--THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER-- 'An invaluable contribution to history.' Serhii Plokhy, Evening Standard 'Tells the story of the disaster and its gruesome aftermath with thriller-like flair. Midnight in Chernobylis wonderful and chilling ... written with skill and passion.' Luke Harding, The Observer 'Superb, enthralling and necessarily terrifying... every step feels spring-loaded with tension... extraordinary.' The New York Times Early in the morning of April 26, 1986, Reactor Number Four of the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station exploded, triggering history's worst nuclear disaster. In the thirty years since then, Chernobyl has become lodged in the collective nightmares of the world- shorthand for the spectral horrors of radiation poisoning, for a dangerous technology slipping its leash, for ecological fragility, and for what can happen when a dishonest and careless state endangers not only its own citizens, but all of humanity. But the real story of the accident, clouded from the beginning by secrecy, propaganda, and misinformation, has long remained in dispute. Drawing on hundreds of hours of interviews conducted over the course of more than ten years, as well as letters, unpublished memoirs, and documents from recently-declassified archives, Adam Higginbotham has written a harrowing and compelling narrative which brings the disaster to life through the eyes of the men and women who witnessed it firsthand. The result is a masterful non-fiction thriller, and the definitive account of an event that changed history- a story that is more complex, more human, and more terrifying than the Soviet myth. Midnight In Chernobylis an indelible portrait of one of the great disasters of the twentieth century, of human resilience and ingenuity, and the lessons learned when mankind seeks to bend the natural world to his will--lessons which, in the face of climate change and other threats-remain not just vital but necessary.
As many have said it reads more like a novel, the author does an excellent job making the science understandable, there are loads of diagrams and maps, plus lists of who is who.
This is also the most comprehensive book to date. The level of detail is amazing.
I knew the USSR was a broken and corrupt nation but my god! All governments lie to their people but the USSR took it to unimaginable levels, for as long as they could.
This is truly a great book.
We also learn something about how a nuclear reactor works, which is crucial to understanding the causes of the accident. Most of the reactors in the Soviet Union were RMBK reactors, and there is a lengthy discussion of the serious design flaws of RMBK reactors. Prior to the Chernobyl accident, Soviet experts were well-aware of these flaws, and the flaws had in fact played a part in several prior, less serious nuclear reactor accidents. However, because of the primacy of state secrecy, no one at the operator level in the various nuclear power plants, including Chernobyl, was advised of or otherwise aware of these flaws.
The initial investigations of the accident determined that it was caused by operator error, and several of the Chernobyl operators were found criminally liable and went to jail. Only years later, after the fall of the Soviet Union, were the design faults of the RMBK reactor acknowledged as the primary cause of the accident.
After this initial very helpful background and history, the book commences an almost minute by minute account of the events of the accident, which took place in the overnight hours of April 25/26, 1986. Dozens of people were involved. Orders were given, followed, defied, countermanded. Chaos reigned. As you might expect, this part was somewhat difficult to follow, but I think it gave a real feel for what was being experienced by those involved.
After the accident, it took several days for Moscow to even admit to the world that an accident had occurred, even though relatively soon after the accident excessive radiation had been detected in Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe. Even after admitting the accident, Soviet officials downplayed its seriousness, stating it was under control, even while Soviet scientists believed a core meltdown was underway and were scrambling to come up with a plan to prevent such a catastrophe, which could have made much of Europe uninhabitable for hundreds of years. Soviet officials also delayed in ordering evacuations, first from Pripyat, the city where workers at the plant lived, then from the 30 km "Exclusion Zone" around the plant, as well as the ultimate evacuation of all children, nursing mothers, and pregnant women from the city of Kiev.
In a section entitled "The Liquidation of the Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident," (the name Soviet officials gave to clean-up efforts) we learn that hundreds of thousands of young men were called up for military duty in the Chernobyl Zone. It would not be an exaggeration to say that in many ways, these recruits were viewed as a type of cannon fodder, or more accurately "radiation fodder." Many jobs had to be done in relays of minutes, sometimes even seconds, before dangerous radiation exposure would occur, and officials weren't always too careful about measuring the radiation exposure or even enforcing the limits. (And the book "treats" us to some very graphic descriptions of the effects and the treatments for acute radiation sickeness). For me, this section can be summed up by the following quote:
"This was a task on a scale unprecedented in human history, and for which no one in the USSR--or, indeed, anywhere else on earth--had ever bothered to prepare. Yet now it was also subject to the routinely absurd expectations of the Soviet administrative-command system
Over the weeks and months after the accident, engineers designed and constructed a "sarcophagus" to enclose the shattered reactor, even as scientists continued to try to track down the missing uranium fuel from the core, which they feared was still undergoing a nuclear reaction somewhere within the debris.
