Nuclear Reaction: Serhii Plokhy on how Chernobyl fuelled Glasnost

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  • 25 June 2019
Nuclear Reaction: Serhii Plokhy on how Chernobyl fuelled Glasnost

© Niels Ackermann

Harvard professor and expert on 1986 nuclear disaster delivers The Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction Lecture at this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival

The explosion in 1986 changed everything for the nuclear industry as Serhii Plokhy chronicles in Chernobyl, History of a Tragedy, which won The Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction. He revisited Chernobyl with Malcolm Borthwick, editor of Trust.

'These buildings are the tombstones of the dreams and lives that were lived here. It's a huge cemetery of dreams, if not of people.' From the top of an old Soviet apartment block, Serhii Plokhy looks over Pripyat. 'On the one hand it looks like a normal city, on the other hand you see windows without glass, streets without people and town squares taken over by forests.' Now the ghost town is used by the Ukrainian army for sniper practice and has also become a tourist attraction.

It's a far cry from the Pripyat founded in 1970 to support the Soviet Union's burgeoning nuclear industry. Then, the city had a population of 50,000 and supplied the construction workers and operators for the nearby Chernobyl plant, which opened in 1977. 'The nuclear power plant was a major technological innovation at the time,' says Plokhy. 'It was the way to go for the entire world, a symbol of the future of human kind.' Ukraine was a sought-after place for Soviets to live and the government prioritised food (scarce at the time) and facilities for 'nuclear cities'.

But at 1.23am on 26 April 1986 an explosion at the Chernobyl Unit Four plant changed everything for the people of Pripyat and the entire world. The blast was due to a turbine test that went badly wrong. In his book Plokhy describes how initially the authorities were in denial and blamed human error in their attempts to cover up the disaster. Through meticulous research of memoirs and KGB files he shows that, while mistakes were made, the roots of the disaster lay in the Soviet system. Specifically, the authoritarian character of the Communist Party and how it prioritised economic development over humanitarian and ecological concerns.

Thirty-three years and billions of pounds later, Ukraine is still dealing with the radioactive fallout. We look at the giant concrete and metal arch, 110 meters high and weighing 36,000 tonnes, which seals off the radioactive sarcophagus. The structure is estimated to have cost 1.5 billion euros (£1.2 billion). 'It doesn't address the issue because we don't know what reactions are happening within the fuel in the power plant,' says Plokhy. 'The real way to deal with that is to get the fuel out but that would cost billions and billions more. The arch is covering the problem without solving the problem.' To put this in perspective, the half-life of plutonium-239 which was released by the blast is 24,000 years.

Our guide brings out her radiation counter again and says that during our seven hour visit to the zone we were exposed to less radiation than we would be on a normal two-hour plane journey. I'm not sure if this is reassuring or not as my thoughts turn to the flight home.

The full version of this article originally appeared in Trust Magazine. Serhii Plokhy delivers The Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction Lecture at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Wed 14 Aug at 7.15pm. Read more articles like this.

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