Lessons of Chernobyl: The Cultural Causes of the Meltdown

Sergei P Kapitza. Foreign Affairs. Volume 72, Issue 3. Summer 1993.

In the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power station disaster, most of the lessons being learned by the scientific community and governments are about the technical, radiological, environmental and medical consequences of that tragic event. The vast literature on the subject deals almost exclusively with these technical issues. Although these aspects are significant, broader social and psychological factors greatly contributed to the catastrophe. These cultural issues were the fundamental cause of the Chernobyl accident.

From its inception the Soviet nuclear effort, aimed primarily at making an atomic bomb, was carried out with utter disregard for human life. Most, if not all, of the construction work for the nuclear industry was done by slave laborers of the Gulag. Often those engaged in building the most secret “installations,” as they were called in the newspeak of the industry, were later sent to camps to be isolated for life, as described by Andrei Sakharov in his memoirs. The nuclear industry itself was run by able, determined and ruthless managers who did not take human life into account—insofar as such concerns did not serve their immediate task. The terrible environmental mess left by the Soviet nuclear industry is the painful legacy of those attitudes.

The Danger of Secrecy

Like many other Soviet programs, the developing nuclear industry was shrouded in secrecy, which served three main purposes. First, and most obvious, it served to conceal the effort from the perceived enemy—the United States. A second purpose, usually not taken into account, was to control the scientists and to a lesser extent the engineers who were the brains and hands of the whole project. Last, secrecy protected the industry’s leaders from all external criticism. For the political boss of the project, L. P. Beria, the head of the Soviet secret police and a ruthless commissar seeking absolute power over society, the atomic bomb epitomized the kind of project he felt compelled to control.

In spite of all this, the efficiency with which the first decade of the Soviet nuclear effort was concluded is amazing. This feat was largely possible because of the dedication of the technological experts who built the industry at all costs. Despite an atmosphere of secrecy and security, for example, these experts recognized that highly centralized decision-making isolated those who make decisions from those who have to implement them and consequently creativity and innovation. In 1955 a second nuclear weapons laboratory, now known as Cheliabinsk-70, was established to compete with the first and most important research center at Arzamas, where all research that led to the initial success of the military effort was carried out.

In the specific case of Chernobyl another fateful decision was made because of the pervasive and misguided need for security. Half of the operating nuclear power stations were transferred to the authority of the Electrical Power Ministry. This ministry was accustomed to operating fuel-burning or hydroelectric power stations; it was unprepared to handle the enormous complexities of a nuclear station. Little institutional experience had accumulated through the developing years of the nuclear industry, and there was virtually no transfer of knowledge from those operating submarine reactors or producing plutonium to the civilian sector. No such watertight separation existed in the aircraft or shipbuilding industries, where expertise from the military and civilian sector was exchanged. The obsessive secrecy of the nuclear industry created a dangerous isolation.

By 1956 the Soviet nuclear industry was capable of designing, producing and delivering hydrogen bombs—bombs of tremendous power. At the same time the navy started to use nuclear power, starting with submarines, and soon afterward the development of civilian nuclear power began. Then the first major nuclear disaster took place. In 1957 a storage facility for the highly radioactive residue of a plutonium-producing plant blew up. It was a chemical, rather than a nuclear, explosion, but as a result a huge amount of radioactivity was thrown into the atmosphere and a large area near Kyshtym, to the east of the Urals, was thoroughly contaminated. Although known to many insiders, the episode was concealed by the Soviet government. If the Kyshtym explosion and its consequences had been widely studied and understood the Chernobyl tragedy might have been, if not prevented, at least mitigated. Yet the Chernobyl experience was in a certain sense a turning point in “nuclear glasnost,” an all important development.

The New Generation

Despite the Kyshtym accident and the government’s insistence on secrecy, the Soviet nuclear program’s initial phases were marked mostly by success. Soon, however, many of the scientists and administrators instrumental in conceiving and creating these weapons started to leave the project. A new generation was initiated and indoctrinated, and it was then that a crucial change occurred. These experts were chosen not so much for their scientific or technical excellence but for their political loyalty. This new criterion led to a gradual degradation of the cultural, intellectual and professional level of the industry. Imperceptible at the start, the politicized atmosphere in the selecting, training and promoting of personnel eventually led to a marked deterioration of the standards of excellence and professionalism that were characteristic of the industry in its early stages. For example, as Dr. A. Vorobiev, one of the foremost medical experts in the Soviet Union, has pointed out, the number of radiation accidents that occurred after the entry of this new generation was much greater than in the beginning of the Soviet nuclear program.

The new generation of scientists and engineers was quite different from its predecessors. Unlike their earlier counterparts, most of the new breed were recruited from the Moscow Institute for Engineering and Physics, where students who were of “dubious” ethnic origin or whose nature it was to question authority were screened out or dismissed because they were seen as trouble by the political administrators. As a result, many creative, vital scientists were lost. In their places, mediocre—though politically correct—personnel were hired and promoted. By favoring the obedient and subservient over the challenging and inventive, the industry and the country suffered. Of those who remained, many were highly trained and specialized experts, but ingenuity and initiative cannot flourish in a compartmentalized and centrally controlled atmosphere. In such a system it is better to fail according to the rules than succeed by breaking them.

