by Yashvardhan Sharma
David R. Marples is a Distinguished University Professor of Russian and East European History and currently Chairman of the Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta, Canada. He is the author of 15 books, including ‘Chernobyl and the Nuclear Power in USSR’ (1986), ‘Social Impact of Chernobyl Disaster’ (1988), Russia in the 20th Century: The Quest for Stability (2011), ‘The Collapse of the Soviet Union’ (2005) and Heroes and Villains: Creating National History in Contemporary Ukraine (2007).
So, if you’ve ever taken a class on the cold war or the Soviet Union, it’s very likely that you must’ve come across his books.
On the 26th of April 2020 on the occasion of the 34th International Chernobyl Disaster Remembrance Day, I had the chance to talk with Professor David Marples and analyze the Chernobyl Disaster. The following is a transcript of the conversation.
Note: Since the interview was pretty long, it was been divided into two parts. This is the first part, stay tuned for the second part which would be released very soon.
Q) Before we start talking about the incident itself, could you give us a brief background of what was happening in the year 1986?
Well, in 1986, in April, Mikhail Gorbachev had been the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for just over a year. In March, he had introduced his policies of “Glasnost” and “Perestroika”. At that time no one really knew much about what those meant and how different Gorbachev would be from the other Soviet leaders in the past.
The Cold War had really taken a downward step in the early 1980s when Andropov was the General Secretary. In 1983, there was the shooting of the Korean Airliner (Korean Air Lines Flight 007 shot down by a Soviet Su-15 interceptor) was an important incident in the late cold war. Yet, Andropov was known as a relative reformer. Chernenko came immediately after him, was less really by the time he came into office. So, after about three years after the death of Brezhnev, there was a sort of interim leadership and no one knew where the Soviet Union was going.
In the west, Ronald Reagon had become President in 1981. He was notably a fairly right-wing, anti-soviet, anti-communist figure. He seemed to be old at that time, whereas he was much younger than what Trump is today and certainly a lot younger than Biden.
So, he was quite an aggressive leader. He had introduced his “star wars” program, a strategic defense initiative, which was basically a shield to stop soviet missiles from entering the United States. The key thing was that the Soviet Union couldn’t match that. So, that was the scene in the world around the spring of 1986.
Q) What was going on with the nuclear arms race at that time? How crucial was the use of nuclear energy?
Well, in the nuclear arms race, the United States was pushing ahead at this time. No one knew how many weapons the Soviet Union had but they were spending a lot on it, as it was a major part of their budget. Technologically, the United States had moved far ahead in the early computer age and this was a big concern to the Soviet Union.
It (USSR) started its nuclear power program in the 1970s. The first nuclear reactor came online in 1976-77 and was stationed in Leningrad, which is now known as Petersburg.
Most of the nuclear power stations were in the European part of the Soviet Union, where most of the population lived. One of the main ideas was that oil and gas, which was exported for hard currency to the West, mainly Western Europe. Then, nuclear power stations would generate run the electric power production and it was relying more and more on nuclear power and a big expansion process was in place in USSR.
Based on two types of reactors, the so-called graphite-moderated reactors or RBMK (an acronym for reactors, pioneered in Leningrad, and the second such station was Chernobyl and all the other stations were water pressurized reactors that could be spotted around the world. I think Vietnam, Mongolia, China, and several other countries got these reactors.
The RBMK was a homegrown reactor and the reason was that it had been transformed from a weapon producing station to a nuclear power station and that was the case with Chernobyl. The ministry in charge of Chernobyl in 1986 was the Ministry of Medium Machine Building, which was in fact, a name for nuclear weapons production. It was a nuclear weapons minister who was in charge of Chernobyl when it happened. So, nuclear energy was perceived as the future at that time.
Q) How were the dynamics of the nuclear arms race changed when the USSR developed Tsar Bomba? Did USSR catch up to the US by this point in time?
USSR had definitely fallen behind the United States. The growth in the Soviet Union had slowed down dramatically in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It definitely had a lot of nuclear weapons but it was reliant on submarines and other bases. They built a lot of weapons even though, fortunately, these weapons were never used so we don’t know exactly, but many experts felt that Soviet weapons may not be as efficient as they seemed. On the other hand, the US was increasingly improving its efficiency and had caught up in the space race in the late 1960s and went ahead of the Soviet Union as well. So, I think, in all these areas the Soviet Union was definitely falling behind.
Q) Now, moving forward to the night of the incident itself, what was the first response action by the authorities, fire brigade, and the ministers?
When the explosions at Chernobyl took place, graphite was blown into pieces, and hardly anyone knew what had happened. So, local firemen were called from Pripyat, which was a town with 45,000 people there, it was about 3km so it didn’t take long for them to reach there.
About two hours later, a fire crew was also called from Kyiv and it would have taken them another three hours to reach Chernobyl since the roads weren’t developed well at the time.
First-aid workers also came to the scene fairly quickly in the early hours of the Saturday morning. At the plant, it seemed like something serious had happened, but no one could estimate how dangerous it was.
The people in Pripyat also had not been informed of anything, so they also had no idea about the extent of this fire so they came out and wandered around the streets like it was nothing even though the radiation levels were very high.
Q) What was the geographical scale of impact of this explosion at Chernobyl?
The explosion blew apart the roof of the reactor and spread in this sort of way. For a number of days, nothing had been done to stop the radiation from the reactor. Thus, the spread of the radiation was dependent on the wind direction at the time.
The wind was blowing from the South East towards the North West and the radiation was spread to Belarus, which was 15km north of the border. Then it went all the way north, above the baltic states and to the Scandinavian countries, infact it was Sweden that first picked up the radiation outside the Soviet Union.
Then eventually the wind changed directions after four days and blew South over the city of Kyiv around the time of Mayday Parade. If it rained, radiations were descended upon the populations as there were numerous radioactive elements in the clouds.
The first real danger was from radioactive iodine, which had a life of 8 days and most of it fell upon the Republic of Belarus and parts of West Ukraine. Then there were also issues with Caesium and Strontium which have a much longer life of 29-30 years. Also, the graphic which had been thrown out from the core on the ground and roof also needed to be put back by the crew.
End of part 1, stay tuned by subscribing to our blog for part 2!