"Nuclear Meltdown at HBO"
by Dmitry Orlov, Club Orlov (June 11, 2019)
There is no particular reason why you should be aware of this, but HBO, in collaboration with British Sky, has created a miniseries about the Chernobyl disaster. I have not watched it, but I have read multiple analyses and discussions of it by those who have, and who can also claim the Chernobyl disaster as their particular area of expertise. Based on their collective verdict, I will not watch it, because it is basically shit, and I have much better things to do with my time. So do you. The miniseries isn’t interesting; what is interesting is why and how it was made. Armed with this understanding, we will know what to look out for.
First of all, let us point out that HBO and Sky are but minor divisions within two vast mass media conglomerates, WarnerMedia (worth $85.4 billion) and Comcast (worth $187 billion). If this miniseries were a Russian propaganda exercise, ordered by the Kremlin, then it would have been made by state-owned entities VGTRK and First Channel; but the US (and its British subsidiary) are run by an oligarchy which carries out its propaganda exercises through private corporate entities. Nevertheless, it is still a propaganda exercise, and it is very interesting to ask, What is being propagandized, and for what purpose?
The screenplay appears to have been based on the book Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarussian fiction writer who writes in Russian. Although Wikipedia claims her to be an investigative journalist and historian, her real genre is historical fantasy of the tendentiously anti-Russian macabre variety. It works well on those who enjoy having their negative emotions manipulated and not at all on those who enjoy a balanced perspective and objectivity. You know, one self-important lady-writer’s senseless, bloody mayhem could also be construed as altruistic acts of patriotic heroism by men whose sacrifices have built and preserved the great Russian nation. Oh, but Alexievich isn’t even a Russian; she has just been borrowing Russia’s language and culture to make a bit of money.
Another one of her books was on the Afghan conflict and has been widely discredited by those who took actually took part in it. She wrote it after just a 20-day visit to Kabul five months before the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, and it was a fabrication pretty much from beginning to end. But Russophobia pays (in the West) and Alexievich has been awarded the Nobel prize in literature (which has been highly politicized all along). As a sort of homage, I suppose, Alexievich has been written directly in the screenplay of the HBO miniseries as one Ulyana Khomyuk, a sort of Ukrainian Erin Brokovich.
The miniseries has been praised for its obsessive-compulsive attention to the details of the late Soviet-era lifestyle. Apparently, no effort was spared in collecting period props at flea markets throughout Belarus and the Ukraine, and those who had lived in the USSR during that period were impressed by the verisimilitude of the setting. But that’s the extent of the show’s praiseworthiness; the rest is a litany of lies, as attested by the very lengthy lists of outright fabrications and distortions compiled by several analysts who have thorough firsthand experience of the disaster. I can’t recommend that you watch it; I know I won’t. As I said, the show itself doesn’t matter; what matters is why it was made, and what that means.
Based on all of my research, major nuclear accidents are rarely accidental. The ones that are truly accidental are hushed up; the ones that aren’t are widely publicized. You have probably heard about Three Mile Island, Chrernobyl and Fukushima; but have you heard about the Windscale reactor fire at Sellafield in the UK in 1957? It burned for three days and spread radioactive contamination all over the UK and Europe. That was an actual accident: somebody forgot to turn on cooling fans, and somebody else preferred to sit around drinking tea instead of responding to an alarm.
As far as the other three, there is a strong whiff of mystery to them. In the case of the Three Mile Island, valves controlling the flow to a secondary cooling circuit were inexplicably left closed for several work shifts. When an over-temperature condition occurred, the reactor had to be shut down in a hurry, which it was. Nevertheless, operators then fiddled with circulator pumps until the tops of the fuel assemblies became exposed to air and overheated, releasing hydrogen and gaseous radioactive isotopes into the reactor containment vessel. The operators then vented the radioactive gas to an expansion tank outside the containment vessel but the vent valve got stuck and the venting went on until the expansion tank had to be vented to the atmosphere. The result was a smallish radioactive fart—too small to reliably measure above background radiation and definitely too small to have any measurable adverse effects on public health.
