Principal Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster
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Thank you for downloading this Simon & Schuster ebook. * * * Get a FREE ebook when you join our mailing list. Plus, get updates on new releases, deals, recommended reads, and more from Simon & Schuster. Click below to sign up and see terms and conditions. CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP Already a subscriber? Provide your email again so we can register this ebook and send you more of what you like to read. You will continue to receive exclusive offers in your inbox. Contents Note on Translation and Transliteration Maps Cast of Characters Prologue PART 1 BIRTH OF A CITY 1. The Soviet Prometheus 2. Alpha, Beta, and Gamma 3. Friday, April 25, 5:00 p.m., Pripyat 4. Secrets of the Peaceful Atom 5. Friday, April 25, 11:55 p.m., Unit Control Room Number Four 6. Saturday, April 26, 1:28 a.m., Paramilitary Fire Station Number Two 7. Saturday, 1:30 a.m., Kiev 8. Saturday, 6:15 a.m., Pripyat 9. Sunday, April 27, Pripyat PART 2 DEATH OF AN EMPIRE 10. The Cloud 11. The China Syndrome 12. The Battle of Chernobyl 13. Inside Hospital Number Six 14. The Liquidators 15. The Investigation 16. The Sarcophagus 17. The Forbidden Zone 18. The Trial 19. The Elephant’s Foot 20. A Tomb for Valery Khodemchuk Epilogue Photographs Acknowledgments Author’s Note About the Author Glossary Units of Radiation Notes Bibliography Photo Credits Index For Vanessa Note on Translation and Transliteration This book is a work of history. Belarusian, Russian, and Ukrainian words have been spelled in accordance with the Library of Congress transliteration system and occasionally simplified further to make them as readable as possible in English. The names of places and people, and the units of measurement, are those commonly used in the Soviet Union at the time the events took place. Cast of Characters The Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station and the City of Pripyat MANAGEMENT Viktor Brukhanov plant director Nikolai Fomin chief engineer; deputy to the plant director Anatoly Dya; tlov deputy chief engineer for operations STAFF Alexander Akimov foreman, fifth shift of reactor Unit Four Leonid Toptunov senior reactor control engineer, fifth shift, Unit Four Boris Stolyarchuk senior unit control engineer, fifth shift, Unit Four Yuri Tregub senior reactor control engineer, Unit Four Alexander Yuvchenko senior mechanical engineer, fifth shift, Unit Four Valery Perevozchenko reactor shop shift foreman, fifth shift, Unit Four Serafim Vorobyev head of plant civil defense Veniamin Prianichnikov head of training in plant nuclear safety FIREFIGHTERS Major Leonid Telyatnikov chief of Paramilitary Fire Station Number Two (Chernobyl plant) Lieutenant Vladimir Pravik head of third watch, Paramilitary Fire Station Number Two (Chernobyl plant) Lieutenant Piotr Khmel head of first watch, Paramilitary Fire Station Number Two (Chernobyl plant) Lieutenant Viktor Kibenok head of third watch, Paramilitary Fire Station Number Six (Pripyat) Sergeant Vasily Ignatenko member of third watch, Paramilitary Fire Station Number Six (Pripyat) PRIPYAT Alexander Esaulov deputy chairman of the Pripyat ispolkom, or city council; the deputy mayor Maria Protsenko chief architect for the city of Pripyat Natalia Yuvchenko teacher of Russian language and literature at School Number Four, and wife of Alexander Yuvchenko The Government Mikhail Gorbachev General secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; leader of the USSR Nikolai Ryzhkov chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers; prime minister of the USSR Yegor Ligachev chief of ideology for the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; the second most powerful figure in the Politburo Viktor Chebrikov chairman of the Committee for State Security (KGB) of the USSR Vladimir Dolgikh secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee with responsibility for heavy industry, including nuclear power Vladimir Marin head of the nuclear power sector of the Heavy Industry and Energy Division of the Communist Party Central Committee Anatoly Mayorets Soviet minister of energy and electrification Gennadi Shasharin deputy Soviet minister of energy, with specific responsibility for nuclear energy Vladimir Scherbitsky first secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine and member of the Soviet Politburo; leader of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine Alexander Lyashko chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine; the Ukrainian prime minister Vladimir Malomuzh second secretary of the Kiev Oblast Communist Party Vitali Sklyarov Ukrainian minister of energy and electrification Boris Scherbina deputy chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers; first chairman of the government commission in Chernobyl Ivan Silayev deputy chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers, responsible for the engineering industry; member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR; second chairman of the government commission in Chernobyl The Nuclear Experts Anatoly Aleksandrov chairman of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, responsible for the development of nuclear science and technology throughout the USSR Efim Slavsky minister of medium machine building, in control of all aspects of the Soviet nuclear weapons program Nikolai Dollezhal director of NIKIET, the Soviet reactor design agency Valery Legasov first deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute, the immediate deputy to Anatoly Aleksandrov Evgeny Velikhov deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute; scientific advisor to Mikhail Gorbachev and rival to Valery Legasov Alexander Meshkov deputy minister of the Ministry of Medium Machine Building Boris Prushinsky chief engineer of Soyuzatomenergo, the Ministry of Energy’s department of nuclear power; leader of OPAS, the ministry’s emergency response team for accidents at nuclear power stations Alexander Borovoi head of the neutrino laboratory at the Kurchatov Institute and scientific leader of the Chernobyl Complex Expedition Hans Blix director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, based in Vienna, Austria The Generals General Boris Ivanov deputy chief of the general staff of the USSR’s Civil Defense Forces General Vladimir Pikalov commander of the Soviet army chemical troops Major General Nikolai Antoshkin chief of staff of the Seventeenth Airborne Army, Kiev military district Major General Nikolai Tarakanov deputy commander of the USSR’s Civil Defense Forces The Doctors Dr. Angelina Guskova head of the clinical department of Hospital Number Six, Moscow Dr. Alexander Baranov head of hematology, Hospital Number Six, Moscow Dr. Robert Gale hematology specialist at UCLA Medical Center, Los Angeles Prologue SATURDAY, APRIL 26, 1986: 4:16 P.M. CHERNOBYL ATOMIC ENERGY STATION, UKRAINE Senior Lieutenant Alexander Logachev loved radiation the way other men loved their wives. Tall and good-looking, twenty-six years old, with close-cropped dark hair and ice-blue eyes, Logachev had joined the Soviet army when he was still a boy. They had trained him well. The instructors from the military academy outside Moscow taught him with lethal poisons and unshielded radiation. He traveled to the testing grounds of Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan, and to the desolate East Urals Trace, where the fallout from a clandestine radioactive accident still poisoned the landscape; eventually, Logachev’s training took him even to the remote and forbidden islands of Novaya Zemlya, high in the Arctic Circle and ground zero for the detonation of the terrible Tsar Bomba, the largest thermonuclear device in history. Now, as the lead radiation reconnaissance officer of the 427th Red Banner Mechanized Regiment of the Kiev District Civil Defense force, Logachev knew how to protect himself and his three-man crew from nerve agents, biological weapons, gamma rays, and hot particles: by doing their work just as the textbooks dictated; by trusting his dosimetry equipment; and, when necessary, reaching for the nuclear, bacterial, and chemical warfare medical kit stored in the cockpit of their armored car. But he also believed that the best protection was psychological. Those men who allowed themselves to fear radiation were most at risk. But those who came to love and appreciate its spectral presence, to understand its caprices, could endure even the most intense gamma bombardment and emerge as healthy as before. As he sped through the suburbs of Kiev that morning at the head of a column of more than thirty vehicles summoned to an emergency at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Logachev had every reason to feel confident. The spring air blowing through the hatches of his armored scout car carried the smell of the trees and freshly cut grass. His men, gathered on the parade ground just the night before for their monthly inspection, were drilled and ready. At his feet, the battery of radiological detection instruments—including a newly installed electronic device twice as sensitive as the old model—murmured softly, revealing nothing unusual in the atmosphere around them. But as they finally approached the plant later that morning, it became clear that something extraordinary had happened. The alarm on the radiation dosimeter first sounded as they passed the concrete signpost marking the perimeter of the power station grounds, and the lieutenant gave orders to stop the vehicle and log their findings: 51 roentgen per hour. If they waited there for just sixty minutes, they would all absorb the maximum dose of radiation permitted Soviet troops during wartime. They drove on, following the line of high-voltage transmission towers that marched toward the horizon in the direction of the power plant; their readings climbed still further, before falling again. Then, as the armored car rumbled along the concrete bank of the station’s coolant canal, the outline of the Fourth Unit of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant finally became visible, and Logachev and his crew gazed at it in silence. The roof of the twenty-story building had been torn open, its upper levels blackened and collapsed into heaps of rubble. They could see shattered panels of ferroconcrete, tumbled blocks of graphite, and, here and there, the glinting metal casings of fuel assemblies from the core of a nuclear reactor. A cloud of steam drifted from the wreckage into the sunlit sky. Yet they had orders to conduct a full reconnaissance of the plant. Their armored car crawled counterclockwise around the complex at ten kilometers an hour. Sergeant Vlaskin called out the radiation readings from the new instruments, and Logachev scribbled them down on a map, hand-drawn on a sheet of parchment paper in ballpoint pen and colored marker: 1 roentgen an hour; then 2, then 3. They turned left, and the figures began to rise quickly: 10, 30, 50, 100. “Two hundred fifty roentgen an hour!” the sergeant shouted. His eyes widened. “Comrade Lieutenant—” he began, and pointed at the radiometer. Logachev looked down at the digital readout and felt his scalp prickle with terror: 2,080 roentgen an hour. An impossible number. Logachev struggled to remain calm and remember the textbook; to conquer his fear. But his training failed him, and the lieutenant heard himself screaming in panic at the driver, petrified that the vehicle would stall. “Why are you going this way, you son of a bitch? Are you out of your fucking mind?” he yelled. “If this thing dies, we’ll all be corpses in fifteen minutes!” PART 1 BIRTH OF A CITY 1 * * * The Soviet Prometheus At the slow beat of approaching rotor blades, black birds rose into the sky, scattering over the frozen meadows and the pearly knots of creeks and ponds lacing the Pripyat River basin. Far below, standing knee deep in snow, his breath lingering in heavy clouds, Viktor Brukhanov awaited the arrival of the nomenklatura from Moscow. When the helicopter touched down, the delegation of ministers and Communist Party officials trudged together over the icy field. The savage cold gnawed at their heavy woolen coats and nipped beneath their tall fur hats. The head of the Ministry of Energy and Electrification of the USSR and senior Party bosses from the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine joined Brukhanov at the spot where their audacious new project was to begin. Just thirty-four years old, clever and ambitious, a dedicated Party man, Brukhanov had come to western Ukraine with orders to begin building what—if the Soviet central planners had their way—would become the greatest nuclear power station on