Permanent emergencies and thefts: what happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant before the accident?

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Permanent emergencies and thefts: what happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant before the accident?

On April 26, the whole world once again recalls the largest disaster in the history of nuclear energy: exactly 35 years ago, a reactor in the fourth power unit exploded at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Earlier, Ukraine declassified another package of documents on the operation of the station on the eve of the accident. Studying them explains why the critical situation was not taken seriously at first – all kinds of emergency situations were a common thing at the station. The construction was carried out with gross violations, safety precautions were not followed, and there was no full-fledged security. As a result, accidents were widespread, as well as the theft of expensive equipment. Things were not in the best way with the living conditions in the city of power engineers – Pripyat. Published materials were studied by “”.

The book “The Chernobyl KGB dossier” is already the second edition, prepared by the staff of the archives of the Security Service of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance. It included 229 documents on the construction and operation of the station, 190 of which were published for the first time. Basically, these are materials of the KGB of the Ukrainian SSR, which monitored what was happening at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant through their agents and proxies recruited among the workers at the station. The documents included in the new book cover the period from 1971 to 1986, before the construction of the Shelter sarcophagus over the fourth power unit after the accident.

Continuous marriage

The problems at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant began long before the explosion. So, in 1973, KGB officers reported on the unsatisfactory work of the reinforcement shop and problems with the laying of concrete. The strength of the reinforcement did not correspond to the design, but this did not bother anyone – the drawings were only then cleaned up to match what was actually built.

Permanent emergencies and thefts: what happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant before the accident?

Photo: from the personal archive of Sergei Yakunin /

In 1976, the ChNPP received defective pipes. Absolutely everyone knew that they were unsuitable for operation – both the chief construction engineer, and the station director Viktor Bryukhanov, and the director of the manufacturer. Nevertheless, the pipes were accepted and put into construction, extending the contract for further supplies. And even the report of the inspectors to the Kiev regional committee did not change anything.

Not only pipes had such a story. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant was made of low-quality facing tiles and bricks, and the Izhora plant named after Zhdanov in the Leningrad region sent to Chernobyl an unsuitable pressure manifold for a nuclear reactor. In the materials of the KGB, it is constantly noted that the authorities knew about certain violations, but did nothing to correct the situation and punish those responsible.

To the problem of poor-quality equipment and building materials and ill-conceived logistics were added a shortage of workers, and poor organization of labor, and unskilled recruitment, so that the deadlines for the delivery of the first power unit were eventually disrupted – it was launched in 1977, and not in 1974. Probably, they would have dragged on longer if not for Moscow's attempt to spur the construction of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

One of the published documents says that in May 1976, a visiting board of the USSR Ministry of Energy, chaired by Minister Pyotr Neporozhny, arrived in Chernobyl. The delegation included the first secretary of the Kiev regional committee and an instructor of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine. In their presence, the question of the launch date was not raised.

However, after the departure of the party leadership, Neporozhny gathered all the heads of the central administrations and demanded that the work be completed in 1976 at any cost. The radiation contamination clearly scared the officials less than the anger of the capital's bosses, so that safety precautions were also observed at an appropriate level.

Just to be in time

Numerous violations, all the more tacitly approved at a high level, of course, led to accidents. The reasons were both low-quality equipment and the human factor, because the discipline and technology of work at the enterprise were frankly lame. For example, in 1976, due to the fault of one of the foremen, the tanks for the storage of liquid waste were damaged. Of course, they tried to hide what had happened. Chlorine cylinders at the Chernobyl NPP did not have safety valves and plugs, which was fraught with leakage.

Electrical equipment, including instrumentation, did not meet the requirements. And in one of the documents of 1983 it was noted that during the operation of the three operating power units, there is a “constant underdevelopment of the nuclear fuel supplied to the station and the absence of clear control over its use.”



happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant from January 1978 to December 1982, 87 more cases of equipment failure were recorded

In February 1982, the chairman of the KGB of the Ukrainian SSR, Vitaly Fedorchuk, reported to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine about an emergency stop at the third power unit with a capacity of one million kilowatts. There, the main relief valve suddenly opened, which caused a water hammer and rupture of the pipe of the discharge header of live steam. A preliminary investigation found that the walls of the collector pipe were thinner than the design envisaged. But they did not find any violation in this: the use of unsuitable materials “due to the lack of design materials” was agreed in the USSR Ministry of Energy itself.

Permanent emergencies and thefts: what happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant before the accident?

Reactor cooling procedure at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, 1985. Photo: Vasily Litosh / RIA Novosti

The largest accident during that period happened in September 1982 at the first power unit during a test run of the reactor. When its power increased, one of the channels broke. The power unit was idle for three months, the damage was 33 million rubles. The investigation revealed 20 gross violations of the technological regulations for the operation of the I and II stages of the station, as well as serious flaws in the regulations itself. Residents of Pripyat were spreading “distorted rumors” about what had happened, the KGB noted.