When you cross-multiply the probabilities of the entire cascade of events that led all the way to the little radioactive fart, you get such an infinitesimally small probability of the overall event that it beggars the imagination. At the same time, great pains were taken to drive the population into a state of panic and to provoke an entirely unnecessary evacuation in which 17 people died in car accidents as they fled in horror. As always, it is useful to ask, quo bono? Who benefited from this ridiculous exercise of first staging a mindbogglingly unlikely accident, then publicizing it with the goal of whipping the public into a paroxysm of fear and despair? The answer, unsurprisingly, is that this appears to have been done for the benefit of the federal bureaucracy. You see, nuclear energy is one industry that is most frequently, and most successfully, organized as a government monopoly, but in the US the ideology of free enterprise dictates that it be handled by private companies. In order for the federal government to assert control over the nuclear industry (which it did) it had to thoroughly undermine public trust in privatized nuclear industry (which it did).
Now let’s look at Fukushima. There, three reactors were running at the time of the earthquake and tsunami, and all three were successfully shut down. Nevertheless, over the following days, all three reactors melted down, roughly one a day. The reason given for the meltdowns is that there was no electricity to power the cooling pumps because the electric grid was out while the backup diesel generators were flooded out by the tsunami.
But there is more to this story. Here are some bullet points to consider:
• Nuclear power stations are constructed out of a great deal of concrete, rebar, steel plate and other very sturdy materials that can stand up to any tsunami; but the doors to the building that contained the diesel generators was made of… plywood! That’s right, it was specifically designed to break away when hit with a bit of water. A sliding screen of oiled rice paper with a drawing of Mount Fuji on it would have worked just as well.
• Diesel engines will run even when fully submerged provided their air intakes are fitted with snorkels, and are not too hard to restart even after they’ve been flooded out. If compressed air tanks are available, they can be restarted without any electricity. But in this case the electrical switching panels (which do not respond well to being flooded out) were installed in the basement, which filled with water.
• Naturally occurring earthquakes have a certain specific signature on a seismograph: they start small and get bigger as the rock being moved picks up speed. Nuclear explosions, on the other hand, start with an instantaneous big bang and then die down as the shockwaves propagate away from the epicenter. The Fukushima earthquake is an imposition of the two signatures: it looks like a nuclear depth charge that triggers an earthquake… that produces the tsunami that floods out Fukushima (because it was delicately arranged for just that purpose).
• At the time of the earthquake and tsunami the US aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan was cruising offshore, close to the epicenter of the earthquake, and a bunch of sailors on it got radiation poisoning (and later sued the US government for and received monetary compensation for the harm they suffered).
• At the time of the Fukushima disaster a large release of radioactive Cesium 137 was mapped by satellite, and the location of the release was not over Fukushima but several hundred miles offshore, near the epicenter of the earthquake. From there it spread all over the planet. Calculations showed that the reactors at Fukushima could not have produced the required quantity of Cs-137; that would have required the use of a nuclear bomb.
• Also at the time of the Fukushima disaster the US nuclear power industry was looking at a major shortage of enriched uranium. During the previous years it operated on mixed-oxide fuel provided by Russia as part of the megatons-to-megawatts program, in which Russia ground up its excess plutonium, combined it with uranium and provided it to the US for a modest fee, but this program was scheduled to end. Meanwhile, the effort to build uranium enrichment facilities within the US did not succeed (earlier diffusion-based methods were no longer practical while gas centrifuges are very tricky to design).
• If the nuclear power stations in the US could not be refueled (and there is somewhere around 100 of them) then the US would be facing major blackouts. But Japan had backup fossil fuel-based generating capacity for every last bit of its nuclear power capacity, and its nukes could be shut down without triggering blackouts. Handling this crisis on a commercial basis would have resulted in exorbitantly high electricity rates, triggering a wave of bankruptcies and causing a financial collapse.
• Japan is not a sovereign nation but has remained under US military occupation ever since World War II. Its nuclear power industry has been controlled by the US through major government contractors such as General Electric. The US had already nuked Japan once before, so there was a precedent. The dramatically overhyped disaster at Fukushima has caused the Japanese public to become extremely adverse to the use of nuclear power, which neatly solved the problem of enriched uranium shortage.
