Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster
By Adam Higginbotham
Simon & Schuster, 2019, 560 pp.
Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe
By Serhii Plokhy
Basic Books, 2018, 432 pp.
Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future
By Kate Brown
Norton, 2019, 432 pp.
Three recent books examine the origins and fallout of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion in 1986. At the center of both Higginbotham’s and Plokhy’s books are minute-by-minute reconstructions of the world’s worst nuclear accident and its immediate aftermath. The more detailed their accounts become, the more the two histories overlap. The two narratives feature many of the same protagonists: scientists, managers, engineers, firefighters, doctors, Communist Party functionaries, and government officials. They even use some of the same quotes. Both works begin with the preparation for the fatal test of Chernobyl’s Unit 4 reactor, which led to the explosion. In both books, one encounters the initial obliviousness of local residents, with children playing outdoors, men fishing, and sunbathers marveling at how easy it was to get a tan that day, all while the radiation readings on the (very scarce) dosimeters were off the scale and terror-stricken nuclear experts feared the possibility of a true Armageddon of radioactive contamination reaching the Dnieper River and the oceans of the world. Both Higginbotham and Plokhy show how the communist leadership mobilized hundreds of thousands of “expendable” people to clear the damage caused by the catastrophe. They explain how the Soviet Union’s enormous appetite for nuclear energy encouraged thrift over safety; the state ignored warnings about flaws in the reactor design and covered up information about preceding accidents.
The two books are, of course, not entirely identical. Readers interested in technology will appreciate Higginbotham’s fascinating descriptions of how Soviet specialists solved the formidable technological challenges involved in the cleanup of the contaminated territory. He calls the sarcophagus installed over Unit 4 a “medieval fantasy of a prison to hold Satan himself,” whose construction was a technical triumph in the face of horrifying conditions: Soviet officials had to measure each job not only in terms of the time it would require but also in terms of the number of individuals who would be “burnt.”
Plokhy’s book focuses more on political history. Its closing chapters explain how the antinuclear movement started by Ukrainian writers soon broke the bounds of the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s timid policy of openness and evolved as a Ukraine-wide eco-nationalist movement. In December 1991, five years after the Chernobyl catastrophe, Ukrainians overwhelmingly voted for independence. The Soviet Union ceased to exist that month, but it took many more years before the Chernobyl nuclear plant was finally decommissioned.
Brown explores the legacy of the disaster, arguing convincingly that experts have underestimated the damage it inflicted in the following years on people in Ukraine and neighboring Belarus and Russia. International organizations, and especially the International Atomic Energy Agency, she contends, have consistently ignored evidence pointing to the deleterious effects on human health of chronic exposure to low-dose radiation. She rests her conviction that healthy people in the territories well beyond the “alienation zone” became ill soon after the disaster on the vast material collected by doctors in Belarus and Ukraine and on years of her own dogged research, including painstaking studies of those countries’ health registry records. Working in national and provincial archives, she was often the first researcher to sign out long-neglected files. Traveling in the contaminated rural regions, she discovered that although government officials gave residents safety recommendations, they could not follow them for lack of appropriate resources. Residents were chronically exposed to low-dose radiation as they continued eating contaminated food and using water from wells, wood for cooking, and ashes and manure as fertilizer. Experts are fixated on the sheer levels of radiation that spread from the plant, but Brown argues that they too easily dismiss factors that encouraged the absorption of low doses of radiation, such as rural lifestyles, the types of soil in the area, and local food chains, all of which contributed to the development of chronic radiation syndrome. Experts claim that they still know little about the effects of low doses of radiation, but Brown is convinced that they simply do not want to see the facts.