A New York Times Best Book of the Year A Time Best Book of the Year A KirkusReviews Best Nonfiction Book of the Year 2020 Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence Winner From journalist Adam Higginbotham, the New York Times bestselling “account that reads almost like the script for a movie” (The Wall Street Journal)—a powerful investigation into Chernobyl and how propaganda, secrecy, and myth have obscured the true story of one of the history’s worst nuclear disasters.Early in the morning of April 26, 1986, Reactor Number Four of the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station exploded, triggering one of the twentieth century’s greatest disasters. 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 its citizens and the entire world. 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 Drawing on hundreds of hours of interviews conducted over the course of more than ten years, as well as letters, unpublished memoirs, and documents from recently-declassified archives, Adam Higginbotham brings the disaster to life through the eyes of the men and women who witnessed it firsthand. The result is a “riveting, deeply reported reconstruction” (Los Angeles Times) and a definitive account of an event that changed history: a story that is more complex, more human, and more terrifying than the Soviet myth. “The most complete and compelling history yet” (The Christian Science Monitor), Higginbotham’s “superb, enthralling, and necessarily terrifying…extraordinary” (The New York Times) book is an indelible portrait of 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.
February 4, 2020
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Author Adam Higginbotham has done a masterful job of blowing the lid off of the sarcophagus of obfuscation under which the Soviet Union attempted to bury the truths about what happened at Chernobyl in April of 1986. He dug deep into archives, personal papers, professional journals, and hundreds of hours of interviews to piece together the puzzle of the events that led up to the explosion that destroyed Reactor Number Four at Chernobyl.The author offers, as well, background into the flaws in the design of the RBMK graphite-moderated boiler water reactor. He examines the corrupt and labyrinthine system of managing nuclear power in the USSR. While this is a superb work of journalism, it also holds the intrigue of a murder mystery. Who really was responsible? What really happened? Was it design error or operator error? The author makes this a very enlightening journey inside the minds of Soviet and Ukrainian leaders and scientists, as well as inside the broken lives of the workers who operated the plant and lived in nearby Pripyat.Mr. Higginbotham makes a credible case for the fact that the Chernobyl disaster and its lingering aftershocks were the catalysts that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Glasnost and Perestroika were not able to overcome the inertia of a Soviet machine that did not know how to tell the truth to its people or to the world at large. That lack of candor became as toxic for the Soviet state as the radioactive debris from Chernobyl became for those in the path of the fallout.I had a very personal;interest in this story. In 1992, I was part of a UN group that toured the Chernobyl complex, the village of Pripyat, and several hospitals in Kiev that were treating hundreds of victims of chronic radiation poisoning. Many of them were suffering from leukemia, thyroid cancer, and a host of other diseases. When we arrived at Chernobyl, we were taken to a visitors’ center where we were show a 1:6 scale model of the Chernobyl complex. The official guide proceeded to give this UN group a speech about the wonderful safety history of Soviet nuclear power. “Of course, there was this one small incident that the world tries to blow out of proportion,” At that time, one of the remaining reactors was still functioning, ,and we were taken to the control room, mere yards from the notorious sarcophagus that had been built to bury the debris of the core of Reactor Number Four. The engineers operating the plant were smoking, and ashes from their cigarettes fell onto the dials of the instruments that told them the status of the reactor and the turbines. It was clear that not many safety lessons had been learned from the worst nuclear accident in history.This is a story with many villains and some remarkable heroes. Add to the list of heroes Mr. Higginbotham, whose yeoman work in uncovering facts and truths about Chernobyl will help the world to make more informed choices about the future of nuclear energy. This is a book that should be read by anyone with an interest in energy, the history of the Soviet Union, and the forces that shape history.Enjoy!
The author did an exceptionally good job on several levels. 1) he told personal stories of the people involved, 2) he explained very well to me (I am a professional physicist who worked with radiation all my career , though not a nuclear physicist) what actually happened with reactor during the accident. This was an eye-opening experience. 3) and finally, he described the inhumane nature of the soviet regime, it’s secrecy and how it treated (or, mistreated) people and sacrificed their safety and health for the goals of covering up the accident to protect the reputation of soviet regime and soviet science and technology. This is one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read and most likely the best on the subject of Chernobyl accident. I give it 5 stars because I cannot give 6.
This is a gripping and enthralling read: a wild ride through a nuclear disaster and the desperate attempts of the men and women who tried to prevent it becoming something far worse. Higginbotham has a great turn of phrase, a grip on the material – but most of all, a sense that this a real story about real people. If you go into this seeing it as a story of nuclear physics and the failure of the Soviet Union, you’ll come out realizing that’s only part of the story. The men who fought the fires after the first explosion, the woman mayor who tried to save her town, the families who watched loved ones suffer from radiation sickness – this is about life and death. The story also tells us something about how politicians and officials struggled to manage – even deny – the truth, but the scale of the disaster escaped them. It’s a great read.
