When a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded and burned 33 years ago, it generated a radioactive cloud that contaminated parts of the Soviet Union and Europe before dissipating.
But the accident also created a fog of misunderstanding and confusion — in large part the result of a deliberate coverup by Soviet authorities — that has been slower to lift. Even three decades later, thorough authoritative accounts of the world’s worst atomic-power disaster are few and far between.
A new book offers perhaps the clearest, and fullest, look at the catastrophe yet. Adam Higginbotham’s “Midnight in Chernobyl,” is a compelling and comprehensive account of one awful night in Ukraine and the consequences that were felt worldwide. Higginbotham’s observations, and his writing, are so sharp there is no need to overdo anything for dramatic effect. Told so clearly and in such detail, the story is dramatic — and horrific — enough.
The basics of the disaster are well known. During a badly conceived (and even more poorly executed) test at Chernobyl’s Unit No. 4 shortly after midnight on April 26, 1986, a sudden surge of power in the reactor caused it to blow apart. The resultant fire burned for days.
It took years, billions of rubles, and the back-breaking labor of hundreds of thousands of conscripted workers to contain the mess. More than 30 plant workers and firefighters were killed, most from radiation, and untold thousands more suffered health effects. A thousand square miles of territory still remain off limits due to radioactive contamination.
Over the years, a few chronicles of the disaster by Soviet writers have reached Western readers, most notably “The Truth About Chernobyl,” by Grigori Medvedev, a former engineer at the plant, published in 1991. But aside from Piers Paul Read’s 1993 “Ablaze,” good reads by Western writers have been scant.
That began to change last year when Serhii Plokhy, a Harvard historian, weighed in with “Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe.” But Plokhy’s work focused more on the political aftermath, including the downfall of the Soviet Union that followed just five years later, than on the details of the accident.
Higginbotham, a British journalist, takes account of the political fallout as well, but the bulk of his book is about the accident and the response and cleanup — primarily the first seven months, which culminated with the rushed completion of the concrete-and-steel sarcophagus that entombed the remains of Unit 4.
The author clearly has been captivated by the disaster for years. His interviews for the book began more than a decade ago, and include some of the key surviving characters. He was also aided by the recent declassification of much archival material, especially the deliberations of the various government tribunals that managed (or, more accurately, mismanaged) the response.
Higginbotham introduces us to a few people who have never received much notice. Chief among these is Maria Protsenko, the architect of Pripyat, the city of nearly 50,000 that was built for the Chernobyl workers. Like most of the Soviet Union’s privileged atomic cities, Pripyat was a clean, comfortable place, a glorious testament to the Soviet system, and Protsenko’s job for seven years had been to make it even more glorious.
Her world changed in an instant when the reactor exploded. Pripyat, just a few miles away, was heavily contaminated immediately, though it took the authorities a day and a half to order an evacuation. (This was just one of many examples of Soviet officialdom’s callousness and irresponsibility in handling the disaster. Another was telling the evacuees to plan to be away for a few days; in reality they would be gone forever.)
It’s hard not to feel sorry for Protsenko, who in the space of 36 hours went from proudly planning Pripyat’s expansion to calculating how many buses would be needed to get its residents to safety. (Precisely 1,225, as it turned out.) Ever the dutiful technocrat, she rode the last one, zig-zagging across the ghost city to pick up stragglers.
It’s this kind of detail that makes Higginbotham’s book so gripping. His accounts of the “liquidators,” or clean-up workers, are especially riveting — including the “bio robots,” men who had to clean lethally radioactive debris off the roof of the plant by hand after mechanical robots failed, and the workers whose job was to enter the destroyed reactor building itself, hunting for the remaining uranium fuel in an effort to allays fears that another, potentially worse, explosion was possible.
No aspect of the disaster and its aftermath is ignored. Higginbotham describes how members of a hunting and fishing association were enlisted to exterminate the dogs and other pets Pripyat residents were forced to leave behind. He recounts the woeful tales of plant operators and first-responding firefighters who lived their final days in a Moscow hospital, having been so heavily irradiated during the accident that they had no chance of survival.
He devotes a full chapter to the unprecedented job of building the sarcophagus, which was constructed by thousands of workers, many of whom only toiled for a short time before being sent home, having reached radiation exposure limits. One task was almost suicidal: finding solid supports among the radioactive ruins for the massive roof beams that were lifted by crane operators working behind lead shields.
The reactor’s design flaws are by now well known, but Higginbotham makes them understandable. Even technophobes should be able to comprehend his discussion of terms like “positive void coefficient” (a feature of the reactor that increased the risk of a runaway reaction) and of equipment like the graphite-tipped control rods that on the night of the disaster helped the reactor go out of control.
There are plenty of villains in the book, including the leaders of the country’s secretive nuclear bureaucracy, the Ministry of Medium Machine Building. Also known as Sredmash (a name right out of a James Bond novel), the agency is a ubiquitous presence, its tentacles slithering throughout Chernobyl — both before and after the disaster — and the book.
But part of the fog of Chernobyl over the years has been doubt about some of the villains — whether, in fact, they were victims. Higginbotham delves into this issue, especially the case of Viktor Brukhanov, the director of the Chernobyl plant who at the time of the explosion had been expecting to soon be honored as a Hero of Socialist Labor. Instead, he ended up in the plant’s emergency bunker, in shock and denial for days, before being arrested on charges of breaching safety regulations, tried and shipped to a prison in Donetsk.
Brukhanov can be seen as an enabler of the Soviet system, having pushed his staff for years to build what would have been the nation’s largest nuclear power plant and creating, or at least condoning, the working conditions that contributed to the accident. But Brukhanov was also a victim, one of a number of convenient scapegoats for authorities who sought to maintain the fiction that the system was all-powerful and all-capable.
With his detailing of the reactor’s many design flaws — which were long known in Moscow — and discussion of the inevitability of an accident, Higginbotham makes it clear where Brukhanov and others lie on the victim-villain scale. In a very clearly written book, it is perhaps the ultimate moment of clarity.
Henry Fountain, a climate reporter at The New York Times, is the author of the 2017 book “The Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet.”