To mark the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, I’m reproducing an article I wrote about it in the April 1992 issue of News & Letters. Watch this space for a related post in the next couple of days.
Does Chernobyl portend our future?
The Truth about Chernobyl, by Grigori Medvedev (Basic Books: 1991).
The latest nuclear accident at Sosnovy Bor, Russia, has forcefully reminded the world of the imminent danger represented by the 60 nuclear reactors in what was the USSR and its satellites. As in every such accident– including the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl, Ukraine–the government, with the media’s help, downplayed it from the start–although this time they admitted the release of some radionuclides, including iodine-131, which killed infants in the 1979 Three Mile Island accident.
Whereas other books have taken up the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor and its vast, deadly effects on human beings and the environment, what is unique about The Truth about Chernobyl, written by a nuclear physicist who was involved in both Chernobyl’s construction and the investigation of the explosion, is that it traces the horrifying process of the accident, the sometimes calamitous, sometimes heroic actions of the operators and others, the fatal errors in their thinking as against the actual devastation occurring.
Though the author is most concerned with exposing the bureaucracy’s corruption, incompetence, cover-ups, lies, and callous attitude, the discerning reader can get an inside view of the virulent workings of the fetishism of science–that is, the glorification of “infallible” science, as opposed to the human being, as the repository of all truth and creativity.
THE FETISHISM OF SCIENCE
One of the clearest manifestations of the lethal power of the fetishism of science is what Medvedev traces in a section titled “The Myth of the Intact Reactor.” When an explosion had destroyed Reactor No. 4 and the ideology of nuclear safety flew in the face of all evidence of the catastrophic reality, ideology took the upper hand for three deadly days in the form of a “myth…about the reactor still being intact.” The myth “even found its way to Moscow; and until 29 April [three days after the explosion], people believed it, using it as the basis for numerous decisions, some of which had lethal consequences.”
Three people were sent on different occasions to check on the reactor. All three received lethal doses of radiation in the process, and all reported that the reactor had been destroyed. Their reports were “angrily rejected”!
Instead of cooling the decimated reactor, the water was pouring into a compartment beneath it, mixing with fuel, exposing people to intense radiation, flooding underground equipment and nearly cutting off power to the other three reactor units, which could have caused them to explode too.
A second, related myth was being propagated: that the radiation was not at killing levels. When the radiation was reported to V.P. Bryukhanov, the plant director, he bellowed, “There’s something wrong with your instrument. Fields that high are just impossible. Do you realize what that means? Get that thing out of here, or toss it in the garbage!”
The most forthright ideologue-scientists express the fetishism in the bluntest, most anti-human terms. A.M. Petrosyants, the chairman of the State Committee on the Use of Nuclear Power, said in justification of the Chernobyl disaster, “Science requires victims.”
The callous attitude towards human beings is also reflected in the phrase “counting lives,” used when the bureaucrats sacrificed the lives of workers and soldiers. Many of the lives that were “counted” were lost only because of the myth of the intact reactor, the lack of safety equipment, the delay in evacuation, or the state’s insistence on keeping the three intact reactors at Chernobyl in operation rather than shutting them down and evacuating their operating crews.
NEED TO RECAST OUR THINKING
In the book’s concluding section, Medvedev approvingly quotes A.I. Vorobyov: “It seems to me that after this accident…. The thinking of all members of society must be entirely recast in a new mold…. Anyone who wants to live in the nuclear era has got to create a new culture, a whole new mindset.”
Unfortunately, Medvedev does not probe the roots of the ideology he denounces. But is it not the natural outgrowth of a society where living labor is dominated by dead labor (capital) incorporating science within itself? Science then appears to have appropriated all the attributes of life, and human beings must serve its dictates. And the ideology is perpetuated not just for its own sake but because it serves to hide capitalism’s total dependence on exploitation of labor.
Still, it is very good for a scientist to call for a new way of thinking. What is needed is for that to ground itself in the masses’ rethinking. Medvedev himself recognizes that “Chernobyl came at us like a bolt from the blue, and prompted radical rethinking on the part of so many people.”
That rethinking was evident in what the rulers call the “Chernobyl syndrome,” that is, the anti-nuclear passion that swept the USSR beginning in 1986, virtually stopping the development of nuclear power plants there, forcing the closure of the nuclear weapons testing site in Kazakhstan and giving added impetus to the independence movements. It had its equivalent in the U.S. in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island accident. What is needed is for that “radical rethinking” to become a new beginning towards the total uprooting of this society that worships deathly science and towards the construction of a new, human society.