Wall Street History
This past March I was in Kiev, Ukraine, and went to the
Chernobyl museum there. I meant to write of the 20th
anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear accident closer to the
April 26 date but another series, and my trip to Asia, got in the
way. So here we go.
On the evening of April 25, 1986, workers were shutting down
one of four reactors at the Chornobyl (the correct spelling, but
from here on I’ll employ the more commonly used ‘Chernobyl’)
nuclear power plant for regular maintenance. But they decided
to use the exercise to conduct a safety test; to see if, in the event
of a shutdown, enough electricity remained in the grid to power
the systems that cooled the reactor core, so they turned off the
emergency cooling system .a totally unauthorized action.
For various reasons, including a design flaw in this particular
model of reactor, a chain reaction of events was then set in
motion and at 1:23 am on April 26, there was a power surge, and
then a series of chemical explosions that were so powerful they
blew the 1,000 ton cover off the top of the reactor.
A phone call woke Lyudmilla Shashenok in the middle of the
night. Her husband had been involved in an accident at
Chernobyl. At first she thought it was nothing serious, but when
she went to the hospital she realized it was far worse.
“It was not my husband at all, it was a swollen blister,” she told
the Associated Press. He was connected to a breathing apparatus
and Lyudmilla, a nurse, told her husband, Volodymyr, “This is
the end.” He died a few hours later.
Volodymyr and 30 others, 29 of whom were firefighters, died
either that day or within two months from radiation poisoning.
All were buried in lead-shelled coffins. They were heroes.
You have to picture that the firemen from both the plant and the
nearby city of Pripyat were sent into a raging, radiation-filled
inferno but somehow put out the main blaze. At the museum in
Kiev (70 miles from Chernobyl), they have some of the uniforms
worn by those first firefighters and it was truly pitiful; basically
nothing more than a poncho and a gas mask.
But then in the first hours and days, few realized just how bad
the situation was. More radioactivity was spewed into the air
than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs combined.
April 26 was a Saturday and while the fire at Unit Four was put
out, the people of Pripyat, a model town built to house power
station staff and their families and just one mile from the plant,
celebrated in the unusually warm spring weather. Sixteen
weddings took place.
But the radiation was spreading, unevenly, across much of
Ukraine and Belarus, though it wasn’t until early on Monday
morning, April 28, that Swedish authorities sounded the alarm,
having detected fallout twice the normal levels found in the
atmosphere in their own country. When confronted, Soviet
authorities refused to admit that anything out of the ordinary had
occurred. Swedish diplomats threatened to file an alert with the
International Atomic Energy Authority and, finally, at 9 pm,
Moscow issued a terse, five-sentence statement:
“An accident has occurred at Chernobyl nuclear power station.
One of the atomic reactors has been damaged. Measures are
being taken to eliminate the consequences of the accident. Aid is
being given to the victims. A government commission has been
It took two weeks for Soviet officials to begin to really come
“Until now the possibility of a catastrophe really did exist: A
great quantity of fuel and graphite of the reactor was in an
incandescent state,” said nuclear physicist Yevgeny Velikhov.
Incredibly, it took 36 hours before authorities decided to
evacuate Pripyat, while the evacuation of nearby villages took
several more days. Meanwhile, in Kiev, five days after the
accident citizens went ahead with May Day celebrations.
Outside the Soviet Union, where information was more free-
flowing, it was nonetheless difficult separating fact from fiction.
On April 30, for example, CBS News anchor Dan Rather spoke
of “enhanced eye-in-the-sky views that U.S. intelligence says is a
reactor-gone-wild still in progress and a second reactor possibly
melting down.” Death tolls of up to 2,000 were being reported
by UPI and parroted on the networks.