The book continues with the history up to the present day, and concludes that Chernobyl was an important factor in the fall of the Soviet Union. Surprisingly, despite everything we have learned about how unprepared we really are to deal with nuclear accidents, and how little we know or have imagined about what can go wrong, there currently is a renaissance in the nuclear power industry with some supposedly safer reactor types being proposed.
As a side note, last year I read another excellent book which analyzed the after-effects of the Chernobyl accident 30 years later which I highly recommend, Manual for Survival by Kate Brown
Chernobyl is a disaster I find endlessly fascinating and this history does an excellent job of recounting not just the disaster itself, but its place in the larger history of Soviet history and civilian nuclear power plants. The author lays the groundwork for the working environment at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant prior to the disaster and the flawed nuclear reactor many operators didn't realize they were working with. As the disaster unfolds, the author does a good job of tracing multiple stories and showing the conflicting views of what happened. Overall, this is an excellent account of the disaster and would be highly recommended for anyone with an interest in what happened at Chernobyl.
Complements the old Navy Nuke T-Manual explanation of 1) operator idiocy and 2) design idiocy. The accident wasn't possible without both components. Give me a good ol' Navy run PWR, please.
Worse than Three Mile Island in 1979 or Fukushima in 2011 was the disaster in Chernobyl in 1986. I have seen and read about the aftereffects on flora, fauna, people, land/water, and atmosphere for these past thirty years but nothing trustworthy about the causes and government response. This book does that, and its veracity is apparent by the amount of obsessive research in printed records and eyewitness accounts. Some aspects are best understood by nuclear physicists, but a little creative eyerolling is not a bad thing in such cases. The magnitude of incompetence tolerated and the political fallout, however, is easily understood by most of us.
For me, it was a Must Read, and I am thankful that I had the opportunity.
I requested and received a free ebook copy from Simon and Schuster Publishing via NetGalley. Thank you!
but one hopes it is widely referenced.
> At the dawn of the 1970s, in a bid to meet its surging need for electricity and to catch up with the West, the USSR embarked upon a crash program of reactor building. Soviet scientists had once claimed to lead the world in nuclear engineering and astonished their capitalist counterparts in 1954 by completing the first reactor to generate commercial electricity. But since then, they had fallen hopelessly behind.
> All living tissue is radioactive to some degree: human beings, like bananas, emit radiation because both contain small amounts of the radioisotope potassium 40; muscle contains more potassium 40 than other tissue, so men are generally more radioactive than women. Brazil nuts, with a thousand times the average concentration of radium of any organic product, are the world’s most radioactive food.
> under some circumstances—7 rods or fewer—pressing the AZ-5 button might not shut down the reactor at all, but instead trigger a runaway chain reaction. If this happened, the increase in reactor power following an AZ-5 trip might be so great that it would no longer be possible to halt the reaction before the entire reactor was destroyed. The source of the positive scram effect lay in the design of the control rods themselves, an unintended consequence of NIKIET’s desire to "save neutrons" and make the reactor more economical to run … the tips of the rods were designed to remain at the ready, just inside the active zone of the reactor—where, if they contained boron carbide, they would have a poisoning effect, creating a slight but constant drag on power output. To stop this from happening, the rods were tipped with short lengths of graphite, the neutron moderator that facilitates fission. When a scram shutdown began and the AZ-5 rods began their descent into the control channels, the graphite displaced neutron-absorbing water—with the effect of initially increasing the reactivity of the core. Only when the longer boron-filled part of the rod followed the graphite tip through the channel did it begin dampening reactivity
> Alexander Yuvchenko could see something more frightening still: a shimmering pillar of ethereal blue-white light, reaching straight up into the night sky, disappearing into infinity. Delicate and strange and encircled by a flickering spectrum of colors conjured by flames from within the burning building and superheated chunks of metal and machinery, the beautiful phosphorescence transfixed Yuvchenko for a few seconds. Then Tregub yanked him back around the corner and out of immediate danger: the phenomenon that had entranced the young engineer was created by the radioactive ionization of air and was an almost certain sign of an unshielded nuclear reactor open to the atmosphere.
> some of the scientists feared that if the white-hot fuel made contact with the thousands of cubic meters of water held in the sealed compartments there, it would bring about a new steam explosion orders of magnitude larger than the first. This blast could destroy not only what remained of Unit Four but also the other three reactors, which had survived the accident intact.
> starving and desperate, with their hopelessly irradiated fur, the abandoned pets were now toxic to anyone they encountered.
