The Lessons of Chornobyl Must Be Learned

William W. Zuzak, Ph.D., P.Eng.
April 1989

The Lessons of Chornobyl Must be Learned

The explosion of Unit #4 of the Chornobyl nuclear reactor complex which occurred at 1:23:44 hrs on April 26, 1986 is undoubtedly the worst nuclear accident to have occurred on this planet. In addition to the officially reported 31 deaths (other sources suggest much higher numbers), the number of long term victims is sure to reach into the tens or hundreds of thousands. It was necessary to evacuate over 150,000 people from heavily contaminated areas of Ukraine and Byelorussia. Much of this area will remain uninhabited for years to come. Further afield, the radioactive cloud, emitted continuously for a period of some 15 days from the burning graphite RBMK-1000 reactor, spread its deadly poison over much of the European and Asian continents. In the short term, there was the fear of contamination of the fresh food supply. In the longer term, there was concentration of certain radioactive isotopes in the food chain, necessitating, for example, the destruction of reindeer herds in Finland and Sweden.

In looking back over the past three years, it is possible to prepare a "report card" on the aftermath ... assign some "grades" and make some "recommendations" for improvement.

After some initial reticence in informing the public of the catastrophe and delays in evacuating the population, the Soviet government seems to have come to grips with the problem in the same way that Western governments react to such crises. They down-played the seriousness of the situation presumably to reassure their own citizenry, but at the same time marshalled their vast bureaucratic forces to "eliminate the consequences of the accident".

The efforts of the firemen in putting out the fire on the roof of Unit #3 was indeed heroic. Also successful were measures taken to put out the graphite fire and to prevent the spread of radioactive contamination into the groundwater. [It is recommended that the Soviet authorities officially release and make public the names and full biographies of the casualties of the explosion and its aftermath.]

Lower grades must be assigned the Soviets for the cleanup operation, their commandeering of workers from the Baltic Republics and other areas of the USSR and their undue haste in returning Units #1 and #2 (Oct-Nov, 1986) and Unit #3 (Dec, 1987) back into operation. The cleanup workers were obviously exposed to far higher doses of radiation than would be acceptable in the West. It is highly likely that a slower, better organized cleanup program, allowing for the natural exponential decay of the radioactive isotopes, would have resulted in markedly lower exposures of the cleanup workers and the personnel in the area.

The USSR report to the IAEA meeting Aug. 26-29, 1986 in Vienna was very positively received by Western scientists and the news media. Indeed, it does provide a tremendous amount of technical detail and a plausible scenario for the accident (although it is difficult to accept the many safety violations involved and the apparent lack of elementary knowledge of nuclear reactor physics amongst the operating personnel). On the other hand, the report is written in impersonal terms without mentioning names, duties or actions of the 88 or more personnel who were presumably on the site of Units #3 and #4 at the time of the accident. [It is recommended that the USSR release and make public the interviews of all the reactor personnel debriefed after the accident.]

Secondly, the July, 1987 trial of six plant personnel (including Bryukhanov, the Director, and Fomin, the Chief Engineer) accused of being responsible for the accident was mostly held in secret. It is incomprehensible that in a period of glasnost and increased democratization such information be withheld from the public. [It is highly recommended that the Soviet authorities release and make public full transcripts of the trial.] Promises of further trials of other personnel has not materialized.

Since the IAEA meeting mentioned above, there has been a tendency by Western authors (e.g. fiction writer, Frederik Pohl) to minimize the nuclear aspect of the explosion calling it a "steam" explosion (ref.1) and to make inappropriate comparisons to the Three Mile Island accident in the US in March, 1979. (The accident at Three Mile Island was characterized by a partial meltdown of the core typified by the release of gaseous radionuclide fission products. The accident at Chornobyl was a low level nuclear explosion typified by the explosive release of gaseous, liquid and solid radionuclide fission products, followed by a graphite fire lasting many days which contributed to the further release of gaseous and solid particulates in the form of smoke and ash.)

This has been further compounded by some scientists (e.g. Victor Snell) who make misleading and inappropriate comparisons of the Chornobyl reactor with the Canadian CANDU and U.S. PWR systems. (It is indeed true that the Chornobyl reactor did not have an appropriate containment building. However, it is unlikely that the CANDU and U.S. containment vessels would have been able to withstand a Chornobyl-magnitude explosion. (ref.2))

The sad reality is that all calculations, which have been published in the literature thus far, inappropriately utilise homogeneous burnup distributions of the fuel. (ref.3) [It is recommended that scientists utilize more realistic non-homogeneous burnup distributions in calculating the explosion and make detailed computer simulations of the actual dynamics of the explosion.]

It is in the areas of ecological and social concern where the Soviet government scores its lowest grades. Dr. David Marples, who wrote two books (ref.4, 5) on the Chornobyl disaster, is undoubtedly the West's leading expert on the economic and social impact of the accident. Using materials based mostly on Soviet sources, he paints a devastating indictment of the USSR nuclear energy program: Plans for 47,000 megawatts of nuclear power in Ukraine, almost 50% of all USSR nuclear capacity in an area making up 3% of the territory and 18.5% of the population of the USSR. (This would be equivalent to 47 nuclear reactors in an area one third the size of Quebec.) Much of the electricity is exported to satellite Eastern Bloc countries. The Crimean reactor is being built in an earthquake zone. Virtually every river system in Ukraine is over-burdened with reactors. Workmanship is shoddy. People's legitimate concerns about safety and environmental damage is ignored.

Oles Honchar, President of the Ukrainian Writer's Union, has been one of the leading Soviet spokesmen (ref.6) against the "gigantomania" prevailing in the Soviet Union, along with the view that "science demands casualties". He is dissatisfied with the post-Chornobyl analysis of Soviet scientists. [Following Honchar's suggestion, it is recommended that the issue be fully discussed in an international "Chornobyl Forum".]

There has been an increasing ground swell of popular opposition throughout the USSR and Ukraine, in particular, to the irresponsible construction of nuclear reactors in ecologically sensitive areas without proper environmental studies and consultation with the local populace. [It is recommended that the Soviet government encourage an analysis of all aspects of the Chornobyl accident and the Soviet nuclear energy program by the various non-governmental groups within the Soviet Union who are concerned with these issues.]

Any last vestige of credibility of the Soviet nuclear bureaucracy was shattered by the April 27, 1988 death of Valerii Legasov, who had been the main Soviet spokesperson at the Vienna meeting in August, 1986 and leading proponent of nuclear energy. Realizing that he was fighting a losing battle to bring restraint and reason to the USSR nuclear program, he committed suicide after writing a stinging condemnation of the bureaucracy and of the basic failure of the industry to learn the lessons of Chornobyl.

The Chornobyl accident was indeed a major technological tragedy, but it would be a far greater tragedy if we did not shoulder our responsibility and learn its lessons.

(1) The Ukrainian Weekly, No. 39, September 25, 1988, p.7. (letter of W. Zuzak thereto; appended)

(2) W. Zuzak letter to D. Marples, January 23, 1988. (appended)

(3) W. Zuzak, Chornobyl: A Technical Overview (Two Years Later), (public seminar, April 24,1988; appended)

(4) David R. Marples, Chernobyl & Nuclear Power in the USSR, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta, Edmonton (1986)

(5) David R. Marples, The Social Impact of the Chernobyl Disaster, Publisher: The University of Alberta Press, 141 Athabasca Hall, Edmonton, Canada T6G 2E8

(6) Ibid., p 267

Will Zuzak
CHORN_89.D00 = The Lessons of Chornobyl Must be Learned

Copyright © 1989 Dr. W. Zuzak

since March 1st 1997