Producing Power

Producing Power: The Pre-Chernobyl History of the Soviet Nuclear Industry

Sonja D. Schmid
Copyright Date: 2015
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 400
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  • Book Info
    Producing Power
    Book Description:

    The Chernobyl disaster has been variously ascribed to human error, reactor design flaws, and industry mismanagement. Six former Chernobyl employees were convicted of criminal negligence; they defended themselves by pointing to reactor design issues. Other observers blamed the Soviet style of ideologically driven economic and industrial management. InProducing Power,Sonja Schmid draws on interviews with veterans of the Soviet nuclear industry and extensive research in Russian archives as she examines these alternate accounts. Rather than pursue one "definitive" explanation, she investigates how each of these narratives makes sense in its own way and demonstrates that each implies adherence to a particular set of ideas -- about high-risk technologies, human-machine interactions, organizational methods for ensuring safety and productivity, and even about the legitimacy of the Soviet state. She also shows how these attitudes shaped, and were shaped by, the Soviet nuclear industry from its very beginnings.Schmid explains that Soviet experts established nuclear power as a driving force of social, not just technical, progress. She examines the Soviet nuclear industry's dual origins in weapons and electrification programs, and she traces the emergence of nuclear power experts as a professional community. Schmid also fundamentally reassesses the design choices for nuclear power reactors in the shadow of the Cold War's arms race. Schmid's account helps us understand how and why a complex sociotechnical system broke down. Chernobyl, while unique and specific to the Soviet experience, can also provide valuable lessons for contemporary nuclear projects.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-32179-2
    Subjects: History, Business

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Note on Transliteration and Translation
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. Acronyms and Abbreviations
    (pp. xvii-xxxii)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    On a warm Tuesday in July 1987, a bustling crowd of people swarmed around the nondescript “House of Culture” in the otherwise deserted city of Chernoby¹. Inside, six men were being held accountable for the worst accident at a civilian nuclear facility in human history.¹ In the early morning on a fateful Saturday in April 1986, reactor number 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant had exploded, spewing radioactive material all over the plant, its surroundings, and into the atmosphere, where wind and weather eventually distributed it across the globe.² News of the event gradually spread around the world as...

  7. 1 Envisioning a Nuclear-Powered State
    (pp. 17-40)

    The nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl triggered public debate over the authority, credibility, and expertise of government officials, planners, and scientists. Given that some saw the disaster as a failure of the entire Soviet system, examining the political and economic contexts of Chernobyl’s prehistory illuminates critical aspects of the accident and helps us understand both why it occurred and why it was significant for the Soviet system. Though hindsight colors how we view the decisions that led to the explosion, many of those decisions made sense at the time, not simply from a political standpoint but economically and technically as well....

  8. 2 Between Atomic Bombs and Power Plants: Sharing Organizational Responsibilities
    (pp. 41-66)

    The Soviet civilian nuclear industry has its roots in two grand projects of the twentieth century: the state electrification plan that Lenin championed beginning in 1920 and the nuclear weapons program that Stalin launched in 1943.¹ As the nuclear energy industry grew, the bureaucracy that ran the electrification effort and the one that ran the nuclear weapons program would both undergo frequent changes, and precise responsibilities would shift repeatedly between them. By tracing in more detail how the organizational structures that controlled nuclear energy evolved, we can understand more clearly the difficult position nuclear power held, poised as it was...

  9. 3 Training Nuclear Experts: A Workforce for the Nuclear Industry
    (pp. 67-96)

    To train qualified cadres for the Soviet civilian nuclear power industry, its architects engaged in an ongoing discussion about the kind and amount of knowledge these workers required. How much did a plant operator need to know to safely operate a reactor and prevent an accident? Asked another way, should trainers hold back certain technical knowledge from plant operators to save training time or preserve security? WhenSredmashoutsourced nuclear power plants toMinenergoin August 1966, these were far from academic questions.¹

    In this chapter, I examine how the transfer precipitated the loss of crucial experiential skills, of implicit...

  10. 4 “May the Atom Be a Worker, Not a Soldier!”: A New History of Soviet Reactor Design Choices
    (pp. 97-126)

    When the international scientific community convened in Geneva in the summer of 1955 to attend the first United Nations Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, the Soviet contributions created quite a stir. Soviet scientists announced what they had achieved the previous year—connecting a small nuclear reactor near Moscow to the public grid and thus creating the world’s first nuclear power plant. With a control room that resembled a toyshop, the little graphite-water reactor near the Obninskoe train station would turn out to be the cradle of Soviet nuclear power technology and expertise. Although its 5 MW generating...

  11. 5 Chernobyl: From Accident to Sarcophagus
    (pp. 127-160)

    In many ways, Chernobyl was an accident waiting to happen, and some readers may interpret the following account as entirely in line with this view. What I will demonstrate in this chapter is more complicated, however. While there were warning signs that all was not well with the RBMK, the Chernobyl plant crew, and the Soviet nuclear industry in general, and while it is true that some ignored or minimized many of these warning signs, other people and organizations worked tirelessly to address them. Many people in the industry had to make difficult decisions under great uncertainty, and when they...

  12. 6 Conclusion
    (pp. 161-170)

    This book has used the Chernobyl disaster as a historical and conceptual window into the Soviet nuclear power industry because only by thoroughly analyzing Chernobyl’s prehistory will we gain a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the accident’s systemic causes. Everything about Chernobyl was Soviet—the reactor design, the operators, the bureaucracy. The disaster shook a system that designers intended to be safe, a system that, according to its own standards and norms, was perfectly functional. But while we need to look seriously at how the Soviet economic system, its bureaucracy, and ideology affected the industry’s history and organization, we also...

  13. Epilogue: Writing about Chernobyl after Fukushima
    (pp. 171-176)

    Before March 11, 2011, classifying Chernobyl as the worst disaster at a civilian nuclear plant in history was a no-brainer. But as politicians, journalists, and scholars were gearing up to commemorate Chernobyl’s twenty-fifth anniversary in April 2011, a massive earthquake off the eastern coast of Japan’s Honshu Island triggered a tsunami that would devastate the Tohoku area. The tsunami killed almost 16,000 people, destroyed or severely damaged hundreds of thousands of buildings, and caused a total station blackout at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Because the tsunami devastated the surrounding infrastructure and massive aftershocks aggravated the damage, plant personnel...

  14. Biographical Notes
    (pp. 177-188)
  15. Methodological Appendix
    (pp. 189-198)
  16. List of Interviews
    (pp. 199-202)
  17. Notes
    (pp. 203-312)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 313-346)
  19. Index
    (pp. 347-362)