If you’ve been watching HBO’s Chernobyl than you’ve probably jumped down the nuclear disaster rabbit hole, and you may be looking for something to explain the finer details of the disaster. If, like me, you’re a laymen and can understand the basics of the technology but not the specifics, than a lot of the books out there may be daunting. Maybe you want a more personal account, but you don’t want to pick up one of the 500-800 page tomes out there documenting survivor stories, and that’s where Leatherbarrow’s book fills in perfectly. It’s a great length, with well discussed technical information, a brief but very striking history of nuclear accidents to provide context, and his own personal recollection of his 2014 visit to Chernobyl woven in to give it a personal, lived perspective, and a present day account.
I was born in January ’86, which is kind of a big year for bad shit; the Challenger shuttle explosion, Chernobyl, Mad Cow in England. For people born after the disaster, it’s just a thing that seems to be part of the world, and my own awareness of the accident only came about when I found pictures of Chernobyl after it started being safe enough for people to visit. We’ve all seen the haunting images of the artifacts and lives left behind, but it’s almost impossible to understand how this all happened and the scope of the devastation. Andrew Leatherbarrow found similar images in the aughts and, as an urban explorer, wanted to visit the site, but also understand what happened there in greater detail. His trip is like a pilgrimage, and he treats it with reverence and respect and dignity. He notes that, because he only had 6 hours in the city, he often had to run about quickly to hit all the things he wanted to see and photograph, and felt a bit guilty for experiencing it through the lens of his camera. Though at least he’s a good photographer, as he took some astonishing shots in the fall weather that you can see on his website.
Leatherbarrow is also, interestingly, a huge proponent of nuclear power, and believes it’s the best way forward, as long as the nations holding the power are developed and responsible enough to manage it. He carefully documents how malfeasance and ineptitude led to the disaster, and lays a lot of the blame where it belongs, with the manufacturers of the reactor itself. He makes a good case in his opening chapter for the safety of nuclear power in comparison to hydro and coal, with the stipulation that it must be used by responsible parties. He comes back around at the end to discuss Fukashima too, and how the operators of the plant were deeply irresponsible with the operation and, unlike the Soviets, the cleanup too.
If you want to know more about the disaster than the show gives you, but don’t want to go too in depth, Leatherbarrow’s book is a great place to start, and would make a great primer if you do decide to get into more detailed accounts but, like me, aren’t a physicist. I listened to the audio book, delivered in a wonderfully stuffy British accent that is clear and concise, and clocks in around 6 hours of listening.