29th anniversary of Chernobyl disaster marked by CISAC fellows’ work

It’s been 29 years since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, but two nuclear security experts affiliated with the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) say there are still lessons to be learned from the worst nuclear accident of the 20th century.

In a new book by Sonja Schmid, the former CISAC science fellow argues that the consensus in the West about the cause of the disaster – that it was an inevitable result of a deeply flawed, backward Soviet system –  has precluded Western nuclear industries and policymakers from meaningfully incorporating the Soviet experience into their own practices.

The book, “Producing Power: The Pre-Chernobyl History of the Soviet Nuclear Industry”, is being praised by leading experts in the nuclear security field, including Freeman-Spogli Institute (FSI) Senior Fellow David Holloway who wrote: "[Schmid's] argument that the Soviet experience has to be incorporated into our broader understanding of the nuclear industry is both convincing and important."

Schmid was a social science research associate at Stanford University, a science fellow at CISAC, and a lecturer in the Program in Science, Technology and Society (STS) at Stanford from 2005-2007. She is now an assistant professor in Virginia Tech’s STS Department.

Schmid credits CISAC with providing resources crucial to the conception, research, and completion of “Producing Power,” including multiple travel grants to conduct research for the book, help with editing preliminary drafts, and a final book edit.

Schmid also tapped CISAC’s stable of nuclear experts. Along with Holloway, CISAC Associate Director for Research Lynn Eden mentored and supported her project. Siegfried Hecker, an FSI senior fellow, connected her with multiple Russian interviewees.

“Mentoring Sonja was a great pleasure. She came to CISAC with deep insight about the close connection between Soviet state bureaucracies and the reactor design choices that those bureaucrats made. It was an amazingly interesting and ambitious project,” Eden said.

“CISAC is a scholarly community that encourages and supports outstanding research and writing that is in some way policy-relevant,” she said. “For our pre- and post-doctoral fellows especially, we want to encourage them and help them to think deeply and/or broadly about a question that affects people’s lives, and to write clearly about it.”

Edward Geist, a MacArthur Nuclear Security Fellow at CISAC, said Schmid’s book is the first to grapple with the institutional history of Soviet nuclear power.

“The traditional accounts have tended to organize events around a ‘what went wrong’ narrative,” said Geist, whose article “Political Fallout: The Failure of the Emergency Management at Chernobyl”, appeared in the spring issue of Slavic Review. ”There’s a school of thought that emerged in the Soviet Union and was readily picked up abroad that says the Chernobyl disaster was the ultimate example of everything that was wrong with the Soviet Union,” Geist said.

This worries Geist, who specializes in nuclear power, Soviet history, and emergency management.

“As a result of having lived through the worst, Russian and Ukrainian nuclear energy industry leaders, to my mind, actually have a more realistic mindset regarding the hazards of nuclear energy than their Western counterparts,” Geist said.  “While a catastrophic nuclear accident in the United States is really unlikely, the nuclear industry claims to have made nuclear power safe through superior methods and procedures–and that attitude can forestall effective emergency planning.”

The Chernobyl disaster hurt popular trust in nuclear energy, including in the United States. The still-popular narrative that Chernobyl was a problem purely of Soviet making was spun by representatives of nuclear industries in other countries to protect their interests from popular backlash.

By detailing the decision processes and procedures behind the Soviet Union’s nuclear reactor choice, design and commercialization, Schmid aims to show that the Soviet process was rational and the product of expert input rather than an irrational byproduct of the Communist regime. Chernobyl, in short, was an accident of history rather than a byproduct of an illegitimate system and should therefore be studied by members of the Western nuclear industry and policymakers.

“The Western nuclear field has more to learn from the Soviet experience than they care to admit. The bureaucratic practices of the Soviets are not really that unique to them and can be repeated by our bureaucracies,” said Geist.

The 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan was a case in point. Fukushima’s reactors were designed and built by Americans.

It’s Schmid’s hope that by putting Chernobyl in the context of what was a sophisticated nuclear energy bureaucracy that had many more successes than failures, much like its American counterpart, that lessons of caution can be drawn by the latter.

“What Chernobyl has demonstrated (and Fukushima has only confirmed),” writes Schmid, “is that organizing a civilian nuclear industry remains at best a high-stakes process of trial and error.”

Geist, with an eye on his field of emergency management, agrees.

“The lesson from Chernobyl and Fukushima is accidents happen no matter what procedures or levels of sophistication, but accidents need not be catastrophes if you’re willing to learn from others’ errors and incorporate them into planning.”