The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster
As a book club, we are fascinated by science history and radioactivity it seems. Once I watched the HBO show Chernobyl, it rekindled my interest in the disaster. We had two Chernobyl books to choose from, and while I wanted to read Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history, Midnight in Chernobyl won out.
From the publisher marketing:
Journalist Adam Higginbotham’s definitive, years-in-the-making account of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster–and a powerful investigation into how propaganda, secrecy, and myth have obscured the true story of one of the twentieth century’s greatest disasters.
Early in the morning of April 26, 1986, Reactor Number Four of the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station exploded, triggering history’s worst nuclear disaster. 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Drawing on hundreds of hours of interviews conducted over the course of more than ten years, as well as letters, unpublished memoirs, and documents from recently-declassified archives, Adam Higginbotham has written a harrowing and compelling narrative which brings the disaster to life through the eyes of the men and women who witnessed it firsthand. The result is a masterful nonfiction thriller, and the definitive account of an event that changed history: a story that is more complex, more human, and more terrifying than the Soviet myth.
Midnight in Chernobyl is an indelible portrait of one of the great disasters of the twentieth century, of human resilience and ingenuity, and 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.
As I get closer and closer to the re-launch of the re-named book club (from Nonfiction Book Club to Towne 2.0 Book Club at the end of July), I’ve been trying to finish up the last of my review of Nonfiction Book Club titles. Collectively as a book club we seem to gravitate towards science history. And nonfiction in general, which is what brought us all together, so imagine how picking out fiction books that we could agree on went (not well) for new book club, so I’m delighting in revisiting some of my favorites from last year.
I included Midnight in Chernobyl in my Nonfiction November post last year and had been meaning to write the full review ever since. Given the current situation in Ukraine, it seems especially meaningful to write about a book that address the Soviet (now Russian) misinformation scheme that has been honed across the decades to now be convincing the Russian people that the invasion of Ukraine was justified. As my own country is also dealing with a great deal of misinformation these days, along with the flat out denial of human rights to over half its citizens, well, that’s for when I sit down and write a review of The Handmaid’s Tale which I’m currently re-reading.
The Chernobyl Disaster, as its Wikipedia page aptly calls it, occurred on April 26, 1986 and the effects were significant. While many of us have heard of the disaster, the details for many are blurry, other than to know it was bad. Some history, first. The USSR liked to create mini-utopia cities centered around an industry that they felt was a bastion of model Soviet-ness. Chernobyl was built as a nuclear power station and Pripyat was it’s model Soviet town (atomgrad, or town that supported a nuclear facility) to accompany it, a place for the workers and their families to live. Pripyat, when the nuclear disaster happened, had 50,000 people living there.
Midnight in Chernobyl recounts the disaster, the name being tied to the start of the shift during which the meltdown occurred. At 1:23am local time, an explosion shock the entire plant and reactor 4 was obliterated. Completely. It no longer existed. Misinformation part one: of course it’s still there. It couldn’t have been wiped off the face of the earth. Fire broke out, firefighters were called. Misinformation part two: it’s totally fine and safe for the firefighters to go in there. Most died – of the 100 casualties attributed to the explosion, many were firefighters and those who were working at reactor 4 that night.
Misinformation part three: it’s not so bad that it can be detected elsewhere in the world. Increased levels of radiation were detected across most of Europe. Misinformation part four: the radiation levels are not dangerous. The meters they were using to detect radiation levels could not accurately read the high amount of radiation in the area and were limited in usefulness. Misinformation part five: we don’t need to evacuate. Thankfully later reversed, but not after all 50,000 residents of Pripyat and the surrounding area were exposed to deadly levels of radiation. Misinformation part six: your illness is not a result of your radiation exposure. The overall death toll from long term illness related to the disaster is incalculable.
Misinformation part seven: the party knows how to handle a nuclear disaster, scientists are lying. This sounds eerily familiar…
Midnight in Chernobyl is an incredible feat of journalism. Adam Higginbotham interviewed survivors, did extensive research, visited archives and read first hand accounts of the accidents, all of which took a decade of his life to do. You would be very hard pressed to find a better researched book about Chernobyl – the bibliography is a small tome in and of itself. Many books regarding Chernobyl exist, but this is definitely one of the best.
Adam’s dedication to researching and writing about the entire disaster, from 1986 when it happened, through the investigation into what went wrong, through the affects still being felt in the 21st century, make for a highly compelling reading experience. And once you’re done reading, I highly recommend watching the HBO show Chernobyl or watching the Ukraine episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.
Rating: 8 out of 10
Where to Buy
In the USA, I recommend purchasing through BookShop or your local independent, in the UK, and many other parts of the world, I recommend Blackwell’s, and if neither of those cover where you live, I recommend checking out your local booksellers! Independent bookstores are vital parts of every local community and I wholly endorse supporting your local stores versus Amazon.