Midnight in Chernobyl 1
The Soviet Prometheus
At the slow beat of approaching rotor blades, black birds rose into the sky, scattering over the frozen meadows and the pearly knots of creeks and ponds lacing the Pripyat River basin. Far below, standing knee deep in snow, his breath lingering in heavy clouds, Viktor Brukhanov awaited the arrival of the nomenklatura from Moscow.
When the helicopter touched down, the delegation of ministers and Communist Party officials trudged together over the icy field. The savage cold gnawed at their heavy woolen coats and nipped beneath their tall fur hats. The head of the Ministry of Energy and Electrification of the USSR and senior Party bosses from the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine joined Brukhanov at the spot where their audacious new project was to begin. Just thirty-four years old, clever and ambitious, a dedicated Party man, Brukhanov had come to western Ukraine with orders to begin building what—if the Soviet central planners had their way—would become the greatest nuclear power station on earth.
As they gathered near the riverbank, the dozen men toasted their plans with shots of cognac. A state photographer posed them between long-handled shovels and a theodolite, the helicopter waiting, squat and awkward, in the background. They stood in the snow and watched as Minister Neporozhny drove a ceremonial stake, centimeter by centimeter, into the iron ground.
It was February 20, 1970. After months of deliberation, the Soviet authorities had at last settled on a name for the new power plant that would one day make the USSR’s nuclear engineering famous across the globe. They had considered a few options: the North Kiev, or the Western Ukraine, or, perhaps, the Pripyat Atomic Energy Station. But finally, Vladimir Scherbitsky, the formidable leader of the Ukrainian Communist Party, signed a decree confirming that the station would take the name of the regional capital: a small but ancient town of two thousand people, fourteen kilometers from where Brukhanov and his bosses stood in the snow-covered field.
The town of Chernobyl had been established in the twelfth century. For the next eight hundred years, it was home to peasants who fished in the rivers, grazed cows in the meadows, and foraged for mushrooms in the dense woods of northwestern Ukraine and southern Belarus. Swept repeatedly by pogrom, purge, famine, and war, by the second half of the twentieth century, Chernobyl was finally at peace. It had evolved into a quiet provincial center, with a handful of factories, a hospital, a library, a Palace of Culture; there was a small shipyard to service the tugs and barges that plied the Pripyat and the Dnieper, the two rivers that met nearby. Water permeated the surrounding countryside, an endlessly flat landscape of peat bogs, marshes, and sodden forests that formed part of the Dnieper River basin, a network of thirty-two thousand rivers and streams that covered almost half of Ukraine. Just fifteen kilometers downstream from the site chosen for the new power station, the rivers joined and flowed onward to the Kiev Sea, a massive hydroelectric reservoir providing fresh water to the two and a half million citizens of the republic’s capital, two hours’ drive away to the southeast.
Viktor Brukhanov had arrived in Chernobyl earlier that winter. He checked into the town’s only hotel: a bleak, single-story building on Sovietskaya Street. Slight but athletic, he had a narrow, anxious face, an olive complexion, and a head of tight, dark curls. The oldest of four children, Brukhanov was born to ethnically Russian parents but raised in Uzbekistan, amid the mountains of Soviet Central Asia. He had an exotic look: when they eventually met, the divisional KGB major thought the young director could be Greek.
He sat down on his hotel bed and unpacked the contents of his briefcase: a notebook, a set of blueprints, and a wooden slide rule. Although now the director and, as yet, sole employee of the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station, Brukhanov knew little about nuclear power. Back at the Polytechnic Institute in Tashkent, he had studied electrical engineering. He had risen quickly from lowly jobs in the turbine shop of an Uzbek hydroelectric power plant to overseeing the launch of Ukraine’s largest coal-fired station in Slavyansk, in the industrial east of the republic. But at the Ministry of Energy in Moscow, knowledge and experience were regarded as less important qualifications for top management than loyalty and an ability to get things done. Technical matters could be left to the experts.
