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Is this really China’s ‘Chernobyl moment’?

To have recently finished reading Adam Higginbotham’s majestic and extensive Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, perhaps the defining historical work on the event, is to be reminded of the 1986 nuclear disaster’s uniqueness, not just for the reasons leading up to it but also its effects on the Soviet Union afterward. But if a “Chernobyl moment” is to work as a historical analogy – and as something of a historical cliché – it must work through simplification.

First, that a catastrophic event was bound to happen to an authoritarian system so chronically inefficient, corrupt and untruthful. “I came to the conclusion that the accident was the inevitable apotheosis of the economic system which has been developed in the USSR over many decades,” Valery Legasov, a chief of the commission investigating the disaster and who was somewhat mythologized in last year’s HBO and Sky miniseries, wrote in an article published in Pravda just after his suicide in 1988.

Second, that the catastrophe takes place at a certain moment in an authoritarian regime’s history, amid a major political recalibration, and within a certain geography. Indeed, the Soviet Union saw many nuclear disasters long before Chernobyl, such as the explosion of the Chelyabinsk-40 in the southern Urals in September 1957.

But these either happened in remote areas of the empire where it was easy to cover up the events – unlike Chernobyl, which is situated near Ukraine’s border with Belarus, and near enough to the Baltics and Scandinavia for Sweden’s nuclear scientists to detect an explosion the day after it happened – or at a time when secrecy and cover-ups were possible.

Remember that the Soviet leader at the time, Mikhail Gorbachev, publicly proclaimed his policy of glasnost – transparent government and administrative reform – a month before the Chernobyl disaster.  

This brings up the third instruction of the analogy, that at first the regime tries covering up the disaster but because of a commingling of scale, geography and domestic politics, it eventually has to come clean about what happened, destroying local trust.

Indeed, although the Soviets only told half the truth about what happened when they had to explain themselves at a special summit at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna a few months after the disaster, within a few years almost all Soviet citizens knew what had happened.

Soviet nuclear engineer Grigori Medvedev freely published his Chernobyl Notebook in 1989, for instance, and even had the introduction of his book written by Andrei Sakharov, the USSR’s most famous dissident, who had only just been released from internal exile. “The complete and naked truth is necessary,” Sakharov wrote.  

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