The accident resulted in a radiation leak. An increase in the radioactivity of the top layer of soil and plants was recorded several kilometers from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. On the ground in the Chistogalovka farm, they found sparingly soluble, so-called hot particles, which, if ingested, could cause serious illness. At the same time, as emphasized in one of the documents, “through official and operational capabilities, measures have been taken to prevent leakage of the results of the commission's work.”

Judging by the declassified materials, the authorities had information not only about violations and accidents during the construction and operation of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, but also about defects in the plant design itself, which could lead to a dangerous situation. In one of the documents of the USSR KGB for Moscow and the Moscow Region, dated in the spring of 1983 – that is, three years before the accident – it was directly stated that the Leningrad, Kursk and Chernobyl nuclear power plants, due to the design of the RBMK-1000 reactor, are the most dangerous from the point of view of their further exploitation, which may have “threatening consequences”.

Come in anyone

Violations during the construction of the Chernobyl NPP facilities led not only to equipment failure and the threat of radiation spread, but also to accidents.

The documents describe the incidents: two welders received severe burns due to a gross violation of safety regulations, one of them was injured up to 55 percent of the body; the locksmith fell into the ventilation shaft, which was not fenced, received a concussion and fractured both legs. Many executives deliberately concealed accidents, with spot checks revealing 20 such attempts.



got industrial injuries at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant for three quarters of 1978

A separate problem at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was the violation of fire safety. One of the checks showed that the station's management is showing “careless negligence” in this matter. Automatic fire extinguishing and alarm systems were in poor condition, access roads to NPP facilities were not cleared of snow, warehouses were littered and not equipped with fire alarms.

In total, the inspectors found about 15 gross violations that could lead to an emergency. They were reported to the Internal Affairs Directorate of the Kiev Regional Executive Committee, but they said that it would take a long time to check the construction objects, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Ukrainian SSR did not set this task for them.

Permanent emergencies and thefts: what happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant before the accident?

The leading team of fitters of the turbine shop. Chernobyl, May 1, 1977. Photo: V. Lysenko / TASS

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant was often defenseless not only against possible fires. Inadequate security was a serious threat. In a memo from 1976 to the head of the KGB in Kiev and the Kiev region, Nikolai Vakulenko, it was asserted that “the strictest regime” is observed at nuclear power plants in the RSFSR. This contributes to the timely commissioning of facilities and provides a certain guarantee against emergencies. On the construction of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, there is no regime, and the director of the station Bryukhanov and the head of the construction department Vasily Kizima get off with “assurances” alone.

The VOKhR staff was understaffed. To protect important facilities, including the reactor hall, the administration involved the military on a contractual basis. In 1977, out of one and a half thousand industrial premises necessary for the normal operation of a nuclear reactor, three were guarded. Entry and exit of vehicles to the station was practically not controlled. At the same time, the Ministry of Energy and the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the USSR could not solve the problem with the allocation of police protection for the Chernobyl nuclear power plant for a long time.

In 1980-1981, by dismantling the equipment, damage was caused to 140 thousand rubles, for six months of 1983 the cost of the stolen equipment was 60 thousand rubles. Some of the stolen items could be a source of radioactive radiation

Due to the lack of proper security, unauthorized persons entered the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and stole valuable equipment, which, moreover, could “fonder”. In September 1976, unidentified persons made their way into the control and protection system of block “A” and stole switches, resistors, transistors. In January 1977, in one of the premises of block “B” doors were broken open, and scarce electrical equipment – diodes and selenium rectifiers – disappeared.

The employees of the nuclear power plant were also engaged in theft. The previously convicted warehouse manager stole and speculated on building materials. One of the foremen hired non-existent workers and received money for them. It is interesting that these facts were reported to the police, but the head of the Chernobyl ROVD, Lieutenant Colonel Chuyasov, did not take any measures in the first case, and in the second he slowed down the investigation of the initiated case.

Permanent emergencies and thefts: what happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant before the accident?

Nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, 1980. Photo: Nikolay Malyshev / TASS

A typical story happened with the cooling pond for the water washing the reactor. It was allowed to breed fish, but it was possible to sell it to the population only after conducting the necessary analysis for radioactivity and obtaining permission from the sanitary and epidemiological station. However, the local fish factory ignored this requirement. Moreover, at the direction of the head of the shop, the fish was sold for cash to private individuals, which aroused the discontent of the local population, who knew about the prohibition to catch it from the pond. The fish story was not the only reason for indignation among the workers of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the residents of Pripyat.

Agents and sectarians

In the early 1980s, 16,000 workers from different cities of the Soviet Union were employed in the construction of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. 5127 people worked at the station, their average age was 30 years. More than 49 thousand people lived in Pripyat before the 1986 accident. The declassified documents contain some information about the mood in the city.

In the summer of 1980, “mass anti-social demonstrations” were being prepared in Pripyat because of the poor living conditions in hostels and in the private sector. They were initiated by a certain worker of the Jupiter plant, V.G. Yashchenko, who printed 30 leaflets calling for a protest demonstration. The authorities managed to thwart the plans of the disaffected.

