Edgar Sait-Jones reviews the latest critically-acclaimed series from HBO, which looks at the dramatic events surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion in 1986. This laid bare the faults of the Stalinist bureaucracy.
It is often said in Marxist philosophy that necessity expresses itself through accident. Perhaps this adage is most clearly demonstrated by the world’s worst nuclear disaster – the explosion at Chernobyl in April 1986.
The historic disaster has recently been retold in depth in the HBO mini-series Chernobyl. This five-part drama has stunned audiences and wowed critics.
Currently the best user-rated television show ever on IMDb, the series tells the story of the mind-blowing events at a human level, exploring the lives of those involved with a focus on realism. Some artistic license is taken in places, but on the whole the show is a truthful account of the events surrounding the disaster.
At 1:23am on 26th April 1986, reactor No. 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine exploded. The resulting release of radioactive material was equivalent to 400 Hiroshima bombs. The human death toll of the accident is difficult to calculate, but is estimated to be between 4,000 and 90,000.
The disaster necessitated a monumental response from the Soviet authorities. Over 500,000 personnel were quickly drafted into the contaminated area as ‘liquidators’, to prevent an even worse catastrophe from occurring. Over 100,000 people were evacuated from the 2600km2 exclusion zone, and an enormous concrete ‘sarcophagus’ was constructed over the ruins of the destroyed reactor.
This team knowingly risked their lives by exposing themselves to dangerous levels of radiation, in the hope that it would help save others.
The HBO show provides us with all of these details in a compelling way. But its final diagnosis for the cause of the accident boils down to ‘lies’ – a vague explanation that fails to adequately capture the many social and material forces in Soviet society that contributed to the accident.
By the 1970s, the Soviet Union was in a deep rut. The economy had stopped growing and had been languishing in the so-called ‘Era of Stagnation’ for years. The bureaucratic, top-down planned economy that had been in place since the rise of Stalin and the Stalinist bureaucracy had reached its limits.
Those in power thought that an abundance of electricity from nuclear power could help to rejuvenate the economy. Starting in the 1970s, the Soviet Union leaders launched an ambitious programme of construction of nuclear power stations. But the country’s economic conditions put major constraints on the design of reactor that could be employed.
The design settled on, the RBMK, was a gigantic beast of a reactor that used the cheapest parts and construction techniques possible. It included several serious design flaws, but these were swept under the carpet. The new reactors were needed as soon as possible.
As a result, the Soviet leadership told people, including budding nuclear engineers, that the design was perfectly safe and could never suffer a serious accident. But the Titanic, too, was said to be ‘unsinkable’.
At Chernobyl, on the night of the accident, the operators were told to conduct a safety test. In their relentless pursuit of top-down targets (and ultimately promotions), senior management at the plant, most notably Anatoly Diatlov, were eager to complete the test by any means necessary.
But because of an earlier delay, the power of the reactor had dropped too low for the test to be safely carried out. Rather than abandon the test, Diatlov ignored procedure and recklessly ordered the test to be carried out whilst removing nearly all of the control rods from the reactor.
During the test, reactor power unexpectedly rose. The emergency AZ-5 button was pushed, to reinsert all the control rods at once and force a shut down.
Nobody in the control room, however, knew there was a fatal flaw in the design of the control rods – their graphite tips. This meant that as they were reinserted they actually caused a power spike. At this moment, reactivity exponentially increased in the reactor, causing the whole thing to explode.
The control room engineers did not know about this flaw, but chief nuclear scientists did. It had been deliberately kept from them.
In many ways, the accident at Chernobyl and its aftermath accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union. The state had to devote a huge part of its budget to the clean-up efforts. And the ruling bureaucracy’s handling of the accident only further destroyed people’s trust in the failing system.
In this way, the explosion at Chernobyl marked a decisive event that only exacerbated the ongoing trends in Soviet society at the time.
Chernobyl was the world’s worst nuclear disaster. It provides important lessons about the danger of bureaucracy within a planned economy. But unfortunately this is not the point that HBO are trying to get across. Rather, the show is clearly aimed at skewering the idea of socialism altogether.
At a time when the capitalist system is falling apart and socialist ideas are on the rise, the big business producers of Chernobyl are cynically attempting to say, “look where you end up if you break with the market”; “you want socialism – this is what socialism looks like!”.
But such accidents are not exclusive to ‘communist’ (i.e. Stalinist) countries. Take the 2011 accident at Fukushima, Japan for example. Meanwhile, similarly destructive events regularly take place within the fossil fuel industry, such as the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, as a result of the callous carelessness of the major energy monopolies and corporations.
We can only ensure the health and safety of workers, the environment, and of the whole of society if we put control of our energy supplies – and the wider economy – into the hands of the organised working class, and not those of bureaucrats or profiteers.