Now, moving on to the Chernobyl disaster. It was by far the worst nuclear disaster in history, because there the entire contents of a nuclear reactor were spat up into the sky, spreading long-lived radioactive contamination over a very wide area. And, once again, the theory that it was an accident appears significantly weaker than the theory that it was not an accident. Here are some points to help us weigh the evidence.
To make things simple, nuclear reactors are like cars: safe if safely operated, manifestly unsafe if not. If while cruising along the highway, you let go of the steering wheel and step on the accelerator, then there is an excellent chance that you will crash and burn. Your control inputs keep the car from “going critical.” Similarly with the nuclear reactor; timely and correct control inputs keep it from blowing up.
Nuclear reactors are a bit tricker to operate than cars. With cars, every time you step on the accelerator or the brake, the effect is largely the same. But nuclear reactors have memory and can be in any number of states based on how they have been operated. While a lot of the power they generate comes from the nuclear decay of uranium and plutonium, a very important fraction comes from the decay of lighter elements that are generated in the process, each with a different set of characteristics and a different half-life. In our car analogy, under some conditions suddenly stomping on the accelerator will cause your car to blow up. You have to speed up very slowly and gently, keeping an eye on the temperature gauge.
Unlike a car, a nuclear reactor doesn’t have an accelerator and brakes; it has just the brakes. These are called control rods and inserting them into the reactor dampens the reaction while pulling them out part-way causes it to speed up while pulling them out all the way and leaving them there will reliably cause a nuclear accident. Now, the type of nuclear reactor used at Chernobyl, RBMK-1000, had a strange quirk. Normally, if the reaction is getting out of control, pushing the control rods all the way in is a good way to get it under control. But with RBMK-1000, pushing them all the way in actually accelerated the reaction, at first. This was discovered at another RBMK-1000 in Leningrad 11 years before Chernobyl, where a full meltdown was avoided by sheer luck. Although the release of radioactive contamination was some 30 to 50 times smaller than at Chernobyl, it was significant. Nevertheless, there was no hype or media attention of any sort and the incident was largely kept secret—a sure sign of a real nuclear accident as opposed to a contrived one.
The experience at Leningrad was subsequently studied and new operating procedures and standards were established that would avoid repeating the mistake that led to it (which was shutting down the reactor, then restarting it too soon or too quickly, then being forced to shut it down again). Nevertheless, this is precisely what happened at Chernobyl 11 years later. Various people blame various factors. One of them was the administrative decision to transfer nuclear power plants from the purview of the Ministry of Middle Industry (code for Nuclear Industry) to the Energy Ministry which had no experience with nuclear power and put similarly inexperienced political appointees in positions of responsibility at nuclear facilities.
The accident at Chernobyl was the outcome of an experiment which was either mindbogglingly stupid (if it was indeed an accident) or moderately clever (if the disaster happened as intended). It pretty much repeated the script of the Leningrad accident. There was also some outright political meddling: phone calls from the Kremlin forced the experiment to be delayed, ensuring that the reactor would sit idle for a longer period of time, making it more likely to explode when it was suddenly restarted.
So, who were the traitors that caused the Chernobyl disaster? They were ensconced in the Kremlin, and their ringleader was Mikhail Gorbachev, who saw his greatest lifetime achievement in relinquishing his post as the first and only president of the USSR as nationalist leaders broke it up into 15 pieces. But he had some other major achievements as well, such as pulling troops out of Afghanistan in such a way as to make the spread of Islamic jihad to Russia’s southern tier almost inevitable. But Chernobyl definitely took the cake: the mitigation of this one disaster cost the USSR almost its entire annual GDP, resulted in massive reputational damage, and the ham-handed political handling of the post-disaster situation succeeded in turning quite a bit of the population against the Soviet government. This last element was not a complete success, as shown by the results of various referenda during the breakup of the USSR, because much of the populace voted to preserve it. But their wishes were overruled by . . . traitors.
