Tuesday, September 17, 2019
Midnight In Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham
Published February 2019 by Simon and Schuster
Source: ebook checked out from my local library
April 25, 1986 in Chernobyl was a turning point in world history. The disaster not only changed the world’s perception of nuclear power and the science that spawned it, but also our understanding of the planet’s delicate ecology. With the images of the abandoned homes and playgrounds beyond the barbed wire of the 30-kilometer Exclusion Zone, the rusting graveyards of contaminated trucks and helicopters, the farmland lashed with black rain, the event fixed for all time the notion of radiation as an invisible killer. Chernobyl was also a key event in the destruction of the Soviet Union, and, with it, the United States’ victory in the Cold War. For Moscow it was a political and financial catastrophe as much as an environmental and scientific one. With a total cost of 18 billion rubles—at the time equivalent to $18 billion—Chernobyl bankrupted an already teetering economy and revealed to its population a state built upon a pillar of lies. The full story of the events that started that night in the control room of Reactor No.4 of the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant has never been told—until now. Through two decades of reporting, new archival information, and firsthand interviews with witnesses, journalist Adam Higginbotham tells the full dramatic story, including Alexander Akimov and Anatoli Dyatlov, who represented the best and worst of Soviet life; denizens of a vanished world of secret policemen, internal passports, food lines, and heroic self-sacrifice for the Motherland.
Recently HBO aired a mini-series called Chernobyl. We didn’t catch all of it but enough of it to make me interested in learning more so I turned to the library to see what was available. As it turned out, this book had only recently been published so I figured I’d grab up the newest book on the subject. Then I waited for weeks to get it. By the time I finally got it, and saw that it was almost 600 pages long, I began to doubt myself.
Two weeks later, I am surprisingly happy to tell you that I have a pretty damn good idea of how nuclear reactors work. Now there's a sentence I never expected to be saying (er, typing). Not only do I have a pretty good idea about how the reactors work, I have a really good idea about all of the ways they can fail. And I found it all of that science fascinating. I love, love when an author can do that for me (and a little annoyed that it couldn't have been made more interesting for me when I was in school!).
But, as you'll have surmised by the summary, this is not just a book about how a nuclear reactor failed. It's a book about how the Cold War lead to a rush to move nuclear weapon technology into energy production, how it lead to a race to build the reactors despite evidence of the dangers being built into the reactors, and how it lead to an unwillingness to admit failure. It's also a book about the crushing bureaucracy that not only contributed to the failure of Reactor Number Four but also lead to a massive coverup of the failure, inept attempts at containing the disaster, and disastrous care of the human beings impacted.
It's a long one that I thought I might never finish. I was highlighting so many things, including names I was certain I would need to be able to remember later. But Higginbotham is good about reminding readers who all of players are as he reintroduces them again and again. And, eventually, I came to realize that this is a library book; there's not much need to highlight when I won't be able to go back later and refresh myself on what I learned.
Higginbotham includes quite a few photos which I always enough in a nonfiction book, as well as an epilogue that follows up on the players who survived more than thirty years after the incident. As far as I can tell (and as far as he was able, given that much of the evidence is still hidden, labelled as top secret), this book is incredibly well researched. But now I need to go back to the HBO mini-series which, I now realize, took liberties to make the show more dramatic.