36 years later – Chernobyl and the War

By Achim Klüppelberg

One year has passed and the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant is still asking questions that demand answers. The wild response to HBO’s miniseries “Chernobyl” and the continuing publication of high-class scientific literature has established again that both scholarly and public interest in the catastrophe has not subsided, even 36 years after the catastrophe happened. Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl and Brown’s Manual for Survival are only two examples, and I highly recommend reading both.

Liquidator’s memorial at Chernobyl NPP and second Sarcophagus in the background (photo courtesy of Pixabay).

There are many reasons for the continued interest in Chernobyl. First, there are still issues that demand an explanation regarding the accident and its consequences. What about the inherent safety features of a humanly made and controlled technological system? Perrow in his Normal Accidents taught us that accidents are inevitable in complex high-tech-systems in which humans play a crucial role. What does this mean for nuclear energy in the context of failing to meet the 1.5°C goal specified in the 2015/16 Paris Climate Agreement?

Second, those consequences still play a profound role in the present for many people, especially in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Can and will Russia finally shut down or replace all Chernobyl-type reactors that are still online at Leningrad-1 (2 active RBMKs), Smolensk-1 (3), and Kursk-1 (3)? True, they were updated after 1986 to compensate for intrinsic safety deficits, but can the state utility ROSATOM really guarantee that their operation poses no threat?

Third, the potential future of nuclear energy is linked to what Chernobyl means and represents, especially in regard to the watershed question whether long-term exposure to lowly to medium elevated radiation levels would be harmful to human societies over a long period of time. If one answers with yes, then many steps of the regular nuclear lifespan, such as mining, transportation, reprocessing and waste storage would have to be evaluated as dangerous liabilities. Recently, nuclear infrastructure has been interpreted as resembling colonial trade structures, as Jacob Darwin Hamblin writes in The Wretched Atom. While I am not convinced of his comparison with Frantz Fanon’s postcolonial classic The Wretched of the Earth, Hamblin has a point when it comes to the exploitation of uranium mines in previously or still colonised countries. The French Arlit mining complex in Niger serves as a sound illustration of this circumstance.

So where are we standing now, 36 years after the nuclear nimbus of technological progress, while not being destroyed, was at least severely dented? Recently, Chernobyl was in the news yet again because parts of the Russian invasion force into Ukraine captured the plant and caused disruptions, which in turn fuelled fears of the possibility of a renewed accident.

When the Russians retreated from Chernobyl after the failed first attack on Kiev, it became news that Russian soldiers had in fact built trenches in the heavily contaminated Red Forest, close to the station. Media outlets such as CNN, BBC and Reuters were wondering about the cases of radiation sickness within the Russian force and the renewed spread of radioisotopes through the interplay of wind and contaminated dust. This additionally testifies to the fact that Chernobyl has become what Kalmbach and Uekötter called an Erinnerungsort; a place which both became site and projection space for a catastrophe, for heritage, and for imaginaries of the future. It became a metaphor for nuclear fallout, technocratic hubris, and also the hope to overcome its consequences. But also for its vulnerability to war and terrorism.

A stretch of contaminated woods in the Chernobyl exclusion zone (photo courtesy of Pixabay).

Chernobyl’s 36th anniversary demands once again to reflect upon the danger of nuclear energy. Unfortunately, this question has apparently become urgent again, since all Ukrainian nuclear power plants evidently face the danger of warfare, inflicted by Russian arms. Today Ukraine is host to four active nuclear power plants: Khmelnytskyi, Rivne, South-Ukraine, and Zaporizhzhya. The latter also became recently famous beyond the circles of nuclear experts. Unfortunately, it was not because of its sheer size. (Zaporizhzhya is with its 6 GWe nominal capacity the largest nuclear power plant in Europe.) Instead, it was in the news because Russian troops shot at the plant’s facilities with cannon-sized shells, hitting one administrative building in a brutal attempt to take over the plant against local resistance.

This incidence has made it clear that in a time of war, civil nuclear power plants are highly dangerous objects. Here I am not only talking about potential damage received through military actions, but also harm done to the prevention of established security working routines. If workers are not able to regularly rotate their shifts and to get necessary rest, mistakes in operation will inevitably happen.

The same is true for the disruption of power lines. Electricity is necessary to keep the cooling system going of both an active nuclear power plant, and spent nuclear fuel as well as nuclear waste storage facilities. Every facility has backup generators, usually running on diesel. But if the stocks are depleted, for example if the outage takes substantially longer than three days, the situation can become dangerous. The problem is that the established nuclear infrastructure needs stability and adamant security routines to operate in a relatively safe way. A war in this environment is madness, as the warring parties, in the worst case, risk another nuclear meltdown with subsequent releases of large amounts of radioisotopes into the environment. Such an event, as shown by the Chernobyl catastrophe, can include Ukraine, Russia and other nations.

Personally, I have a lot of respect for all those workers at nuclear installations in Ukraine who stay at their workplace and try to keep it safe – in the cases of Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhya under direct risk for their personal health and also private fate. The future of Ukrainian nuclear power plants is of course linked to the outcome of the war. But it is clear that the previously established interconnectedness of nuclear infrastructure between European countries, including Russia, will be renegotiated. An independent Ukraine will probably have good reasons to never again cooperate with Russian nuclear specialists after what is happening now. This would have severe consequences for the Ukrainian nuclear industry in the spheres of uranium and fuel element provision, as well as the storing of spent nuclear fuel. In such a situation, Ukraine would probably have to find national solutions in addition to other non-Russian trading partners to compensate for that.

