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FRIDAY, APRIL 25, 1986
At this time Simian Sin is an active, affable man of sixty-four years who looks rather like a former heavyweight wrestler. He is short and quite stocky. He smiles often, with the kind of smile that other people instinctively return. He could not be called handsome, partly because he has a strip of smooth, almost glassy skin that extends across the left side of his face from his upper lip to where the back of his neck disappears inside his clothes. Still, there is a sweetness to his expression which makes his male subordinates feel free to speak frankly to him, and which women find attractive. That is one of the reasons his wife, Selena, married him, although at the time of their wedding he was nearly forty years old and she was only nineteen. Another reason is that he was a wounded and decorated war veteran, with special privileges in going to the head of queues and opportunities to buy things in special stores. It was also obvious even then that he was on his way up. He has succeeded well. He is the Deputy Director of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station, which supplies the eastern Ukraine with nearly one quarter of its electrical energy, a Party member of forty-three years’ standing and one who has the privilege, from time to time, of travel abroad. Selena has been permitted to accompany him out of the country twice. Once it was only to East Germany, but the other time gave her five wonderful days when he was obliged to visit the International Atomic Energy Authority headquarters in the authentically western city of Vienna.
Immediately after lunch that day Smin received the three visitors from South Yemen in the plant’s conference room. It was one of the showplaces of the plant, with its snowy white bust of V. I. Lenin gazing challengingly down from one wall and its deep-piled Armenian rug on the floor. His secretary had set up the long birch table with the things appropriate for distinguished foreign guests, who might (the people in Novosibirsk hoped) order an RBMK-1000 nuclear power plant for their own country. (Of course, for political reasons, it would be a long time before they ever got one, but still the nuclear power plant authorities wanted very much to have them ask.) There were opened bottles of Pepsi-Cola and orange Fanta, as well as ashtrays and packets of American Marlboros, and in the little refrigerator under the sideboard were unopened tins of Greek orange juice. (There was also a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka in the refrigerator’s tiny ice compartment, in case the Yemenis turned out to be more Marxist than Moslem.)
The Yemenis were escorted in by Smin’s secretary, Paraska Kandyba, her lined, lean old face impassive. Their translator trailed behind, deferentially seating himself at the very end of the table only after the men in the white robes were already sitting down. “I welcome you to the Chernobyl Power Station. I apologize for the fact that our Director, Comrade Zaglodin, is unavoidably absent, but he joins me in the hope that your visit here can add to the warm and friendly relations between our two countries,” said Smin in his pleasing tenor voice, and waited for the translator to put that into the language of his visitors. It was the standard speech of hospitality and pride in the power plant, two sentences at a time and then a pause for the translator. He went right on with it as his secretary came in with a tray of coffee in small cups and a plate of sweet biscuits, which she handed around among the guests. They sipped and nibbled impassively as they listened to Smin’s recitation of the virtues of the Soviet nuclear power system, the unflagging devotion with which they were carrying out the decisions of the 27th Party Congress, and their unfailing success in achieving their Plan goals.
The speech was nearly all true in what it said, though it said nothing of, for example, the stratagems and shortcuts that made the Plan at least technically attainable. Nor did it say explicitly what the other duties were that kept the Director from the honored Yemeni guests. (Which were primarily that there were other guests the Director thought more worth cultivating than a bunch of Arabs who chose to be born in the only country on the Arabian peninsula that didn’t have oil.) Smin could have given the speech in his sleep. Sometimes he almost did. Normally in such conditions he used the fifty percent of time devoted to translation to study the visitors—Cubans and East Germans, Angolans and Campucheans, Vietnamese and Poles—and wonder what they made of this immense monument to Soviet science and technology. Of course, many of them had nuclear power generating plants of their own, or at least every expectation of having them soon. What they had, however, were generally pressurized water reactors. What none of the foreign guests had were the RBMK-1000s that powered Chernobyl. That particular model was not exported to the fraternal Socialist countries. The reactors they got were, no doubt, good enough to produce electrical power, but they were of little use for other purposes. (Of course. Who would trust Campucheans or Poles with the capacity to create plutonium?) Sometimes Smin tried to guess what the foreign guests would do if they actually ordered, and were allowed to receive, RBMK-series reactors. Sometimes he thought they would tamely return the spent cores for reprocessing inside the USSR without any unexplained shortages.
