Gleb Garanich / Reuters A child's gas mask and a shoe are seen at a kindergarten in the abandoned city of Prypiat near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, April 4, 2011.

Lessons of Chernobyl: The Cultural Causes of the Meltdown

In the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power station disaster, most of the lessons being learned by the scientific community and governments are about the technical, radiological, environmental and medical consequences of that tragic event. The vast literature on the subject deals al-most exclusively with these technical issues. Although these aspects are significant, broader social and psychological factors greatly contributed to the catastrophe. These cultural issues were the fundamental cause of the Chernobyl accident.

From its inception the Soviet nuclear effort, aimed primarily at making an atomic bomb, was carried out with utter disregard for human life. Most, if not all, of the construction work for the nuclear industry was done by slave laborers of the Gulag. Often those engaged in building the most secret "installations," as they were called in the newspeak of the industry, were later sent to camps to be isolated for life, as described by Andrei Sakharov in his memoirs. The nuclear industry itself was run by able, determined and ruthless managers who did not take human life into account--insofar as such concerns did not serve their immediate task. The terrible environmental mess left by the Soviet nuclear industry is the painful legacy of those attitudes.


Like many other Soviet programs, the developing nuclear industry was shrouded in secrecy, which served three main purposes. First, and most obvious, it served to conceal the effort from the perceived enemy--the United States. A second purpose, usually not taken into account, was to control the scientists and to a lesser extent the engineers who were the brains and hands of the whole project. Last, secrecy protected the industry's leaders from all external criticism. For the political boss of the project, L. P. Beria, the head of the Soviet secret police and a ruthless commissar seeking absolute power over society, the atomic bomb epitomized the kind of project he felt compelled to control.

In spite of all this, the efficiency with which the first decade of the

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