In the early hours of 26 April 1986, the nuclear reactor exploded at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. The explosion at Chernobyl wreaked radioactive devastation in the immediate area and released a radioactive dust cloud that crawled across Europe, as far as Italy and France.
The environmental and political fallout of Chernobyl ranks it as the world’s worst nuclear disaster. But who was to blame?
Viktor Bryukhanov was officially held responsible for what happened at Chernobyl. He had helped to build and run the plant, and played a pivotal role in how the disaster was managed in the aftermath of the reactor explosion.
Here’s more about Viktor Bryukhanov.
Viktor Petrovich Bryukhanov was born on 1 December 1935 in Tashkent, Soviet Uzbekistan. His parents were both Russian. His father worked as a glazier and his mother a cleaner.
Bryukhanov was the oldest son of his parents’ 4 children and the only child to receive a higher education, gaining a degree from Tashkent Polytechnic in electrical engineering.
His engineering career took off at the Angren Thermal Power Plant, where he worked as duty de-aerator installer, feed pump driver, turbine driver, before quickly rising into management as a senior turbine workshop engineer and supervisor. Bryukhanov became workshop director just one year later.
In 1970, the energy ministry offered him the opportunity to lead the building of Ukraine’s first nuclear power plant and put a career’s worth of experience into practice.
Ukraine’s new power plant was to be built along the Pripyat River. Builders, materials and equipment had to be brought to the construction site and Bruykhanov established a temporary village known as ‘Lesnoy’.
By 1972 Bryukhanov, along with his wife, Valentina (also an engineer) and their 2 children, had moved into the new city of Pripyat, established especially for plant workers.
Bryukhanov recommended installing pressurised water reactors in the new power plant, widely used around the world. However, for reasons of safety and economy, his choice was overruled in favour of a different type of reactor designed and used only in the Soviet Union.
Chernobyl would therefore boast 4 Soviet-designed, water-cooled RBMK reactors, built end-to-end like batteries. It was believed by Soviet scientists that a coolant issue with the RBMK reactors was highly unlikely, making the new plant safe.
Building the plant was not completely smooth: deadlines were missed because of unrealistic schedules, and there was a lack of equipment as well as defective materials. After 3 years with Bryukhanov as director, the plant was still unfinished.
Under pressure from his superiors, Bryukhanov tried to resign from his position, but his letter of resignation was torn up by the Party supervisor. Despite the slow pace of building, Bryukhanov kept his job and the Chernobyl plant was finally up, running and supplying electricity to the Soviet grid by 27 September 1977.
Yet setbacks continued after Chernobyl was online. On 9 September 1982, contaminated radioactive steam leaked from the plant, reaching Pripyat 14 km away. The situation was quietly managed by Bryukhanov, and the authorities decided news of the accident would not be made public.
Bryukhanov was called to Chernobyl early in the morning on 26 April 1986. He was told there had been an incident. On the bus ride over he saw that the roof of the reactor building was gone.
Arriving at the plant at around 2:30 am, Bryukhanov ordered all the management to the admin building’s bunker. He could not reach the engineers in the fourth reactor to find out what was happening inside.
What he knew from Arikov, the shift chief who had overseen the incident, was that there had been a serious accident but the reactor was intact and fires were being extinguished.
Using the special telephone system, Bryukhanov issued a General Radiation Accident alert, which sent a coded message to the Ministry of Energy. With what he had been told by Arikov, he reported the situation to local Communist officials and his superiors in Moscow.
Bryukhanov, along with chief engineer Nikolai Fomin, told the operators to maintain and restore coolant supply, seemingly unaware that the reactor was destroyed.
“At night I went to the courtyard of the station. I looked – pieces of graphite under my feet. But I still did not think that the reactor was destroyed. This did not fit in my head.”
Bryukhanov was unable to get full awareness of the radiation levels because Chernobyl’s readers did not register high enough. However, the civil defense chief told him that radiation had reached the military dosimeter’s maximum reading of 200 roentgen per hour.
Nonetheless, despite having seen the damaged reactor and nightmarish reports brought to him by test supervisor Anatoly Dyatlov around 3.00 am, Bryukhanov assured Moscow that the situation was contained. This was not the case.
A criminal investigation began on the day of the accident. Bryukhanov was questioned about the causes of the accident while he remained – at least in title – in charge of Chernobyl.
On 3 July, he was summoned to Moscow. Bryukhanov attended a heated meeting with the Politburo to discuss the causes of the accident and was accused of mismanagement. Operator error was deemed the primary cause of the explosion, coupled with reactor design flaws.
The USSR’s premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, was incensed. He accused Soviet engineers of covering up issues with the nuclear industry for decades.
After the meeting, Bryukhanov was expelled from the Communist Party and returned from Moscow for further investigation. On 19 July, an official explanation of the incident was broadcast on Vremya, the USSR’s main news show on TV. Hearing the news, Bryukhanov’s mother suffered a heart attack and died.
Officials blamed the disaster on the operators and their managers, including Bryukhanov. He was charged on 12 August with violation of safety regulations, creating conditions that led to an explosion, understating the radiation levels after the disaster and sending people into known contaminated areas.
When investigators showed him materials uncovered during their inquiries, Bryukhanov identified a letter from a nuclear power expert at the Kurchatov Institute revealing the dangerous design faults kept secret from him and his staff for 16 years.
Nevertheless, the trial began on 6 July in the town of Chernobyl. All 6 defendants were found guilty and Bryukhanov was given a full 10-year sentence, which he served at a penal colony in Donetsk.
After 5 years, Bryukhanov was released for ‘good behaviour’ entering a post-Soviet world in which he got a job at the ministry of international trade in Kyiv. He later worked for Ukrinterenergo, Ukraine’s state-owned energy company that dealt with the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster.
Bryukhanov maintained for the rest of his life that neither he or his employees were to blame for Chernobyl. Investigations by the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that a combination of reactor design, misinformation and ill-judgement resulted in the disaster.