But he didn’t think that often.
On this day he didn’t play that game anyway. He had other things on his mind. When the leader of the Yemenis took his turn to respond to the speech of welcome, Smin, nodding in thoughtful appreciation at each translated fragment, took the opportunity to write on a piece of paper: “Experiment on schedule?” He passed it inconspicuously to the secretary when she came in to offer the tinned orange juice to the guests. No one seemed to notice what he had done. The head of the delegation was craning his neck to peer inside the refrigerator as the secretary opened it. He turned to Sin and said, “Peut-être, un peu de vodka?”
“Mais certainement,” cried Simon affably. “Et alors, vous parlez français Très bien!” He waved the secretary off and opened the ice-cold vodka bottle himself, pouring a nearly exact one hundred fifty milliliters of vodka for each guest. If any of them noticed that Smin poured nothing for himself, no one commented. Thereafter the conversation continued in serviceable, if rather elementary French on both sides. It went much faster that way. Smin explained that each of the four reactors that made up the Chernobyl plant was rated at one thousand megawatts and could be refueled in operation, meaning that they were on line far more of the time than most Western models. He passed out glossy prints of the turbine room, the containment shell, the arc-shaped control boards with their four or five technicians always on duty, the bound book of aerial photographs taken during construction that showed the immense power plant as it grew, layer by layer.
“But why are you showing us only these photographs?” asked one of the Yemenis politely. “Can we not visit these places in person?”
“But certainly!” cried Smin. “Of course, there is a certain amount of climbing to be done—you don’t object to stairs?—and it will be necessary, purely as a precaution, to wear protective clothing, but we can begin at once!” And do it very quickly, he added to himself, because the note the secretary slipped in his palm had said, “Yes, it is scheduled to begin at 2:00 P.M.”
* * *
Chernobyl was not merely a power plant, it was nearly a city. Each RBMK-1000 reactor by itself was immense, with its tons of graphite blocks that slowed the neutrons; its nearly seventeen hundred jacketed steel pipes that carried water through the cores; its drying tanks, where all seventeen hundred tubes met to wring the droplets of water out of dew steam and pass the energy-loaded steam itself on to the turbines; its huge macadam turbine floor, where the engines droned or howled away; its two feet of steel and six feet of concrete that surrounded each reactor—insurance against the wholly improbable chance that something, some time, should go wrong. And there were four of the RBMK-1000s already on line in the Chernobyl power station plant; and the plant itself was only one structure in a municipality of storage spaces and workshops and administration offices—and a medical center—and baths for the people who worked there—and cafeterias—and lounges for parties and resting after shifts—and everything else that Smin could imagine, and through begging or bribes manage to obtain, to make Chernobyl perfect.
That was the job of the Deputy Director, and the fact that a goal of perfection was impossible to attain did not keep Smin from continuing to try. Against all odds. In spite of all frustrations. There were plenty of those, starting with the workers themselves. If they did not drink on the job, they absented themselves without permission; if they did not do either, then they all too often drifted away to other jobs as soon as they were trained. In theory that was not easy to do in the USSR, since no one got a job without a report from his last employer and employers were supposed to discourage vagabonding of that sort. In practice, people who had worked at Chernobyl were in such demand that even a negative report was disregarded. And those were only the problems of personnel. If the workers were somehow placated and even motivated, then there were the problems of materiel. Materials of decent quality were always hard to get—for anything—and Smin was shameless and tireless in doing what had to be done to find unflawed steel and well-made cables and high-grade cement and even the best and freshest produce from the private plots of the nearby kolkhozists to go into the kitchens of the plant’s cafeterias. Just weeks before there had been a story in Literaturna Ukraina that had harshly exposed the sordid history of incompetent people and defective materials; it had been a great embarrassment to Smin’s superiors, but in the long run the story had added force to Smin’s own dedicated routine of demanding and urging and shaming and even, when necessary—and it was often necessary—bribing. It was not how Smin would have preferred to do his job, but it was unfortunately the only way, sometimes, that the job could be done.
