The lessons of Chernobyl live on

I put Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster (2019) on my TBR stack early in the pandemic, when I heard author Adam Higginbotham interviewed on Chris Hayes’ Why Is This Happening? podcast. The gist of the podcast was to talk about the parallels between the ways the Soviets completely botched their response to the Chernobyl disaster (secrecy, lies, denial, gaslighting people trying to sound the alarm, dragging their feet on remediation, etc.) with the Trump administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic (ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto, sigh). It was a fascinating discussion but also made me want to learn more about an event that I remember (it happened when I was in my early 20s) but haven’t heard or read much about it since the actual event, when of course information was extremely limited (see list of reasons above).

The book itself has none of the coronavirus discussion because it was published pre-pandemic. But it’s a strong, thorough attempt to first walk through, minute by minute, exactly what happened on April 26, 1986, the Soviet response or lack thereof as the situation developed, and the current state of things at Chernobyl (again, no mention of the war in Ukraine or the Russians temporarily seizing control of a nuclear power plant earlier this year and the subsequent stirring up of radioactive material).

Nearly as fascinating was the section discussing all of the ways the very construction of Chernobyl was dogged by problems exacerbated by the Soviet system that rewarded pretending everything was going fine even as corners were being cut and safety measures slashed to meet unrealistic timelines and budgets. And the look back at previous nuclear accidents in the USSR, many of which never came to public attention until the Soviet Union fell apart, is chilling. The largest nuclear disaster before Chernobyl, in fact, was in the 1950s at a super-secret plutonium production facility, although the Soviets never admitted that it happened or even acknowledged they had a nuclear facility in the location until decades later. The Soviets were not alone in their extreme secrecy around nuclear events, though; there was a large fire and radiation release in 1957 in the United Kingdom that released masses of radiation across the UK and Europe. The full scale of the accident — which while severe did not approach the level of Chernobyl — was suppressed by the British government for 30 years.

As you might imagine, there is a lot of science in this book. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to follow it all, but Higginbotham does a good job of explaining in clear language exactly what happens in a nuclear reactor, how the Soviet design differs from those in the West, and the effects exposure to high levels of radiation have on living things — the most harrowing passages in the book, by far. The book does a good job contrasting what happened at Chernobyl with the causes of disasters at Windscale in the UK, Three Mile Island in the U.S., and Fukushima, Japan. Apparently, nuclear disasters are like Tolstoy’s families, each unhappy accident unhappy in its own way.

Higginbotham continued his reporting even into the 2010s, as he continued to visit with people who had survived the accident (or their living relatives in the case of those who died), detailing the ways in which it had affected and in many cases shortened their lives. And he seems particularly keen to make clear that while it was the operators in the control room on the night of the disaster who bore the brunt of the blame and criminal prosecution, the accident actually stemmed from a known flaw in the reactor design, which the Soviets had known since the very first reactor of that type they ever built, in the 1950s. The flaw was documented in academic papers and immediately suppressed instead of trying to fix it and make the reactors safer, which could have prevented Chernobyl from becoming a name that invokes fear and horror around the world.

I don’t suppose this book is for everyone; it’s grim and extremely difficult to read in many ways. But if you’re interested in learning more about how secrecy, coverups and an intolerance for honest feedback from subordinates can lead to immense tragedy, it’s well worth your time.

Published by Julia

I learned to read before I started kindergarten, and I haven't stopped yet.

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