book reviews

Reviewing: Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster

It’s finally April, and according to T.S. Eliot, “April is the cruellest [sic] month”. April is when spring really springs. But it’s also been a time of great tragedies. Most recently, it’s been a month that has proven popular for mass killings. Both Columbine and the Virginia Tech Massacre occurred in April, as did the Oklahoma City Bombing. April is also when the world’s greatest nuclear disaster occurred back in 1986.

On April 25th and 26th, 1986, I was in the eighth grade and 13 years old. The Soviet Union was alive and well, and people worried about nuclear war. The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, located on the outskirts of picturesque Pripyat, Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, had been heralded as a great Soviet achievement, as it provided clean, cheap power to scores of people. The Chernobyl plant was constructed between 1972 and 1977; it was the third nuclear power plant built in the Soviet Union and the first on Ukrainian soil. It was originally named the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station and it consisted of four nuclear reactors, which provided about 10% of Ukraine’s power at the time of the accident.

During a late night safety test on April 25, 1986, things went horribly awry. The safety test simulated a blackout, and all of its safety systems were intentionally shut down. Thanks to a “perfect storm” of conditions, to include reactor design flaws and reactor operator errors, as well as shoddy Soviet era construction, there was an uncontrolled reaction condition which resulted in a steam explosion and open-air graphite fire. The fire propelled updrafts of nuclear waste into the atmosphere that eventually drifted as far north as Scandinavia and blanketed much of western Europe. The area around the nuclear power plant was flooded with radiation and radioactive dust, which has made Pripyat and the surrounding area unsafe to live in. It will probably be hundreds of years before people can safely reclaim that territory, which at this point, has been overrun by nature. Descendants of pets left behind after the accident are still living near the power plant; they are unsafe to rescue or even pet, because their bodies are contaminated by radiation.

I learned a lot about Chernobyl when I read Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by journalist Adam Higginbotham. This book, which was just published in February 2019, is an exhaustive and comprehensive account of what happened at Chernobyl when the nuclear power station exploded, who was involved in the accident and responsible for its occurrence, and what happened to the many innocent civilians living in Pripyat. I will admit, this isn’t the cheeriest book to be reading, but as someone who remembers when this accident happened and then later lived in the Republic of Armenia, which also has a nuclear power plant (Metsamor), I found it fascinating reading.

News about the accident. Interesting video, because it shows western news coverage and Soviet coverage of the accident, along with actual footage.

It might be because of Metsamor that I decided to read about Chernobyl. When I first arrived in Armenia in June 1995, not even ten years had passed since this enormous accident, the news of which Soviet authorities had tried so hard to suppress. I remember that all Peace Corps Volunteers were issued tiny bottles of iodine pills, which we were supposed to immediately take in case of a nuclear event. It was supposed to protect our thyroid glands. We were instructed to carry that bottle of pills with us wherever we went.

I remember Metsamor was closed when we first arrived, and had been since December 1988, when the city of Gyumri and surrounding areas suffered a devastating earthquake that had killed over 55,000 people and destroyed cities. When I was in Armenia, Gyumri still hadn’t been rebuilt, so it was still easy to see the horrific damage even several years later. Officials were afraid the earthquake had damaged the nuclear power plant, so they shut it down to avoid another Chernobyl situation. Unfortunately, Metsamor provided Armenia with a lot of electricity and, at the time, there was an energy blockade imposed by Turkey and Azerbaijan, due to hostilities with those two countries. Consequently, during my first year in Armenia, I pretty much lived without electricity. It was sharply rationed, and I was lucky to get two hours a day. I lived in the capital, though, so I probably had it better than some of my co-workers. Many Armenians were amateur electricians, and they’d hook up a “left line” to local hospitals or a metro station, which always had power.

Some of my colleagues had been assigned to villages that were too close to Metsamor, which was scheduled to reopen in 1996. They had to be hastily reassigned because we weren’t allowed to live within 30 kilometers of the nuclear power plant. And yet, on a rare cloud free, smog free day in Yerevan, I could actually see the nuclear power plant’s reactors from various high points in the city. I often cynically thought about what would happen if Metsamor exploded. I figured I’d be a goner, or at least get radiation sickness. In 1996, Metsamor did reopen after it was examined by nuclear specialists from around the world, including the United States. I remember coming home from a vacation in Turkey and Bulgaria to hear a strange humming. It was the refrigerator, which hadn’t run in six weeks. During my second year in Armenia, I had power 24/7. It was life changing. At the same time, it was unnerving to realize how close we lived to a nuclear power plant that was built during the Soviet era, especially given that Chernobyl had occurred less than ten years prior.

A Nightline episode about Chernobyl, circa April 1986. Interesting how they refer to all USSR inhabitants as “Russians”. Also interesting to see how the world has changed since 1986. It doesn’t seem that long ago.

Anyway… getting back to Chernobyl and Higginbotham’s book… I have to admit, it took me a long time to finish it. The subject matter is fascinating, but it covers a long story that encompasses more than just the accident itself. To really understand this, you have to remember that the Soviet Union was a corrupt regime with a very fragile facade. In the 80s, everyone thought of the Soviet Union as a “superpower”, in competition with the United States. However, although people there were encouraged to serve the state, there was little incentive to do so. Yes, there might be awards and/or accolades given to those who were high achievers. Maybe they’d get a better job or more desirable living quarters. But it’s not like most of them were paid a lot more, given more autonomy, or offered any real impetus to do their best. When they screwed up, they were harshly punished. When they achieved, they might get a new radio or a bottle of vodka or something.

