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Midnight in Chernobyl : the untold story of a nuclear disaster

March 21, 2019

MIDNIGHT IN CHERNOBYL by Adam Higginbotham

It’s a wonder this book doesn’t glow in the dark. The cover declares “Midnight in Chernobyl” to be “a masterpiece,” and for once the dust-cover blurb is accurate. Higginbotham’s meticulously researched* dissection of the Chernobyl disaster reads more like a novel. *(About a quarter of the book consists of notes, glossary etcetera). As I turned the pages, I found myself frequently shaking my head and muttering “they did WHAT?

On the night of April 25–26 1986, Reactor Number 4 at Chernobyl, in the Ukraine, ran out of control and exploded during a test. The reactor reached a temperature of 4,650 degrees centigrade – almost the as hot as the surface of the sun – in the seconds before it burst. The subsequent explosion demolished three of the four walls and the roof of the reactor containment building, leaving the reactor core exposed to the night sky…a nuclear volcano which spread a massive cloud of highly toxic material over huge expanses of Ukraine, Russia, Scandinavia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, East and West Germany – fallout was recorded in France, and as far away as Scotland.

Higginbotham begins a detailed record of this terrible event with a succinct analysis of the moribund Soviet system, historically tagged the Age of Stagnation, which produced a series of gigantic nuclear power stations. The huge reactors were fatally flawed in their design, and slapped together in slipshod fashion to impossible deadlines. Chernobyl is the most infamous of these ‘disasters waiting to happen.’ Higginbotham skilfully draws the reader along to the inevitable.

We meet the tireless, dedicated plant director Brukhanov, who (before he built the Chernobyl station) built Pripyat, a large town nearby, to house the hundreds of plant technicians and workers and their families. Pripyat remains a ghost town, stripped by scavengers of anything of value, now overgrown by mutated nature.  We are introduced to many of the players, from the blinkered and dictatorial men in the Kremlin, to the station technicians who attempted to cope with the event as it unfolded, and were irradiated, many of them fatally, in their efforts to ascertain the extent of the calamity. We read of the heroic helicopter pilots and firemen who flew into the updraft of lethal radiation to drop sacks filled with sand and lead pellets, in a vain attempt to smother the exposed core.

An example of the carelessness involved in the disaster; at the time the reactor exploded, blowing highly toxic core material over a wide area, two off-duty staffers were spending the night fishing in one of the reactor coolant ponds. Apparently, these ponds were inhabited by unnaturally huge carp. The two men heard a series of heavy thumps, which drew their attention to the Reactor 4 building, which then blew apart before their terrified eyes. They were knocked off their feet by a radioactive shock wave. As they lay there, staring disbelievingly, they saw a “strange, cold glow” emanating from the shattered building. It’s not recorded if they took any of the freakish carp home to Pripyat with them as they fled.

Technicians and firemen, courageously attempting to gauge the extent of the damage, saw “…a shimmering pillar of ethereal blue-white light, reaching straight up into the night sky, disappearing into infinity.”

That’s scary enough, but perhaps scarier is Higginbotham’s record of post-explosion governmental cover-up, denial, blame-shifting and outright lying which followed. The technicians on duty at the time, despite being blameless, despite risking their lives in attempts to minimise the damage, were blamed by their superiors. Plant director Brukhanov received ten years’ confinement in a penal colony, simply “…because the plant director…was ultimately responsible.”

Irradiated Pripyat was eventually evacuated, its inhabitants dispersed. Many ended up in Kiev. They found that their children were shunned at their new schools, because it was believed they were radioactive. This notion was dismissed by the authorities. Then someone checked the kids, and found they were radioactive.

Despite the grim and tragic subject, I recommend Midnight In Chernobyl highly, it’s a real page–turner. You may not need your reading light on.


Reviewed by Keith Smith


From → Non-Fiction, Review

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