Higginbotham makes it clear that the RBMK-1000s (Reaktor Bolshoy Moshchnosti Kanalnyy) had rather obvious design - and manufacture - flaws from the outset. One of these was the sheer size of the reactors, a product of a Soviet penchant for the colossal.
“The RBMK was so large that reactivity in one area of the core often had only a loose relationship to that in another. The operators had to control it as if it were not a single unit but several separate reactors in one. One specialist compared it to a huge apartment building, where a family in one flat might be celebrating a raucous wedding, while next door another was observing a funeral wake. Isolated hot spots of reactivity might build deep inside the core, where they could prove hard to detect.”
This inherent instability made life in the reactor control room exhausting and stressful as engineers were constantly pushing buttons on the panels in the hope of evening out reactivity. When one former nuclear submarine officer first took his seat at the desk in Chernobyl’s Unit One, he was horrified by the colossal size of the reactor and how antiquated the instrumentation was. “How can you possibly control this hulking piece of shit?” he asked. “And what is it doing in civilian use?"
This preference for quantity over quality in the USSR is something I pinpointed in an essay in 1985 following my second visit. The point was illustrated with an anecdote about our guide to the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad, who joyfully rattled off statistics relating to the number of works of art in each of the massive rooms we passed through. That the space might include two of three great masterpieces which were being crowded out by odds and ends of lesser significance was a suggestion that brought a puzzled frown to his face.
Shoddy workmanship was another endemic problem in the USSR. One of my travelling companions in 1984 quickly acquired a reputation for being able to accidentally break almost anything of Soviet manufacture that he came into contact with.
Higginbotham writes: ‘The valves and flow meters in other RBMKs, used to regulate the crucial supply of water to each of the more than 1,600 uranium-filled channels, proved so unreliable that the operators in the control room often had no idea to what extent the reactors were being cooled, or if they were being cooled at all. Accidents were inevitable...the serpentine plumbing of the reactor was riddled with faults: the water-steam coolant pipes were corroded, the zirconium-steel joints on the fuel channels had come loose, and the designers had failed to build any safety system to protect the reactor against a failure of its feed-water supply—eventually, the Chernobyl engineers had to design and fabricate their own.’ (Chapuz, chapuz, chapuz...)
Meanwhile, Alexander Sokurov’s one-take feature film set in the above-mentioned museum - Russian Ark (2002) - is indeed a masterpiece that I would recommend to all.