What’s more, many Soviet products and infrastructures were notoriously inferior. Higginbotham explains that Chernobyl’s construction was slipshod, which paved the way for the future disaster that would doom so many people– particularly those who were unfortunate enough to be living near there at the time. Higginbotham does a good job describing the eerie quality of Pripyat after the accident, especially as some people were allowed to come back and reclaim some of their belongings. They were given a very brief amount of time to go through their valuables, all of which had to be tested for radiation. Consequently, for decades, Pripyat has been like a ghost town, with remnants of the Soviet era crumbling, rusting, and still there thirty-three years later. However, looters have come by and stripped the area of metal.

In the wake of the accident, military servicemembers were tasked with cleaning up the mess. Some of them got out of the duty by paying off the powers that be, something I was also aware of in Armenia, where in the 90s, young men were expected to serve in the military. Those who didn’t pay up, were sent to the front lines in Azerbaijan. I often saw the horrifying results of that service, in the form of men who had lost limbs or were otherwise killed or maimed. The corruption was unfair, of course, for those who lacked the ability to bribe officials. Even in the Soviet Union, some people were better off than others were. The ones who were not as well off, paid with their health or even their lives. In one part of the book, Higginbotham writes of the brave people who ran into “ground zero”, worked for about a minute, then ran out of the area for their lives. Within a minute, they had reached their lifetime safe quota of radiation exposure.

Bill was in Germany from December 1987 until May 1991. One of his first German landladies got very sick with leukemia. She died within six weeks of diagnosis. It was thought she got sick due to exposure to the radioactive fallout that had drifted across Europe from Ukraine. Even today, there are still wild boars in the Czech Republic that are loaded with radiation– so much so that they can’t be consumed. Although Chernobyl has now become something of a tourist destination, it’s still not safe to live there or visit for longer than a short time.

I think about the age I was when Chernobyl happened… right smack dab in the middle of adolescence. I wonder what it must be like for my contemporaries who happened to be living in Pripyat in April 1986. Families had to be evacuated from the area, but this didn’t happen immediately. Authorities tried so hard to keep the accident a secret, but it was impossible because there was no way to prevent the fallout from escaping Ukraine. It drifted north to Belarus, to other eastern bloc countries, and all the way to Scandinavia. Higginbotham does a masterful job explaining the story of specific people involved– the female mayor trying to save her town– the people who ran Chernobyl and were involved with the cleanup– people who died– people who went to prison.

Higginbotham writes that Mikhail Gorbachev, then the Soviet Union’s leader, wrote that more than his policies of Glasnost and Perestroika, the Soviet Union collapsed mainly due to Chernobyl and the Soviet Union’s inability to repair the damage due to the staggering costs and simple lack of availability of the materials needed. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, so did research efforts and cleanup efforts. It was the same thing that happened in Gyumri, where the skeletons of buildings remained years after the earthquake had ravaged them. There was no money to clean up the mess and no leadership prepared to take on the task. And the economy was in the toilet, which is why so many former Soviet countries had Peace Corps Volunteers in the first place.

At the end of his very well-written book, Higginbotham offers an epilogue, detailing what happened to the people who were most involved with the Chernobyl accident. Some of them have, of course, died by now. Some are still living. Quite a few people went to prison during the waning years of the Soviet Union. One of the men emerged from prison, having not fought for his rights or tried to clear his name, since during the Soviet era, there was really no point. Then the Soviet Union fell apart anyway, so the people responsible for scapegoating him were no longer in power. It was kind of depressing to read that part– this man who had tried to be a loyal party member and went to prison, then came out emaciated, not knowing his granddaughter or having seen where his wife relocated after the accident. The country he knew was gone… and so was his hometown. It must have been very surreal on many levels. Pictures are also included, which I found especially intriguing.

I suppose if I had to offer a criticism of this book, it’s that it’s written from a western perspective by a British journalist. Because of that, there’s a bit of pro-western bias that comes through. On the other hand, having lived in the former Soviet Union myself, I’ve experienced first hand Soviet era building quality. I saw what happened to buildings in Gyumri, built shoddily and with cheap materials, as they collapsed after a massive earthquake. Most of those people didn’t have a chance. I’m afraid the same was true for Chernobyl and the people living near it.

HBO is about to release a new series about Chernobyl. I may or may not watch it, depending on if I can access it over here… and if I can stomach such depressing subject matter. I may have my hands full with The Handmaid’s Tale.

HBO’s take on Chernobyl.

2 thoughts on “Reviewing: Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster

  1. My uncle (Norwegian engineer) worked to help at the site as well as evaluate the contamination area which was huge. They will still have to contain that mess for a long time beyond what we currently know how to do. My uncle was involved in other nuclear research and ended up getting some really weird cancers that killed him by about age 60.
    I watched a “reality” fishing show with Jeremy Wade where he fished the waters near Chernobyl, although he could only fish for short bursts as his exposure levels would allow. He didn’t catch anything really unusual, like fish with three eyes, etc.

    • I can’t even fathom what those people went through. And the powers that be tried so hard to keep it all hidden.

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