There’s been a lot of talk lately about the nuclear industry and its vulnerability to natural disasters. While I’m no expert on this particular hazard, I have had firsthand experience of the potentially catastrophic threat posed by drunken truck drivers to Russian atomic power plants.
I’d never been to a nuclear power station before I was invited to a party at one while living in central Russia (I’ll keep the exact location a secret) during the summer of 1998.
“My girlfriend works there as a security guard,” Oleg, a friend of a friend, told me one evening. “She’s throwing a birthday bash over the weekend. It’ll be great”
I was pleased, but a touch worried. By this time, I’d been in Russia long enough to realize that the local attitude to health and safety measures wasn’t entirely serious. Deadly fires, drunks drowning in ponds, car crashes...Russia was a veritable cocktail of catastrophe. And then, of course, there was Chernobyl, whose ruined reactor lay just across the border in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine.
Still, it was hardly the kind of invitation I could turn down, was it?
Oleg picked me up the next Saturday evening in his green Lada and we drove out of town to the party. An hour or so later we entered the territory of the atomic power station. I was surprised that no one had stopped us, let alone asked to see any documents. We could, for all anyone cared, have been Chechen terrorists armed with grenade launchers.
“You’ll get to meet my girlfriend,” Oleg said, suddenly. “She looks a bit like Cindy Crawford.” He winked, and we got out of the car.
The atomic power station was smaller than I had imagined. It was making a weird humming noise, and, set against the dusk, looked quite pretty with its slowly flashing red and orange lights.
The party was in full swing when we got there. Oleg’s girlfriend greeted us. She didn’t look much like Cindy Crawford to me. Well, perhaps a Cindy Crawford in the far future, ravaged by drink and work. She seemed pleasant enough though, sitting me down at the table, introducing me to everyone and plunking down a shot of samogon.
Samogon is bootleg vodka that, depending on both the skill and the patience of the person making it, can be anything from a drink that is better than anything you can get in the shops, to a rank, tongue scalding concoction capable of wiping out even hardened drinkers. The samogon that ‘Cindy’ had just presented me with was of the latter type, and green. There exist manuals, readily available, that instructed you on how to produce the stuff, but apparently the person who had made this batch hadn’t considered it worthwhile investing in one. I had never seen green samogon before.
After a while, some truck drivers arrived, parking their massive trucks outside. My head started to hurt, not only from the samogon, but also from the thick local accents that everyone had, the speed of their speech and deviation from the Russian I had been taught seeming to increase with every shot they necked.
Suddenly, I realized that one of the truck drivers was talking to me.
“Can you drive?” he repeated.
“C’mon, I’m going for a spin. I’ll teach you.”
Another invitation I just couldn’t turn down.
And that was how I found myself being taught to drive a truck around an atomic power station by an inebriated driver from the city of Lipetsk at three in the morning. He was quite distressed that I was unable to get my head around the gear system, and had to keep grabbing the wheel from me, in case we ploughed straight into the reactor. It was the first time I’d had control of a steering wheel in my life. Nothing like jumping in at the deep end.
There was some Russian pop on the radio. Some pretty cheesy stuff, actually. I wished I had a CD with me. The story would have been a lot better (I was already imagining retelling this one at future parties) if we’d been cruising to, say, “Eve of Destruction.” Or even some Stooges – “Search and Destroy.”
“Who do you reckon for the World Cup, then?” the driver asked me, grabbing the wheel and maneuvering around a looming fence with one hand.
We drove in a circle around the reactor. I wondered what would happen if we were to accidentally drive straight into it. Would there be an explosion, a mushroom cloud rising into the clouds? I decided not to find out. I’ve always been cautious like that.
There’s not much else to tell, to be honest. The reactor survived, and the region was spared radioactive rain. I went back into the party and fell asleep. Life went on.
I often think about that truck driver, though. Is he still cruising around reactors, off his noggin on cheap alcohol? All it takes is one slip of the hand, one slight miscalculation and boom!
I never even found out his name, and I can’t remember what he looked like. He has taken on a mythical quality. The faceless rider of future doom. The harbinger of atomic meltdown.
They really should take his license off him.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).