This situation in Ukraine during the war is a case of precedence, as there had earlier never been any conventional warfare in nuclearised landscapes. 36 years after the catastrophe of Chernobyl hit, we are now to rethink nuclear energy under these new circumstances. Chernobyl keeps asking us questions, which demand answers to secure the safety of established nuclear infrastructures in Europe in general and in Ukraine in particular. The events that are happening right now will profoundly change the European energy system. Besides the fossil fuel industry, also nuclear will have to re-organise. It is clear that we cannot continue like we did before February 2022.

Research in Kiev

By Achim Klüppelberg

Every writer knows that there are different phases in our work. Of course, the most important phase is the writing phase. After all, it is our job to produce high-quality texts, is it not? Subsequently, every writer also knows that in order to be able to do so, one needs high-quality sources. While working as an historian, having access to valuable source material is paramount in order to write something relevant for the respective academic field. At the same time, the Covid-19 pandemic has made normal schedules obsolete, and many archival trips had to be cancelled or postponed – in my case, since summer 2020. Therefore, I was very grateful to finally be able to go on a crucial archival trip this November.[1] My destination was the vibrant Ukrainian capital of Kiev, and I had three archives stacked with Soviet-era nuclear documents on my to-do-list. Here, I would like to tell you about my experiences and impressions.

The Dnepr next to Kontraktova Square Metro Station

Naturally, Kiev is a city with a rich history, reflected in different architectural styles, urban planning and monuments. Kiev has a troubled and at the same time glorious history. Being the medieval cradle of Eastern Slavic principalities, states and nations, having formed the mighty Kievan Rus Empire, which through its Baptism led to the Slavic traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy, forming the cultural, political, and industrial capital of Ukrainians, posing as a major battlefield in World War Two, centring Ukraine’s independence after the collapse of the USSR and recently hosting the Maidan protests, this place emanates historic significance at its different sites. Kiev is also a torn city, in which the current economic crisis, the hybrid-war with Russia, antisemitism and nationalism struggle with opposing ideas on the streets. If we live in a time during which Ukrainian history is written in short intervals, then Kiev is the place to be.

My work led me to three archives. The first on the list was the Central State Archive of Supreme Bodies of Power and Government of Ukraine (Центральний державний архів вищих органів влади та управління України, ЦДАВО). Located in South Central Kiev, the archive is based in a complex of several governmental institutions. The reading room offered a rich ensemble of documents from Soviet-Ukrainian ministries and planning institutions, which proved to be invaluable for the immediate progress of my dissertation.

My second station was the Central State Archive of Public Organisations of Ukraine (Центральний державний архів громадських об’єднань України, ЦДАГО України), where I looked into files from the Communist Party. The archive was located next to the Kiev Region State Administration, along which the massive Lesi Ukrainky Boulevard allowed dozens of cars to speed on ten lanes towards the city centre. Here, I was less fortunate. The CP Ukraine files I ordered offered insights into internal party affairs, but not into any planning aspects of Soviet Ukraine’s energy system.

State Archive of Kiev Province building plate

My third and last station on this trip was the State Archive of Kiev Province (Державний архів Київської області, ДАКО). Inspired by Louis Fagon’s approach of visiting local and regional archives in order to circumvent the occasional quietness in central documents on nuclear issues, I examined local party protocols of the towns of Pripyat and Chernobyl to find out more about water amelioration processes and different important stages of the construction of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Here, lots of exciting issues came to light and I am looking forward to incorporate them into my next article.

Apart from those visits to the archives, I was also able to see the exhibitions at the Holodomor and the Chernobyl museums. Both were very impressive. The Holodomor Museum was located in the Park of Eternal Glory overlooking the Dnepr, in which apart from the museum many memorials for Ukrainian nationalists were placed. There, visitors would see an exhibition showing the horrors of the forced famine in Stalin’s Soviet Union from 1932-33. This was based on many personal testimonials and artefacts from survivors of these times. Their main message was that it was a planned famine created by Moscow as a way to subdue ethnic Ukrainians.

I was very surprised, in a positive way, by the Chernobyl Museum. There, they had collected multiple artefacts of the main protagonists of the catastrophe, such as identity cards and passports from Deputy Chief Engineer Anatoly Dyatlov, or accident-shift-leader Aleksandr Akimov. Selected archival documents along newspaper articles were also on display. Next to them, one could see the flags of the firefighter brigades, uniforms, respirators, and dosimeters. Two whole sections were dedicated to the construction of the first and the second sarcophagus. Following were some dedications to the international solidarity in regard to the mitigation of the consequences of the accident as well as the ongoing help for chronically sick people, such as the “Children of Chernobyl” network. Another room was dedicated to the effects of radionuclides dispersed by the accident to the environment and human society. Here the focus was not to tell a uniquely Ukrainian story, but instead to document the disaster from an international point of view.

Summarising, I am very grateful for this opportunity that arose at this crucial state in my dissertation. Kiev is an exciting place, where so many things have happened and are happening right now. It is definitely worth a trip.

[1] 03 -20 November 2021.