Russia’s China Syndrome

Hany Ghoraba
Friday 23 Aug 2019

The Russian authorities must be more transparent about the explosion that took place at the Nyonoksa nuclear-testing site earlier this month

A 1979 American film entitled The China Syndrome caused a massive uproar within the nuclear power community in the United States. 

Starring some of Hollywood’s all-time legends including Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas and Jack Lemmon, the film stirred fears among American audiences on the safety measures being taken at nuclear energy plants across the nation.

It depicted a fictional scenario in which a nuclear plant in Los Angeles faced an emergency shutdown procedure known as “SCRAM” resulting in the meltdown of the core reactor. It included attempts by administrators to cover up the accident to avoid public panic and further consequences. 

The name “China Syndrome” was based on the fictional notion that a meltdown in the reactor’s core would dig a hole in the ground that could reach as far as China — which is, of course, impossible. 

Nevertheless, the film was a resounding success and managed to raise awareness of the perils of nuclear energy, especially if administrators are willing to cover up accidents that could lead to the deaths of thousands in cases of total meltdown.

Following its release, the nuclear energy industry in the US described the film as “sheer fiction” and an attempt to demonise the industry and its workers. 

Much to their dismay, just three weeks later one of the worst nuclear accidents in US history occurred in Pennsylvania at Three Mile Island when a partial meltdown occurred in the plant’s second reactor.

Though no immediate deaths were reported from the accident, there is still debate about possible cases of cancer resulting from it in the US today.

The massive clean-up operation in the aftermath of the accident went on from 1979 to 1993, costing some $1 billion. The accident was reported to be the worst in US history, but it was just one of 56 others reported until this day with varying adverse effects and human casualties.

On the other side of the planet, Russia gained a notorious reputation regarding the covering up of nuclear accidents in the horrific Chernobyl nuclear meltdown near the city of Pripyat in Ukraine in 1986 during the era of the former Soviet Union.

The accident, which affected the world as a whole due to its global effects, was one of the worst in human history. 

A blast in the plant’s fourth reactor caused the immediate deaths of workers and firemen followed by 31 radiation fatalities and some 237 reports of radiation sickness.

The nuclear radiation cloud caused as a result reached as far the Mediterranean. The evacuation of Pripyat and the aftermath of the accident caused a massive upheaval in the nuclear energy industry, but what was most alarming was the reaction of the Soviet leadership and media, which initially took every possible measure to cover up the accident until it had become a full-blown global crisis and could no longer be hidden. 

On 8 August this year, nearly three decades after the fall of the former Soviet Union and 33 years after the Chernobyl disaster, the world awoke to the news of a massive explosion at a Russian military testing site called Nyonoksa in the Arkhangelsk oblast where scientists were experimenting with a new generation of nuclear-powered intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). 

The explosion killed five scientists out of the seven on site, and the news was covered up for days by Russian officials in a similar manner to what had happened during the Chernobyl crisis decades before.

The secrecy of the weapons being tested seems to have provided Russian officials with the pretext they needed to act in such an irresponsible manner, as they avoided media questions and international worries about the magnitude of the accident.

Later, the officials declared that radiation levels in the region were four to 16 times their normal level and urged people to take precautionary measures. 

Nuclear experts believe the site was being used to test a state-of-the-art hypersonic ICBM missile called Burevestnik (SSC-X-9). This is nuclear powered and has the ability to evade all known radar-detection methods while delivering its payload anywhere across the globe.

This evidence is based on expert assessments and not on any official announcement by officials from the Russian nuclear agency Rosatom, who have simply provided a sketchy explanation of the accident and mentioned the involvement of an “isotope power source” in a liquid propulsion system. 

International experts have gathered from this information that the Russians were developing an ICBM that had a mini-nuclear reactor fitted inside it.

Such futuristic technology is either theoretical or still in the early development stage, but western experts point out that the Russians have managed to advance on it. 

Initially, Russian officials downplayed reports of the explosion and said that the residents of nearby towns were safe. However, later a decision was taken to evacuate the village of Nenoska near the site of the explosion, though this was then cancelled only hours later amidst conflicting reports.

The village is home to about 450 people, and panicked residents in the region rushed to buy iodine to counteract the possible thyroid cancer that is known to occur after radiation exposure.

A report published by the Moscow Times said that some doctors in hospitals treating radiation patients in the region had been asked by the Russian Federal Security Service to sign non-disclosure agreements to prevent them from discussing the matter with the media.

The information provided by Russian officials about the nature of the explosion and whether it could affect the surrounding regions remains sketchy at best, as it also was during the Chernobyl crisis.

This has been massively criticised by the international media, which has labelled the accident “Chernobyl 2” and demanded more transparency from Russia about the accident and the tests that had led up to it. 

Despite the fact that the two accidents are entirely different in nature, as one involved an active nuclear reactor and the other is a nuclear-missile test accident, the devastating end results are similar, and they taint the reputation of the entire Russian nuclear industry.

Such accidents cannot be treated as a purely domestic matter, since the fallout and possible radiation clouds resulting from nuclear explosions are not limited to Russian territory but can also move to neighbouring countries, as well as, in the case of the Chernobyl disaster, other continents.

Serious nuclear contamination can cause large areas to be uninhabitable for decades, and in many cases traces of radiation can be left for periods of up to 5,000 years.

It is high time that the Russian authorities dropped the Soviet methods of media cover-up when it comes to nuclear accidents or disasters such as those that happened at Chernobyl and Arkhangelsk.

The chances of similar accidents happening in the future remain high, and the best method of containing the dangers following them is transparency with both the local authorities and the international community since thousands or even millions of lives could be stake as a result.

In such cases, the faster the authorities react with transparency the safer these lives will be. The Russian military and nuclear industry must now do its best to reverse the image of the officials depicted in The China Syndrome as they have a responsibility for the safety of this planet and those who live on it.

This can only be appropriately discharged through a policy of complete transparency.

* The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 22 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Russia’s China Syndrome

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