The Truth About Chernobyl

by Grigori Medvedev. Basic, $22.95. Mr. Medvedev, a senior Soviet nuclear engineer, worked on the construction of the Chernobyl atomic plant in 1970. After the disastrous explosion of that facility, in 1986, he was asked to go back and find out what went wrong. The answer to that question proved to be . . . everything. From the highest government officials to the ordinary plant workers, the Soviet nuclear system was, according to Mr. Medvedev’s well-written and soberly enraged analysis, afflicted with negligence, complacency, cronyism, ignorance, and simple stupidity. The director of the plant had been recruited from a sound career in thermal plants and had brought with him a pet engineer similarly unequipped to deal with the nuclear variety. As long as these two babes in the woods followed prescribed procedures, the plant ran properly, but they were inspired (it is not clear by whom—an odd omission) to undertake an experiment. They did not act entirely on their own. A description of the proposed maneuver was correctly submitted to superior authority, where it should have been vetoed because it was clearly not well designed. Getting no reply from superior authority, the pair at Chernobyl assumed that silence meant approval, and went ahead to create the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe. Mr. Medvedev reconstructs, almost second by second, the progress of the explosion and the actions taken by the Chernobyl crew, who all stayed on the job and carried out orders which, although they could not know it, were either useless or damaging. They had no protective gear. That was behind a locked door, the key to which was miles away, in the custody of a man off duty for the weekend. The fire-fighting crew was also without protection. Most of those brave people later died in terrible pain. Mr. Medvedev tracked down and interviewed such survivors and local witnesses as were able to talk, and these interviews, combined with his own observations, make up an account full of horror but also as exciting as any novel. The technical explanations will be hard going for readers unversed in the operations of nuclear reactors (no diagrams, not even of the plant’s layout), but the human cost and human courage arising from Chernobyl are painfully understandable. This impressive book raises a worrisome question: How many other nuclear reactors are operated by people who regard them as “scarcely more complicated than an ordinary samovar” or, possibly, a coffee pot?