earth. As they gathered near the riverbank, the dozen men toasted their plans with shots of cognac. A state photographer posed them between long-handled shovels and a theodolite, the helicopter waiting, squat and awkward, in the background. They stood in the snow and watched as Minister Neporozhny drove a ceremonial stake, centimeter by centimeter, into the iron ground. It was February 20, 1970. After months of deliberation, the Soviet authorities had at last settled on a name for the new power plant that would one day make the USSR’s nuclear engineering famous across the globe. They had considered a few options: the North Kiev, or the Western Ukraine, or, perhaps, the Pripyat Atomic Energy Station. But finally, Vladimir Scherbitsky, the formidable leader of the Ukrainian Communist Party, signed a decree confirming that the station would take the name of the regional capital: a small but ancient town of two thousand people, fourteen kilometers from where Brukhanov and his bosses stood in the snow-covered field. The town of Chernobyl had been established in the twelfth century. For the next eight hundred years, it was home to peasants who fished in the rivers, grazed cows in the meadows, and foraged for mushrooms in the dense woods of northwestern Ukraine and southern Belarus. Swept repeatedly by pogrom, purge, famine, and war, by the second half of the twentieth century, Chernobyl was finally at peace. It had evolved into a quiet provincial center, with a handful of factories, a hospital, a library, a Palace of Culture; there was a small shipyard to service the tugs and barges that plied the Pripyat and the Dnieper, the two rivers that met nearby. Water permeated the surrounding countryside, an endlessly flat landscape of peat bogs, marshes, and sodden forests that formed part of the Dnieper River basin, a network of thirty-two thousand rivers and streams that covered almost half of Ukraine. Just fifteen kilometers downstream from the site chosen for the new power station, the rivers joined and flowed onward to the Kiev Sea, a massive hydroelectric reservoir providing fresh water to the two and a half million citizens of the republic’s capital, two hours’ drive away to the southeast. * * * Viktor Brukhanov had arrived in Chernobyl earlier that winter. He checked into the town’s only hotel: a bleak, single-story building on Sovietskaya Street. Slight but athletic, he had a narrow, anxious face, an olive complexion, and a head of tight, dark curls. The oldest of four children, Brukhanov was born to ethnically Russian parents but raised in Uzbekistan, amid the mountains of Soviet Central Asia. He had an exotic look: when they eventually met, the divisional KGB major thought the young director could be Greek. He sat down on his hotel bed and unpacked the contents of his briefcase: a notebook, a set of blueprints, and a wooden slide rule. Although now the director and, as yet, sole employee of the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station, Brukhanov knew little about nuclear power. Back at the Polytechnic Institute in Tashkent, he had studied electrical engineering. He had risen quickly from lowly jobs in the turbine shop of an Uzbek hydroelectric power plant to overseeing the launch of Ukraine’s largest coal-fired station in Slavyansk, in the industrial east of the republic. But at the Ministry of Energy in Moscow, knowledge and experience were regarded as less important qualifications for top management than loyalty and an ability to get things done. Technical matters could be left to the experts. At the dawn of the 1970s, in a bid to meet its surging need for electricity and to catch up with the West, the USSR embarked upon a crash program of reactor building. Soviet scientists had once claimed to lead the world in nuclear engineering and astonished their capitalist counterparts in 1954 by completing the first reactor to generate commercial electricity. But since then, they had fallen hopelessly behind. In July 1969, as US astronauts made their final preparations to land on the moon, the Soviet minister of energy and electrification called for an aggressive expansion of nuclear construction. He set ambitious targets for a network of new plants across the European part of the Soviet Union, with giant, mass-produced reactors that would be built from the Gulf of Finland to the Caspian Sea. That winter, as the 1960s came to a close, the energy minister summoned Brukhanov to Moscow and offered him his new assignment. It was a project of enormous prestige. Not only would it be the first atomic power plant in Ukraine, but it was also new territory for the Ministry of Energy and Electrification, which had never before built a nuclear station from scratch. Until this point, every reactor in the USSR had been constructed by the Ministry of Medium Machine Building: the clandestine organization behind the Soviet atom weapons program, so secret that its very name was a cipher, designed to discourage further curiosity. But whatever the challenges, Brukhanov, a true believer, gladly enlisted to carry the banner of the Red Atom. Sitting alone on his hotel bed, the young engineer confronted his responsibility for conjuring from an empty field a project expected to cost almost 400 million rubles. He drew up lists of the materials to begin building and, using his slide rule, calculated their attendant costs. Then he delivered his estimates to the state bank in Kiev. He traveled to the city almost every day by bus; when there wasn’t a bus, he thumbed a ride. As the project had no accountant, there was no payroll, so he received no wages. Before Brukhanov could start building the station itself, he had to create the infrastructure he’d need to bring materials and equipment to the site: a rail spur from the station in nearby Yanov; a new dock on the river to receive gravel and reinforced concrete. He hired construction workers, and soon a growing army of men and women at the controls of caterpillar-tracked excavators and massive BelAZ dump trucks began to tear pathways through the forest and scrape a plateau from the dun landscape. To house himself, a newly hired bookkeeper, and the handful of workers who lived on the site, Brukhanov organized a temporary village in a forest clearing nearby. A cluster of wooden huts on wheels, each equipped with a small kitchen and a log-burning stove, the settlement was named simply Lesnoy—“of the woods”—by its new inhabitants. As the weather warmed, Brukhanov had a schoolhouse built where children could be educated up to fourth grade. In August 1970 he was joined in Lesnoy by his young family: his wife, Valentina, their six-year-old daughter, Lilia, and infant son, Oleg. Valentina and Viktor Brukhanov had spent the first decade of their lives together helping fulfill the dream of Socialist electrification. Chernobyl was the family’s third power plant start-up in six years; Valentina and Viktor had met as young specialists working on the building of the Angren hydroelectric project, a hundred kilometers from the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. Valentina had been the assistant to a turbine engineer, and Viktor, fresh from university, had been a trainee. He was still planning to return to university to finish his master’s degree when the head of his department at the plant encouraged him to stay: “Wait,” he told him, “you’ll meet your future wife here!” Mutual friends introduced Viktor and Valentina in the winter of 1959: “You’ll drown in her eyes,” they promised. The couple had been dating for barely a year when, in December 1960, they were married in Tashkent; Lilia was born in 1964. To Valentina, Lesnoy seemed a magical place, with fewer than a dozen families gathered in the huddle of makeshift cottages; at night, when the roar of the bulldozers and excavators subsided, a velvet silence fell on the glade, the darkness pierced by a single lantern and the screeching of owls. Every once in a while, to inspire the workers to help them achieve their construction targets, Moscow sent down Soviet celebrities, including the Gypsy superstar Nikolai Slichenko and his troupe, to perform shows and concerts. The family remained in the forest settlement for another two years, as shock-work brigades excavated the first reactor pit and carved a giant reservoir—an artificial lake 11 kilometers long and 2.5 kilometers wide that would provide the millions of cubic meters of cooling water crucial to operating four massive reactors—from the sandy soil. Meanwhile, Viktor oversaw the genesis of an entirely new settlement—an atomgrad, or “atomic city”—beside the river. The planners designed the settlement, eventually named Pripyat, to house the thousands of staff who would one day run the nuclear complex, along with their families. A handful of dormitories and apartment buildings reached completion in 1972. The new town went up so quickly that at first there were no paved roads and no municipal heating plant to serve the apartment buildings. But its citizens were young and enthusiastic. The first group of specialists to arrive on the site were idealists, pioneers of the nuclear future, keen to transform their homeland with new technology. To them, these problems were trifles: to keep warm at night, they slept with their coats on. Valentina and Viktor were among the first to move in, taking a three-bedroom apartment in 6 Lenina Prospekt, right at the entrance to the new town, in the winter of 1972. While they waited for the city’s first school to be completed, every day their daughter, Lilia, hitched a ride in a truck or car back to Lesnoy, where she attended lessons in the forest schoolhouse. According to Soviet planning regulations, Pripyat was separated from the plant itself by a “sanitary zone” in which building was prohibited, to ensure that the population would not be exposed to fields of low-level ionizing radiation. But Pripyat remained close enough to the plant to be reached by road in less than ten minutes—just three kilometers as the crow flies. And as the city grew, its residents began to build summer houses in the sanitary zone, each happy to disregard the rules in exchange for a makeshift dacha and a small vegetable garden. * * * Viktor Brukhanov’s initial instructions for the Chernobyl plant called for the construction of a pair of nuclear reactors—a new model known by the acronym RBMK, for reaktor bolshoy moschnosti kanalnyy, or high-power channel-type reactor. In keeping with the Soviet weakness for gigantomania, the RBMK was both physically larger and more powerful than almost any reactor yet built in the West, each one theoretically capable of generating 1,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to serve at least a million modern homes. The deadlines set by his bosses in Moscow and Kiev required Brukhanov to work with superhuman dispatch: according to the details of the Ninth Five-Year Plan, the first was due to come online in December 1975, with the second to follow before the end of 1979. Brukhanov quickly realized that this timetable was impossible. By the time the young director began work in Chernobyl in 1970, the Socialist economic experiment was going into reverse. The USSR was buckling under the strain of decades of central planning, fatuous bureaucracy, massive military spending, and endemic corruption—the start of what would come to be called the Era of Stagnation. Shortages and bottlenecks, theft and embezzlement blighted almost every industry. Nuclear engineering was no exception. From the beginning, Brukhanov lacked construction equipment. Key mechanical parts and building materials often turned up late, or not at all, and those that did were often defective. Steel and zirconium—essential for the miles of tubing and hundreds of fuel assemblies that would be plumbed through the heart of the giant reactors—were both in short supply; pipework and reinforced concrete intended for nuclear use often turned out to be so poorly made it had to be thrown away. The quality of workmanship at all levels of Soviet manufacturing was so poor that building projects throughout the nation’s power industry were forced to incorporate an extra stage known as “preinstallation overhaul.” Upon delivery from the factory, each piece of new equipment—transformers, turbines, switching gear—was stripped down to the last nut and bolt, checked for faults, repaired, and then reassembled according to the original specifications, as it should have been in the first place. Only then could it be safely installed. Such wasteful duplication of labor added months of delays and millions of rubles in costs to any construction project. Throughout late 1971 and early 1972, Brukhanov struggled with labor disputes and infighting among his construction managers