Chernobyl is easily one of the worst man-made disasters on record. 31 people died during the event itself, and we’re still doing the epidemiological studies to see just how many cancers and illnesses the disaster and the lingering radiation that sits in the area have caused. By any yardstick, it is an enormous disaster and a tragic loss of human life… and a new documentary argues the entire meltdown was engineered by the Soviet Union to cover up an embarrassing failure.
The documentary, The Russian Woodpecker, follows Ukrainian artist Fodor Alexandrovich as he starts digging into the history of Chernobyl to explain it to his young son. In the process, he manages to come up with a rather convincing conspiracy theory: that the meltdown was engineered to distract from the failure of a Russian weapons system.
See, right next to the reactor is the over-the-horizon radar array Duga-3, better known to anybody with a radio in the ’80s as the Russian Woodpecker for the annoying, relentless clicking it gave off. Built to spot missiles right as they launched, it was so powerful, and so obnoxious, it could literally be heard around the world, gathering thousands of complaints from multiple countries.
And according to the documentary, it didn’t work. Interference from the Earth’s atmosphere made Duga-3 a $7 billion pile of metal and little else. Alexandrovich argues that if such a failure of the Soviet nuclear safety net had been uncovered, it would have put quite a few upper-echelon Soviet leaders out of power and possibly in front of a firing squad. And so, the reactor was forced to melt down to prevent any investigation of a massive failure.
How plausible is this, though? The science does line up: The Auroa Borealis, for example, can mess with all sorts of signals, even satellite-based ones like GPS. Any radar system has to take the signals the Northern Lights blast out into account. And it’s not like we lack for examples of the Soviet Union building something before they do all the engineering; these are the same people that built the notorious and aptly named “screw drive.”
Similarly, the Soviet Union was well aware of the serious problems the Chernobyl reactor faced. Years had been spent trying to fix a serious design flaw in the reactor where it took sixty seconds or more for the coolant pumps to restart after a power failure. In fact, an experiment to fix this problem going wrong caused the meltdown in the first place.
That said, a lot, unfortunately, had to go very, very wrong for the meltdown to happen, and it seems unlikely that so many people would voluntarily go to their deaths and risk the lives of thousands just so somebody in the Politburo 600 miles away wouldn’t get packed off to a gulag. The idea that Russians unthinkingly followed the orders of their superiors is largely a hangover from Cold War propaganda, not reality.
It is worth noting that Soviet cover-ups are nothing new: Back in 1957, the Kyshtym disaster became the worst nuclear disaster on record and the Soviet Union refused to admit it happened until it actually collapsed. This isn’t even getting into their unfortunate tendency to let their biological weapons escape containment or the massive ecological disaster caused by forty years of dumping radioactive crap in a lake. But all of those disasters were, as far as we can know, the result of incompetence.
Ultimately, we may never know; many of those at the site of the accident died soon after. But it’s a question one can’t help but wonder about, even as the Russian Woodpecker rusts away.