The safety of any hazardous enterprise, be it mountain-climbing or nuclear engineering, is ultimately determined by the human factor. At every stage, from conception and design to the construction and running of the enterprise, human attitudes must be factored into the equation. But the general and technical culture of professionalism, which is an absolute prerequisite for safety, was largely missing in the Soviet Union. Thus, despite all kinds of bureaucratic instructions and procedures about safety, the Soviet nuclear energy program was unsafe in its human dimension. This was the root cause of Chernobyl.

The Culture of Science

The well-known sequence of events at Chernobyl illustrates how every possible safety rule was broken in that ill-conceived experiment. Apart from disregarding all formal instructions and rules, the engineers and administrators involved displayed a total lack of understanding of nuclear power reactor physics. Here again the scientific and technical issues are less important than the general level of competence of those responsible. To comprehend how such an accident could take place one must look at the state of Soviet engineering schools, where, due to deteriorating intellectual standards, the whole atmosphere was often one of politics, not science. Because the Soviet Union separated higher technical education from fundamental science, future scientists were never properly exposed to a broad intellectual environment. Basic scientific research was pursued, often with fine results, but this high level of competence was not transferred to the universities or to the extensive system of technical institutes engaged in training engineers.

Basic science is part of a nation’s culture. This was traditionally recognized in Russia. But despite having excellent specialized training, the separation of teaching and research in the sciences and the compartmentalization of research contributed to the general deterioration of the educational level of the country’s engineers. Although it is very difficult to quantify or measure the importance of these factors, they were certainly present and vastly contributed to the Chernobyl explosion.

Aside from the problems inherent in the Soviet educational system, the declining status of engineers in Soviet society also played a role. From salaries to housing allocations, to the support of families, medical care and recreation, engineers were usually placed lower on the social ladder of prestige than the workers they managed. For many decades the number of engineers produced in the Soviet Union was impressively large, but overstaffing and loss of high-level expertise were permanent features of the industry. Many engineers were forced to do technicians’ jobs. Secretarial assistance and the technical facilities for the engineering staff were either absent or underdeveloped. Computers and information technology were in their infancy. In fact the Soviet Union never really managed to produce an engineering elite, an upper class of highly placed, well-paid and respected engineers, which is the backbone of any modern industrial nation, despite the fact that most Soviet officials and the ruling elite were initially trained as engineers.

Moreover, the Soviet Union’s isolation from the advanced world and the lack of broad and personal contacts with scientists from other countries contributed to the problem. Despite extensive training in languages and a well-developed system of translating books and technical magazines into Russian, the Soviet engineering corps did not have the international exposure and contacts essential today in high-technology research and development.

The Nuclear Future

The nuclear industry is of great immediate concern to Russia and the republics of the former Soviet Union, especially since the Russian government recently approved an ambitious nuclear power program. Due to the Chernobyl accident, no new nuclear power stations have yet been put into operation and many are being phased out. It will prove very difficult to handle existing facilities with the growing number of emerging sovereign and independent states. Some power stations are in areas of regional conflict. For example, after the Chernobyl explosion and the Spitack earthquake, the nuclear reactors in Armenia were closed down because they’re were considered too dangerous to operate in a seismically active area. All-out war is now raging in that country, cutting off gas and power supplies from Russia. Demands are now being made to reopen the nuclear power stations, but the dangers of operating reactors under such conditions seem obvious.

In other areas ethnic strife is rising, and rampant nationalism is leading to large-scale remigration of Russians, many of whom worked in and controlled the as republics’ nuclear industries. These enterprises cannot be transferred to local operators and authorities without grave risks to safety. The alternative—to run all nuclear stations from Moscow—is seen to be politically unpalatable. Recently the republics have agreed that local authorities will have the final word on building nuclear power stations, but it is unclear how they will reconcile political ambitions with high technology.

One policy that can and should be implemented on a long-term basis is to professionally develop the university system and the higher technical education establishment of all countries involved. The next generation must be educated and trained to handle these problems. Of the many issues facing Moscow, developing its educational system and opening Russia up to the world should be of the highest priority. Without sacrificing the existing and often good content of science and technology, research facilities will have to be reorganized, uniting science with teaching and using the fundamental scientific and cultural potential that still exists and is now so thoughtlessly squandered and scattered worldwide. The problems are great, but what is at stake is the security and future of the former Soviet Union, and indirectly the world.

The Soviet Union’s nuclear energy program was heading for disaster with the fateful inevitability of a Creek tragedy. The final, terrible outcome was predestined to happen. Its roots lay deep in the social and conceptual fabric of Soviet civilization. This message is both painful and instructive, but it must be noted by all concerned, for the imminent disparities of the world today are fraught with the dangers, if not the disasters, of tomorrow.

Russia’s fateful history of science and technology should provide instruction and warning to other countries, particularly those non-Western countries whose experience with nuclear technology is limited. In Europe, culture still means something, and the educational standards and the reputation of the engineering elite is high, probably even higher than in the United States. In France 70 percent of all electric power is nuclear. Although this might sound dangerously high from a purely technological point of view, France has a centuries-old tradition of scientific and professional culture dating back to the revolution and the Napoleonic era. This legacy is embodied in the Ecole Polytechnique, the breeding ground for the high echelons of the French establishment.

Many nuclear countries, however, have no such tradition, no such culture. If these governments believe that by putting into place administrative, technological and engineering mechanisms they can prevent nuclear disasters, let them take a hard look at the lessons of Chernobyl.