and faced steady reprimands from his Communist Party bosses in Kiev. The workers complained about food shortages and the lines at the site canteen; he had failed to provide cost estimates and design documents; he missed deadlines and fell pathetically short of the monthly work quotas dictated by Moscow. And still there was more: the new citizens of Pripyat required a bakery, a hospital, a palace of culture, a shopping center. There were hundreds of apartments to be built. Finally, in July 1972, exhausted and disillusioned, Viktor Brukhanov drove to Kiev for an appointment with his boss from the Ministry of Energy and Electrification. He had been director of the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station for less than three years, and the plant had not yet emerged from the ground. But now he planned to resign. * * * Behind all the catastrophic failures of the USSR during the Era of Stagnation—beneath the kleptocratic bungling, the nepotism, the surly inefficiencies, and the ruinous waste of the planned economy—lay the monolithic power of the Communist Party. The Party had originated as a single faction among those grappling for power in Russia following the Revolution of 1917, ostensibly to represent the will of the workers, but quickly establishing control of a single-party state—intended to lead the proletariat toward “True Communism.” Distinct from mere Socialism, True Communism was the Marxist utopia: “a classless society that contains limitless possibilities for human achievement,” an egalitarian dream of self-government by the people. As revolution was supplanted by political repression, the deadline for realizing this meritocratic Shangri-la was pushed repeatedly off into the future. Yet the Party clung to its role enforcing the dictates of Marxism-Leninism, ossifying into an ideological apparatus of full-time paid officials—the apparat—nominally separate from the government but that in reality controlled decision-making at every level of society. Decades later, the Party had established its own rigid hierarchy of personal patronage and held the power of appointment over an entire class of influential positions, known collectively as the nomenklatura. There were also Party managers to oversee every workshop, civil or military enterprise, industry, and ministry: the apparatchiks, who formed a shadow bureaucracy of political functionaries throughout the Soviet empire. While officially every one of the fifteen republics of the USSR was run by its own Ministerial Council, led by a prime minister, in practice it was the national leader of each republican Communist Party—the first secretary—who was in control. Above them all, handing down directives from Moscow, sat Leonid Brezhnev, granite-faced general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, chairman of the Politburo, and de facto ruler of 242 million people. This institutionalized meddling proved confusing and counterproductive to the smooth running of a modern state, but the Party always had the final word. Party membership was not open to everyone. It required an exhaustive process of candidacy and approval, the support of existing members, and the payment of regular dues. By 1970, fewer than one in fifteen Soviet citizens had been admitted. But membership brought perks and advantages available only to the elite, including access to restricted stores and foreign journals, a separate class of medical care, and the possibility of travel abroad. Above all, professional advancement in any kind of senior role was difficult without a Party card, and exceptions were rare. By the time Viktor Brukhanov joined in 1966, the Party was everywhere. In the workplace, he answered to two masters: both his immediate managers and the committee of the local Communist Party. When he became director of a nuclear power station, it was no different. He received directives from the Ministry of Energy in Moscow but was also tyrannized by the demands of the regional Party committee in Kiev. Although by the early seventies many in the Party still believed in the principles of Marxism–Leninism, under the baleful gaze of Brezhnev and his claque of geriatric cronies, ideology had become little more than window dressing. The mass purges and the random executions of the three decades under Stalin were over, but across the USSR, Party leaders and the heads of large enterprises—collective farms and tank factories, power stations and hospitals—governed their staff by bullying and intimidation. These were the thuggish bureaucrats who, according to the novelist and historian Piers Paul Read, “had the face of a truck driver but the hands of a pianist.” The humiliation of enduring an expletive-spattered dressing-down delivered at screaming pitch was a ritual repeated daily in offices everywhere. It engendered a top-down culture of toadying yes-men who learned to anticipate the whims of their superiors and agree with whatever they said, while threatening their own underlings. When the boss put his own proposals to the vote, he could reasonably expect them to be carried unanimously every time, a triumph of brute force over reason. Advancement in many political, economic, and scientific careers was granted only to those who repressed their personal opinions, avoided conflict, and displayed unquestioning obedience to those above them. By the midseventies, this blind conformism had smothered individual decision-making at all levels of the state and Party machine, infecting not just the bureaucracy but technical and economic disciplines, too. Lies and deception were endemic to the system, trafficked in both directions along the chain of management: those lower down passed up reports to their superiors packed with falsified statistics and inflated estimates, of unmet goals triumphantly reached, unfulfilled quotas heroically exceeded. To protect his own position, at every stage, each manager relayed the lies upward or compounded them. Seated at the top of a teetering pyramid of falsehood, poring over reams of figures that had little basis in reality, were the economic mandarins of the State General Planning Committee—Gosplan—in Moscow. The brain of the “command economy,” Gosplan managed the centralized distribution of resources throughout the USSR, from toothbrushes to tractors, reinforced concrete to platform boots. Yet the economists in Moscow had no reliable index of what was going on in the vast empire they notionally maintained; the false accounting was so endemic that at one point the KGB resorted to turning the cameras of its spy satellites onto Soviet Uzbekistan in an attempt to gather accurate information about the state’s own cotton harvest. Shortages and apparently inexplicable gluts of goods and materials were part of the grim routine of daily life, and shopping became a game of chance played with a string avoska, or “what-if” bag, carried in the hope of stumbling upon a store recently stocked with anything useful—whether sugar, toilet paper, or canned ratatouille from Czechoslovakia. Eventually the supply problems of the centrally planned economy became so chronic that crops rotted in the fields, and Soviet fishermen watched catches putrefy in their nets, yet the shelves of the Union’s grocery stores remained bare. * * * Soft spoken but sure of himself, Viktor Brukhanov was not like most Soviet managers. He was mild mannered and well liked by many of those beneath him. With his prodigious memory and shrewd financial sense, his excellent grasp of many technical aspects of his job—including chemistry and physics—he impressed his superiors. And at first, he was confident enough in his opinions to openly disagree with them. So when the pressures of the mammoth task he faced in Chernobyl became too much for him, he simply decided to quit. Yet when Brukhanov arrived in Kiev that day in July 1972, his Party-appointed supervisor from the Energy Ministry took his letter of resignation, tore it up in front of him, and told him to get back to work. After that, the young director recognized that there was no escape. Whatever else his job might require, his most important task was simply to obey the Party—and to implement their plan by any means he could. The next month, construction workers poured the first cubic meter of concrete into the foundations of the plant. * * * Thirteen years later, on November 7, 1985, Brukhanov stood silently on the reviewing stand in front of the new Pripyat Palace of Culture, where the windows had been hung with hand-painted portraits of state and Party leaders. Power station and construction workers paraded through the square below, carrying banners and placards. And in speeches marking the anniversary of the Great October Revolution, the director was hailed for his illustrious achievements: his successful fulfillment of the Party’s plans, his benevolent leadership of the city, and the power plant it served. Brukhanov had now dedicated the prime of his life to the creation of an empire in white reinforced concrete, encompassing a town of nearly fifty thousand people and four giant 1,000-megawatt reactors. Construction was also well under way on two more reactors, which were scheduled for completion within two years. When Units Five and Six of the Chernobyl station came online in 1988, Brukhanov would preside over the largest nuclear power complex on earth. Under his direction, the Chernobyl plant—by then formally known as the V. I. Lenin Nuclear power station—had become a prize posting for nuclear specialists from all over the Soviet Union. Many of them came straight from MEPhI–the Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute, the Soviet counterpart to MIT. The USSR, hopelessly backward in developing computer technology, lacked simulators with which to train its nuclear engineers, so the young engineers’ work at Chernobyl would be their first practical experience in atomic power. To trumpet the wonders of the atomic town of Pripyat, the city council—the ispolkom—had prepared a glossy book, filled with vivid color photographs of its happy citizens at play. The average age of the population was twenty-six, and more than a third of them were children. The young families had access to five schools, three swimming pools, thirty-five playgrounds, and beaches on the sandy banks of the river. The town planners had taken care to preserve the city’s sylvan environment, and each new apartment block was surrounded by trees. The buildings and open spaces were decorated with sculptures and spectacular mosaics celebrating science and technology. For all its modernity and sophistication, the city remained encircled by wilderness, offering a sometimes enchanting proximity to nature. One summer day, Brukhanov’s wife, Valentina, watched as a pair of elk swam out of the Pripyat and slouched up the beach before disappearing into the forest, apparently heedless of the bathers gawping from the sand. As an atomgrad, the city and everything in it—from the hospital to the fifteen kindergartens—was considered an extension of the nuclear plant it served, financed directly from Moscow by the Ministry of Energy. It existed in an economic bubble; an oasis of plenty in a desert of shortages and deprivation. The food stores were better stocked than those even in Kiev, with pork and veal, fresh cucumbers and tomatoes, and more than five different types of sausage. In the Raduga—or Rainbow—department store, Austrian-made dining sets and even French perfume were available to shoppers, all without having to spend years on a waiting list. There was a cinema, a music school, a beauty parlor, and a yacht club. Pripyat was a small place: few of the buildings reached higher than ten stories, and one could cross the whole city in twenty minutes. Everyone knew everyone else, and there was little trade for the militsia—the policemen of the Ministry of Internal Affairs—or the city’s resident KGB chief, who had an office on the fifth floor of the ispolkom. Trouble was confined mostly to petty vandalism and public drunkenness. Each spring, the river gave up another grim harvest, as the thaw revealed the bodies of drunks who had blundered through the ice and drowned in midwinter. A Western eye may have been drawn to Pripyat’s limitations: the yellowing grass bristling between concrete paving slabs or the bleak uniformity of the multistory buildings. But to men and women born in the sour hinterlands of the USSR’s factory cities, raised on the parched steppes of Kazakhstan, or among the penal colonies of Siberia, the new atomgrad was a true workers’ paradise. In home movies and snapshots, the citizens of Pripyat captured one another not as drab victims of the Socialist experiment but as carefree young people: kayaking, sailing, dancing, or posing