'This Reactor Model Is No Good' Documents Show Politburo Skepticism of Chernobyl

Lies and deception were commonplace in the Soviet nuclear industry. Now Kremlin records which have been obtained by SPIEGEL reveal that Russian experts already had their doubts about the Chernobyl reactor before the 1986 disaster.
Politburo members voting during a session of the Supreme Soviet in Moscow in June 1986. President Andrei Gromyko (middle) can be seen next to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the bottom row. Mikhail Solomentsev is on the right in the middle row.

Politburo members voting during a session of the Supreme Soviet in Moscow in June 1986. President Andrei Gromyko (middle) can be seen next to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the bottom row. Mikhail Solomentsev is on the right in the middle row.

Foto: AP/DDP

The gravestone in Moscow's famous Novodevichy Cemetery consists of a polished granite slab with a copper engraving on it of a kneeling young woman. She is wearing a headscarf and gazing thoughtfully at the ground. At her feet are the words: "Academy member Legasov, Valery Alexeyevich, 1936-1988."

The man who is buried here was a professor at Moscow University and a world-renowned specialist in the chemistry of inert gases. In the last years of his life, he served as deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow, the center of Soviet nuclear research.

Legasov was a victim of the Chernobyl disaster . But he did not die of radiation sickness, even though he spent four months in Chernobyl after the explosion there. Legasov hanged himself in his office on April 27, 1988, almost two years to the day after the reactor accident in present-day Ukraine.

He left a legacy behind on his desk: tapes containing a detailed description of the catastrophe that -- at least until Fukushima -- was considered the ultimate symbol of nuclear apocalypse. Today, Legasov's recordings are available on the Internet, but not in their entirety: An important section was deliberately deleted shortly after his death.

'Criminal Negligence'

This isn't surprising. Trickery, deception and secrecy were part of the modus operandi of many of the individuals who were involved in the events at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant a quarter century ago. Some of this information would probably never have come to light if Mikhail Gorbachev hadn't already been in charge at the Kremlin in April 1986.

The Chernobyl accident was caused by "criminal negligence" and "a shocking lack of responsibility," Gorbachev angrily told the members of the politburo after they had tried to assign the blame to an unfortunate chain of adverse events. "One or two more of these cases," Gorbachev added, "and it'll be worse than after a nuclear war."

Excerpts from the minutes of the politburo, the inner circle of the Soviet party leadership, were later published, but only in fragments. The young Russian historian Pavel Stroilov, who lives in London today, secretly copied large parts of the Gorbachev archive. He has now made them available to SPIEGEL.

The discussions within the old boys' club of the politburo following Chernobyl were downright turbulent by Kremlin standards. They reveal leaders who were overwhelmed by events because their underlings had lied to them for years. Suddenly they were forced to realize that "an idiotic experiment" by subordinate plant engineers had thrown the country out of balance, and that neither its civil defense forces nor its medical service nor its fire department was functioning.

The discussion was especially heated during a meeting on July 3 attended by the Communist Party leaders, as well as experts and members of the government commission deployed after the Chernobyl accident, including Legasov. The minutes of that meeting reveal that the experts had never had any confidence in the safety of the Chernobyl reactors, in which graphite, instead of water, was used to slow down neutrons moving at high speeds following nuclear fission. But it was precisely this design that, on that fateful day, led to a rapid increase in the temperature and pressure in the reactor core, and then to an explosion that set the graphite on fire.

The following is an extract from the transcript of the meeting:

G.A. Shasharin (deputy energy minister): The personnel had no idea that this type of reactor can release so much energy. We didn't know it either. We were enthusiastic about this reactor but never truly convinced of its safety. There was only one protective system, and everyone assumed that it was no good. The Smolensk and Kursk nuclear power plants, as well as the two near Leningrad , should also be shut down. They can't even be refurbished anymore.

Mikhail Solomentsev (politburo member): You knew that the reactor wasn't safe?

Shasharin: Yes. But it was never documented in writing. There was a great deal of resistance to letting this become known. The Academy of Sciences and the Ministry of Medium Machine Building (responsible for nuclear energy) demanded a constant increase in the production of nuclear energy until the year 2000.

Efim Slavsky (minister of medium machine building): There is a problem with a turbine at the Leningrad nuclear power plant. There is a crack in the turbine shaft. 6,000 revolutions per minute. One explosion and everything will blow up there too. Twenty-six graphite rods were needed, but there were only five.

Gorbachev: Why were we so poorly informed? Does this mean that they don't even know what the potential consequences of such a fire can be? What idiots!

Anatoli Mayorets (energy minister): This reactor model is no good. There was a similar accident at the Leningrad nuclear power plant back in 1975. No one ever dealt with it. And the same thing already happened in Chernobyl in 1982, except that there was no release of radioactive material that time. No one learned anything from that accident, either. Foreign sources show that the West has already simulated the Chernobyl accident. Should we continue to lie to the IAEA? Moreover, we have to stop building cities next to nuclear power plants just because it's cheaper.

Gorbachev wanted openness, even toward the socialist "brother countries," which were building similar plants based on Soviet designs. "We have to speak very openly with the general secretaries," he said. "And we cannot say what our newspapers are writing. Fifty percent of the plants we send to the GDR (East Germany) are defective when they arrive."

In the same meeting, the comrades began to discuss other sources of energy, and that they wanted to "completely change" the Soviet Union's approach to nuclear energy and shift the focus to natural gas.

It isn't hard to guess why these passages in the debate were never released in their entirety: The party leadership knew that it couldn't rule out the possibility of a second Chernobyl occurring somewhere within their scope of influence in the future.

Gorbachev: What isolated areas we have created in this country! The Central Committee declared everything to be a secret. The government doesn't even determine the locations for nuclear power plants or the types of reactors used. The entire system consisted of cajolery, boasting, deception, nepotism and the persecution of dissidents.

Andrei Gromyko (president): We have never discussed such things here in the politburo. But the consequences of Chernobyl for the people are like those following a medium-sized war. We must prohibit the construction of nuclear power plants in densely populated areas immediately. Don't we have enough space? We are not Belgium or Japan . There will never be absolute certainty with these power plants. But we are even building them in the Crimea ! In fact, we should shut down all the plants in the European part of the country.

On Oct. 2, during a final discussion about Chernobyl, Gorbachev did in fact announce a partial phase-out for the nuclear industry. The 15 remaining Chernobyl-type reactors were to be "shut down immediately," the Kremlin leader said, "including the ones in Smolensk, Leningrad and Kursk."

But the reactors in all three of these nuclear power plants are still in operation today. And this despite the fact that the Leningrad nuclear plant, which lies only 70 kilometers (44 miles) from St. Petersburg, a city of 5 million, narrowly escaped disaster in 1992, when a leak occurred in the cooling system for unit 3.

Driven to Suicide

According to the minutes, nuclear scientist Valery Legasov spoke up only once during the July politburo meeting. He said what he had been preaching for years, namely that the Chernobyl reactor model did not satisfy safety requirements in all key parameters. But no one had believed him until then.

It was probably the hypocrisy of the party leadership, which assigned sole blame for the accident to plant personnel, that drove Legasov to suicide. He killed himself on the day before he was due to present the results of the investigation of the Chernobyl disaster to the politburo.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan