Lessons from Chernobyl
When energy expert and Professor Emeritus at the University of Cape Town (UCT) Anton Eberhard casually tweeted about the possibility of a Chernobyl style nuclear meltdown in Cape Town, ears quickly pricked up. His tweet included a video clip of Eskom COO Jan Oberholzer exclaiming his horror and alarm at the loss of skilled maintenance personnel at the Koeberg Nuclear Plant which is located just 30km north of Cape Town.
Is Cape Town really in danger of becoming the next Chernobyl? The Cape Independence Advocacy Group (CIAG) certainly didn’t shy away from the possibility, asking whether avoiding a nuclear disaster should be added to the list of reasons why Western Cape secession is such a good idea.
This was perhaps a little melodramatic, but the parallels between Chernobyl and South Africa under the ANC are stark.
The Chernobyl disaster was set in motion when a delay in a safety test meant that it was conducted by an unskilled and inexperienced team. The Chernobyl day shift were supposed to carry out the test, but instead it fell to the night shift who had not properly prepared for it.
At the first sign of trouble shift chief Alexandr Akimov wanted to abort the test but was overruled by deputy chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov who forced him to continue. When a further problem occured, this time the reactor operating at insufficient power, the team failed to follow correct procedure and instead removed most of the control rods.
The result of an untrained crew, political interference, and a failure to follow best practices was a nuclear explosion which blew the entire roof off Chernobyl Reactor No. 4 and began pouring radioactive material into the atmosphere.
The engineer then falsely claimed that the reactor was still intact, before dying from radiation sickness. The Soviet Government also claimed that there was nothing to worry about and that everything was under control. It published pictures of the damaged reactor but edited them to remove all of the smoke. Emergency personnel were sent to the scene but not told about the radiation, nor were they issued with protective clothing. Many of them died.
The official death toll was initially 31 and was expected to rise to 4000. The Russian Academy of Science put the true figure at between 112 000 and 125 000.
The Soviet government continued to issue denials but three days after the explosion spy satellites confirmed the true nature of the disaster. Regardless, the government continued with May Day celebrations in nearby Kiev exposing the public to radiation whilst censoring the news. Soviet officials however removed their own children from Chernobyl, whilst leaving the children of ordinary citizens in the radiation zone.
Five days later they eventually removed the remaining children but told the adults to simply remain indoors and not to eat leafy vegetables.
Nineteen days after the explosion Soviet Leader Gorbachev finally spoke publicly about the incident stating that the worst was now behind us.
Within two months Chernobyl director Viktor Bryukanov had been tried and imprisoned for ‘serious errors and shortcomings’ as well as being expelled from the Communist Party. His political bosses escaped sanction.
Twenty years later Mikhail Gorbachev says that Chernobyl rather than ‘perestroika’ was the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The sordid tale of Chernobyl is one which will be all too familiar to ordinary South Africans. The wrong people doing the wrong job, those in authority refusing to listen to expert advice, a failure to follow the rules, a government pretending everything is OK when patently it isn’t, the families of the politically connected receiving preferential treatment, assurances that the worst is behind us, and no accountability for political bosses.
The only solace for South Africa is that in the final reckoning this conduct eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. South Africa is a failing state and it too will collapse. It is up to ordinary South Africans to decide what will fill the void.
On the 24thAugust 1991 Ukraine declared itself independent. Chernobyl is in Ukraine, Kiev its capital city.