in new outfits; their children playing on a great steel elephant or a brightly painted toy truck; cheerful optimists in the city of the future. * * * By the end of December 1985, Viktor and Valentina Brukhanov could look back on a year of triumphs and milestones at home and at work. In August they saw their daughter married and Lilia and her new husband resume their studies at the medical institute in Kiev; soon after, Lilia became pregnant with their first child. In December, the couple celebrated Viktor’s fiftieth birthday and their own silver wedding anniversary, with parties in their big corner apartment overlooking Pripyat’s main square. At the same time, Viktor was honored with an invitation to Moscow to join the delegation attending the impending 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, an important stamp of political approval from above. The Congress promised, too, to be a significant event for the USSR as a whole. It would be the first over which the new general secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, would preside as leader of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev had assumed power in March 1985, ending the long succession of zombie apparatchiks whose declining health, drunkenness, and senility had been concealed from the public by squadrons of increasingly desperate minders. At fifty-four, Gorbachev seemed young and dynamic and found an enthusiastic audience in the West. With political opinions formed during the 1960s, he was also the first general secretary to exploit the power of television. Speaking unselfconsciously in his southern accent, plunging into crowds on apparently spontaneous walkabouts finely orchestrated by the KGB, Gorbachev appeared constantly on the nation’s flagship TV news show, Vremya, watched every night by nearly two hundred million people. He announced plans for economic reorganization—perestroika—and, at the climax of the Party congress in March 1986, talked of the need for glasnost, or open government. A dedicated Socialist, Gorbachev believed that the USSR had lost its way but could be led to the utopia of True Communism by returning to the founding principles of Lenin. It would be a long road. The economy was staggering under the financial burden of the Cold War. Soviet troops were mired in Afghanistan, and in 1983 US president Ronald Reagan had extended the battle into space with the Strategic Defense Initiative, the “Star Wars” program. Annihilation in a nuclear strike seemed as close as ever. And at home, the monolithic old ways—the strangling bureaucracy and corruption of the Era of Stagnation—lingered on. * * * In the sixteen years that he’d spent building four nuclear reactors and an entire city on an isolated stretch of marshland, Viktor Brukhanov had received a long education in the realities of the system. Hammered on the anvil of the Party, made pliant by the privileges of rank, the well-informed and opinionated young specialist had been transformed into an obedient tool of the nomenklatura. He had met his targets and fulfilled the plan and won himself and his men orders of merit and pay bonuses for beating deadlines and exceeding labor quotas. But, like all successful Soviet managers, to do so, Brukhanov had learned how to be expedient and bend limited resources to meet an endless list of unrealistic goals. He had to cut corners, cook the books, and fudge regulations. When the building materials specified by the architects of the Chernobyl station had proved unavailable, Brukhanov was forced to improvise: the plans called for fireproof cables, but when none could be found, the builders simply did the best they could. When the Ministry of Energy in Moscow learned that the roof of the plant’s turbine hall had been covered with highly flammable bitumen, they ordered him to replace it. But the flame-retardant material specified for reroofing the structure—fifty meters wide and almost a kilometer long—was not even being manufactured in the USSR, so the Ministry granted him an exception, and the bitumen remained. When the district Party secretary instructed him to build an Olympic-length swimming pool in Pripyat, Brukhanov tried to object: such facilities were common only in Soviet cities of more than a million inhabitants. But the secretary insisted: “Go build it!” he said, and Brukhanov obeyed. He found the extra funds to do so by fiddling the city expenses to hoodwink the state bank. And as the fourth and most advanced reactor of the Chernobyl plant approached completion, a time-consuming safety test on the unit turbines remained outstanding. Brukhanov quietly postponed it, and so met Moscow’s deadline for completion on the last day of December 1983. But, like a spoiled lover, the Soviet Ministry of Energy and Electrification would not be satisfied. At the beginning of the 1980s, the USSR’s punishing schedule of nuclear construction had been accelerated further, with breathtaking plans for more and increasingly gigantic stations throughout the western territories of the Union. By the end of the century, Moscow intended Chernobyl to be one part of a dense network of atomic power megacomplexes, each one home to up to a dozen reactors. In 1984, the deadline for completing the fifth reactor was brought forward by a year. Labor and supply problems remained endemic: the concrete was defective; the men lacked power tools. A team of dedicated KGB agents and their network of informants at the plant reported a continuing series of alarming building faults. In 1985 Brukhanov received instructions for the construction of Chernobyl Two, a separate station of four more RBMK reactors, using a new model fresh from the drawing board and even more Brobdingnagian than the last. This station would be built a few hundred meters away from the existing one, on the other side of the river, along with a new residential area of Pripyat to accommodate the plant workers. A bridge would be required to reach it, and a new ten-story administration building, with an office at the top from which the director could survey his sprawling nuclear fiefdom. Brukhanov worked around the clock. His superiors could usually expect to find him somewhere in the station at almost any time of the day or night. If something went wrong at the plant—as it often did—the director often forgot to eat, and would subsist for a full twenty-four hours on coffee and cigarettes. In meetings, he withdrew into inscrutable silence, never offering two words when one would do. Isolated and exhausted, he had few friends and confided little, even to his wife. Brukhanov’s staff, too, had changed. The spirited team of young specialists who had first colonized the freezing settlement in the woods all those years ago, and then worked to bring the first reactors online, had moved on. In their place were thousands of new employees, and Brukhanov found maintaining discipline difficult: despite his technical gifts, he lacked the force of personality necessary for management on the Soviet scale. The plant construction chief, a domineering and well-connected Party man whose authority rivaled that of the director, derided him as a “marshmallow.” The Era of Stagnation had fomented a moral decay in the Soviet workplace and a sullen indifference to individual responsibility, even in the nuclear industry. The USSR’s economic utopianism did not recognize the existence of unemployment, and overstaffing and absenteeism were chronic problems. As the director of the plant and its company town, Brukhanov was responsible for providing jobs for everyone in Pripyat. The inexorable construction work took care of twenty-five thousand of them, and he had already arranged for the establishment of the Jupiter electronics plant to provide work for more of the women in town. But that wasn’t enough. Each shift at the Chernobyl plant now brought hundreds of men and women to the plant by bus from Pripyat, and many of them then sat around with nothing to do. Some were trainee nuclear engineers—aspiring to become a part of the highly qualified technical elite known as atomshchiki—who came to watch the experts at work. But others were mechanics and electricians who came from elsewhere in the energy industry—the “power men,” or energetiki—who harbored complacent assumptions about nuclear plants. They had been told that radiation was so harmless “you could spread it on bread,” or that a reactor was “like a samovar . . . more simple than a thermal power plant.” At home, some drank from glassware colored with iridescent patterns that, they boasted, were created by having been steeped in the radioactive waters of the plant’s used fuel coolant pond. Others listlessly filled out their shifts reading novels and playing cards. Those who actually had important work to do were known—with a bureaucratic frankness that hinted at satire—as the Group of Effective Control. Yet the dead weight of unwanted manpower tugged even at those with urgent responsibilities and infected the plant with inefficiency and a dangerous sense of inertia. At the top, the experienced team of independent-minded nuclear engineering experts who had overseen the start-up of the station’s first four reactors had all left, and senior specialists were in short supply. The chief engineer—Brukhanov’s principal deputy, responsible for the day-to-day technical operation of the station—was Nikolai Fomin, the former plant Party secretary and an arrogant, blustering apparatchik of the old school. Balding, barrel chested, with a dazzling smile and a confident baritone voice that rose steeply in pitch when he became excited, Fomin had all the overbearing Soviet charisma Brukhanov lacked. An electrical engineer, his appointment had been pushed through by the Party in Moscow over the objections of the Ministry of Energy. He had no previous experience in atomic power but was ideologically beyond reproach—and did his best to learn nuclear physics through a correspondence course. * * * By the spring of 1986, Chernobyl was, officially, one of the best-performing nuclear stations in the Soviet Union, and the word was that Brukhanov’s loyalty to the Party would soon be rewarded. According to the results of the latest Five-Year Plan, the plant was due to receive the state’s highest honor: the Order of Lenin. The staff would win a financial bonus, and Brukhanov would be awarded the star of the Hero of Socialist Labor. At the Ministry of Energy, the decision had already been taken to promote Brukhanov to Moscow, and Fomin would take his place as plant director. The news would be announced on the May 1 holiday, with a decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. Brukhanov had also raised Pripyat from nothing, creating a beautiful model town cherished by its citizens. And despite the appointment of a city council, almost every decision about the atomgrad—no matter how trivial—remained subject to his approval. From the outset, the architects had called for the city to be populated with a lush variety of trees and shrubs—birch, elm, and horse chestnut; jasmine, lilac, and barberry. But Brukhanov was especially fond of flowers and ordered them planted everywhere. At a meeting of the ispolkom in 1985, he announced a grand gesture. It was his wish that the streets would blossom with fifty thousand rosebushes: one for every man, woman, and child in the city. There were objections, of course. How could they possibly find so many flowers? Yet, by the following spring, thirty thousand good Baltic rosebushes had already been purchased at great expense from Lithuania and Latvia and planted in the long, raised beds beneath the poplar trees on Lenina Prospekt and everywhere around the central square. Here, on the elevated concrete plaza along Kurchatov Street, at the end of the picturesque promenade into the city, the plans called for Pripyat to have its own statue of Lenin, an architectural necessity for every major town in the USSR. But a permanent monument had not yet been built. The city council had announced a competition for a design, and the plinth where it would stand was occupied by a triangular wooden box, painted with an inspiring portrait, a hammer and sickle, and a slogan: “The name and mission of Lenin will live forever!” In the meantime, Viktor Brukhanov had given his blessing to a memorial to more ancient gods: a massive realist statue, in front of the city’s cinema, six meters tall and cast in bronze. It depicted a Titan, naked beneath the swooping folds of his cloak, holding aloft leaping tongues of flame. This was Prometheus, who had descended from Olympus with the stolen gift of fire. With it, he brought light, warmth, and civilization to mankind—just as the torchbearers of the Red Atom had illuminated the benighted households of the USSR. But the ancient Greek myth had a dark side: Zeus was so enraged by the theft of the gods’ most powerful secret that he chained Prometheus to a rock, where a giant eagle descended to peck out his liver every day for eternity. Nor did mortal man escape retribution for accepting Prometheus’s gift. To him, Zeus sent Pandora, the first woman, bearing a box that, once opened, unleashed evils that could never again be contained. 