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Review: Midnight In Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

on December 9, 2019

Midnight In Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster 
Adam Higginbotham
Simon & Schuster
2019, 538p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

The definitive, dramatic untold story of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, based on original reporting and new archival research.

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. Midnight in Chernobyl, award-worthy nonfiction that reads like sci-fi, shows not only the final epic struggle of a dying empire but also the story of individual heroism and desperate, ingenious technical improvisation joining forces against a new kind of enemy.

I’ve always had a bit of an interest in Chernobyl and I think the recent mini-series made it more front and centre of my mind. So when I heard about this book I requested it from the library. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction but it’s something I’ve been adding into my reading a bit more and this is such an interesting topic. However, this book is very, very dense. I’m a quick reader, the 538p count is misleading (it’s really more like 370, the rest is index and notes and references etc) and it took me 3 days to read. It took me something like 2 hours to get through the first 30 pages, which was a basic background education in nuclear physics and how nuclear power is generated etc. I don’t have a scientific or mathematical brain, in fact I’ve forgotten pretty much everything I’ve read about nuclear power already but it’s very thorough and very informative and definitely helps provide the reader with a background information on how and why Chernobyl happened and how and why it was probably always going to happen.

Reading now, it’s so difficult to witness those in charge deliberately (or otherwise) turn a blind eye to the severity of the disaster and avoid making decisions like evacuating the population away from the fallout because they don’t want to believe or admit that there’s been an incident, don’t want to have people lose faith in Soviet science, both at home and abroad, don’t want to lose face in front of the Americans. It’s the height of the Cold War, the Soviet machine is alive and well and they were desperate for their nuclear program to be seen as safe, successful and superior. Both Britain and the United States had had minor nuclear incidents and there was a push in the ‘West’ from the public to be concerned about nuclear power. Many were uneasy with it, worried about what might happen if there was to be a significant incident. In contrast, Russia was pumping everything they had into developing and building nuclear power plants. Chernobyl had four reactors and was adding a fifth and sixth when the fourth melted down. And there was enormous pressure on engineers and scientists to get these plants up and running on almost impossible deadlines. The fourth reactor at Chernobyl opened without safety tests being completed because doing them would’ve pushed the opening back to past the deadline, which wasn’t considered acceptable. There was no independent body responsible for safety. In fact I’m not sure who or what was responsible for safety. People just kind of….did whatever they felt like. The whole timeline of the test that resulted in the explosion of Reactor No.4 was a hot mess with people unqualified, people in charge not even knowing it was happening, superior officers overriding people manning the controls when things didn’t look like they were going right. The whole thing was one disaster after another that piled on and eventually went boom. And after it? When they finally, finally accepted how bad it was, how catastrophic and what they would need to do in order to fix it? They didn’t want to lower themselves to accepting help from the US or anything like that, and they knew things were bad so they sacrificed people time and time again ‘for the country’ to go in and be exposed to insane levels of radiation. Most of the time a lot of these people were incredibly ignorant about what they were exposing themselves to. There were many lies about the levels of radiation, about what people were being exposed to and what their true levels really probably were. A lot of them thought if they drank vodka, it would negate the effects of nuclear fallout and radiation. Officially, the death toll of Chernobyl is 31 or something because those who became sick in the aftermath were often written up in hospital as becoming ill from something else, not related to the reactor. So it’s probably almost impossible to tell just how many people died as a result of the reactor explosion.

Amazingly, some people who were on the ground in the days and weeks after, have survived. Their stories are interesting but some are just so depressing as well. Many of them suffer severe side effects, burns and illnesses from being exposed to the radiation. There were workers who served time in hard labour camps for their role in the disaster – hard labour prison camps. In 1990. It sounds like something straight out of the 1700s or 1800s. There was a hard push for human error to be the sole cause of the meltdown, with the designer of the plant not wanting to face realities that there were flaws in the design that were dangerous. After all, there was a whole bunch of other plants across the Soviet Union, with more being built. To admit that there were potential problems would be utterly disastrous. It was much safer, for the powers that be, to pin everything on human error.

A lot of this was eye-opening, some I already knew. I have to keep remembering to frame it in the world politics of the time, to try and understand why some things that happened, happened. It doesn’t make it any easier to accept, how many people probably died or were severely injured because of a need to uphold the Soviet ethos. This is a dense, quite involved read with a high need for utter concentration and zero distraction. Even the names can be difficult sometimes, a lot of them have quite similar sounding names and keeping everyone straight is a bit of a task. I did love a section at the end which lists what happened to all the key players – if they died and how, what they did after the disaster, where they were now if they were still alive. That was very handy and satisfied my need to know the ‘after’.

Very informative, it was a trek of a read but well worth it.


Book #203 of 2019

One response to “Review: Midnight In Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

  1. curlygeek04 says:

    I just started watching the miniseries and it is devastating. I know so little about what happened! This sounds like a fascinating but tough read.

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