As it turns out there was little chance of the initial fire spreading
after day one, but in the first week of May radiation releases
began rising again, and there was a very real fear the molten
reactor core “would either burn its way through the base of the
reactor, or that the base would collapse, bringing the molten
nuclear fuel into explosive contact with a reservoir of water
beneath.” [BBC News]
The concern was not just that the second explosion could be
worse than the first, but that the water supply for Kiev could be
Yevgeny Velikhov told Pravda on May 13, “The reactor is
damaged. Its heart is the white hot core. It is as though in
suspension Down below, in a special reservoir, there might be
“How would the white-hot core of the reactor behave? Would
we manage to keep it intact or would it go down into the earth?
No one in the world has ever been in such a complex position.”
But despite all the heroic measures taken on the ground,
including the fighting of the fire and the erecting of a vast
concrete and steel sarcophagus above the reactor that summer, a
danger still exists to this day and a new sarcophagus is being
built to cover the damaged reactor. In addition, an 18-mile
exclusion zone is still in place and Chernobyl remains one of
the most radioactive spots on Earth.
Mikhail Gorbachev had been in power for only about a year
when Chernobyl was struck by disaster. It took two weeks
before he came before the Soviet people and the world.
“Good evening, comrades. All of you know that there has been
an incredible misfortune – the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear
plant. It has painfully affected the Soviet people, and shocked
the international community. For the first time, we confront the
real force of nuclear energy, out of control.”
This year, to mark the 20-year anniversary, Gorbachev wrote an
opinion piece that I first saw in the Daily Star. Following are a
“The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl even more than my
launch of perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse
of the Soviet Union five years later. Indeed, the Chernobyl
catastrophe was a historic turning point: there was the era before
the disaster, and there is the very different era that has followed.
“The morning of the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear station
on April 26, 1986, the Politburo met to discuss the situation, and
then organized a government commission to deal with the
consequences. The commission was to control the situation, and
to ensure that serious measures were taken, particularly in regard
to people’s health in the disaster zone. Moreover, the Academy
of Science established a group of leading scientists, who were
immediately dispatched to the Chernobyl region.
“The Politburo did not immediately have appropriate information
that accurately reflected the situation after the explosion.
Nevertheless, it was the general consensus of the Politburo that
we should openly deliver the information upon receiving it. This
would be in the spirit of the glasnost policy that was by then
already established in the Soviet Union.
“Thus, claims that the Politburo engaged in concealment of
information about the disaster is far from the truth .
“In fact, nobody knew the truth, and that is why all our attempts
to receive full information about the extent of the catastrophe
were in vain. We initially believed that the main impact of the
explosion would be in Ukraine, but Belarus, to the northwest,
was hit even worse, and then Poland and Sweden suffered the
“Of course, the world first learned of the Chernobyl disaster from
Swedish scientists, creating the impression that we were hiding
something. But in truth we had nothing to hide, as we simply
had no information for a day and a half. Only a few days later,
we learned that what happened was not a simple accident, but a
genuine nuclear catastrophe – an explosion of Chernobyl’s fourth
“Although the first report on Chernobyl appeared in Pravda on
April 28, the situation was far from clear. For example, when the
reactor blew up, the fire was immediately put out with water,
which only worsened the situation as nuclear particles began
spreading through the atmosphere .
“(Chernobyl) opened my eyes like nothing else: it showed the
horrible consequences of nuclear power, even when it is used for
non-military purposes. One could now imagine much more
clearly what might happen if a nuclear bomb exploded.
According to scientific experts, one SS-18 rocket could contain a
Now some of the above is a bit disingenuous on the part of Mr.
Gorbachev and part damage control as well as legacy building.
The Soviet Union handled the situation miserably, but at least
Gorbachev began to see the light.
As for Chernobyl’s lasting impact, coupled with Three Mile
Island it has certainly been far-lasting on the nuclear power
industry, particularly in the United States. Proponents of
this power source are paying the price for incredible
incompetence and, in the case of Chernobyl, a poorly designed
model of which about 11 still exist in Eastern Europe today.
The human toll is less certain. Estimates on deaths directly
related to April 26, 1986, vary from 4,000 to up to 90,000. The
former is probably closer to the truth when one looks at the
prevalence of thyroid cancer in the contaminated areas. The
estimate of the economic cost ranges into the $hundreds of
Wall Street History will return next week.