When the Chernobyl nuclear accident rattled the world and destroyed the myth of safe nuclear power in 1986, Serhii Plokhy was a young history professor who lived downwind from the power plant. Soviet leaders reflexively covered up the deadly incident but were forced to reveal some information because Sweden and other countries detected radiation from the releases at Chernobyl.
Today, Plokhy is professor of Ukrainian history and director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard. His new book, Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe, is a gripping account of the people responsible for the construction and operation of the nuclear power plant, and the fatal errors that occurred during a planned shutdown of Reactor 3 on April 25, 1986.
He introduces readers to all the key players in Moscow, in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, and in the Soviet Union’s nuclear power establishment. A central figure is Viktor Bryukhanov, who built the Chernobyl complex, managed the emergency response, and was imprisoned after being blamed for the incident.
The powerful takeaway from Plokhy’s book, and this interview with Peter B. Collins, is that the Chernobyl disaster gave rise to what Plokhy calls “eco-nationalism” in Ukraine. This was a political movement that challenged Gorbachev and the central government in Moscow, and produced the first episode of glasnost, or openness, which ultimately led to the dissolution of the USSR.