Let’s distract ourselves from current disasters with even worse ones from the past, shall we? There are nor many single-event disasters with greater name recognition or cultural impact than the meltdown at Chernobyl—so much so, that it still shapes the zeitgeist around nuclear power 25 years after the event.
Adam Higginbotham does an excellent job at detailing exactly how the world fell apart and the exact human cost. It certainly seemed like the end of the world for the town of Pripyat, which was built close to the station as a place to house the families of the workers who kept the plant running. By all reports, the town was really rather pleasant and surprisingly well-stocked when compared to many other villages in the Soviet states. So on April 26 1986—the date where let’s be honest, everything went to shit—there were close to 110,000 people in within close proximity of the plant that received a rather unwelcome and dangerous front-row view of the meltdown.
One of the most curious things I learnt from reading Midnight in Chernobyl is how slowly the details of the disaster leaked out, and how long it took for the implications of tragedy to sink in. And the usual drivers are here in full force: nuclear power was the jewel of the grown for the Soviets, and letting the Western powers know that something had gone horribly wrong was a source of abject humiliation for them. You would think that endangering the lives of their citizens and those in nearby countries would also weigh heavily on their minds, but then again—we’ve all seen the COVID crisis play out, right? Maybe we really shouldn’t be surprised that they took over 36 hours to get their arses into gear and acknowledge that an accident has taken place.
And forget about the finer details: they were not forthcoming about those either.
The townsfolk of Pripyat and the surrounding areas were among those that the government tried to keep in the dark; an insane thing really, when so many of the people living there were family members were technicians and engineers who worked at the plant. A number of these folks tried to contact home and instruct their families on the precautions they would have to take to avoid exposure, only to find that phone lines had been preemptively cut and town access monitored. When the government finally evacuated Pripyat, they gave every impression that the townsfolk’s absence would be temporary; telling them to take only two or three days worth of clothing and dropping them off at the homes of rural families.
Pripyat would never recover. Neither would many of the men who had been staffed at the plant at the time of the meltdown. Many of them died of radiation sickness and never saw their families again. These accounts are quite horrifying, so if you’re not really one for reading these things, please fortify yourself beforehand. Higginbotham deserves praise here for preserving the human element and for handling these men’s stories with the dignity that they deserved.
As for what initiated and propagated the disaster? I have to say it, but we all knew it was coming: incompetent boobery from the government, driven by political expediency. While a number of the personnel at the plant made some serious mistakes, it was the Politburo officials that directed the construction of the plant, appointed the staff that ran it, and then set unrealistic expectations for them to follow.
I mean, the accident occurred when the operators at the plant were running a test. That was overdue. And unpracticed. And some of the staff were running on virtually no sleep. But even then, the meltdown could have been avoided if the control rods had been designed correctly. Or if the operators had been made aware of these shortfalls.
This book was engrossing, but also very grim. To sort of detach myself from the events slightly, I took to playing through Golf Story while listening to the worst of it. The audiobook, read by Jacques Roy, magnificently done by the way. But it can be difficult to keep track of all the people involved without the text right in front of you, so don’t detach yourself too far, or you’ll find yourself going back and relistening to chapters again.
They don’t get easier a second time.
Highly recommended if you’re interested in the subject or have the stomach for it.