Midnight in Chernobyl

  • By Adam Higginbotham
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 560 pp.
  • Reviewed by Sunil Dasgupta
  • February 22, 2020

Exposing the true scale of the cataclysmic meltdown.

Midnight in Chernobyl

Ever since three German physicists, in 1938, split the atom to produce an unprecedented burst of energy, nuclear enthusiasts have pursued the technology to build the ultimate weapon and the ultimate source of electric power.

The Soviet Union was not at the forefront of early nuclear breakthroughs, but once Stalin’s spies found out about the Manhattan Project, the mighty Soviet scientific establishment embraced the promise of the atom just as much as the Western powers did.

By the 1970s, the Soviet nuclear program developed a “light water” reactor that didn’t require the heavier hydrogen-isotope coolant used in Western reactors. Using light-water technology, the Soviet nuclear-power program sought to build its most ambitious project in the marshlands on the border of Belarus and Ukraine, 65 miles north of Kiev.

The Chernobyl Station, named after a small 12th-century town, was a set of four large nuclear reactors designed to produce 4,000 MW of electricity, 10 percent of Ukraine’s total electric power.

How that promise turned into history’s worst nuclear disaster, the massive and bumbling emergency response that followed, and the lessons learned is the subject of Adam Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl. From the greenfield choice of the land between the Pripyat and Dnieper rivers, to the protective dome hurriedly built over the smoldering ruins of reactor four, Higginbotham re-creates the tragedy in intimate detail.

Not only does he capture the wrenching events of April 25-26, 1986, when a safety-training session went awry, he also emplaces the tragedy in the long string of bureaucratic failures that preceded and succeeded it.

On that fateful night, the safety equipment in reactor four was disabled to allow operators to train on emergency procedures, but fuel had been stacked incorrectly, and the reactor itself had been cheaply built in the face of mounting technical, procurement, and economic challenges presented by a defunct Soviet system.

At its broadest, Higginbotham’s story is an exposé of the failures of the USSR and invites speculation about how the disaster might have contributed to the collapse of the Soviet empire itself.

Against the backdrop of official dysfunction and neglect, Higginbotham finds the heroism of individual scientists, engineers, technicians, and soldiers who either came to build and manage the Chernobyl project with so much hope, or else arrived to contain the disaster at great risk to themselves personally.

There is the Air Force colonel who spends all day on the rooftop of a high-rise hotel, directing helicopters dropping sand and clay onto the reactor in an effort to smother the burning fuel. Almost 600 Soviet pilots dropped 5,000 tons before engineers realized the velocity of the crashing material was compromising the concrete foundation under the reactor and raising the danger of contaminating the drinking water of 30 million people.

There is the doctor in Moscow’s special radiation hospital who began her life in one of the secret nuclear cities and practically discovered radiation poisoning in the Soviet Union. There are officials from nearby Pripyat — appropriated as an extension of the Chernobyl station — trying in vain to help the town’s displaced population. There are the engineers and construction crews who erected a massive dome to prevent the further release of radioactive material into the atmosphere.

The explosion killed two reactor operators immediately and activated an unprecedented national emergency response. By April 27th, the 21,000 residents of Pripyat had been evacuated to outside the 20-mile exclusion zone.

Over 200 operators, security guards, firefighters, and even those fishing in an inlet near the reactor were taken to Moscow’s radiation-treatment hospital. The aircraft that brought them was stripped and decommissioned. The bus that transported them from the airport was buried. More than 100 patients were diagnosed with acute radiation syndrome; 10 were immediately considered beyond help.

Officially, the Chernobyl tragedy killed 28 within months and another 15 (of thyroid cancer) in a few years. It may well have affected as many as 4,000 individuals over the ensuing years, though a formal accounting of the casualties happened only in 2005.

Chernobyl joined the list of nuclear horrors that started in World War II and eventually included Three Mile Island in the United States. It has now been followed by the 2011 Fukushima reactor meltdown in Japan.

In contrast to the mushroom clouds, destroyed cityscapes, and bedraggled survivors that captured the ferocity of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks, images of nuclear reactor accidents are eerily verdant, as if nothing happened. But they do not capture the silence that settles after even the birds have left, sensing invisible death. Higginbotham’s story has broken Chernobyl’s silence, and now even Ukraine’s post-Soviet government is considering contracting the exclusion zone that had kept people out of the area for 33 years.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2019.]

Sunil Dasgupta teaches politics and government at UMBC at the Universities at Shady Grove.

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