On March 22nd the IE Humanities Center hosted the 2019 Humanities Lecture. The invited speaker was Serhii Plokhii who gave a brilliant talk on “Atomic Energy and the Arrogance of Man: Revisiting the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster”. Professor Plokhii is the Mykhailo Hrushevsky Professor of Ukrainian History and the director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University.
Author of an extensive bibliography, The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union (2014), The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (2015) and Lost Kingdom: The Quest for Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation(2017). His talk was based in his latest book Chernobyl: A History of Tragedy (2018) which covers from the origins of the nuclear industry in the Soviet Union to the present day.
He began his lecture by making a difference between atoms for war and atoms for peace. He gave emphasis on how, besides nuclear disasters all around the globe from Three Mile Island to the latest Fukushima. Many countries still rely on the source of energy. For instance, nuclear industry provides France with 70% of its electric power.
After introducing his talk, Professor Plokhii went on to take the audience to the 1980’s. He made an analogy of former USSR with present day Russia, an economy strongly dependent on oil prices. The fall of oil prices back in the early 1980s that led to the collapse of Soviet Union made Gorbachev try to develop a strong nuclear industry. The five-year plan for the second half of the 80’s intended to double the amount of nuclear plants in use.
The speaker identified the main problems of Chernobyl Catastrophe; first, the boom of nuclear energy in USSR meant that most of the people in charge did not have the appropriate experience, he gave the examples that both the head of Chernobyl and the Engineering Director came from the coal industry not having experience at nuclear plants. Second was the optimistic wave that impregnated the USSR when came to talk about the Nuclear Industry minimizing the risks. The lecturer said that this was because soviets had not seen the full destructive power of nuclear plants, On the contrary to the US who had experienced the damage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The last minutes of the lecture were for the present day status of nuclear industry. After the boom of the 70’s and early 80’s the amount of nuclear plants stabilized after Chernobyl until 2011. After Fukushima the total number of plants have decreased. The speaker showed his relief that China, who after years planning to do a huge investment in nuclear plants seems to have abandon the idea. On the contrary, he showed some worries about the fact that some nations in the Middle East and Central Asia are putting much effort in becoming nuclear. Mostly for defensive reasons but with the official statement of being for peaceful purposes. Commonly a case for national pride, like in the late USSR, but again seems to minimizing the risks, especially for some like Iran that is in a seismic region.
After the Q&A round, in which students happily got engage, Humanities Director Susana Torres invited attendees for a coffee in which they could share their views with the speaker. The opportunity was seized by many who did not missed the chance to acquire some of the publications and get the author’s dedication.