Chernobyl – History of a Tragedy (Serhii Plokhy, 2018) – Review of the World’s Greatest Energy Disaster


1. INTRODUCTION


We had the chance to read Serhii Plokhy’s new book on the history of Chernobyl, a professional historian who was born and raised in a city located 250 miles away from Chernobyl, in Ukraine.

The point he makes is that the Chernobyl nuclear disaster has contributed to the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union. It was not the only reason per se, but it has definately played a significant part in it. Chernobyl matters as a historical reminder, because it symbolized the management style by the Soviet politburo and inability of technicians to make the necessary operational decisions in such a rigid environment.

The scale of the problem forced Mikhail Gorbachev to address this issue, eventually, the crisis that led him to release secret information regarding the events that have taken place in the Soviet Union at that time. It is important to remember that there was no precedent for this in the Soviet Union. In that way, it led to a shift of management style of the Communist Party itself.

Serhii Plokhy points out that this disaster can be seen as a stepping stone into post-Soviet Russia, a period commonly known under the name Glasnost and Perestroika, and leading to the economic restructuring of post-Soviet Russia.  I believe its real significance is that it exposes the ineffectiveness of complex structures and hierarchies which more often then not do not align with the day-to-day decision-making.

Managing large-scale technical operations requires much more flexibility, and these decisions have to be made on site, which is why Chernobyl is an important reminder for what happens when management decisions override operational management concerns.


2. AN ATTEMPT TO UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT OF THE EVENTS. A CAREFUL CONSIDERATION OF THE IMPACT OF CHERNOBYL ON THE SOVIET UNION. 


Shortly after the destruction that took place in Chernobyl, increased levels of radioactivity were detected in Northern Europe (particularily in Sweden) coming from Northern Ukraine. It didn’t take a long time for Western European media find out that a nuclear accident has happened in the Soviet Union. In fact, the information was released in Western Europe even before the information became known in the Soviet Union. The truth is that the population was not informed, even days after the radioactive clouds have spread across Ukraine.

And although the Soviet leadership tried hardily to keep the incidence secret, Mikhail Goverbachev later found himself in no position to hide the incidence due to its magnitude, and also because of the Western media’s insistence that such an event has taken place within the territory of the Soviet Union. No longer being able to keep a Soviet tradition alive that was characterized, to some extent, by  rigid hierarchies, Mikhail Gorbachev eventually released some information, piece by piece.

During the aftermath, he may have lost some of his credibility, and his standing suffered as well to some extend. This may have undermined the good-will of the Populus, which he had been able to maintain. He received it in part because he was from a younger cohort of politicians and because he appeared a less gerontocratic candidate for leadership of the politburo in the Soviet Union.


3. WHY WE RECOMMEND THIS BOOK: THIS BOOK ALLOWS THE READER TO GAIN AN UNDERSTANDING OF NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS AND THEIR INHERENT SAFETY RISKS, AS WELL AS A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING OF THE RISKS OF ENERGY TECHNOLOGIES.


We  highly recommend this book for your bookshelves in case you are interested in the ramifications of the nuclear fallout in Chernobyl, but especially if you have a general interest in nuclear energy. We recommend it to anyone interested to learn more about the risks posed by nuclear technology, if managed carelessly by human hands. The book is also extremely useful to readers interested in Russian energy politics.

We can also see that tragic events are not limited to the past. Fukushima has shown us that other highly industrialized countries capable of building, constructing and operating nuclear power plants can also experience a crisis. Stricter safety measures have been taken, but human error cannot always be ruled out. This shows us how important it is to be cautious in the face of technological progress.

Equally important is our ability to extrapolate the limits of our understanding of technology. Since Fukushima, nuclear power has been sitting on the back burner in countries like Germany, leading to a desire among many Germans to invest more in renewables. We see that risk assessment plays an important role in deciding which energy technologies we can use and why we use them.

The search for alternative energy technologies has gained a lot of attention in the last decade. The reason for this is our fundamental desire to replace dwindling fossil fuel reserves. This is why there has been a lot of investment in smaller nuclear power plants. The associated risk is difficult to assess at present. 


4. REFERENCES


Plokhy S 2018, Chernobyl History of A Tragedy, Penguin Random House.


Many thanks for the shared interest in the energy world!



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