#6 The politics of Chernobyl

Posted by RDN under Mind & body on 22 January 2011

To a surprising degree, it suited many parties – governments, journalists, and campaigners – to exaggerate the consequences of Chernobyl, and then to blame them on the Soviet regime.

Chernobyl became part of the means of beating the dying old regime (and later its memory) but it also became a rallying point for the nationalism of the newly-independent states of Belorussia and Ukraine and a means to secure funding for them.

So, in the late 80s, the new owners of the Chernobyl plant – the Ukrainians – found it convenient to note that the plant had been designed, built and run (and regulated) by a Soviet system whose real power lay in Moscow. It was often convenient, in those years, to push for approaches which seemed “Ukrainian”, and designed to help Ukrainians, rather than  “Soviet” and designed to suit the system.

Thus, for instance, it suited Kiev to claim that Moscow had been dilatory about evacuation of contaminated people and places – and to press for action. But actually, it was very far from clear that evacuation made much sense.

Chernobyl and the end of the Soviet Union

In the last years of Soviet rule, it suited the USSR to claim that there was no safe dose of radiation. It was able to cover up its own nuclear accidents and their fall-out, but to emphasise both the dangers of accidents such as Three Mile Island, in the US, and of nuclear warheads (which it said it was keen to dismantle in the face of US intransigence)…

In the last years of Soviet rule, it suited the USSR to claim that there was no safe dose of radiation. It was able to cover up its own nuclear accidents and their fall-out, but to emphasise both the dangers of accidents such as Three Mile Island, in the US, and of nuclear warheads (which it said it was keen to dismantle in the face of US intransigence).

Come the Chernobyl accident, and there were varied responses within the Moscow elites. The immediate problem was to mobilise the forces of the state to stop the fire, seal the station, help the afflicted, and manage the news. All but the last were quite well done (though mistakes were of course made).

The state had to decide where to lay the blame for the accident. But almost as big was the problem of deciding what the consequences were, and – very differently – what to say about them.

The decision was taken to lay the public blame for the accident as far down the chain of command as possible – that is to say, on the ChNPP management and staff. In private, the state punished more senior designers and planners. But in public, the overwhelming blame attached to people working at the plant.

Once that was done, it became safer to admit that the consequences were serious. Indeed it fitted the pattern of discussing radiation as a diabolical force (which, in very different circumstances, the West might well unleash).

What is more, so far as the consequences went, it suited both the West and the Soviets to stick as closely as possible to some agreed “facts” about the consequences.

Chernobyl and Western politics

Many Western politicians were in no mood to beat-up Moscow too severely about the Chernobyl accident. They were mostly quite keen to support Mikhail Gorbachev as a man one “could do business with” (in Margaret Thatcher?s words), and who was trying to take the USSR in broadly the right direction…

Many Western politicians were in no mood to beat-up Moscow too severely about the Chernobyl accident. They were mostly quite keen to support Mikhail Gorbachev as a man one “could do business with” (in Margaret Thatcher’s words), and who was trying to take the USSR in broadly the right direction. They thought he was being quite open about Chernobyl and that his being so was a sign of improvement on a wider front. Piling on the agony might backfire by slowing his wider political progress.

The Western public, however, were alarmed, and highly precautionary measures were taken when the radiation from Chernobyl reached northern Europe. At least in the UK measures which were arguably excessive (very strict controls were put on meat produced on “contaminated” grass, with very little evidence that anyone faced anything like a problem from it).

But there was another reason why Western leaders were anxious not to overplay Chernobyl. While they did not believe that it was likely to be replicated in their own countries, no-one could say that such a thing would not happen. And in any case, anxiety about radiation was something which could get out of hand, whatever its source. Western leaders, on the whole, had a good deal to gain from a rational approach to this hazard.

But whilst some countries (Sweden, Austria and Germany, in particular) became more or less officially anti-nuclear, many – including some which said they wanted to renounce it – were stuck with running nuclear power. In many countries, it was not a technology which could be safely rubbished. Nor could they risk exaggerating the effects of its radiation, whether planned or not.

They neither wanted panic about Chernobyl’s fall-out nor increased anxiety about the risks of Western nuclear power stations.

There was a good deal of concern about the risks – real and imagined – of Soviet (shortly to be ex-Soviet) nuclear power stations, not least the remaining three plants at Chernobyl.

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