2 * * * Alpha, Beta, and Gamma Almost everything in the universe is made of atoms, fragments of stardust that compose all matter. A million times smaller than the width of a human hair, atoms are composed almost entirely of empty space. But at the center of every atom is a nucleus—unimaginably dense, as if six billion cars were crushed together into a small suitcase—and full of latent energy. The nucleus, formed of protons and neutrons, is orbited by a cloud of electrons and bound together by what physicists call “the strong force.” The strong force, like gravity, is one of the four principal forces that bind the universe, and scientists once believed it was so powerful that it made atoms indestructible and indivisible. They also believed that “neither mass nor energy could be created or destroyed.” In 1905 Albert Einstein overturned these ideas. He suggested that if atoms could be somehow torn apart, the process would convert their tiny mass into a relatively enormous release of energy. He defined the theory with an equation: the energy released would be equal to the amount of mass lost, multiplied by the speed of light squared. E=mc2. In 1938 a trio of scientists in Germany discovered that when atoms of the heavy metal uranium are bombarded with neutrons, their nuclei can, in fact, be broken apart, releasing nuclear energy. When the nuclei split, their neutrons could fly away at great speed, smashing into other nearby atoms, causing their nuclei to split in turn, releasing even more energy. If enough uranium atoms were gathered in the correct configuration—forming a critical mass—this process could begin sustaining itself, with one atom’s neutrons splitting the nucleus of another, sending more neutrons into a collision course with further nuclei. As it went critical, the resulting chain reaction of splitting atoms—nuclear fission—would liberate unimaginable quantities of energy. At 8:16 a.m. on August 6, 1945, a fission weapon containing sixty-four kilograms of uranium detonated 580 meters above the Japanese city of Hiroshima, and Einstein’s equation proved mercilessly accurate. The bomb itself was extremely inefficient: just one kilogram of the uranium underwent fission, and only seven hundred milligrams of mass—the weight of a butterfly—was converted into energy. But it was enough to obliterate an entire city in a fraction of a second. Some seventy-eight thousand people died instantly, or immediately afterward—vaporized, crushed, or incinerated in the firestorm that followed the blast wave. But by the end of the year, another twenty-five thousand men, women, and children would also sicken and die from their exposure to the radiation liberated by the world’s first atom bomb attack. * * * Radiation is produced by the disintegration of unstable atoms. The atoms of different elements vary by weight, determined by the number of protons and neutrons in each nucleus. Each element has a unique number of protons, which never changes, determining its “atomic number” and its position in the periodic table: hydrogen never has more than one proton; oxygen always has eight; gold has seventy-nine. But atoms of the same element may have varying numbers of neutrons, resulting in different isotopes, ranging anywhere from deuterium (hydrogen with one neutron instead of two) to uranium 235 (uranium metal, with five extra neutrons). Adding to or removing neutrons from the nucleus of a stable atom results in an unstable isotope. But any unstable isotope will try to regain its equilibrium, throwing off parts of its nucleus in a quest for stability—producing either another isotope or sometimes a different element altogether. For example, plutonium 239 sheds two protons and two neutrons from its nucleus to become uranium 235. This dynamic process of nuclear decay is radioactivity; the energy it releases, as atoms shed neutrons in the form of waves or particles, is radiation. Radiation is all around us. It emanates from the sun and cosmic rays, bathing cities at high altitude in greater levels of background radiation than those at sea level. Underground deposits of thorium and uranium emit radiation, but so does masonry: stone, brick, and adobe all contain radioisotopes. The granite used to build the US Capitol is so radioactive that the building would fail federal safety codes regulating nuclear power plants. All living tissue is radioactive to some degree: human beings, like bananas, emit radiation because both contain small amounts of the radioisotope potassium 40; muscle contains more potassium 40 than other tissue, so men are generally more radioactive than women. Brazil nuts, with a thousand times the average concentration of radium of any organic product, are the world’s most radioactive food. Radiation is invisible and has neither taste nor smell. Although it’s yet to be proved that exposure to any level of radiation is entirely safe, it becomes manifestly dangerous when the particles and waves it gives off are powerful enough to transform or break apart the atoms that make up the tissues of living organisms. This high-energy radiance is ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation takes three principal forms: alpha particles, beta particles, and gamma rays. Alpha particles are relatively large, heavy, and slow moving and cannot penetrate the skin; even a sheet of paper could block their path. But if they do manage to find their way inside the body by other means—if swallowed or inhaled—alpha particles can cause massive chromosomal damage and death. Radon 222, which gathers as a gas in unventilated basements, releases alpha particles into the lungs, where it causes cancer. Polonium 210, a powerful alpha emitter, is one of the carcinogens in cigarette smoke. It was also the poison slipped into the cup of tea that killed former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. Beta particles are smaller and faster moving than alpha particles and can penetrate more deeply into living tissue, causing visible burns on the skin and lasting genetic damage. A piece of paper won’t provide protection from beta particles, but aluminum foil—or separation by sufficient distance—will. Beyond a range of ten feet, beta particles can cause little damage, but they prove dangerous if ingested in any way. Mistaken by the body for essential elements, beta-emitting radioisotopes can become fatally concentrated in specific organs: strontium 90, a member of the same chemical family as calcium, is retained in the bones; ruthenium is absorbed by the intestine; iodine 131 lodges particularly in the thyroid of children, where it can cause cancer. Gamma rays—high-frequency electromagnetic waves traveling at the speed of light—are the most energetic of all. They can traverse large distances, penetrate anything short of thick pieces of concrete or lead, and destroy electronics. Gamma rays pass straight through a human being without slowing down, smashing through cells like a fusillade of microscopic bullets. Severe exposure to all ionizing radiation results in acute radiation syndrome (ARS), in which the fabric of the human body is unpicked, rearranged, and destroyed at the most minute levels. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, hemorrhaging, and hair loss, followed by a collapse of the immune system, exhaustion of bone marrow, disintegration of internal organs, and, finally, death. * * * To the atomic pioneers who first explored “radiant matter” at the end of the nineteenth century, the effects of radiation were a bewitching curiosity. Wilhelm Roentgen, who discovered X-rays in 1895, saw the bones of his hand projected on the wall of his laboratory during the course of an experiment and was intrigued. But when he took the world’s first X-ray photograph shortly afterward, of his wife’s left hand—complete with wedding ring—the result horrified her. “I have seen my own death!” she said. Roentgen later took precautions to shield himself from his discovery, but others were not so careful. In 1896 Thomas Edison devised the fluoroscope, which projected X-rays onto a screen, allowing him to gaze inside solid objects. Edison’s experiments required an assistant to place his hands repeatedly on top of a box, where they were exposed to X-rays. When he sustained burns on one hand, the assistant simply switched to using the other. But the burns wouldn’t heal. Eventually surgeons amputated the assistant’s left arm and four fingers from his right hand. When cancer spread up his right arm, the doctors took that, too. The disease traveled to his chest, and in October 1904 he died, the first known victim of man-made radiation. Even as the damage caused by external exposure to radiation became apparent, the harmful effects of internal exposure remained little understood. Throughout the early years of the twentieth century, pharmacies sold patent medicines containing radium as a health tonic, drunk by people who believed radioactivity gave them energy. In 1903 Marie and Pierre Curie had won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of polonium and radium—an alpha-particle emitter, roughly a million times more radioactive than uranium—which they extracted from metric tonnes of viscous, tarry ore in their Paris laboratory. Pierre was killed in a road accident, but Marie continued exploring the properties of radioactive compounds until she died in 1934, probably due to radiation-induced bone marrow failure. More than eighty years later, Curie’s laboratory notes remain so radioactive that they are kept in a lead-lined box. Because radium can be mixed with other elements to make them glow in the dark, clock makers used it to create fluorescent numbers on watch faces and hired young women to perform the delicate task of painting them. In the watch factories of New Jersey, Connecticut, and Illinois, the Radium Girls were trained to lick the tips of their brushes into a fine point before dipping them into pots of radium paint. When the jaws and skeletons of the first girls began to rot and disintegrate, their employers suggested they were suffering from syphilis. A successful lawsuit revealed that their managers had understood the risks of working with radium and get done everything they could to conceal the truth from their employees. It was the first time the public learned the hazards of ingesting radioactive material. The biological effect of radiation on the human body would eventually be measured in rem (roentgen equivalent man) and determined by a complicated combination of factors: the type of radiation; the duration of total exposure; how much of it penetrates the body, and where; and how susceptible those parts of the body are to radiation damage. The parts where cells divide rapidly—bone marrow, skin, and the gastrointestinal tract—are more at risk than other organs such as the heart, liver, and brain. Some radionuclides—such as radium and strontium—are more energetic emitters of radiation, and therefore more dangerous, than others, like cesium and potassium. The survivors of the atom bomb attacks on Hiroshima and, three days later, Nagasaki provided the first opportunity to study the effects of acute radiation syndrome on a large number of people. They would eventually become the subject of a project spanning more than seventy years, creating a universal database on the long-term effects of ionizing radiation on human beings. Of those who lived through the initial explosion in Nagasaki, thirty-five thousand died within twenty-four hours; those suffering from ARS lost their hair within one or two weeks, and then experienced bloody diarrhea before succumbing to infection and high fever. Another thirty-seven thousand died within three months. A similar number survived for longer but, after another three years, developed leukemia; by the end of the 1940s, the disease would be the first cancer linked to radiation. The effect of ionizing radiation on both inanimate objects and living beings was explored extensively in the late 1950s by the US Air Force. As part of a government program to develop atomic-powered planes, Lockheed Aircraft built a water-cooled 10-megawatt nuclear reactor in a shielded underground shaft in the woods of North Georgia. At the touch of a button, the reactor could be raised from its shielding to ground level, exposing everything within a three-hundred-meter