Mikhail Gorbachev first visited the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on February 23, 1989, almost three years after the disaster. He never explained why it took him so long. There are photographs published in Soviet newspapers, where Gorbachev and his wife Raisa Maksimovna, dressed in white coats, talk to the leaders of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and party officials in one of the reactor departments of the ChNPP.
As of February 1989, three of the four power units of the ChNPP generated electricity. However, the problems caused by the accident did not dry out, but only accumulated. In December 1988, the KGB informed the party officials in Kiev of a number of urgent problems that arose at the 4th power unit of the ChNPP. They were both with the sarcophagus with which it was covered and with attempts to decontaminate it.
Scientists and engineers did not know exactly how much radioactive fuel remained in the damaged reactor and what state it was in. They could not investigate this in detail because of the equipment. It was not able to withstand the level of radioactivity in excess of 200 roentgens per hour.
Civilian and military brigades worked around the clock, removing contaminated soil and burying radioactive objects in the ground. However, they also used inappropriate equipment, performing a significant part of the work with the help of primitive machines, which threatened their health and slowed down the whole process.
For example, radiation battered to the core the bulldozers used to remove contaminated soil. However, they were often confused with “clean” ones. They continued to pollute the territory and spread radiation with their help, instead of neutralizing this chain.
There were constant problems with the sarcophagus itself. The “shelter” over the damaged reactor was partially built on the walls of the old block, which survived the explosion. Then, the leadership considered this object an ingenious architectural solution, since it saved the life and health of the builders. However, over time, all the signs and shortcomings of the Soviet “quick response” approach began to surface.
The foundation of the reactor block, which did not provide for additional loads, slowly sagged into the ground under the weight of new concrete structures above it. They were erected on the approaches to the sarcophagus in order to neutralize the influence of radioactive soil.
These structures, together with an underground concrete platform, which should have prevented contamination of the groundwater in the Dnieper basin, affected the flow of groundwater under the fourth power unit. This process negatively affected the stability of the sarcophagus base.
The Soviet economy is a monster in a state of free fall
Mikhail Gorbachev could not correct the shortcomings of the existing power plants by attracting additional funds. The economy of the Soviet Union was in a state of free fall due to the decline in oil prices. It is the main factor in hard foreign exchange earnings on the world market.
Gorbachev linked his hopes for improving economic indicators only with market reforms. Nine months before the visit to the ChNPP, he managed to achieve the lifting of the state monopoly on economic activity. So, he gave the green light to small businesses.
Unfortunately, these changes were not enough. Partial reforms failed to revive the economy, which has always suffered from shortages of food and necessities. It generally grazed the back after the fall in oil prices, leaving the shelves of Soviet stores half empty. The monster in the face of the Soviet economy showed less and less vital signs. In addition, the communist leader ran into severe resistance from the old party and managerial personnel.
Nevertheless, Gorbachev challenged the monopoly power of the party elites, which has survived since Stalin’s times. He gave citizens a certain political freedom, supposed to compensate for empty shelves and economic difficulties. He wanted to heal the Chernobyl wounds left by radiation.
Who is that fool, coming up with the word “perestroika?”
The day after his visit to Chernobyl, February 24, 1989, Gorbachev met in Kiev with representatives of some Ukrainian socio-political organizations. Vladimir Shcherbitsky, the first secretary of the TsKKPU, attended the meeting.
There was no understanding between Gorbachev and Shcherbitsky. The quarrel over the May 1, 1986, parade in Kiev, when Gorbachev forced Shcherbytsky to hold a massive demonstration, despite the increased level of radiation, was only one of many reasons for the tensions between them.
Vladimir Shcherbitsky believed neither in Gorbachev’s reforms, nor in his management of them. Convinced that Gorbachev was pushing the state into the abyss, Shcherbitsky once even said: What fool came up with the word “perestroika?”
As First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Ukrainian SSR, he used all the resources at his disposal to hinder the reforms of the new leader of a huge country. However, this did not help him avoid resignation. It became obvious after the visit of the Secretary General that the Ukrainian SSR was on the threshold of a new era. This fact will actually determine the fate of the ChNPP and the exclusion zone around the nuclear power plant.
Gorbachev knew that the Ukrainian society put before him a large block of environmental issues. He paid special attention to the Chernobyl disaster and its consequences, in particular:
- the prospect of closing the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and all other RBMK reactors in Ukraine;
- stopping the construction of new NPPs in Ukraine, regardless of the type of reactor that the authorities planned to use there;
- medical examinations for the entire population of Kiev and other regions adjacent to the Chernobyl power plant;
- rehabilitation measures for those affected by the disaster.
Environmental nationalism in a context of Gorbachev’s reforms
Based on the Ukrainian experience, activists of the awakened civil society throughout the Soviet Union, against the background of Gorbachev’s political reforms, began to switch to environmental activity. Soon, these actions acquired the features of environmental nationalism. A political movement those leaders linked the solution of environmental problems with ethnic national programs. They presented their republics as the main victims of the center’s environmental policy.
Nuclear power plants have been portrayed as the epitome of environmental imperialism. In Lithuania, disputes fought over the Ignalina NPP, which had reactors of the same type as in Chernobyl. In September 1988, the Lithuanian People’s Front mobilized about 20,000 people to create a “living ring” of people around the Ignalina station.
The INPP was perceived not only as an environmental, but also as a cultural threat to the Lithuanian nation. In December 1988, a 7 magnitude earthquake that swept across the northern part of Armenia caused massive protests. It led to the closure of the Armenian NPP near the city of Metsamor, built not only in an area of high seismicity, but also just 36 km from the capital of the republic of Yerevan.
Thus, the Chernobyl disaster became an impetus for the USSR activists. They increasingly began to bring issues related to the environmental problems of specific territories to the national level.
This not only revealed a mass of classified information carefully concealed by the KGB from civil society. However, it also led to the creation of a platform for launching a new Rubicon. This is the independence of the former republics, their secession from the once “mighty, indestructible, created by the will of the peoples” the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.