Because Smin was in a hurry, he didn’t show the Yemenis everything. He skipped the oil storage rooms, up over the reactors, where the diesel fuel was kept for the emergency pumps in case of power failure; he gave them only a quick peek through the heavy glass windows at the refueling chamber, where the huge, spidery refueling machine crept on its massive tucks from fuel tube to fuel tubes as needed, lifting out the spent fuel and replacing it with new while the reactor kept right on generating power. He skipped the Red Room and the cafeteria and the baths, though he was proud of them all for the proof they gave of his constant concern for the four thousand men and women who worked at Chernobyl. He did not, of course, allow the visitors in any of the four reactor chambers, though he permitted a quick look, again through the heavy glass port, at No. 1, oldest of Chernobyl’s reactors and still pouring out energy—with, he called over the noise of steam and turbines, the best safety and performance record in the USSR! He even let them look at the huge pipes of the water system, because they were in their line of travel anyway; and then they turned away and the leading Yemeni jumped back as he saw the hissing, spitting, eye-paining flames of the hydrogen burner.
“What is that thing? I thought atomic power meant you did not have to burn oil!”
“Oh, but it isn’t oil,” Smin explained reassuringly. “It has nothing to do with the steam, simply a way of getting rid of gases that might otherwise be dangerous. As water goes through the reactor, you see, a little bit each time is broken down into the gases hydrogen and oxygen through radiolysis. We cannot have this in the system, you know, it would be dangerous! So we flare it off here and burn it.” Then he let them walk through the turbine room itself, with plugs in their ears and hard hats on their heads, because he knew they would not linger in that painfully noisy place, to get to the control room for Reactors 1 and 2.
While the interpreter was dealing with their questions for the chief shift engineer, Smin picked up a phone and checked again. Yes, the comrade guests were already gathering to observe the experiment, which was still on schedule. So, he found, checking his watch, was his tour. He had ten minutes yet to get rid of the Yemenis before going to the main control room, and so he approached them, smiling.
The shift engineer was not smiling. He turned away and muttered to Smin, “They are asking me about Luba Kova1evska.”
Smin sighed and turned to the Yemenis. “Have you some questions for me, then?” he asked politely.
The older Yemeni gazed at him. It was difficult to read the man’s expression, but he said only, “One has heard stories.”
Smin kept his smile. “What stories are these?” he asked, though he knew the answer.
“There have been reports in your own press,” the man said apologetically. He put on spectacles and took a paper out of his pocket. “From your magazine Literaturna Ukraina, is that how you say it? An article which speaks of poor design, of unsafe materials, of bad discipline among the workers—of course,” he added, folding the paper, “if one had read such things in the Western press, one would understand they are not to be taken seriously. But in your own journals?”
“Ah,” said Smin, nodding, “it is what we call glasnost.” He used the Russian word and translated quickly. “That is to say, candor. Frankness. Openness.” He smiled in a friendly manner. “I suppose you are surprised to see such harsh criticism in a Soviet magazine, but, you see, there is a new time now. Our general secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, has properly said that we need glasnost. We need to speak openly and honestly and in public about short-comings and errors of all kinds. Mrs. Kovalevska’s article is an example of this.” He shrugged in humorous deprecation. “It is very useful to us to be called to account in public for any faults. I will not say it isn’t painful, but that is how faults can be found on time to correct them. Sometimes it goes too far, perhaps. A writer like Mrs. Kovalevska hears rumors and she puts them in a newspaper—well, it is good that rumors should be aired, so that they can be investigated. But one should imagine that every word is true.”
“Then this report in Literaturna Ukraina is untrue?”
“Not entirely untrue,” Smin conceded, the shift engineer scowling as he hung on every word, trying to follow the French. “Certainly some mistakes have been made. But they are being corrected. And furthermore, please note, my dear friends, that these things Mrs, Kovalevska lists in so much detail refer principally to matters of faulty construction and operation. They do not suggest for one moment that there is anything wrong with the RBMK-1000 reactor itself! Our reactors are totally safe. Anyone can understand that this is true from the fact that never, in the history of atomic power, has the Soviet Union had a nuclear accident of any kind.”
“Ah?” said the Yemeni shrewdly. “Is that correct? Then what about the accident in Kyshtym in 1958?”
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