radius to a lethal dose of radiation. In June 1959 the Radiation Effects Reactor was brought up to full power and unsheathed for the first time, killing almost everything in the vicinity stone dead: bugs fell from the air, and small animals and the bacteria living in and upon them were exterminated, in a phenomenon the technicians called “instant taxidermy.” The effect on plants varied: oak trees turned brown, yet crabgrass remained strangely unaffected; pine trees appeared to be the hardest hit of all. The changes in objects caught in the reactor’s field seemed equally mysterious: clear Coca-Cola bottles turned brown, hydraulic fluid coagulated into chewing gum, transistorized equipment stopped working, and rubber tires became rock hard. As profound and terrible as exposure to ionizing radiation might prove for human beings, it’s rarely accompanied by any detectable sensation. A person might be bathed in enough gamma rays to be killed a hundred times over without feeling a thing. On August 21, 1945, two weeks after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Harry K. Daghlian Jr., a twenty-four-year-old physicist on the Manhattan Project, was conducting an after-hours experiment in Los Alamos, New Mexico, when his hand slipped. The test assembly he had built—a ball of plutonium surrounded by tungsten carbide bricks—went critical. Daghlian saw a momentary blue flash and was struck by a wave of gamma and neutron radiation amounting to more than 500 rem. He quickly disassembled the experiment, walked away, and admitted himself to medical care without visible symptoms. But radiation had killed him as surely as if he’d stepped in front of an oncoming train. Twenty-five days later, Daghlian slipped into a coma from which he never awoke—the first person in history to die accidentally from close exposure to nuclear fission. The New York Times attributed his death to burns sustained in “an industrial accident.” * * * From the very beginning, the nuclear power industry has struggled to escape the shadow of its military origins. The first nuclear reactor ever built, assembled by hand beneath the bleachers of the University of Chicago’s disused football field in 1942, was the anvil of the Manhattan Project, the essential first step in creating the fissile material needed to forge the world’s first atomic weapon. The reactors that followed—built on a remote tract of land along the Columbia River in Hanford, Washington—were constructed solely to manufacture plutonium for use in the United States’ growing arsenal of atom bombs. The US Navy was responsible for choosing the reactor design subsequently used in almost every civilian power station in the country. The first nuclear plant constructed for civilian use in the United States was based on blueprints recycled from a planned atomic-powered aircraft carrier. In the USSR, the pattern was the same. The first Soviet atomic bomb—RDS-1, or “the Article,” as it was called by the men who built it—was detonated soon after dawn on August 29, 1949, on a test range 140 kilometers northwest of Semipalatinsk, on the steppes of Kazakhstan. The project, code-named Problem Number One, was led by Igor Kurchatov, a forty-six-year-old physicist with the whiskery, forked beard of a Victorian spiritualist, noted by his secret police minders for his discretion and political cunning. The bomb was a faithful copy of the Fat Man device, which had destroyed Nagasaki almost exactly four years earlier, and contained a core of plutonium produced in a reactor—known as reactor “A,” or “Annushka”—initially modeled on the ones in Hanford. Kurchatov had succeeded with the help of a handful of well-placed spies and information contained in the bestselling book Atomic Energy for Military Purposes—generously published by the US government in 1945 and speedily translated into Russian in Moscow. Nuclear work was the responsibility of the newly formed First Main Directorate and an “atomic politburo” overseen by Stalin’s sadistic henchman, Lavrenty Beria—head of the NKVD, forerunner of the KGB. From the start, the Soviet nuclear project was governed by principles of ruthless expedience and paranoid secrecy. By 1950, the First Main Directorate would employ seven hundred thousand people, more than half of whom were forced laborers—including, at one point, fifty thousand prisoners of war—working in uranium mines. Yet even when their prison sentences were complete, the Directorate packed these men and women into freight cars and shipped them into exile in the Soviet Far North, to prevent them from telling anyone what they had witnessed. Many were never seen again. And when Kurchatov’s team succeeded, Beria rewarded them in direct proportion to the punishment he had planned for them in the event of failure. Those that the secret police chief would have ordered immediately shot—Kurchatov himself and Nikolai Dollezhal, who designed the Annushka reactor—were instead awarded the state’s highest honor, the title Hero of Socialist Labor, along with dachas, cars, and cash prizes. Those who would merely have received maximum prison terms were instead granted the country’s next-highest honor, the Order of Lenin. By the time the Article exploded, Igor Kurchatov had already decided to begin work on a reactor dedicated to generating electricity. Development started in 1950 in a newly constructed closed city, Obninsk, two hours southwest of Moscow. There the same group of physicists who had built the Annushka reactor were set to work on a new one, this time intended to use the heat of fission to turn water into steam and power a turbine. Resources were scarce, and some in the nuclear program believed that a power reactor could never be practical. Only as a concession to Kurchatov’s prestige as the father of the bomb did Beria permit the project to proceed. It was not until the end of 1952 that the government signaled its commitment to nuclear power by naming a new design institute dedicated to creating new reactors: the Scientific Research and Design Institute of Energy Technology, known by its Russian acronym NIKIET. The following year, the USSR tested its first thermonuclear device—a hydrogen bomb, a thousand times more destructive than the atom bomb—and both emerging superpowers became theoretically capable of wiping out humanity entirely. Even Kurchatov was shaken by the power of the new weapon he had created, which had turned the surface of the earth to glass for five kilometers around ground zero. Less than four months later, US president Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his “Atoms for Peace” address to the UN General Assembly, part of an attempt to mollify an American public facing a future now menaced by the specter of apocalypse. Eisenhower called for global cooperation to control the incipient arms race and tame the power of the atom for the benefit of mankind. He proposed an international conference to consider the issue. No one was especially surprised when the USSR publicly dismissed the idea as empty propaganda. But when the UN International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy finally convened in Geneva, Switzerland, in August 1955, the Soviet delegation arrived in force. It marked the first time in twenty years that scientists from the USSR had been permitted to mix with their foreign counterparts, and they delivered a propaganda coup of their own. They announced that, on June 27 the previous year, they had successfully connected their Obninsk reactor, designated AM-1, to the Moscow grid. It was the first reactor in the world to use nuclear power for civilian electricity generation, and the scientists christened it Atom Mirny-1—“Peaceful Atom-1.” At that moment, the first US nuclear power station, in Shippingport, Pennsylvania, was still more than two years from completion. Housed in a quaint stucco building with a tall chimney that could easily be mistaken for a chocolate factory, AM-1 generated only 5 megawatts—just enough to drive a locomotive—yet symbolized Socialism’s superior ability to harness nuclear power for the benefit of mankind. Its launch marked the birth of the Soviet nuclear energy industry and the start of a Cold War technological contest between the superpowers. Soon after the death of Stalin in 1953, Lavrenty Beria was arrested, imprisoned, and shot. The First Main Directorate was reconstituted and renamed. The new Ministry of Medium Machine Building—Ministerstvo srednego mashinostroyeniya, abbreviated in Russian to MinSredMash, or simply Sredmash—would now supervise everything connected with atomic energy, from uranium mining to bomb testing. Newly appointed Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev brought an end to the years of Stalinist repression, liberalized the arts, embraced high technology, and promised that True Communism—the workers’ Shangri-la of equality and plenty for all—would be achieved by 1980. To help modernize the Soviet economy and also reinforce his hold on power, Khrushchev personally promoted both space travel and nuclear technology. With the success of Atom Mirny-1, the physicists and their Party bosses glimpsed a panacea that would finally release the Soviet Union from the deprivation of the past and help it on the path to a brighter future. To the Soviet people, still rebuilding amid the devastation of World War II, the Obninsk reactor showed how the USSR could technologically lead the world in a way that benefited ordinary citizens, bringing heat and light into their homes. The physicists who worked on AM-1 received the Lenin Prize, and the power of the atom was hymned in magazine articles, films, and radio programs; the Ministry of Culture introduced elementary school courses teaching children the fundamentals of atomic energy and contrasting the peaceful aims of the Soviet nuclear program with the militaristic intentions of the United States. Alongside the cosmonauts and martyrs of the Great Patriotic War, according to historian Paul Josephson, the nuclear scientists became “near-mythic figures in the pantheon of Soviet heroes.” But the little reactor in Obninsk was not all that it seemed. The principles of its design had not originated with the imperatives of electricity generation but with the need to manufacture plutonium bomb fuel quickly and cheaply. The same team from the Ministry of Medium Machine Building who had built the Annushka reactor oversaw its construction. Its path to completion had been fraught with corrosion, leaks, and instrument failure. And it had first been developed to provide propulsion for nuclear submarines. Only when that proved impractical had the original code name behind its acronym AM—Atom Morskoy, or “Naval Atom”—been revised to suggest more innocent goals. It was also inherently unstable. * * * Unlike a nuclear weapon, in which a vast number of uranium atoms fission in a fraction of a second, releasing all their energy in an annihilating flash of heat and light, in a reactor the process must be regulated and delicately sustained for weeks, months, or even years. This requires three components: a moderator, control rods, and a coolant. The simplest form of nuclear reactor requires no equipment at all. If the right quantity of uranium 235 is gathered in the presence of a neutron moderator—water, for example, or graphite, which slows down the movement of the uranium neutrons so that they can strike one another—a self-sustaining chain reaction will begin, releasing molecular energy as heat. The ideal combination of circumstances required for such an event—a criticality—has even aligned spontaneously in nature: in ancient subterranean deposits of uranium found in the African nation of Gabon, where groundwater acted as a moderator. There, self-sustaining chain reactions began underground two billion years ago, producing modest quantities of heat energy—an average of around 100 kilowatts, or enough to light a thousand lightbulbs—and continued intermittently for as long as a million years, until the available water was finally boiled away by the heat of fission. But to generate power steadily inside a nuclear reactor, the behavior of the neutrons must be artificially controlled, to ensure that the chain reaction stays constant and the heat of fission can be harnessed to create electricity. Ideally, every single fission reaction should trigger just one more fission in a neighboring atom, so that each successive generation of neutrons contains exactly the same number as the one before, and the reactor remains in the same critical state. Should each fission fail to create as many neutrons as the one before, the reactor becomes subcritical, the chain reaction slows and eventually ceases, and the reactor shuts down. But if each generation produces more than