and TV projects. The most recent and prominent was the HBO Miniseries, ‘Chernobyl’. The show, aired first on May 6, 2019, makes the painstaking effort of reminding us that despite all our scientific progress, unheard or suppressed voices, fumbling governance, and taken-for-granted technological flaws can bring life as we know it, to a grinding halt. The American show, however, was criticized by some elements of the Russian media for allegedly misconstruing facts to insult the Russian Federation and its continuing efforts to uphold the legacy of the Chernobyl survivors and scientists.14

    Conclusion

    Currently, nine RBMK-1000 reactor-powered nuclear plants, incorporating enhanced safety designs, continue to run in the Russian cities of Smolensk, Kursk and St. Petersburg. The Chernobyl accident occurred only seven years after the partial meltdown at the Three-Mile Island nuclear reactor complex in the US. Nuclear disasters like those at the Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima teach us that, sometimes, man-made technology can dangerously slip out of hand. Nuclear safety has come a long way since then, and so has the representation of facts and opinions about the incident. History is both a burden to bear and an opportunity to learn, and learning from the Chernobyl disaster should be a continuing, ongoing process.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.

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