The Clash of the Scientific and Official Minds and the Making of the Chernobyl Disaster
Type of DegreePhD Dissertation
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Abstract The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant tragedy remains the world’s worst nuclear disaster in terms of ecological devastation and the loss of human life. The accident’s consequences reached far beyond the initial explosion and subsequent fallout, and its effects are still felt today. The sequence of events immediately leading up to and during the night of April 26, 1986, and the aftermath of the accident are well-chronicled. Yet, examinations of the Soviet Union’s nuclear history prior to the Chernobyl tragedy primarily engage with the state’s economic planning and the accident’s contribution to the political demise of the USSR. This monograph adds to the Soviet Union’s nuclear historiography by using existing explanations attributing the accident to human error and the reactor’s design as its foundation. These explanations undoubtedly were causal factors in the accident. However, historical inquiry about the accident’s causes cannot stop there. The scholarship presented here uses new sources that engage with old sources to help explain why Chernobyl occurred when it did and how it did, beyond human error and reactor design. It offers a new explanation by explicitly asking, “How did the relationship between the scientific and official minds affect the development and evolution of the Soviet Union’s nuclear industry, and what role did this relationship have in contributing to the Chernobyl meltdown?” To answer these questions requires expanding the temporal context to extend the focus well before the accident. By doing so, the realization that “Chernobyl” was neither inevitable nor a completely random singular event becomes clear. Instead, it argues for a more complex explanation detailing how clashes between official and scientific minds created the Soviet Union’s nuclear industry. Specifically, the Soviet Union’s origins, scientific and official minds’ negotiations and tensions, ideological dogma, technocratic primacy in developing the national RBMK reactor, and Ukrainian history led to the USSR’s rapid nuclear expansion. These factors created immense complexity within the Soviet official and scientific minds that contributed to the disaster on April 26, 1986.