At the dawn of the 1970s, in a bid to meet its surging need for electricity and to catch up with the West, the USSR embarked upon a crash program of reactor building. Soviet scientists had once claimed to lead the world in nuclear engineering and astonished their capitalist counterparts in 1954 by completing the first reactor to generate commercial electricity. But since then, they had fallen hopelessly behind. In July 1969, as US astronauts made their final preparations to land on the moon, the Soviet minister of energy and electrification called for an aggressive expansion of nuclear construction. He set ambitious targets for a network of new plants across the European part of the Soviet Union, with giant, mass-produced reactors that would be built from the Gulf of Finland to the Caspian Sea.
That winter, as the 1960s came to a close, the energy minister summoned Brukhanov to Moscow and offered him his new assignment. It was a project of enormous prestige. Not only would it be the first atomic power plant in Ukraine, but it was also new territory for the Ministry of Energy and Electrification, which had never before built a nuclear station from scratch. Until this point, every reactor in the USSR had been constructed by the Ministry of Medium Machine Building: the clandestine organization behind the Soviet atom weapons program, so secret that its very name was a cipher, designed to discourage further curiosity. But whatever the challenges, Brukhanov, a true believer, gladly enlisted to carry the banner of the Red Atom.
Sitting alone on his hotel bed, the young engineer confronted his responsibility for conjuring from an empty field a project expected to cost almost 400 million rubles. He drew up lists of the materials to begin building and, using his slide rule, calculated their attendant costs. Then he delivered his estimates to the state bank in Kiev. He traveled to the city almost every day by bus; when there wasn’t a bus, he thumbed a ride. As the project had no accountant, there was no payroll, so he received no wages.
Before Brukhanov could start building the station itself, he had to create the infrastructure he’d need to bring materials and equipment to the site: a rail spur from the station in nearby Yanov; a new dock on the river to receive gravel and reinforced concrete. He hired construction workers, and soon a growing army of men and women at the controls of caterpillar-tracked excavators and massive BelAZ dump trucks began to tear pathways through the forest and scrape a plateau from the dun landscape. To house himself, a newly hired bookkeeper, and the handful of workers who lived on the site, Brukhanov organized a temporary village in a forest clearing nearby. A cluster of wooden huts on wheels, each equipped with a small kitchen and a log-burning stove, the settlement was named simply Lesnoy—“of the woods”—by its new inhabitants. As the weather warmed, Brukhanov had a schoolhouse built where children could be educated up to fourth grade. In August 1970 he was joined in Lesnoy by his young family: his wife, Valentina, their six-year-old daughter, Lilia, and infant son, Oleg.
Valentina and Viktor Brukhanov had spent the first decade of their lives together helping fulfill the dream of Socialist electrification. Chernobyl was the family’s third power plant start-up in six years; Valentina and Viktor had met as young specialists working on the building of the Angren hydroelectric project, a hundred kilometers from the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. Valentina had been the assistant to a turbine engineer, and Viktor, fresh from university, had been a trainee. He was still planning to return to university to finish his master’s degree when the head of his department at the plant encouraged him to stay: “Wait,” he told him, “you’ll meet your future wife here!” Mutual friends introduced Viktor and Valentina in the winter of 1959: “You’ll drown in her eyes,” they promised. The couple had been dating for barely a year when, in December 1960, they were married in Tashkent; Lilia was born in 1964.
To Valentina, Lesnoy seemed a magical place, with fewer than a dozen families gathered in the huddle of makeshift cottages; at night, when the roar of the bulldozers and excavators subsided, a velvet silence fell on the glade, the darkness pierced by a single lantern and the screeching of owls. Every once in a while, to inspire the workers to help them achieve their construction targets, Moscow sent down Soviet celebrities, including the Gypsy superstar Nikolai Slichenko and his troupe, to perform shows and concerts. The family remained in the forest settlement for another two years, as shock-work brigades excavated the first reactor pit and carved a giant reservoir—an artificial lake 11 kilometers long and 2.5 kilometers wide that would provide the millions of cubic meters of cooling water crucial to operating four massive reactors—from the sandy soil.