In city shops spontaneous gatherings arose due to poor quality and interruptions in the supply of bread, until the work of the bakery was not established. The “unhealthy situation” among the residents was caused by problems with the water supply. The Chernobyl NPP workers wrote collective letters complaining about housing conditions and the lack of places in kindergartens. The letter to the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and the Central Committee of the CPSU was signed by 160 people.

Permanent emergencies and thefts: what happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant before the accident?

Pripyat before the accident. Photo: from the archive of the Slavutich city museum of local lore

The tasks of the KGB in Chernobyl included the search for illegal agents, state criminals, the fight against Ukrainian nationalists and the suppression of the activities of “revisionist-minded persons from among the youth and the intelligentsia.” As noted in one of the documents, large migration, insufficiently clear work of the passport office and simplified employment in construction organizations at the Chernobyl NPP created conditions for the legalization of illegal agents.

The security officers identified people among those working on the construction of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant who, obviously, were considered suspicious. For example, those who traveled abroad or corresponded with residents of capitalist countries had a conviction for state or criminal offenses. One re-emigrant from China, one former member of the OUN-UPA (an organization banned in the Russian Federation) and eight mentally ill with aggressive inclinations were found. The KGB also reported an increase in the number of Germans at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and adherents of the “ECB sect” (obviously, they meant Evangelical Christians-Baptists), agents were recruited among them.

As of the spring of 1986, the KGB had 56 agents and 67 proxies who passed on information to them even after the accident. Until now, there are various versions of the causes of the Chernobyl disaster. As a rule, incorrect actions of the personnel are indicated. At the same time, in the first time after the accident, as follows from the documents, the version of sabotage intent was checked.

Permanent emergencies and thefts: what happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant before the accident?

Photo: Patrick PIEL / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The materials of the KGB after the accident also reported on the radiation situation, the condition of the victims and the situation with public order. For example, by May 8, there were five attempts to steal property in settlements, from which residents were evacuated, and one case of theft of food and alcohol.

In July, the first deputy of the KGB of the USSR, Philip Bobkov, was informed about the protest moods among the servicemen-liquidators called up from the reserve. Some of them were unhappy with the increase in service life from two to six months. The military from the Baltic states were ready to go on a hunger strike, disobey orders and riot. Some liquidators in letters asked their relatives to get for them certificates of illness or the difficult financial situation of the family so that they could be demobilized earlier. The situation in the units was “normalized” after “explanatory work”.

40 years later

The explosion in the fourth reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in April 1986 became one of the largest man-made disasters in the history of mankind. The number of victims of the accident has reached four thousand people, including those who died from the effects of radiation. After the accident, a 30-kilometer exclusion zone arose around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which included not only the territory of the station and the city of Pripyat, but also dozens of villages.

Permanent emergencies and thefts: what happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant before the accident?

Fires in the exclusion zone of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Photo: RIA Novosti

The Ukrainian government has repeatedly stated that it is going to do something about these territories, but it did not go beyond vague ideas. However, last year, Vladimir Zelensky became more active in this direction, who even visited Pripyat and promised to turn the Chernobyl zone into a tourist and scientific cluster. However, as the events of spring 2020 showed, the promises were hardly recorded even on paper.

In April last year, large-scale fires broke out in the exclusion zone. There were several outbreaks – someone was clearly trying to hide the traces of criminal activity in the felling of timber, and someone was engaged in banal hooliganism. And this is on the territory of a closed facility!



forests were destroyed by fires in the Chernobyl exclusion zone in the spring of 2020

But traces of the activities of state structures were not noticed there. As admitted by the acting. the head of the State Agency for the Management of the Exclusion Zone, it is even impossible to fit equipment to some places. And there’s nothing, actually. The Ukrainian authorities only on the 11th day of the fire realized the problem and found funds: almost 45 million hryvnia had to be allocated from the reserve fund, because the relevant departments simply did not have the funds.

The fire reached the closed military town of Chernobyl-2, came close to the city of Pripyat, a nuclear waste storage facility, an ammunition depot. The flame was blazing and quite close to the sarcophagus of the fourth power unit, where it is not known in what condition 180 thousand tons of spent nuclear fuel, which they simply could not extract after the explosion, are in. The fire was not spared either by the infamous Red Forest, which took on the maximum dose of radiation after the 1986 accident.

Permanent emergencies and thefts: what happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant before the accident?

Photo: SHONE / GAMMA / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

As a result, together with the air masses, particles of radioactive cesium-137 got to Kiev from Chernobyl. True, the authorities argued that the concentration of the radionuclide in the air is insignificant and does not pose a threat to health. The fire did not damage the sarcophagus and storage facilities either – experts assured that they were surrounded by concrete. In other words, another catastrophe was avoided this time. But, judging by the declassified materials, the tradition of disregarding the most dangerous objects in the world has been developing here for decades.

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