Chernobyl Before It Was CHERNOBYL!

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Research Services at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

[NOTE: This post was drafted before the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine.]

Chernobyl.  Today, the name of the city in present-day war-torn Ukraine conjures visions of a nuclear disaster of previously-unseen proportions.  On April 26, 1986, technicians at the nuclear power plant near Chernobyl lost control of one of the four reactors on the site during a low-power test.  The end result was an explosion and fire that destroyed the reactor building and released enormous amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere.  

As a result of the spread of radiation, the Soviet Union established an exclusion zone, formally called the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation.  The zone encompasses approximately 1000 square miles of Ukraine immediately surrounding the Chornobyl Power Plant.  In this area of high radioactive contamination, public access and inhabitation are restricted.  The city of Pripyat, within the zone, was abandoned.  An adjacent 835 square mile area of Belarus called the Polesie State Radioecological Reserve is a nature reserve established to cover the area of that country most affected by radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl disaster.

Given Russian occupation of the site as part of its invasion of Ukraine, there are concerns about new releases of radiation.

overhead view of part of the Chernobyl plant, showing a gaping hole where reactor 4 would be w/structural damage around it
Reactor No. 4 several months after it exploded (IAEA Imagebank)

When Chernobyl first shows up in Department of State (RG 59) records, it is simply the site of a new nuclear power facility in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, one of the constituent parts of the USSR.  The Chernobyl nuclear facility makes its initial appearance in the Department of State central files in a Moscow embassy telegram of December 22, 1977, on the Soviet Union’s 1978 economic plan for fuels and energy.  The embassy reported that the energy sector had been a “bright spot” in the Soviet economy in 1977 and was expected to grow significantly in 1978.  Nevertheless, Soviet leadership called for “thriftiness,” “discipline,” and “economizing” in energy use.  In the discussion of electric power, the embassy reported that growth in electric power output depended on establishment of nuclear power plants at Novovoronezh, Chernobyl, and Kursk.[1]

In late 1979, the Chernobyl power plant was visited by the Kiev Advance Party (KAP), American diplomats working on opening the U.S. consulate general in that city. (Kiev is now known as Kyiv.) Establishing a consulate there was part of an effort to increase the U.S. presence in the USSR beyond Moscow.  One key goal was to report more closely on the nationalities issue, which was particularly evident in the Ukraine.

In October, Ukrainian officials took the foreign consuls posted to that city on a trip to the Chernobyl power station.  Here are some selections from the report on the visit sent by the embassy in Moscow:[2]

On Tuesday, October 9, the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs organized an excursion for the Kiev Consular Corps to the Chernobyl’ Nuclear Power Generation Station (Chernobyl’skya Atomnaya Elektricheskaya Stantsiya).  The plant is located about 15 miles west of the district (rayon) center of Chernobyl’, at the edge of the former village (now rapidly growing town) of Pripyat’.  The site is in the extreme northwest Kiev Oblast’ on the Pripyat’ River close to the border of the Byelorussian SSR…

The fuel used is uranium, enriched to “slightly less than 2%”.  The fuel rods are inserted in any one of several hundred “channels”, which also facilitates replacement of any one fuel element without shutting down the reactors.  The reactors are shut down twice yearly, however, for planned “preventive maintenance” work…

Also as part of the site is an artificial cooling pond, 70 square kilometers in size.  It was formed by dredging an area adjacent to the main channel of the Pripyat’ River.

The Pripyat’ site was chosen, the engineers explained, mainly because of its proximity to both water and rail transportation but also because of its hefty distance from major population areas.  Also, the region has very sandy soil and is thus unsuited for agricultural use.[3]

The plant and its parent ministry offer numerous benefits (l’goty) to attract and retain qualified personnel to the project.  For example, both average wages and bonuses are higher.  An engineer could expect to earn R180 per month, and 50% bonus for plan fulfillment.  All workers are provided a free hot breakfast each morning, and a “high calorie” second meal at nominal cost.  Both housing and municipal services are said to be of high quality.

Pripyat’ itself is a classic “company town”.  The power station is the one industry in the area.  Once a miniscule village, it is now booming and everything appears brand new.  The present population of 25,000 is expected to double.  New theaters, a cultural palace, and sports facilities are springing up everywhere.

The plant officials seemed particularly concerned to demonstrate both the safety of nuclear power generally and the many measures that have been taken to safeguard workers’ health in particular.  One purpose of this was presumably to convince the other consuls (all East Europeans) of the benefits combined with complete safety of the nuclear power option their Soviet comrades would like to see grow in importance in the EE/SOV energy quotient.

A lengthy presentation was given of safety measures in force at the plant.  These conform to recommendations of the International Commission for Radiation Protection.  Broadly, they take two forms: 1) protection of individuals themselves through the use of protective clothing, repeated instrument checks for body radiation, etc.; and 2) protection of the atmosphere around the plant itself.  Inter alia, this latter is accomplished through the utilization of sensitive monitoring devices to register radiation “deviations” in grass, water, and milk supplies of the surrounding areas.[4]

The plant officials proved to be remarkably well informed about nuclear power developments in the United States.  In particular, they seemed to know all the details of the Three Mile Island incident.[5]  To their way of thinking, events at Three Mile Island proved the reliability of the plant in the face of “human error”, rather than pointing up the dangers of nuclear power.  They questioned the reporting officer at length about the  “hysteria” they perceive as having grown up around Three Mile Island “from an uninformed public that does not know what it is talking about”.  They seemed not to understand how this public opinion could adversely affect the further development of nuclear power in the US.  They specifically requested the reporting officer to inform the US Government of their strong conviction that nuclear power is not only absolutely safe when developed properly but that its use is inescapable if the industrialized nations are to make it through the bridging period until exotic energy sources can be developed…

Embassy Row to Department of State, Telegram 18394, Dec 22, 1977

[1] Embassy Moscow to Department of State, Telegram 18394, December 22, 1977, 1977MOSCOW18394, Electronic Telegrams, 1977 (NAID 5665410), Central Foreign Policy Files, 1973-79, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State. (available in the AAD)

[2] Embassy Moscow to Department of State, A-271, October 20, 1979, P790153-1433, P-Reel Printouts, 1979 (NAID 77860898), Central Foreign Policy Files, 1973-79, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

[3] At this point, the embassy inserted the following comment:  “While all currently operating Soviet nuclear power stations are located a fair distance from major population centers, there is still a large group led by Academy President Aleksandrov which argues that nuclear plants can be safely operated inside large cities. . . .”

[4] Here, the report included this comment: “Getting in a dig at the Chinese, the officials claimed that the only time these instruments picked up noticeable radiation was last year following a PRC nuclear device test.”  A later embassy report noted that “Soviet standards in this as in other areas are often more honored in the breach.  For example, U.S. nuclear delegations have generally been struck in their visits to Soviet nuclear power stations by the lack of monitoring of individual radiation exposure and the relatively relaxed attitude among soviet technicians towards their own safety.”  Embassy Moscow to Department of State, A-347, December 11, 1979, P790179-1821, P-Reel Printouts, 1979 (NAID 77860898), Central Foreign Policy Files, 1973-79, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

[5] For more about Three Mile Island, see these earlier Text Message posts on the international aspects of the Three Mile Island Incident:

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