Au­thor re­veals ter­ror of melt­down

The Columbus Dispatch - - Life&arts - By Jen­nifer Sza­lai New York Times News Ser­vice

The word “Ch­er­nobyl” has long been syn­ony­mous with the cat­a­strophic re­ac­tor ex­plo­sion of 1986 — grim short­hand for what still qual­i­fies as the world’s worst nu­clear dis­as­ter.

It’s easy to for­get that the calamity seemed to drift to in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion as if by ac­ci­dent. A full two days af­ter the melt­down be­gan in Ukraine, with winds car­ry­ing ra­dioac­tive fall­out into Europe, alarms went off at a nu­clear power sta­tion in far­away Swe­den. Only then did Soviet of­fi­cials deign to re­lease a terse state­ment ac­knowl­edg­ing “an ac­ci­dent has taken place,” while stu­diously ne­glect­ing to men­tion the specifics of what had hap­pened or when.

In his chill­ing new book, “Mid­night in Ch­er­nobyl,” jour­nal­ist Adam Hig­gin­botham shows how an al­most fa­nat­i­cal com­pul­sion for se­crecy among the Soviet Union’s gov­ern­ing

elite was part of what made the ac­ci­dent not just cat­a­clysmic but so likely in the first place. In­ter­view­ing eye­wit­nesses and con­sult­ing de­clas­si­fied ar­chives, he re­con­structs the dis­as­ter from the ground up, re­count­ing the pre­lude to it as well as its af­ter­math. The re­sult is su­perb, en­thralling and nec­es­sar­ily ter­ri­fy­ing.

Hig­gin­botham spends the first part of the book nar­rat­ing a pre-dis­as­ter idyll filled with tech­no­log­i­cal op­ti­mism and glow­ing with pos­si­bil­ity. The Ch­er­nobyl nu­clear sta­tion, built in the 1970s, was in­tended as “the new power plant that would one day make the USSR’S nu­clear engi­neer­ing fa­mous across the globe.”

Un­der­neath it all, how­ever, was the creak­ing foun­da­tion of a Soviet em­pire whose nu­clear pro­gram was gov­erned by both “ruth­less ex­pe­di­ence” and a per­pet­ual fear of hu­mil­i­a­tion. Polit­buro of­fi­cials im­posed pre­pos­ter­ous timeta­bles and equally pre­pos­ter­ous cost-cut­ting mea­sures.

Most fate­ful for Ch­er­nobyl was the baf­fling de­sign of a • “Mid­night in Ch­er­nobyl: The Un­told Story of the World’s Great­est Nu­clear Dis­as­ter” (Si­mon & Schus­ter, 538 pages, $29.95) by Adam Hig­gin­botham

cru­cial safety fea­ture: con­trol rods that could be low­ered into the re­ac­tor core to slow down the process of nu­clear fis­sion. The rods con­tained boron car­bide, which ham­pered re­ac­tiv­ity, but the Sovi­ets tipped them in graphite, which fa­cil­i­tated re­ac­tiv­ity; it was a bid to save en­ergy, and there­fore money, by less­en­ing the rods’ mod­er­at­ing ef­fect.

When the book ar­rives at the early hours of April 26, 1986, the ac­ci­dent un­furls with a hor­ri­ble in­evitabil­ity.

What started as a long over­due safety test of Ch­er­nobyl’s Re­ac­tor No. 4 slipped quickly into a fullscale melt­down. An at­tempted shut­down us­ing the graphitetipped con­trol rods of course had the op­po­site ef­fect; the core grew hot­ter and hot­ter, and the re­ac­tor started to de­stroy it­self.

Hig­gin­botham de­scribes an ex­cru­ci­at­ing af­ter­math, as Pripyat’s res­i­dents were coaxed into a “tem­po­rary” evac­u­a­tion and mid­dle-aged re­servists were drafted into a hap­haz­ard cleanup process. Ro­bots, de­ployed in an at­tempt to pro­tect vul­ner­a­ble hu­mans with sup­pos­edly hardy ma­chines, were ren­dered use­less as ra­di­a­tion scram­bled their cir­cuitry.

Five months later, the of­fi­cial death toll of those directly killed by the event stood at 31, a fig­ure that doesn’t in­clude those who died from the ef­fects of ra­di­a­tion ex­po­sure in the years that fol­lowed.

As for the re­mains of Ch­er­nobyl it­self, they’re now sit­u­ated within an “ex­clu­sion zone” of 1,000 square miles, where wildlife flour­ishes in what Hig­gin­botham calls “a ra­dioac­tive Eden.”

Soviet ob­fus­ca­tion com­bined with the un­pre­dictable course of ra­dioac­tiv­ity means that the true ex­tent of the dis­as­ter may never be fully known. But Hig­gin­botham’s ex­tra­or­di­nary book is an­other ad­vance in the long strug­gle to fill in some of the gaps.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.