A hundred and fifty years ago the Russian philosopher Petr Chaadayev wrote that "we are one of those nations that somehow are not part of mankind but exist only for the sake of teaching the world some kind of terrible lesson." In the area of nuclear affairs the steady emission of environmental horror stories from the USSR confirms that the Soviet Union is in the process of teaching the world another in its series of terrible lessons.
Recent disclosures from the USSR demonstrate that the total insulation from public scrutiny which the Soviet nuclear industry enjoyed for so long has left a legacy of pollution and lax practices that remains exceedingly difficult to escape. Soviet officials themselves are today saying that the USSR is being transformed into a nuclear-waste dump. Even allowing for the Russian penchant for hyperbole, the latest revelations in the ever more candid Soviet press make clear that Soviet problems in the area of nuclear pollution and safety continue to be extraordinarily severe.
In 1989, the first year for which the USSR openly published monthly statistics and an annual report on nuclear-power-plant performance, there were 118 unplanned shutdowns and 100 "unscheduled reductions of capacity"—a "decrease" from 1988, for which no figures have been provided. A quarter of all the stoppages occurred in the Balakovo nuclear plant, near a branch of one of the largest water reservoirs in the USSR. The authorities attributed the stoppages to "personnel not doing their jobs properly" and "the indolence of managers," along with other "weak aspects of operation." A high rate of shutdowns may be a positive sign if it means that the authorities are now prepared to sacrifice electricity output for the sake of safety. But the Soviet reports also indicate that along with design flaws, the principal causes of the stoppages are the same sort of human-factor problems that led to Chernobyl: mistakes by operating officials, poor maintenance, and inadequate coordination. One of the most serious blunders occurred in June, 1989, at a facility in the Russian city. Kursk, when, because of "negligence on the part of workers," radioactive water was allowed to spill from a cooling circuit, "swamped the floor of the plant," and overflowed onto the territory surrounding the power reactor.