And this brings us to the final question: What would prompt two giant Western media conglomerates to throw massive treasure at a relatively obscure and unpopular miniseries that is essentially a nuclear horror flick that is custom-tailored to smear Russia? Yes, the 30-year anniversary of the disaster is indeed an anniversary, but what else? Here, the relevant facts appear to be as follows:
The collective West has pretty much lost the ability to build nuclear power plants. [emphasis added] The only new European nuclear power plant to have been completed is in… China, and the project only succeeded thanks to swarms of Chinese specialists documenting and rectifying every single mistake made by the Europeans at a similar reactor in France, which is not on-line yet. Another similar project in Finland is in some state of un-completion. All three of these projects have seen absolutely staggering schedule slips (of a decade or more) and truly ridiculous cost overruns. A couple more projects in the US are also languishing in some state of un-completion (the Department of Energy recently threw some more federal money at the one in Georgia).
Although the harm caused to human health and the environment by nuclear energy is orders of magnitude smaller than that caused by fossil fuel generation, nuclear power is deeply unpopular in the West [emphasis added] and, given the experience at Fukushima, in Japan. Germany has shut down its nuclear power plants. France still relies on theirs for a large percentage of its power generation, but at this rate its aging fleet of reactors will not be replaced in time. Experiments with renewable energy have so far resulted in much higher electricity rates, hurting the competitiveness of European industry. In short, Europe does not have any good options as far as electricity generation.
Meanwhile, Russia’s Rosatom has perfected the latest VVER-1200 and has a full dance card building, fueling and operating nuclear power plants all around the planet. [emphasis added] Since nuclear reactors apparently do melt down sporadically, Russia’s latest ones are fitted with a meltdown tank that stops the reaction and makes clean-up easier, so no more “China syndrome.” And since it does apparently happen that nuclear fuel becomes exposed and generates hydrogen gas, the new reactors have catalytic hydrogen scrubbers installed at the top of the containment vessel, so no more hydrogen explosions either. Rosatom now owns something like 2/3 of the global market for new nuclear energy projects. China has a very ambitious program to build out nuclear generation capacity as well. Add to this the fact that Russia has scored two major nuclear technology breakthroughs. [emphasis added]
The first breakthrough was in bringing a fast breeder reactor online: the BN-800 has been in commercial use at Beloyarskaya AES since October of 2016. This is a type of reactor that makes its own fuel and then some from the extremely abundant but generally useless uranium 238. Everyone else who has tried to perfect this technology (the US, France and Japan) has failed and given up. It is a breakthrough because it solves two major problems: mitigating the shortage of naturally occurring uranium 235, and solving the problem of long-lifetime radioactive nuclear waste, which BN-type reactors can burn up until it is safe enough to bury. [emphasis added]
The second breakthrough is in the introduction of the closed nuclear cycle. Those who obtain their nuclear fuel through contracts with Rosatom do not have to worry about what to do with spent fuel: after a cool-down period, Rosatom takes the fuel assemblies back for reprocessing. The spent fuel is ground up and the useful elements are extracted, enriched, recombined and used to make new fuel assemblies. With a steady stream of Western nukes being shut down and dismantled about to turn into a flood, simply paying Rosatom to take away the spent fuel provides a good solution where previously there was none, lowering the costs of decommissioning to something that national budgets can conceivably bear [emphasis added].
So, what is there to be done by Western propagandists confronting the situation of the West languishing with no good energy alternatives while Russia’s and China’s nuclear programs are speeding away from them? Why, of course, the choice is obvious: put out a pseudo-documentary based on the fantasy-fiction of a Nobel-prized Grade A Russophobe to smear both Russia and its nuclear industry! Honest competition is too old-fashioned. The new Western way to succeed (or to try but fail) is by knocking out your global competitors using whatever it takes: sanctions, fabrications, smear campaigns… nuclear horror flicks.
While some countries are rich enough to film high-budget nuclear horror flicks, some are not so lucky. For instance, the Ukraine is too destitute to do much of anything artistic at such a scale, but this wretched country, trying so hard to be a Mini-Me to America’s Doctor Evil, might actually try to grab some international attention (and help—for its oligarchs to steal) by staging a nuclear “accident.” It still has a dozen or so nuclear reactors, which produce the majority of its electricity, and they are—horror of horrors!—Russian. Well, no, they are in fact Soviet: they are very old and due to be shut down for good in just a couple of years. Let’s hope that that Ukrainian nuclear reactors will be shut down and decommissioned safely (quite a trick in a country that will by then lack an electric grid). But if Chernobyl 2.0 does happen, please, don’t go around claiming that it was an accident!