by Adam Higginbotham. Simon & Schuster, 2019
Learn from others’ mistakes, rather than making your own. This is one of the lessons from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Thirty-three years after it, the public is finally getting ready to uncover most of its secrets.
Will Chernobyl become mainstream again? HBO has recently offered a historical drama television miniseries, titled simply Chernobyl. Its IMDb ranking peaked at #1, overshadowing even Game of Thrones.
Publishers have also surprised us with excellent books. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham; Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future by Kate Brown; Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy; and other titles are filling the must-read lists. The recent publication of these books is no coincidence: Once-classified official records have become available to researchers only recently. Reality is grim, but the truth is truly attractive.
Investigative reportage as a genre is a perfect fit for a great story. In his book Midnight in Chernobyl, Adam Higginbotham covers a period from 1970, when the Chernobyl power plant plans were finalized, until 2018, when the new safe confinement was built. A talented journalist, Higginbotham describes people’s lives, values, emotions, and even appearances, giving a many-sided picture rarely present in more academic accounts of the disaster.
The book is organized in two large parts. “Birth of a city” covers the stories of Pripyat and the power plant, the basics of radiation, the explosion, and chaotic evacuation. “Death of an empire” talks of the higher levels of Soviet governance, and shows political, social, health, and environmental consequences of radioactive contamination. The additional bonuses for readers are unique photos, maps, and even casts of characters.
The author analyses the roots of the disaster: the built-in stupidity of the plant’s design, bureaucratic stupidity resulting in operators’ lack of awareness about existing issues, and the behavior of both workers and higher-ups.
While evaluating the chain of events and lack of integrity, Higginbotham also reflects on some worrying trends. He cites one of the investigators: “the Chernobyl accident comes within the standard pattern of most severe accidents in the world. It begins with an accumulation of small breaches of the regulations. These breaches produced a set of undesirable properties and occurrences that, when taken separately, do not seem to be particularly dangerous, but finally an initiating event occurs that, in this particular case, was the subjective actions of the personnel that allowed the potentially destructive and dangerous qualities of the reactor to be released.”
The lesson learned is don’t underestimate even the small mistakes. “The accident was inevitable. If it hadn’t happened here and now, it would have happened somewhere else,” Soviet Prime Minister Ryzhkov said. “We have been heading toward this for a long time.”
Higginbotham helps analyze those decisions. While navigating the complexities of radiation science, the author offers his readers an added value in organizational management, governance and explains why particular trends arise.
Did the world learn from this nuclear Armageddon? As Higginbotham’s investigation discovers, Chernobyl’s path continued: “The disaster involving the three General Electric-built reactors on the northeastern coast of Honshu followed a now familiar course, this time played out live on television: a loss of coolant led to a reactor meltdown, a dangerous buildup of hydrogen gas, and several catastrophic explosions.”
I have many memories of these events since early 1990, when I?began investigating the disaster. As a Ukrainian environmental journalist and a researcher, I had a hard time collecting pieces of this puzzle due to secrecy. This book finally tells the complete story. It also reminds us that radiation is invisible, but high levels of it are recognizable. And, as in the case of photographer Igor Kostin from the book, the radiation was so intense that afterward it became visible also on my old photographic film.
Higginbotham did an excellent job in producing this book. While some visitors just put a foot in the door of the Chernobyl zone, the author stands on the shoulders of previous researchers. His investigation has become a true encyclopedia of the disaster and should be included in all textbooks on nuclear issues.
Reviewed by Alexander Belyakov, a Toronto-based journalist, independent scholar and blogger at fromchernobyltofukushima.com