Assessing thirty years of Soviet nuclear industry 1955-85

comment on Producing Power,
the Pre Chernobyl history of the Soviet Nuclear Industry,
by Sonja D. Schmid, MIT Press, Cambridge, USA, 2015





2016 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the tragic night of the 26th of April 1986. If commemorations appear as a duty in the public life, in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and even in France and elsewhere, and the open debate is carefully managed by the various national authorities, the discussion may come out of the circle of experts and decision makers and feed the knowledge of a wider public opinion, many archival documents being progressively released and many studies being carried out with a great seriousness and less passion than during the first years following the catastrophe. In this attempt, I chose to draw the attention on a book released in 2015 by the MIT Press.

Conference for the 30th Anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster at the French Senate
(source : Cyrille Clément)

Many points may be listed to explain why the history of the Soviet program of atomic energy is a blank, a vacuum in the common knowledge of average persons in Western Europe. And yet, it would make sense to go beyond stereotypes concerning an event of that scale, the explosion of the reactor n°4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) during the early hours of the 26th of April 1986, an event which cannot receive an easy, superficial narrative. And, if the verdict of the Chernobyl Trial, in July 1987, did not bring a solution nor the final word to the opinion of the Westerners, maybe, the work of the historians, nowadays, may offer a much better approach to describe and evaluate what lays behind the purely critical instant of the explosion.

To cope with this vacuum in the perception of this significant element of the European history, is the challenge that an Austrian historian of Sciences, Sonja Schmid, Professor in the Department of Science and Technology in the Society at Virginia Tech (USA) and member of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, endorsed to overturn by publishing in 2015 her book “Producing Power, the Pre Chernobyl History of the Soviet Nuclear Industry”, after years of a long, thorough trajectory through the world of the University and scientific qualification. And it may be significant that this study adapted for a large public was not first released on the soil of the European continent.

And I must say immediately that the writing demonstrates a deep knowledge and understanding of the exposed matter, though Sonja Schmid clearly stipulates in which cases she did not manage to find access to sources or archival materials still classified and out of reach of the top-level university and scientific researcher. It must be said too that, apart from being an historian of Sciences, Sonja Schmid, a German speaking native, is also fluent in Russian and a qualified expert in Slavic Studies, which in this case helps to have a direct reading of the original documents written, generally in Russian but also, at times, in Ukrainian.

The book, in itself, is compact, the main text being only 175 pages long, the apparatus of detailed notes and sources being impressive and highly informative, the author sparing to the reader the specific and very sophisticated jargon and rich data of nuclear physics which are available in specialised publications as the technical documents of nuclear safety (see the final report of the IAEA, known as the INSAG-7 for instance). But for the novice in this question, there is plenty of meaningful informations to learn at each page about the organisations and structures, competences and responsibilities throughout the Soviet system.

1977, Builders of the Future Industrial Giant Atommash, an Association of Entreprises 
(source : RIA Novosti archive, image #587071 / L. Nosov / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

The content

To draw the history of 30 years in the life of a significant industry is not to raise a chronology of facts. Sonja Schmid’s intellectual effort, rather, focuses on assessing a culture, the culture of the risk attached to a structuring and wide-scaled activity in a highly industrialised and socio-technical system. It is worth mentioning that producing power and distributing it to various social groups is at the heart of political notions, like sovereignty and that producing power by atomic energy is to place science at the heart of the system. And specifically, the Soviet system had the political ambition to be the rational and scientific system if one in the world, as recalls Sonja Schmid.