Meanwhile, Viktor oversaw the genesis of an entirely new settlement—an atomgrad, or “atomic city”—beside the river. The planners designed the settlement, eventually named Pripyat, to house the thousands of staff who would one day run the nuclear complex, along with their families. A handful of dormitories and apartment buildings reached completion in 1972. The new town went up so quickly that at first there were no paved roads and no municipal heating plant to serve the apartment buildings. But its citizens were young and enthusiastic. The first group of specialists to arrive on the site were idealists, pioneers of the nuclear future, keen to transform their homeland with new technology. To them, these problems were trifles: to keep warm at night, they slept with their coats on.
Valentina and Viktor were among the first to move in, taking a three-bedroom apartment in 6 Lenina Prospekt, right at the entrance to the new town, in the winter of 1972. While they waited for the city’s first school to be completed, every day their daughter, Lilia, hitched a ride in a truck or car back to Lesnoy, where she attended lessons in the forest schoolhouse.
According to Soviet planning regulations, Pripyat was separated from the plant itself by a “sanitary zone” in which building was prohibited, to ensure that the population would not be exposed to fields of low-level ionizing radiation. But Pripyat remained close enough to the plant to be reached by road in less than ten minutes—just three kilometers as the crow flies. And as the city grew, its residents began to build summer houses in the sanitary zone, each happy to disregard the rules in exchange for a makeshift dacha and a small vegetable garden.
Viktor Brukhanov’s initial instructions for the Chernobyl plant called for the construction of a pair of nuclear reactors—a new model known by the acronym RBMK, for reaktor bolshoy moschnosti kanalnyy, or high-power channel-type reactor. In keeping with the Soviet weakness for gigantomania, the RBMK was both physically larger and more powerful than almost any reactor yet built in the West, each one theoretically capable of generating 1,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to serve at least a million modern homes. The deadlines set by his bosses in Moscow and Kiev required Brukhanov to work with superhuman dispatch: according to the details of the Ninth Five-Year Plan, the first was due to come online in December 1975, with the second to follow before the end of 1979. Brukhanov quickly realized that this timetable was impossible.
By the time the young director began work in Chernobyl in 1970, the Socialist economic experiment was going into reverse. The USSR was buckling under the strain of decades of central planning, fatuous bureaucracy, massive military spending, and endemic corruption—the start of what would come to be called the Era of Stagnation. Shortages and bottlenecks, theft and embezzlement blighted almost every industry. Nuclear engineering was no exception. From the beginning, Brukhanov lacked construction equipment. Key mechanical parts and building materials often turned up late, or not at all, and those that did were often defective. Steel and zirconium—essential for the miles of tubing and hundreds of fuel assemblies that would be plumbed through the heart of the giant reactors—were both in short supply; pipework and reinforced concrete intended for nuclear use often turned out to be so poorly made it had to be thrown away. The quality of workmanship at all levels of Soviet manufacturing was so poor that building projects throughout the nation’s power industry were forced to incorporate an extra stage known as “preinstallation overhaul.” Upon delivery from the factory, each piece of new equipment—transformers, turbines, switching gear—was stripped down to the last nut and bolt, checked for faults, repaired, and then reassembled according to the original specifications, as it should have been in the first place. Only then could it be safely installed. Such wasteful duplication of labor added months of delays and millions of rubles in costs to any construction project.
Throughout late 1971 and early 1972, Brukhanov struggled with labor disputes and infighting among his construction managers and faced steady reprimands from his Communist Party bosses in Kiev. The workers complained about food shortages and the lines at the site canteen; he had failed to provide cost estimates and design documents; he missed deadlines and fell pathetically short of the monthly work quotas dictated by Moscow. And still there was more: the new citizens of Pripyat required a bakery, a hospital, a palace of culture, a shopping center. There were hundreds of apartments to be built.
Finally, in July 1972, exhausted and disillusioned, Viktor Brukhanov drove to Kiev for an appointment with his boss from the Ministry of Energy and Electrification. He had been director of the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station for less than three years, and the plant had not yet emerged from the ground. But now he planned to resign.
Behind all the catastrophic failures of the USSR during the Era of Stagnation—beneath the kleptocratic bungling, the nepotism, the surly inefficiencies, and the ruinous waste of the planned economy—lay the monolithic power of the Communist Party. The Party had originated as a single faction among those grappling for power in Russia following the Revolution of 1917, ostensibly to represent the will of the workers, but quickly establishing control of a single-...