> To prepare his troops for the battlefield, Tarakanov built a full-scale mockup of the rooftops: a new postapocalyptic training ground, this time drawn from life, modeled on aerial photographs of the plant, and scattered with dummy graphite blocks, fuel assemblies, and pieces of zirconium tubing. … They scooped up a few fragments of radioactive waste, picked their way to the edge, and flung it out into the sky above what remained of Reactor Number Four.
> The cloud of radiation that spread out across Europe, making the catastrophe impossible to conceal, had forced the touted openness of Gorbachev's glasnost on even the most reluctant conservatives in the Politburo. And the general secretary’s own realization that even the nuclear bureaucracy had been undermined by secrecy, incompetence, and stagnation convinced him that the entire state was rotten. After the accident, frustrated and angry, he confronted the need for truly drastic change and plunged deeply into perestroika in a desperate bid to rescue the Socialist experiment before it was too late.
> opposition to the industry spread across the globe. In the twelve months following the accident, the governments of Sweden, Denmark, Austria, New Zealand, and the Philippines all pledged to permanently abandon their nuclear programs, and nine other nations either canceled or delayed plans for further reactor construction.
> the Complex Expedition began boring deep within Unit Four, extracting core samples from the debris to examine the very fabric of the building. By the late spring of 1988, almost exactly two years after the explosion, the drilling had reached the reactor vessel itself
Pure horror, with some astounding heroism.
Soviet Communism caused Chernobyl.
What I can say, however, is that this is a well-researched, well-written account of the meltdown, making use of eye-witness accounts and official reports. Some of the most interesting insights come from the accounts of the meetings of the Politburo, where the heads of the Communist Party debate how much they should tell the people of Ukraine and Russia about the accident. Reading about these mid-level politicians trying to massage the message and anticipate the reactions of their bosses reminds me of the spectacle of Trump appointees trying to anticipate and head off Trump's displeasure.
This history is a fable for our times, an account of when politics overrode expertise and managing up was more important than managing the meltdown. Highly recommended.
Of course, it is not about just any nuclear power station. The explosion of the fourth reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in April 1986 became one of the defining moments of that decade. Borne by the wind, radiation rapidly spread across much of mainland Europe. The first indications that a major failure had occurred emerged from Scandinavia, where increased radioactivity readings were detected at weather stations and at some Swedish nuclear sites. Indeed, engineers at a couple of Swedish power stations were initially convinced that their own sites might have been responsible for the increased readings. It was only as reports came in from locations across Europe that the source of the contamination was identified. Even so, it took several days before the Soviet Union conceded that an accident had occurred, and even then, adhering to traditions spawned in the Cold War, it strove to conceal the true extent of the disaster.
Some thirty site engineers and fire officers died in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, but the full extent of the impact is difficult to assess. The number of additional cancer patients throughout Kiev could have run into thousands, or even tens of thousands, and the incident is one of only two ever to have been given a rating of seven (the maximum possible) on the International Nuclear Event Scale (the other being the disaster at the Fukushima Power Station in japan in 2011).
Adam Higginbotham’s book gives a detailed account of the events leading up to the disaster and then the steps taken to try to deal with it, interspersed with brief histories of the development of nuclear power, and other previous incidents. Those included the near meltdown of the Three Mile Island site in America in March 1979 (by chilling coincidence, just a month after the release of the film The China Syndrome, about the meltdown of a nuclear power station) and the explosion at Britain’s flagship Windscale Power Station in Cumbria in October 1957 (the full extent of which was not revealed by the British Government until more than thirty years later).
Hubris and folly played a huge part in the lead up to the disaster. Plagued by economic strife, and urgently requiring access to abundant and cheap power to drive its industrial development, the Soviet Union brought nuclear power stations online ahead of its American rivals. It was, however, a victim of its own inflexible administration, and its dependence upon grandiose five-year plans. In a bid to expand the nuclear grid, corners were cut, and avenues of emerging international research ignored. Further difficulties arose from the failure of Soviet technology to advance evenly. While Soviet scientists’ understanding of nuclear science and engineering largely kept pace with tht of their counterparts in the West, they lagged behind when it came to electronics and computing, and the accurate monitoring facilities that they could offer.
But this is also a story of extraordinary heroism from fire fighters. Appliances rushed to Chernobyl from all over Ukraine, initially, and then from the rest of the Soviet Union. They were woefully inadequately equipped to deal with the extremes of heat and fire damage that they encountered, even without the additional danger caused by the effects of radiation. Yet they persisted, for days, trying different approaches to stop the reactor melting down completely, exposing themselves to unknown, perhaps unknowable risks.
Higginbotham keeps the reader’s attention in a vice-like grip. Although he does not shy away from technical descriptions, he has the gift of being able to explain complex principles in an accessible manner, and I found this book utterly fascinating.