I’m pretty sure I first saw Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham on NPR’s Best Books of 2019 List. Usually after a bunch of light romance novels, I can be in the mood for some more serious non-fiction. The Chernobyl disaster occurred on April 26, 1986 and lasted for many months afterwards. I was only seven at the time, and even as an adult I only had a vague notion of what occurred there. Besides knowing that a big disaster occurred I knew none of the details. Seeing all of the positive reviews for Midnight in Chernobyl convinced me that it was a good time to learn more.
Higginbotham wrote a very thorough, consistently interesting account of the Chernobyl disaster. Viktor Brukhanov was the director and builder of the nuclear power plant, and a rising member of the Soviet Party. Brukhanov began with nothing and built a huge powerplant with four reactors as well as the nearby town that supported the plant.
There were problems from the beginning. Brukhanov was under intense pressure to meet deadlines, even when there were supply issues. Thus, some of the original build was not up to its original design standards. Even worse, the RBMK reactor the Soviets used was not as safe as the ones used in the West. The soviets used rods to slow down the nuclear reaction, but those rods were tipped in graphite that would actually speed up the reaction. If too many rods were lowered simultaneously, it could be disastrous.
People were aware of these significant problems as early as 1983, but the nature of the Soviet Union and its nuclear program was to keep everything a secret. So, even the people working and running the plant did not learn about these potential issues until it was too late.
Higginbotham goes into great detail about the night of the explosion. During a safety test, things went out of control. There was a giant explosion that blew a gaping hole in the reactor and released an incredible amount of radiation. Firefighters located close by gamely tried to put out the fire on the roof. They were some of the most exposed. The insidious thing about radiation is that you can receive a lethal dose in just a couple of seconds, but you don’t feel anything in the moment. It’s only later that your body starts to fall apart. In the end, 31 plantworkers were killed and at least 100,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes. In addition, radioactive fallout caused an unknown amount of cancer and serious health problems across western Russia and eastern Europe. The Soviet Union’s response did not help matters. The nearby town was not evacuated for days after the explosion, and even then occupants thought they would be returning soon. The international community was also left in the dark until they demanded answers.
Higginbotham continues his description with the massive clean-up efforts, most of which had to be done with conscripted manpower. Finally, his story ends with the trials of the people “at fault.” Interestingly, this did not include the designers of the faulty RBMK reactors or the failure of those in the know to tell people what risks they should watch out for.
The most challenging part of reading this book was keeping the many different Russian agencies and Soviet political parties straight. The power struggle between some of these agencies was part of the story, but it was a lot to take in for someone so unfamiliar with Russian politics. It was also sometimes hard for me to keep the many power plant workers, politicians, and regular people straight in this book. There were so many, and they all had unfamiliar (to me) names. However, I’m really glad I read this book, and I learned a lot.
P.S. The Chernobyl miniseries on HBO has been highly recommended to me, and I mean to watch it when I get the chance.
You can find all my reviews on my blog.