Construction at the Soviet Union's ill-fated Chernobyl nuclear plant has been plagued for years by low morale, poor workmanship, persistent shortages of construction materials and deficiencies in quality control, according to an article published recently on the front page of an official Ukrainian newspaper.
The article, a copy of which was obtained Thursday by the Los Angeles Times, raised the issues because of what its author, Liubov Kovalevska, called concern for safety. The article provides the first indication that the Chernobyl plant had been plagued by problems long before it caught fire and exploded last weekend, blanketing Scandinavia and parts of Eastern Europe with radiation.
"Lack of organization during construction weakened not only discipline but also responsibility of each person for the overall result of the work," wrote Kovalevska, a woman who gave her home as Pripyat, a town housing workers and staff at the Chernobyl plant. (The Soviets have said the town was evacuated after the accident.) "The impossibility and unwillingness of engineering workers to organize teamwork resulted in lowered standards . . . . The failures will be repaid over the decades to come."
Pointing out that the entire Soviet Union and its atomic power industry depend on the performance of workers at such sites, Kovalevska wrote: "The building work should proceed as an uninterrupted process on the basis of strictest adherence to building technology. But this is exactly what is not happening. The problems of the first reactor were inherited by the second. The problems of the second by the third and so on."
The article, written in Ukrainian, took up half the front page of the March 27 issue of Literaturna Ukraina, the official journal of the Ukraine writers' union. The Times obtained a copy from the Prolog Research Corp., which describes itself as a New York-based research firm that provides universities with analyses of Eastern European and Ukrainian affairs.
The article was in marked contrast to a feature package on Chernobyl published in the February issue of Soviet Life, an English-language magazine distributed by the Soviets in the United States. The February articles painted a tranquil picture of Pripyat and stressed safety measures at the plant should "the incredible" happen.
The Ukrainian article begins with references, standard in Soviet journalism, to the economic directives of the recent 27th Party Congress, which directed managers to use high technology with increasing efficiency. Kovalevska's article also cited the speeches of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who has encouraged press exposure of the Soviet Union's industrial and economic deficiencies, and Ukraine Communist Party First Secretary Vladimir Shcherbitsky.
Turning to the Chernobyl reactor station, Kovalevska wrote that it was scheduled to become the world's largest atomic power plant in 1988 with the completion of the fifth and sixth reactors. But she charged that the 1985 construction plan targets were not being fulfilled and that the construction workers suffered low morale.
Kovalevska said that the construction schedule at the plant had been speeded up from three to two years. She said this strained planning and obtaining supplies. The writer contended that the accelerated schedule threw the whole project into disarray, weakening discipline and overall responsibility.
Rather than learning from problems with construction of the first reactor, Kovalevska wrote, managers permitted the problems to become worse. That, in turn, she said, caused indignation among the workers and created a sense of hopelessness in management at the power plant.
"The inability and impossibility of the engineers and technical workers to organize the work brigades," the author wrote, "has weakened the ability to demand efforts from the brigades."
Kovalevska said Soviet planners consistently failed to understand worker frustration.
"As workers tried to meet unrealistic quotas, it led to disorganization of the building and a total failure of the overall plan," she wrote.
She said construction materials were always in short supply, particularly reinforced concrete and steel, and that available materials were not used efficiently. In some cases, she wrote, the materials were substandard.
She cited 326 tons of spent nuclear fuel containers from a Volga factory that she said were deficient.
"It is being brought out now and we can see the sickness of the building system, which, unfortunately, is typical," Kovalevska wrote. "This shows we need a rebuilding of human attitudes.
"It is no secret this process takes time."