Viktor Bryukhanov: Engineer blamed for Chernobyl disaster

In the decades after the explosion, Bryukhanov fought back against the image of negligence that had developed around him

Emily Langer
Wednesday 10 November 2021 14:21 GMT
Along with his aides, Bryukhanov was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in a labour camp in 1987
Along with his aides, Bryukhanov was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in a labour camp in 1987 (Shutterstock)

Viktor Bryukhanov, the engineer who oversaw the construction and operation of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, the site of an explosion in 1986 that ranks among the worst accidents of the nuclear age, has died aged 85.

The explosion at Chernobyl, a Soviet installation that was one of the most powerful nuclear power plants in the world, occurred in the early hours of 26 April 1986, when a reactor malfunctioned during a safety test, destroying the building and spewing toxic radiation into the sky.

Two workers were killed in the accident. In the ensuing months, 28 firefighters and cleanup workers died of radiation sickness, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. As many as 200,000 people in the surrounding area were evacuated, and the wind carried radioactive isotopes across portions of Europe.

Mikhail Gorbachev, who served at the time as the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and who five years later would preside over the dissolution of the Soviet Union, would one day reflect that “the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl”, even more than the reforms known as perestroika, “was perhaps the real cause of the collapse” of the communist superpower.

In the immediate aftermath, a great part of the blame for the disaster was placed on Bryukhanov, a thermal power engineer with years of experience in the Soviet nuclear power industry. In the widely watched 2019 HBO series Chernobyl, in which he was portrayed by actor Con O’Neill, he was depicted as a villain. But the reality, said Serhii Plokhy, a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University, is more complex.

“His subordinates valued him as a good engineer and effective manager,” Plokhy wrote in the 2018 book Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe. “He put in long hours, spoke little, and was known as one of a rare breed: a Soviet manager who got things done while showing consideration to his subordinates.”

Bryukhanov learned of the explosion shortly after it happened, when an anguished chemist at the plant awakened him with a phone call at approximately 2am. Bryukhanov rushed to the site, observed the extent of the destruction and said to himself, “This is my prison.”

He “realised immediately that life as he knew it – a successful career, participation in the party congress, government awards – was over,” Plokhy wrote. “He would have to bear responsibility for the disaster, whether he was guilty or not.”

Accused of failing to respond effectively and promptly to the crisis, Bryukhanov was expelled from the Communist Party. In 1987, he and two aides were tried on charges of violating safety rules, abuse of power and negligence. According to Plokhy, the most damaging evidence against him was a statement Bryukhanov signed the day of the accident minimising the threat of the radiation released in the explosion.

The infamous disaster spread radiation all across Europe (Getty)

Bryukhanov denied the first two charges but pleaded guilty to negligence, declaring at his trial, according to Plokhy’s account: “I am guilty [of] having missed something, of having been careless or inefficient in some way. I understand that this is a serious accident, but everyone bears some blame for it.”

Along with his aides, Bryukhanov was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in a labour camp. He was released after five years, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Bryukhanov resumed his professional life, leading a technological department at Chernobyl, which had not yet been fully decommissioned, later telling Moscow News that he received a “warm welcome” upon his return. He later worked for Ukraine’s trade ministry.

Viktor Petrovich Bryukhanov was born on 1 December 1935, in Tashkent, in what was then the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan. His father was a glazier and his mother was a cleaner, according to The Daily Telegraph.

Bryukhanov was a graduate of the Tashkent State Technical University. He worked in Soviet power plants in positions of increasing responsibility until he was assigned in 1970 to build what became the Chernobyl plant. He also oversaw the development of the nearby community of Pripyat, effectively a company town for plant workers that reached a population of 50,000.

Bryukhanov was among the victims of radiation sickness at Chernobyl, suffering from headaches and other painful symptoms. He is survived by his wife, Valentina, daughter, Lilia, and son, Oleg.

In interviews with journalists and historians over the years, he sought to defend himself against the image of negligence that had developed around him.

“It was the constructors’ job to see to it that no mistake by the staff could lead to such a tragedy,” Reuters quoted him having said in 1992. “But of course it was easier to blame not the reactor’s creators but the staff at the plant. Was it permissible at that time to cast a shadow on the prestige of the Soviet nuclear industry? How much simpler to put the director and chief engineer in the dock.”

Several years later, he told Moscow News that he thought the world would never know the truth of Chernobyl.

“Much time was allowed to pass,” he remarked. “We won't know the truth not because someone is hiding it but because it just cannot be understood. And no one wanted to do it while the trail was still fresh.”

Viktor Bryukhanov, engineer, born 1 December 1935, died 13 October 2021

© Washington Post

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