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Chernobyl: A Novel by Frederik Pohl (Bantam: 17.95; 288 pp.)

August 23, 1987|William J. Eaton | Eaton, Moscow correspondent for The Times for the last three years, reported on the Chernobyl accident.

This novel adds a human dimension to the familiar story of Chernobyl, site of the world's worst nuclear accident that sent a wave of fear through Europe, forced the evacuation of 135,000 Soviet citizens and left an undetermined number with potentially life-shortening doses of radiation.

The story is told through fictitious characters--primarily officials and workers at the ill-fated plant--but closely traces events as documented in the Soviet press and Moscow's unusually candid report to the International Atomic Energy Agency in September, 1986.

Frederik Pohl, best known for science fiction, said in an afterword that he received assistance from leaders of the Union of Soviet Writers and was allowed to interview scores of people with knowledge of Chernobyl. In any event, his narrative is a plausible account of what went wrong to cause the tragedy, as well as what went right in the heroic effort to control the horrifying consequences.

Semyon Smin, the leading figure in the novel, deputy director of the nuclear installation, is portrayed sympathetically as a dedicated man forced into corner-cutting compromises by the realities of Soviet industrial life. Chronic shortages of equipment, substandard supplies, workers who drink on the job or goof off are a few of Smin's burdens as he struggles to meet the state-imposed plan for power production.

Smin, however, is absent when a high-risk experiment is carried out in the small hours of the morning with almost incredible disregard of elementary precautions. He races back to assist and gets a fatal dose of radiation in the plant.

As the doomed Smin tells two KGB agents from his hospital bed: "It was actually utter stupidity on the part of the entire control-room crew that caused the explosion. One by one, they turned off every safety device, and they were surprised that the reactor wasn't safe any more." The novel pictures the plant's chief engineer, who seems totally out of touch with reality, as the executive mainly responsible for the catastrophe. However, he is whisked out of sight, and the action centers on efforts to contain the damage and avoid an even worse disaster by preventing radioactive contamination of the water supply for Kiev, a city of 3 million people, 80 miles to the south of the stricken reactor.

In the crisis at Chernobyl, Leonid Sheranchuk rises above his humdrum job as hydrologist engineer to emerge as a heroic figure, combining common sense and bravery, doing what has to be done, despite the clear and present danger.

Pohl describes well the people involved in the struggle, as well as those who fled out of fear or self-preservation. His insights into everyday realities, family relationships and even the ubiquitous role of the KGB make this a very readable as well as accurate story of Soviet life.

In fact, this warts-and-all portrait is the major attraction of this generally sympathetic book on Soviet people confronting a catastrophe.

His sure touch with the larger issues, however, makes his few obvious errors on less important matters all the more annoying. The legendary folk singer is Vladimir Vysotsky, not Vyshinsky as the novel has it twice, and the car is the Moskvich, not the Moskva, just to cite two examples of several.

Another distraction is Pohl's commendable, but overlong explanations of how a nuclear power plant works. While the information is useful, it slows the pace of the narrative.

His introduction of American characters, and a subplot involving a liberal "manifesto" of dubious origins not directly related to the Chernobyl tragedy, also mar the novel. It would have been better, perhaps, to focus more on events in the Kremlin in the first few days after the accident, when a news blackout kept the world, as well as the Soviet people, totally uninformed about the radiation danger.

What was going on in the minds of those who suppressed information about the explosion and radiation cloud for nearly 72 hours? Did they think it would go away if they did not talk about it? Since the world still doesn't know the answers to these questions, despite the prominence of glasnost or public openness in the rhetoric of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, a novelist's imagination would have full scope.

But Pohl has chosen to narrow his focus to the actors in the drama played out in and around the plant at Chernobyl, a place once known only to nuclear specialists but now a chilling symbol of the dangers of technology run wild. He has not written an indictment, but a sympathetic chronology of tragedy and heroic efforts to overcome it.

As the author put it: "This book is dedicated to the hundreds of brave and dedicated men and women whose courage and sacrifice kept a terrible accident from becoming far more terrible still."

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