one fission, the chain reaction could begin to grow too quickly toward a potentially uncontrollable supercriticality and a sudden and massive release of energy similar to that in a nuclear weapon. To maintain a steady state between these two extremes is a delicate task. The first nuclear engineers had to develop tools to master forces perilously close to the limits of man’s ability to control. Infinitesimal and invisible, the scale of subatomic activity inside a nuclear power reactor is hard to comprehend: generating a single watt of electricity requires more than 30 billion fissions every second. Around 99 percent of the neutrons generated in a single fission event are high-energy particles released at enormous speed—“prompt” neutrons that travel at twenty thousand kilometers a second. Prompt neutrons smash into their neighbors, where they cause more fission, continuing the chain reaction, within an average of just ten nanoseconds. This fraction of time—so small that the wits of the Manhattan Project measured it in “shakes,” for a “shake of a lamb’s tail”—is much too fast to be controlled by any mechanical means. Fortunately, among the remaining 1 percent of neutrons generated in every fission event are a tiny minority released on a timescale more readily perceptible by man, measured in seconds or even minutes. It is only the existence of these delayed neutrons, which emerge slowly enough to respond to human control, that make the operation of a nuclear reactor possible at all. By inserting electromechanical rods containing neutron-absorbing elements—such as boron or cadmium, which act like atomic sponges, soaking up and trapping delayed neutrons, preventing them from triggering further fission—the growth of the chain reaction can be controlled incrementally. With the rods inserted all the way into the reactor, the core remains in a subcritical state; as they are withdrawn, fission increases slowly until the reactor becomes critical—and can then be maintained in that state and adjusted as necessary. Withdrawing the control rods farther, or in greater numbers, increases reactivity and thus the amount of heat and power generated, while inserting them farther has the opposite effect. But controlling the reactor using only this fraction of less than 1 percent of all neutrons in every fission makes the control process acutely sensitive: if the rods are withdrawn too quickly, too far, in too large a number—or any of the myriad safety systems fail—the reactor may be overwhelmed by the fission of prompt neutrons and become “prompt supercritical.” The result is a reactor runaway, a catastrophic scenario accidentally triggering a similar process to the one designed into the heart of an atomic bomb, creating an uncontrollable surge of power that increases until the reactor core either melts down—or explodes. To generate electricity, the uranium fuel inside a reactor must become hot enough to turn water into steam but not so hot that the fuel itself starts to melt. To prevent this, in addition to control rods and a neutron moderator, the reactor requires a coolant to remove excess heat. The first reactors built in the United Kingdom used graphite as a moderator and air as a coolant; later commercial models in the United States employed boiling water as both a coolant and a moderator. Both designs had distinct hazards and benefits: water does not burn, although when turned to pressurized steam, it can cause an explosion. Graphite couldn’t explode, but at extreme temperatures, it could catch fire. The first Soviet reactors, copied from those built for the Manhattan Project, used both graphite and water. It was a risky combination: in graphite, a moderator that burns fiercely at high temperatures and, in water, a potentially explosive coolant. Three competing teams of physicists produced the initial proposals for what became Atom Mirny-1. These included a graphite-water design, another that used a graphite moderator and helium as a coolant, and a third using beryllium as a moderator. But the Soviet engineers’ work on the plutonium production plants meant that they had far more practical experience with graphite-water reactors. These were also cheaper and easier to construct. The more experimental—and potentially safer—concepts never had a chance. It wasn’t until late in the construction of Atom Mirny-1 that the physicists in Obninsk discovered the first major defect with their design: a risk of coolant water leaking onto the hot graphite, which could lead not only to an explosion and radioactive release but also to a reactor runaway. The team repeatedly delayed the launch of the reactor as they devised safety systems to address the problem. But when it finally went critical in June 1954, Atom Mirny-1 retained another profound drawback the scientists never fixed: a phenomenon known as the positive void coefficient. When working normally, all nuclear reactors cooled by water contain some steam also circulating through the core, which forms bubbles, or “voids” in the liquid. Water is a more efficient neutron moderator than steam, so the volume of steam bubbles in the water affects the reactivity of the core. In reactors that use water as both coolant and moderator, as the volume of steam increases, fewer neutrons are slowed, so reactivity falls. If too much steam forms—or even if the coolant leaks out entirely—the chain reaction stops, and the reactor shuts itself down. This negative void coefficient acts like a dead man’s handle on the reactor, a safety feature of the water-water designs common in the West. But in a water-graphite reactor like Atom Mirny-1, the effect is the opposite. As the reactor becomes hotter and more of the water turns to steam, the graphite moderator keeps doing its job just as before. The chain reaction continues to grow, the water heats further, and more of it turns to steam. That steam, in turn, absorbs fewer and fewer neutrons, and the chain reaction accelerates still further, in a feedback loop of growing power and heat. To stop or slow the effect, the operators must rely on inserting the reactor control rods. If they were to fail for any reason, the reactor could run away, melt down, or explode. This positive void coefficient remained a fatal defect at the heart of Atom Mirny-1 and overshadowed the operation of every Soviet water-graphite reactor that followed. * * * On February 20, 1956, Igor Kurchatov materialized before the Soviet public for the first time in more than ten years. The father of the bomb had been enveloped in the secrecy surrounding Problem Number One since 1943, isolated in the clandestine laboratories of Moscow and Obninsk or lost in the vastness of the weapons testing grounds of Kazakhstan. But he now stood before the delegates assembled for the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in Moscow, where he revealed a fantastical vision of a new USSR powered by nuclear energy. In a short but galvanizing speech, Kurchatov outlined plans for an ambitious program of experimental reactor technology and a futuristic Communist empire crisscrossed by atomic-propelled ships, trains, and aircraft. He predicted that cheap electricity would soon reach every corner of the Union through a network of giant nuclear power stations. He promised that Soviet nuclear capacity would reach 2 million kilowatts—four hundred times what the Obninsk plant could produce—within just four years. To realize this audacious vision, Kurchatov—now named head of his own Institute of Atomic Energy—had convinced the chief of Sredmash to let him build four different reactor prototypes, from which he hoped to choose the designs that would prove the basis of the Soviet nuclear industry. But before construction could begin, Kurchatov also had to win over the economics mandarins of Gosplan, who controlled the distribution of all resources throughout the USSR. Gosplan’s own Department of Energy and Electrification set targets for everything from how much money could be allocated for building an individual power station to the quantity of electricity it would be expected to produce once complete. And the men and women of Gosplan cared little for ideology, Soviet prestige, or the triumph of Socialist over capitalist technology. They wanted rational economics and tangible results. Like their counterparts in the West, the Soviet scientists’ arguments about how quickly and inexpensively nuclear power could become competitive with conventionally produced electricity were speculative and colored by wishful thinking about electricity “too cheap to meter.” But unlike the boosters of the nuclear future in the United States, the Soviets could not rely on golf course sales pitches and entrepreneurial investment from the free market. And economics were not on their side: the capital costs of building any nuclear reactor were colossal, and the USSR was rich in fossil fuels—especially beneath the remote wastes of Siberia, where new oil and gas deposits were being discovered all the time. Yet the sheer size of the Union, and its poor infrastructure, favored nuclear power. The scientists pointed out that the Siberian deposits were thousands of miles from where they were most needed: in the western part of the Soviet Union, where the majority of its population and industry lay. Moving either raw materials or electricity over these distances was costly and inefficient. Meanwhile, the nuclear plants’ closest competition—hydroelectric stations—required flooding huge areas of valuable farmland. Nuclear stations, while expensive to build, had little environmental impact; they were largely independent of natural resources; they could be located close to the sources of demand in major cities; and, if constructed on a large enough scale, they could produce vast amounts of electricity. Apparently convinced by Kurchatov’s promises, Gosplan released the money for two prototype plants: one with a pressurized water reactor of the kind already becoming standard in the United States, and another with a water-graphite channel type—a scaled-up version of Atom Mirny-1. But, just as in they would in the West, construction costs quickly skyrocketed, and Gosplan suspected the scientists had misled them. They scaled back the plans and called a halt to work on the PWR plant, and Kurchatov’s vision of the atom-powered future gradually collapsed. He pleaded for the flow of resources to be turned back on, writing to the head of Gosplan to insist that the plants were crucial for determining the future of the Soviet atom. But his pleas went unheeded, and in 1960 Kurchatov died without seeing his dream revived. In the meantime, the Ministry of Medium Machine Building had completed a new project, hidden inside the clandestine nuclear site known as Combine 816, or Tomsk-7, in Western Siberia. The EI-2, or “Ivan the Second,” was a big military water-graphite reactor with a thrifty edge. Its predecessor, Ivan-1, had been a simple model built solely to manufacture plutonium for nuclear warheads. But EI-2 had been adapted to perform two tasks at once. It made weapons-grade plutonium and, as a by-product of the process, also generated 100 megawatts of electricity. And when work on the Soviet civil nuclear program finally restarted two years after Kurchatov’s death, by then lagging behind its competition in the United States, it did so with a new emphasis on reactors that were affordable to build and cheap to run. At that moment, it was not the sophisticated experimental reactors of Igor Kurchatov’s civilian nuclear program but the stalwart Ivan the Second that stood ready to carry the atomic banner for the Soviet Union. * * * Less than a year after Igor Kurchatov presented his imperial vision of an atom-powered USSR to the Party congress in Moscow, a toothy, young Queen Elizabeth II made her own ceremonial appearance, outside Calder Hall nuclear power station, on the northwest coast of England. Pulling a lever with elegantly gloved hands, she watched as the needle on an oversized meter began to spin, showing the first atomic electricity flowing into the British national grid from one of the station’s two gas-cooled reactors. It was pronounced the launch of the first commercial-scale nuclear power station in the world, the dawn of a new industrial revolution and a triumph for those who had kept the faith in the peaceful power of the atom when others had feared it would bring only destruction to the world. “For them,” a newsreel commentator reported, “this day is a milestone of victory!” The event was a grand propaganda exercise; the truth was darker. Calder Hall had been constructed to manufacture plutonium for Britain’s own nascent atom bomb program. What electricity it did produce was a costly fig leaf. And the military roots of the