Review: Chernobyl

One of my undergrad modules was titled ‘Environment, Economy and Society in Europe’. A few of the lectures were taken by a grad student who was probably younger than me. On one occasion, she told us about how capitalism was destroying the environment. One of my fellow students asked what her solution might be. “Socialism”, she replied. The student pointed out that the Chernobyl disaster happened under socialism. The lecturer smiled coyly and replied “That wasn’t real socialism”.

You will have heard this before. But, as HBO’s excellent new drama Chernobyl demonstrates, not only did this grave disaster happen under socialism, socialism was part of the reason it happened.

Under socialism, the millions of economic plans of individuals are snuffed out and replaced with the single central economic plan of the government. But that does not yield the promised ‘democratic control’. Rather, it produced bureaucratic control. The bureaucracy simply takes one plan of many potential ones and forces everyone to submit. That is why, as the British author Kingsley Amis put it, “if socialism is not about compulsion, it is about nothing”.

Chernobyl shows how, in the hours before the accident, the reactor had been run down in preparation for a long delayed safety test, simulating a loss of power.

BRYUKHANOV: Three years I’ve been trying to finish this test. Three years! I just got a call from the grid controller in Kiev. He says we can’t lower power any further. Not for another ten hours. 

DYATLOV: A grid controller? Where does he get off telling us–

BRYUKHANOV: It’s not the grid controller’s decision, Dyatlov– it’s the end of the month. All the productivity quotas? Everyone’s working overtime, the factories need power, someone’s pushing down from above.

This lead to a chain of events culminating in the explosion of Reactor 4 on April 26th, 1986.

A key part of this chain was the insertion into the reactor’s core of the control rods – essentially the reactor’s breaks. Incredibly, these were tipped with graphite, a highly reactive substance. This meant that, before the boron rods had an opportunity to slow the reaction, the insertion of graphite temporarily sped it up.

JUDGE KADNIKOV: (disbelief) Why? 

LEGASOV: Why? For the same reason our reactors do not have containment buildings around them like those in the West. The same reason we don’t use properly enriched fuel in our cores. The same reason we are the only nation that builds water-cooled graphite moderated reactors with a positive void coefficient. It’s cheaper.

Soviet communism had originally promised material plenty for its citizens. By the 1980s, this had been shown to be empty. In a country where the armies of both Napoleon and Hitler froze to death, around a quarter of the population couldn’t afford a winter hat or coat, which cost, on average, an entire month’s wages.

This was excused, at the time, by arguing that the military and scientific sectors of the economy should be given first call on resources in accordance with the central plan. So, while the average Soviet typically had to wait four to six years, and often as long as ten, to get a car, the government built the Tupolev Tu-160, the largest and heaviest combat aircraft ever flown, and the cargo plane the Antonov An-225 Mriya, the heaviest aircraft ever built.

But such was the scale of communism’s economic failure in the Soviet Union that even favored sectors, like the nuclear industry, were short changed. This economic failure, directly attributable to communism, was a major factor in the disaster at Chernobyl.

HBO’s Chernobyl is grim and gripping television. I hope my old lecturer will see it.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.