Journalist Adam Higginbotham has written what has been described as “a blinding work of narrative fact” that will “amaze, enthrall, and cause every reader to shed tears” for the legacy left behind by a nuclear disaster in “Midnight in Chernobyl.” That’s a flowery review but totally appropriate.The author brilliantly details the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident that started out to be a safety check intended to simulate a blackout power-failure. Through a combination of reactor design flaws and operators not complying with a test checklist, uncontrolled nuclear reactions caused several steam explosions and an open-air graphite fire. Airborne plumes of radioactive fission products were distributed into parts of the USSR and other European countries for many days.Two deaths occurred at the facility during the accident, 28 firefighters and other employees died of acute radiation sickness shortly afterward, and fourteen cancer deaths of 134 hospitalized survivors followed in the next ten years. It is estimated that, over the long term, several thousand additional cancer deaths will be attributed to the incident’s byproducts. Billions of dollars will be expended to mitigate the damage that has occurred, both to humans and the environment.Secrecy and falsehoods by the USSR are evident throughout the account. It is also apparent that accidents at nuclear plants occur frequently, most of which are relatively innocuous considering the potential. Because nations will never want to admit being the cause of any worldwide disaster, secrecy will probably continue to accompany nuclear mishaps by any government, a scary thought.Higginbottham’s research is immaculate, his comments and conclusions are well founded, and his writing is impeccable. The author has skillfully avoided fustian sentimentality, the scourge of investigative reporting, but still presents crackling prose that was a magnetic attraction for this reader.The official Politburo verdict blames the disaster on gross breaches of regulations by operators whose “irresponsibility, negligence, and indiscipline led to grave consequences.” The report lists the ministers who were dismissed and/or expelled from the Communist Party and states that court proceedings will follow. However, the author goes on to reveal that there’s much more to the incident.Higginbotham has uncovered the reality of the nightmare of nuclear disaster and makes it obvious that more tragedies might be expected. The potential is so real that every proposal for dangerous enterprises, regardless of purpose or stated invulnerability, must be carefully vetted and reviewed by knowledgeable and unbiased sources. A thoughtful study of “Midnight in Chernobyl” is certainly a prudent exercise in gaining such awareness.Schuyler T WallaceAuthor of TIN LIZARD TALES
This is a wonderful book. It covers the causes and effects of the Chernobyl catastrophe, and the event-sequence of its occurrence, better than any popular work has yet done. I do have one gripe about the technical presentation (more below), but the book overall is so outstanding that I’m giving the five stars anyway, and never mind the logical inconsistency.The main aspects of the story of the Chernobyl nuclear explosion and meltdown are the history of the USSR nuclear industry; the society and environment within which the civilian (electricity-generation) arm of the industry operated; the technical aspects of the disaster itself; the enormous Soviet recovery effort; the medical, health and environmental effects; and the long-term consequences and aftermath. No author can be a specialist at them all, but Mr Higginbotham nevertheless handles than all with equal facility, thoroughness and clarity. It’s a tour de force.One of my other reviews is of ‘Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy’ by the Ukrainian writer Serhii Plokhy. It’s good but is simply outshone by ‘Midnight…’. Mr Higginbotham’s work is superior in its technical exposition of the disaster; in its use of numbers and radiation metrics; in its description of the immediate Soviet response; on the construction of the sarcophagus; on what happened inside the entombed reactor in subsequent years; and, critically, in its assessment and identification of the underlying causes. In an unsentimental way, ‘Midnight…’ also expresses compassion for the victims as well as the poignancy of the consequences affecting individuals. Lastly, and in contrast to Mr Plokhy, ‘Midnight…’ seems to me to remain at all times politically disinterested and impartial.For identification of underlying cause — as opposed to the immediate technical triggers of the accident — I can do no better than quote from page 347: ‘…the origins of the Chernobyl disaster lay in a combination of “scientific, technological, socioeconomic, and human factors” unique to the USSR. The Soviet nuclear industry, lacking even rudimentary safety practices, had relied upon its operators to behave with robotic precision night after night, despite constant pressure to beat deadlines and “exceed the plan” that made disregard for the letter of the regulations almost inevitable.’ Case rests.The gripe? Yes. Mr Higginbotham’s technical account of how fission reactors operate (pp35-38) doesn’t maintain a continuous logical thread. Reading and re-reading didn’t clarify for me the inherent design flaw of the Soviet RBMK reactor. One sentence on p38 threw me and left me guessing: “In reactors that use water as both coolant and moderator, as the volume of steam increases, fewer neutrons are slowed, so reactivity falls.”