Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham (2019) – Nonfiction
The disaster at Chernobyl is a historical event that I have always been obsessed with. It fascinates me. The aftermath has been widely documented and the deserted city of Pripyat that was built around the nuclear power plant to furnish the manpower to operate the system is now a tourist site.
On April 26, 1986, Reactor Four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the former Soviet Union (now Ukraine), exploded. The explosion pushed radioactive material from the core of the reactor into the air and forever changed the lives of those who lived around the plant and for others even thousands of miles. For those that lived in Pripyat, in a few short weeks they would never be allowed to live in the city ever again.
Higginbotham explains in detail how the plant exploded. It wasn’t a freak accident. In fact, the physical reason that the plan exploded, which is explained in detail, was a design flaw that was known prior to the explosion could potentially cause an explosion in a few critical situations. But because the Soviet Union was building the “peaceful” atom to usher in a new, futuristic society, the building of the RBMK reactors continued across the Soviet Union.
Higginbotham brings concise explanations of the flaws of that night, minute by minute, second by second in some cases. He gives names to the engineers who were at work that day and describes their backgrounds, their families, and what led them to their positions. He explains how the majority of them died within a few weeks of the explosion from radiation poison. The effects of radiation, especially at the levels that those who who were there that night, are indescribably. Radiation can not only cause cancer. It actually breaks down our DNA. It turned the insides of these men inside out, burning them, until their lungs and heart collapsed within itself. It is a terrible way to die.
Higginbotham also documents the historic clean-up of the accident that took decades to finally complete. Because electronic equipment burned out when near the high levels of radiation, the Soviet Union used the next best thing, what they called bio-robots. Humans. Men and women poured into the area to help attempt the impossible. But they succeeded. Because of the secrecy of the Soviet Union, we will likely never know the exact number of individuals that suffered because of their work as “liquidators”.
Higginbotham’s book is striking in the brutality of it all. He doesn’t imbue any sympathy or any dramatics. There is no need, this event was dramatic on its own. He is a dutiful reporter, allowing those that survived some comfort to say their peace now that the Soviet Union is no more.
Adam Higginbotham is a writer for The New York Times, The New Yorker, GQ, Wired, and Smithsonian.
Lover of the written word.