I was too young to remember anything about Chernobyl, only being five at the time of the accident, and information was slow to leak out in the days after the explosion (and news didn’t move as fast back then, anyway). But it’s become something that fascinates me as an adult. I read Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich in 2019, but I realized I really didn’t know much of the specifics of what happened, and in order to more fully understand, I would need to read on. A friend mentioned Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higganbotham (Simon & Schuster, 2019) after I’d read Voices, and so onto my list it went. I held back from reading it for a while, intimidated by the 538 pages, but fear not; a lot of that is footnotes, and the text in my ebook copy ended at around 50%. It’s not actually *that* huge of a book.
Adam Higginbotham has created a masterpiece here, weaving a story of incompetence, shame, national pride, and suffering that takes the reader back to the early days of Soviet nuclear innovation, where anything was possible and the USSR was large and in charge (if only in its own propaganda). The desperation of the Soviet Union to appear as a major force in nuclear power on the world stage required its architects, builders, and engineers to cut corners at every turn in order to keep up with the pace demanded by its leaders. What happened at Chernobyl was inevitable, caused by a major design flaw; if it hadn’t happened there, it would have eventually happened at another Soviet nuclear plant.
At every turn, Mr. Higginbotham shows how the wrong decision was made that cost lives and increased human suffering and environmental damage to the extreme. The truth was hidden for ages as unsuspecting citizens were exposed to massive amounts of radiation. Those in charge were loath to admit that mistakes had been made (by themselves or anyone else); what mattered more was how the Soviet Union appeared in the eyes of the rest of the world. The dangers of nationalism and pride are illustrated on every page of this remarkable book about a disaster that opened the public’s eyes to the dangers of nuclear power plants.
This book is a LOT. A lot of history with which I wasn’t familiar (I was born in 1980; I vaguely remember learning bits and pieces about the USSR when I was growing up, but I very much remember having a class discussion after the USSR fell and what that meant), a lot of explanation about the science behind nuclear power that I will admit flew right over my head, a lot of Russian names I struggled to keep straight (part of this is due to the fact that I read it as an ebook; I have a harder time reading nonfiction on my kindle. There IS a handy guide to who’s who in the front of the book, and I would really have liked to have been able to flip back to that!), a lot of anxiety-inducing scenes where the radiation levels were off the charts, and days upon days where leaders failed to evacuate anyone and instead let them marinate in radiation in order to save their own stupid pride. While I couldn’t explain anything about nuclear physics or engineering, I definitely have a better sense of the story of Chernobyl: what happened, what was covered up and lied about, and why.
This has all left me with a massive disdain for nuclear power, although Mr. Higginbotham is clear that things have gotten safer since then, with better design and different sources of power that are much less likely to melt down. But that’s still not zero danger, as Fukushima has shown us, and I’m not sure I’ll ever feel totally relaxed when it comes to the subject of nuclear power plants at all. I’m definitely glad I read this, though, because I absolutely feel better informed about the disaster and tragedy that was Chernobyl.