. This seems counterintuitive: surely, if *fewer* neutrons are slowed, reactivity would tend *not* to fall? Explanation came from a high-school physics text that I paraphrase and summarise thus:-Natural uranium comes in two isotopes: Uranium238 (99.3%) and Uranium235 (0.7%).-Fission is caused by neutrons striking uranium atoms.-Fast neutrons are caused by fission of U235 atoms.-Fast neutrons striking U238 do not cause fission.-Fast neutrons striking U235 cause negligible fission.-Slow neutrons are only slightly absorbed by U238, and cause negligible fission.-**Slow neutrons striking U235 cause fission**.-For U235 fission to happen such that a self-sustaining chain reaction may occur, there needs to be sufficient mass of U235 (at least 2-3% enriched) in the total (U238+U235) mass of uranium.-Then, a good neutron moderator — water or graphite — is needed to **slow down enough fast neutrons** to sustain a chain reaction in U235.-If the moderator is water (most Western reactors), and if the water boils and turns to steam, steam is far less effective as moderator than water, *fewer* neutrons are slowed and the continuing U235 reaction stops spontaneously.-If the moderator is graphite (Chernobyl RBMK) and if surrounding coolant water boils and turns to steam, neutron moderation by the graphite is unchanged (the chain reaction continues) but the neutron absorbtion function of the coolant water reduces.-Moderation by the graphite as a consequence increases; reactivity increases; heat increases; more coolant water turns to steam and the escalation (expressed as the *positive void*) continues.-The unchecked result is fire in the graphite.-To control and reduce moderation by the graphite, the control rods must be inserted in the graphite core, and they **must work**.A layman’s sequencing, perhaps, which I am sure experts will fault. But it is logically joined-up and is superior to the explanations given by either Messrs. Higginbotham or Plokhy.Gripe allowed for, Midnight in Chernobyl is a fabulous book that I recommend unreservedly.
I have read a lot of books and technical reports on this appalling disaster.This books adds little that is new.It contains a number of technical inaccuracies which make me wonder if the author actually understood what happened that day.”The truth about Chernobyl” by Grigory Medvedev and “Atomic accidents” by James Mahaffey are both more accurate,the first giving a full account and the second a brief overview.
This is possibly the scariest book I have ever read, and makes any zombie horror film pale into insignificance.A series of avoidable problems (at least they would have been if not for the curious mirror world of Soviet politics) meant that a hastily designed, badly built and poorly maintained nuclear reactor (or to you and me a horrific world threatening disaster waiting to happen) had it’s predictable explosive melt-down.Because the Soviet system could not admit that their technology was not the world-leading miracle that their government proclaimed – they couldn’t tell anyone that a huge and deadly poisonous cloud of god knows what was heading out of Chernobyl and about to cross into Europe.And so for several weeks, whilst they fumbled about trying to fix it (which mostly meant sending untrained and unprotected men to try and cover the deadly nuclear core with a variety of things – some of which only made it worse), the world was unaware of the imminent radioactive menace bearing down on them.Read this and be VERY VERY afraid.Some of my family with young children at that moment in time were living in one of the places in the UK most affected by the radio-active fallout. It is curious (and unproven) but three out of four of them (including my young niece) all ended up with cancer of some form…
Insofar as the facts surrounding the catastrophe are known (for as the author says, even today not all are), Adam Higginbotham has made immense efforts to assemble them into a highly readable account. What struck me even more was the degree to which the then Soviet bureaucracy and government covered up the accident, failed to accept responsibility for fundamental design failings, ignored warnings from respected scientists and operators over a long period, apportioned blame ‘conveniently’, disregarded the safety of its own citizens and of the world in general…and a host of other things. Contrary to what ‘Dr Barry Clayton’ says in his review here, I can assure you that the book is NOT full of unnecessary detail: it is the small details and the human factors that make it readable. Were they not there, the book would be a very dry account. Don’t be put off by the rather melodramatic title – it is a thoroughly recommended read.
I can remember the disaster unfolding whilst at school and seemingly thinking at the time why we were only just hearing about it (3 days after it happened). The book answers this and many other subsequent questions and I cannot possibly imagine the amount of time and effort that went into the research for this book let alone the terrible consequences to those who so bravely and blindingly fought to contain the disaster whilst the politics tried to cover it up. Fascinating, frightening and wonderful in equal measure
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