I was living and working in Obninsk between 1963 and 1973, less than a mile from the first Soviet nuclear power station. It was the first nuclear power station in the Soviet Union and for many years the only one.
Even though it was used for peaceful purposes -- it was actually a research facility operated by the Institute of Nuclear Physics -- its operation was shrouded in secrecy.
The power station at Obninsk stood as one of several tarnished monuments to the once vaunted Soviet science and technology. A generation ago Soviet leaders could boast of its accomplishments: the construction in the USSR of the world's first atomic power station, the first atomic icebreaker, the first satellite around the Earth and the first man in space. But those all occurred in the Khrushchev era. Nothing exciting happened for 25 years since the remarkably bold flight of Yuri Gagarin into space.
Time and stagnation have undermined the legacy of even these great achievements. It was never explained why the first satellite was simply an empty ball, why the first nuclear-powered icebreaker Lenin was soon out of action with reactor damage, why the power station in Obninsk where I lived consumes more electricity for its operation than it produces.
If the Obninsk power station did not generate enough electricity to use in houses, it did generate enough hot water, which was used for central heating of the houses in the residential areas. It was not the water that circulates in the core of the reactor, but water from the second and third circuit cooling systems. It was considered reasonable and practical to avoid constructing a cooling tower and to use the central heating circulation network instead.
Quite a few small-scale local accidents related to the nuclear research facilities occurred. When signs were put on the beach of the local Protva River temporarily forbidding bathing and swimming there, we knew that an emergency discharge had occurred from one of the many reactors operating in town. But villages down river were never advised about the dangers. When we saw a helicopter circling over the town, we also knew that something was wrong with the filters in the chimneys of reactors and that the released radioactivity in the air needed some extra monitoring.
When human tissues were brought to the radio-toxicology and pathomorphology departments for an urgent autoradiographic assessment, we also knew that somebody had had the misfortune to die from inhaling radioactive dust. A secret section of the 500-bed hospital, created specially to deal with all aspects of the use of radiation in medicine, was made available for the treatment of radiation sickness. The clinical director of the Institute of Radiology was a man who in 1958-1960 was a chief doctor of a special medical team sent to Sverdlovak and Cheliabinsk to deal with several thousand victims of the Kyshtym disaster in the Urals -- the explosion of the primitive nuclear dump site that was accumulating the nuclear waste for the military reprocessing plant nearby.
Nothing about the victims of the radiation sickness was published in local or general press, even after 10 fresh human lungs were urgently brought in 1965 to Dr. S. I. Kharlampovich, a pathologist, who had the difficult task of determining the nature of the "hot" particles apparently inhaled by those men (women were not allowed to work in "hot" conditions).
Something serious did happen somewhere in town, and the death toll was much higher than the one officially admitted by Soviet officials now for the much more serious disaster in Chernobyl. Isolated from the rest of the world and from each other as well by the walls of compartmental secrecy, inhabitants of this small "atomic" town did not ask questions. Too many questions could mean only trouble, dismissal or exile, or something even more serious. The silence and obedience was an essential requirement for anybody who worked or dealt with or knew about the radiation.
For more than 10 years, the first atomic power station was the only one that was producing electricity and heating. The Soviet Union did not have a pressing need to expand nuclear power for generating electricity. Even in 1970 the USSR was well behind the United States, Britain, France, Japan and Canada in investment in the research and construction of nuclear power stations. It was not until 1971 that the Soviet Union launched a five-year plan (1971-1975) for a large nuclear power program.
But the Soviet experience was already obsolete and Soviet designers decided to mix the elements of the first atomic stations with well-tested Western models. This was how the fatally flawed design of the graphite-moderated light-water reactor used at Chernobyl was born. The political considerations of the nation that was proud to be the first in the peaceful use of atomic energy dictated the use of a domestically-made solution, inevitably mixed with many Western innovations. The problem was that a domestic "first" that probably was reliable at the level of 5,000 kilowatts could be a quite cumbersome project for a system that has to work at the level of one million kilowatts.
The government also wanted to use the reactors as heating sources. A small Obninsk station was able to circulate hot water through the town central heating system for 10,000 residents. The big nuclear stations got enough hot water to circulate through houses of large cities. But the location of the large nuclear power stations (and some fast breeder stations were already under construction) near big cities is not easily done, even in a country that has no antinuclear protesters. For the most part, concerns about location did not receive attention in the Soviet press and were not discussed openly. Economic and political considerations almost always prevail in the Soviet Union over the problematic questions of safety. There had been no major disasters in the West at that time and the Soviet leadership was convinced that it could perform even better. It was, of course, difficult to put nuclear power stations near all big cities, so heating reactors were placed inside some cities to make just the pressurized steam.