civilian nuclear industry had entangled not only the technology it relied upon but also the minds of its custodians. Even in the West, nuclear scientists continued to dwell in a culture of secrecy and expedience: an environment in which sometimes reckless experimentation was married with an institutional reluctance to acknowledge when things went wrong. A year after Calder Hall opened, in October 1957, technicians at the neighboring Windscale breeder reactor faced an almost impossible deadline to produce the tritium needed to detonate a British hydrogen bomb. Hopelessly understaffed, and working with an incompletely understood technology, they operated in emergency conditions and cut corners on safety. On October 9 the two thousand tons of graphite in Windscale Pile Number One caught fire. It burned for two days, releasing radiation across the United Kingdom and Europe and contaminating local dairy farms with high levels of iodine 131. As a last resort, the plant manager ordered water poured onto the pile, not knowing whether it would douse the blaze or cause an explosion that would render large parts of Great Britain uninhabitable. A board of inquiry completed a full report soon afterward, but, on the eve of publication, the British prime minister ordered all but two or three existing copies recalled and had the metal type prepared to print it broken up. He then released his own bowdlerized version to the public, edited to place the blame for the fire on the plant operators. The British government would not fully acknowledge the scale of the accident for another thirty years. Meanwhile, in the USSR, endemic nuclear secrecy had reached fresh extremes. Under Khrushchev, Soviet scientists began to enjoy unprecedented autonomy, and the public—encouraged to trust unquestioningly in the new gods of science and technology—were kept in the dark. In this intoxicating atmosphere, the physicists’ early success in taming the power of the peaceful atom made them dangerously overconfident. They began using gamma rays to extend the shelf life of chicken and strawberries, they built mobile nuclear reactors mounted on tank treads or designed to float around the Arctic, and, like their US counterparts, they designed atomic-powered aircraft. But they also used nuclear weapons to put out fires and excavate underground caverns, restricting the size of their explosions only when the seismic shock began to destroy nearby buildings. Following the death of Igor Kurchatov, the Institute of Atomic Energy had been renamed in his honor, and leadership of Soviet nuclear science had passed to his disciple, Anatoly Aleksandrov. An imposing man with a glisteningly bald head who’d helped build the first plutonium production reactors, Aleksandrov was appointed director of the Kurchatov Institute in 1960. A dedicated Communist who believed entirely in science as an instrument of the Soviet economic dream, he prized monumental projects over cutting-edge research. As the Era of Stagnation began, the Soviet scientific establishment lavished resources on the immediate priorities of the state—space exploration, water diversion, nuclear power—while emergent technologies, including computer science, genetics, and fiber optics, fell behind. Aleksandrov oversaw the design of reactors for nuclear submarines and icebreakers, as well as the prototypes of the new channel-type graphite reactors designed to generate electricity. To reduce the cost of building these, he emphasized economies of scale and insisted on increasing their size to colossal proportions using standardized components and common factory materials. He saw no reason that manufacturing nuclear reactors should be any different from making tanks or combine harvesters. Aleksandrov regarded the serial production of these massive reactors as the key to Soviet economic development, and atomic power as the means to realize Ozymandian dreams of irrigating deserts, bringing tropical oases to the Arctic North, and leveling inconveniently situated mountains with atom bombs—or, as the Russian expression went, “correcting the mistakes of nature.” Despite his breadth of vision and political influence, Aleksandrov did not have sovereignty over Soviet nuclear science. Behind him loomed the sinister, adamantine power of the Ministry of Medium Machine Building and its belligerent chief, the veteran revolutionary Efim Slavsky, variously known as “Big Efim” and “the Ayatollah.” Although as young men they had fought on opposite sides in the Russian Civil War—Slavsky on horseback as a political commissar with the Red Cavalry, Aleksandrov with the White Guard—the two atomic magnates were close, and enjoyed reminiscing together over vodka and cognac. But as the Cold War intensified, the military-industrial demands of Sredmash overwhelmed those of the pure scientists at the Kurchatov Institute. In the first few years of its existence, the national priority afforded the atom weapons program had allowed the ministry to consolidate control of a massive nuclear empire, with its own scientists, troops, experimental labs, factories, hospitals, colleges, and testing grounds. Sredmash could call upon almost unlimited resources, from gold mines to power stations, all maintained behind an impenetrable wall of silence. The very names of Sredmash facilities were classified, and sites that ranged in size from individual institutes in Moscow and Leningrad to entire cities were known by the men and women who worked there as pochtovye yashchiki—“post office boxes”—referred to only by code numbers. Led by Slavsky, a cunning political operator with access to the highest levels of government, the Ministry of Medium Machine Building became closed and almost entirely autonomous, a state within a state. Under the paranoid regime of permanent warfare maintained by Sredmash, any accident—no matter how minor—was regarded as a state secret, policed by the KGB. And even as the USSR’s nuclear power industry began to gather momentum in the mid-1960s, the clandestine impulse persisted. In the bureaucratic upheaval that followed the fall of Khrushchev, in 1966 responsibility for operating new atomic stations throughout the USSR was transferred from Sredmash to the civilian Ministry of Energy and Electrification. Yet everything else—the design and technical supervision of the reactors that powered the plants, their prototypes, and every aspect of their fuel cycle—remained in the hands of the Ministry of Medium Machine Building. As one of the twelve founding members of the International Atomic Energy Agency, since 1957 the USSR had been obliged to report any nuclear accident that took place within its borders. But of the dozens of dangerous incidents that occurred inside Soviet nuclear facilities over the decades that followed, not one was ever mentioned to the IAEA. For almost thirty years, both the Soviet public and the world at large were encouraged to believe that the USSR operated the safest nuclear industry in the world. The cost of maintaining this illusion had been high. * * * At 4:20 p.m. on Sunday, September 29, 1957, a massive explosion occurred inside the perimeter of Chelyabinsk-40 in the southern Urals, a Sredmash installation so clandestine that it had never appeared on any civilian map. The forbidden area encompassed both the Mayak Production Association—a cluster of plutonium production reactors and radiochemical factories scraped from the wilderness by forced labor—and Ozersk, the comfortable closed city that housed the privileged technicians who staffed them. It was a warm, sunny afternoon. When they heard the explosion, many of Ozersk’s citizens were watching a soccer match in the city stadium. Assuming it was the sound of foundations being dynamited by convicts in the nearby industrial zone, few of the spectators even looked up. The match continued. But the explosion had taken place inside an underground waste storage tank filled with highly radioactive plutonium processing waste. The blast, which occurred spontaneously after cooling and temperature-monitoring systems had failed, threw the tank’s 160-tonne concrete lid twenty meters into the air, blew out the windows of a nearby prisoner barracks, ripped metal gates from the nearby fence, and launched a kilometer-tall pillar of dust and smoke into the sky. Within a few hours, a blanket of gray radioactive ash and debris several centimeters thick had settled over the industrial zone. The soldiers who worked there were soon admitted to the hospital, bleeding and vomiting. No emergency plans had been prepared for a nuclear accident; at first, no one realized they were facing one. It was hours before the plant managers, away on business, were finally tracked down at a circus show in Moscow. By then, highly radioactive contamination had begun to spread across the Urals—2 million curies of it—falling in a deadly trace six kilometers wide and nearly fifty kilometers long. The next day, light rain and a thick, black snow fell on nearby villages. It took a year to clean up inside the forbidden zone. The so-called “liquidation” of the consequences of the explosion was begun by soldiers who ran into the contaminated areas with shovels and tossed parts of the shattered waste storage container into a nearby swamp. The city leaders of Ozersk, apparently fearing mass panic more than the threat of radiation, attempted to stifle news of what had happened. But as rumors spread throughout the cadres of young engineers and technicians, nearly three thousand workers left the city, preferring to take their chances in what they called the “big world” beyond the perimeter wire rather than remain in their cozy but contaminated homes. In the remote villages outside the wire, barefoot women and children were instructed to harvest their potatoes and beets, but then dump them into trenches dug by bulldozers, overseen by men wearing protective suits and respirators. Soldiers herded the peasants’ cows into open pits and shot them. Eventually ten thousand people were ordered permanently evacuated over the course of two years. Entire settlements were plowed into the ground. Twenty-three villages were wiped from the map, and up to a half million people were exposed to dangerous levels of radioactivity. Rumors of what had happened in Mayak reached the West, but Chelyabinsk-40 was among the most fiercely guarded military locations in the USSR. The Soviet government refused to acknowledge its very existence, let alone that anything might have happened there. The CIA resorted to sending high-altitude U-2 spy planes to photograph the area. It was on the second of these missions, in May 1960, that Francis Gary Powers’s aircraft was shot down by a Soviet SA-2 surface-to-air missile, in what became one of the defining events of the Cold War. Although it would be decades before the truth finally emerged, the Mayak disaster remained, for many years, the worst nuclear accident in history. 3 * * * Friday, April 25, 5:00 p.m., Pripyat The afternoon of Friday, April 25, 1986, was beautiful and warm in Pripyat, more like summer than late spring. Almost everyone was looking forward to the long weekend leading into May Day. Technicians were preparing the grand opening of the city’s new amusement park, and families were filling their fridges with food for the holiday; some were engaged in the home improvement fad sweeping the city, hanging wallpaper and laying tiles in their apartments. Outside, the scent of apple and cherry blossom lingered in the air. Fresh laundry hung on the balconies on Lenina Prospekt. Beneath their windows, Viktor Brukhanov’s roses were in bloom: a palette of pink, red, and fuchsia. In the distance, the V. I. Lenin Atomic Energy Station, attended by the huge latticed power masts carrying high-tension cables to the switching stations, shone a brilliant white against the skyline. On the roof of the ten-story apartment building on Sergeant Lazarev Street, overlooking the central square, giant, angular white letters spelled out in Ukrainian the mellifluous propaganda jingle of the Ministry of Energy and Electrification: Hai bude atom robitnikom, a ne soldatom! “Let the atom be a worker, not a soldier!” Brukhanov, harried by work as usual, had left for the office at 8:00 a.m. and driven the short distance from the family apartment overlooking Kurchatov Street to the plant in the white Volga he used for official business. Valentina had arranged to take the afternoon off from her job in the plant construction offices to spend time with her daughter and her son-in-law, who had both driven over from Kiev to visit for the weekend. Lilia was already five months pregnant, and the weather was so good that the three of them decided to take a day trip to Narovlia, a riverside town a few kilo