Author reveals terror of meltdown
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.