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An insider's account of Chernobyl


Translated by Evelyn Rossiter

Foreword by Andrei Sakharov

Basic Books, $22.95

If any good can be said to have come out of the devastating accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in April 1986, it is that it catalyzed some of the momentous changes now going on in the Soviet Union. Among high-ranking government officials, the disaster forced the examination of the system's ills that became perestroika (restructuring); and by trespassing international boundaries, the tragedy forced public admissions that became the first glimmerings of glasnost (openness).

Among ordinary people, the affair gave rise to an anti-nuclear movement, which in turn engendered a broader environmentalism and widespread expression of democratic and secessionist feelings.

All of these changes, however, have hung upon truth-telling _ a commodity that has been in slow and grudging supply. Characteristically, the Soviet government's first reaction to the incident was to hide it until confronted with irrefutable evidence. The first book-length Soviet account, which appeared in 1987, gave scant attention to culpability and concentrated instead on the heroism of the firefighters and rescue workers who risked _ and in some cases lost _ their lives in the cataclysm. Later accounts assembled the available data but stopped short of analyzing the material's broader implications.

In The Truth About Chernobyl (first published in the Soviet Union in 1989), Grigori Medvedev, who in the 1970s was deputy chief engineer for the plant's first reactor unit and more recently deputy director of the government agency that oversees nuclear-plant construction, has taken up where other historians left off. Like Zhores Medvedev (no relation), the expatriate Soviet scientist who last year published an exhaustive account of the Chernobyl affair, Grigori Medvedev has made prodigious use of data to construct a damning history of the catastrophe, from the plant's poor design, careless management and ill-trained personnel to the government's haphazard, arrogant and often bungled attempts to handle the aftermath.

But what Grigori Medvedev has that even his brilliant namesake lacks is intimate first-hand knowledge of both the plant at Chernobyl and the nuclear bureaucracy in Moscow. Unlike others who have written about the accident, Medvedev knows the plant literally inside-out _ and many of the people who were involved in the explosion. Within two weeks of the accident, he was on his way to interview them, as well as others who took part in the drama.

The result is a gripping, moment-by-moment chronicle of events preceding and following the awful morning of the accident, filled with raw dialogue and a quality of presence that distinguishes Medvedev's account from any other. From what he learns, he charges both incompetence and mendacity at every level, from the plant itself to the ministries in Moscow.

Ironically, however, Medvedev's very advantage as an author raises unsettling questions about him as a nuclear professional. If indeed he recognized that conditions at Chernobyl made for "a death sentence waiting to be executed," as he claims, it is hard not wondering why he failed to speak up sooner. As early as the 1970s, while overseeing construction of the first Chernobyl unit, he had problems with the design _ but said little. In March 1986, just a month before the accident at unit No. 4, he had checked without comment on the construction of No. 5. And the day of the accident he was returning from a dubious construction of like design in the Crimea.

Not long before the Chernobyl accident, Medvedev reports, he listened silently as officials pressured the construction officer of another power station into accelerating his building schedule. "There you have our whole nation's tragedy in a nutshell," the man mutters to him afterward. "We ourselves lie, and we teach our subordinates to lie." At long last, Medvedev is doing his part to change that.

Glenn Garelik writes frequently about environmental issues and is a translator of Chernobyl, A Soviet Eyewitness Account.