The first sign of the controversy became obvious only after the accident at Three Mile Island in April 1979. This accident was a serious blow to the whole Soviet scheme, and some prominent and persistent critics at last got a chance to express their objections.
The split over the issue was visible even in the party decision-making bodies, particularly when the influential party magazine Kommunist published an article at the end of 1979 written by two top Soviet energy specialists, Nikolai Dollezhal and Yuri Koryakin, that particularly criticized the location of nuclear-power stations in the European part of the USSR near big cities.
But as soon as the new five-year plan was in preparation, the debate over the issue of location was effectively suppressed.
The Soviet press started to publish articles about the excellent safety records of Soviet nuclear power stations. The American accident near Harrisburg was presented only as a human error. The Soviet public was told that what happened in the United States could never happen in the Soviet Union. It was the first time the safety problems of nuclear power stations were discussed in detail. It was normally stressed that nobody had been killed and that protective systems had worked properly. (That it was the extra containment wall that prevented the major disaster at Three Mile Island and that containment walls were normally absent in Soviet systems was never stressed.)
The new five-year plan (1981-1985) called for a 250 percent increase in nuclear-generated electricity. At that point, 14 percent of the total electric power production in the Soviet Union would be nuclear-generated. Many nuclear power stations were already of different design, copied from the Western models (minus the containment dome). But the old fashioned flawed design was still in the project and had to produce about 50 percent of the new capacity. The nuclear stations were already in operation near Leningrad, Kiev, Kursk, Voronezh, Sverdlovsk and some other cities and they provided these cities not only with electricity, but hot water as well. It was stressed that the Soviet Union is a pioneer in the use of nuclear fuel for central heating water systems and that this reduces the pollution from coal and oil.
The first cracks in the plans of nuclear energy acceleration suddenly appeared in 1983. They were real cracks in the foundations of the Atommash -- the giant plant in Volgodonsk that constructs parts of nuclear power stations for the whole country. This city had recently been built near the large hydroelectric dam in Rostov region and the rising water of the artificial lake raised the water table under the plant and town, causing them to shake.
The disaster was huge, never before experienced in Soviet industry. A commission was set up by Yuri Andropov to investigate the situation. The secretary of the Central Committee and a candidate member of the Politburo, Vladimir Dolgikh, flew to Volgodonsk to lead the study.
The findings of the commission were never made public, but the chairman of the state construction committee was immediately dismissed and many other officials followed him, some into retirement, some into prison. It was found that many parts for the atomic industry were of poor quality, pipes were substandard, metal was not according to specifications.
A closed letter from the Politburo was sent for secret reading to many party organizations and among other things it linked many accidents at different nuclear power stations. One was considered so serious that only by sheer luck it did not result in a serious loss of life. Only two persons were mentioned as killed. The nature of the accident was not described in technical terms. (It is probably not a coincidence that the number of fatalities in the Chernobyl diaster was also two; Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev did not want to acknowledge that the accident is more serious than one successfully covered up in Brezhnev's time).
The Politburo, which has discussed the affair apparently in more detail, recommended a new state committee -- the Committee on the Supervision of the Safety of the Works in the Atomic Energy System. It is the only state committee besides the KGB that does not have its own professional journal. Its findings and recommendations are too hot to be discussed openly. The rate of construction work in the atomic industry was slowed down substantially and the five-year plan was not fulfilled. But the new vigorous leadership of Gorbachev has started to make a difference.
For a variety of reasons, there was no alternative but to follow the nuclear energy path. It was decided to increase nuclear generated electricity substantially in 1986-1990 and to accelerate nuclear construction in 1990-2000. In 1990, about 23 per cent of all Soviet electric power would be generated by nuclear processes, with fast breeder reactors providing more and more of the power. Some stations were expected to be six milliion kilowatts. In the year 2000, 30 to 40 per cent of all energy needs would be received from atomic stations.
The Chernobyl disaster not only blew out the roof of the fundamentally flawed and poorly made nuclear power station -- it has made a very big hole in the 15-year program of economic and industrial development of the Soviet Union and its allies. It showed not only the fault of this particular design, but the fault of the whole system of Soviet-style central planning and politically oriented decision making. The leadership, which earlier tried to link its own credibility with a more open Soviet society and more public disclosure of mismanagements and mistakes, instinctively wanted at first to cover up the disaster, to mislead and to misinform its own population and the world at large. A disaster of this scale was inevitable, if not now, then very soon. It is not nuclear power that is too dangerous for public and society. It is very dangerous when an incompetent, corrupt and totalitarian political regime isolated from free debate and dissent tries to operate nuclear power.