Monument to the Minister of the Medium Size Machines, Efim Slavskyy in Ust-Kamenogorsk
(source : By NFYFLY (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

The undeniable strength of the book stands in the matter exposed in the chapters 1 to 4, the elements of the chapter 5 adding a final layer, the controversy over the different versions of the narrative concerning the fatal explosion. All the fundamental notions relatively to the way the nuclear industry for producing power emerged from nowhere, evolved and (too) quickly developed, by phases, steps, decisive turns, are set, thematised and structured in the first 125 pages, covering a period starting from the secret experimental military program of the 1950’s to reach the industrial-scale flourishing development of the 1980’s, in a completely different environment. The non-expert reader also get familiarised with a all-new series of names, high-ranking officials, Ministers, Directors and other high profiles who he meets for the first time, though they made this world for a long period of time, a complete generation. And eventually, Sonja Schmid defends the argument that there was a certain rationality behind the choice of the RBMK as one of the two major (almost)-standardised designs among Soviet nuclear reactors. And this is this rationality that she questions and scrutinises carefully, parameter after parameter, to attain a very nuanced conclusion which does not lift any blame on varied level of responsibility but clearly put aside any psychological scheme of presentation, as it has been popular when portraying some actors of the tragedy.

The nuclear power plant of Obninsk, the “First Nuclear Power Plant in the world” as noted on the wall, started producing power for the electric grid in 1954. It is now a Museum.
(source : RIA Novosti archive, image #409173 / Pavel Bykov / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

The pedagogic role of the teacher is not to give an easy, restricting explanation. By demonstrating how operated the interaction between the two major professional corporations involved, the atomists (atomshchiki) from the military side and the energeticians (energetiki) from the civilian domain working on the same technological machinery but with a very different technical feeding, the access to classified information, Sonja Schmid brings to the light the complexity of managing a dangerous technology in a contradictory hierarchy of competences.


Reactor n°5 and 6, 2 RBMK-1000, which were to be completed in November 1986 and 1988
(source : By PatriotRR [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Yes, the two major categories of causes, the design flaws and the human error, are associated to give an intricate network of responsibilities in the disaster. In fact, by the list of sources that she gives, Sonja Schmid opens up the door to further readings for those who are not stopped by the language barrier. And what she unveils is a universe, complex, creative and chaotic, rational and made of improvisations, systematised enough but lazy at some points too.

The fact that the RBMK reactor which exploded on the bank of the Pripyat river was not unique in this design forced the authorities, political, scientific or technical, to take decisions and, later, action. And it was a question of survival : to stop everything or to make new efforts. This is this logics which is also at stake here : why a generation of managers, scientists, engineers, politicians who raised to the highest ranks in the middle of the 1950’s thanks to great technical achievements and political faithfulness to the system had to face the blow of this explosion 30 years later ?

Hall of the reactor n°1 in Chernobyl NPP
(source : By Chaes_cz_1.jpg: Cs szabo at hu.wikipedia derivative work: Saibo (Δ) (Chaes_cz_1.jpg) [CC BY 2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Chernobyl dossier is certainly not yet complete with Sonja Schmid’s book, but this study written in an accessible language is a very deep and important contribution by the synthesis it brings to the knowledge of the context in which the disaster occurred. It is a great valuable basis of comprehension. Maybe, would have it been interesting also to dedicate a longer and denser section, within a chapter, to the analysis of the way the nuclear industry was presented and, in a way, advertised, during the period 1955-85 in the different medias, through various formats of publications for a wide public, in the Soviet Union as well as in the socialist countries, from scientific publications like Nature (Priroda, see for example for the year 1985, the article co-signed by Valeri Legasov in the June release) to televised documentaries and reportages, like the famous Implication (Prychastnost’) filmed in Pripyat in 1983.

To my personal opinion, it is also certainly very important, for the populations living in the countries eventually independent at the Fall of the Soviet Union, which have been the most affected by the disaster, that the history of the Soviet Union be better known and understood abroad. This book helps in a very clever way this enterprise.

Central Hall of a RBMK-1000 Reactor in use in the Leningrad NPP
(source : RIA Novosti archive, image #305011 / Alexey Danichev / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

cover picture : view of the Chernobyl NPP from Pripyat’
source : By Andrzej Karoń from Olkusz, Poland, cut by ChNPP (File:Chernobyl NPP 01-2009.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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