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Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster

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The definitive, dramatic untold story of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, based on original reporting and new archival research.

April 25, 1986, in Chernobyl, was a turning point in world history. The disaster not only changed the world’s perception of nuclear power and the science that spawned it, but also our understanding of the planet’s delicate ecology. With the images of the abandoned homes and playgrounds beyond the barbed wire of the 30-kilometer Exclusion Zone, the rusting graveyards of contaminated trucks and helicopters, the farmland lashed with black rain, the event fixed for all time the notion of radiation as an invisible killer.

Chernobyl was also a key event in the destruction of the Soviet Union, and, with it, the United States’ victory in the Cold War. For Moscow, it was a political and financial catastrophe as much as an environmental and scientific one. With a total cost of 18 billion rubles—at the time equivalent to $18 billion—Chernobyl bankrupted an already teetering economy and revealed to its population a state built upon a pillar of lies.

The full story of the events that started that night in the control room of Reactor No.4 of the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant has never been told—until now. Through two decades of reporting, new archival information, and firsthand interviews with witnesses, journalist Adam Higginbotham tells the full dramatic story, including Alexander Akimov and Anatoli Dyatlov, who represented the best and worst of Soviet life; denizens of a vanished world of secret policemen, internal passports, food lines, and heroic self-sacrifice for the Motherland. Midnight in Chernobyl, award-worthy nonfiction that reads like sci-fi, shows not only the final epic struggle of a dying empire but also the story of individual heroism and desperate, ingenious technical improvisation joining forces against a new kind of enemy.

538 pages, Hardcover

First published February 12, 2019

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Adam Higginbotham

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 4,896 reviews
Profile Image for Beata.
701 reviews1,061 followers
March 6, 2019
Having read several books on this catastrophe, I was tempted yet again to learn more about the disaster which affected directly, among others, my country to a still unknown degree. The Midnight in Chernobyl is one of the best non-fiction that you can read in order to obtain the most insightful and detailed account into the reasons behind the explosion, but it offers more. The Author tells the story of the nuclear ambitions during the communist era in the USSR, describes the building process of both the reactors and the dream-like city for the employees and their families, gives thorough minute-after-minute chronicle of the fateful night of April 25, 1986, and reports on the cleaning up process. I was, as always, shaken by the way the disaster impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people, both civilians and those who were liquidators ……. If you know little about what happened in Chernobyl on that night, I recommend this title.
Profile Image for Nataliya.
714 reviews11.3k followers
July 27, 2020
I’ve been deeply fascinated with Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Explosion ever since I read Svetlana Alexievich’s brilliant and deeply soul-crushing Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster that was indeed the people’s story of a true catastrophe. Since then I’ve read a number of books on the disaster - and for reasons strange and unfathomable even to my weird brain HBO brilliant miniseries “Chernobyl” became for me a kind of a comfort watch — a disturbing, soul-crushing, painful “comfort watch”.

Maybe it hits home, me being a kid at the time and living relatively speaking not that far (but thankfully far enough!) from the site of the tragedy. Maybe it’s remembering the stories my mom used to tell how in the Chernobyl summer our close relatives in the areas of Belarus less than 100 miles away from the disaster site noted how very large and pretty and delicious the mushrooms and berries were, not connecting the lushness of nature with the radiation effects. Maybe I just get obsessed easily with morbid situations. I don’t know - but by now I’ve read a few tomes about the disaster, and Higginbotham’s book, although stopping just a bit short of the excellence reached by Serhii Plokhy in his brilliantly researched Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe, is still quite excellent.
“The temperature inside the reactor rose to 4,650 degrees centigrade—not quite as hot as the surface of the sun.”

It is not easy not only to describe a tragedy but also to make the readers easily understand the science behind the faulty reactor and the Swiss-cheese model chain of events that led to it. It’s not easy to strike a balance between laying the groundwork, explaining the science, describing the political background usually not too familiar for non-Soviets, and still keeping it engaging and interesting and easy to follow. Adam Higginbotham does a very good job with it.
“The roof of the twenty-story building had been torn open, its upper levels blackened and collapsed into heaps of rubble. They could see shattered panels of ferroconcrete, tumbled blocks of graphite, and, here and there, the glinting metal casings of fuel assemblies from the core of a nuclear reactor. A cloud of steam drifted from the wreckage into the sunlit sky.”

“Graphite blocks that had once formed the core of the reactor lay everywhere—some turned white, perhaps by the heat of the explosion, but otherwise intact. Around them, levels of radiation reached as much as 10,000 roentgen an hour: enough for a fatal dose in less than three minutes.”


——————————

The recipe for Chernobyl nuclear disaster in a nutshell:


—————

And so it led to the reactor that exploded, a city of 50,000 just 3 kilometers away (and densely populated Ukrainian capital only a couple of hours from there), basking in the radiation glow that existed no matter how much the officials and the nomenklatura wished it didn’t, and there was no good way or plan or any idea how to deal with the potential catastrophic contamination that has never happened before. Eventual city evacuation and the creation of the (eventually much expanded) exclusion zone resulted, followed by attempts at containment and cleanup (some useless, some excellent, and some involving the chilling concept of “bio-robots”), and now online you can find the slowly crumbling ghost town of Pripyat partially reclaimed by nature and the world’s loneliest creepiest Ferris Wheel.



“And even the machines intended for use on the surface of the moon were no match for the inhospitable new landscape they encountered on the roof of the ruined plant. Their artificial brains scrambled, their wheels stuck in the bitumen, hung up on blocks of masonry or snarled in their own cables, one by one the robots all stuttered to a halt.”
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Yes, it’s hard to create a good balance between historical accuracy, presentation of scientific concepts and still maintaining interest and readability for the non-physicist reader. Higginbotham does well, keeping the dense material still easy to read and follow. The science is explained well. But what takes skill is the depiction of political climate, the nomenklatura, the intricacies of heavy Soviet bureaucracy and party apparatus. After all, Chernobyl explosion, coverup, cleanup and the aftermath are considered some of the reasons behind the collapse of the Soviet State, and showing the foundation that the cracks took down is important.
“Reactor Number Four was gone. In its place was a simmering volcano of uranium fuel and graphite—a radioactive blaze that would prove all but impossible to extinguish.”

For now the reactor at the decommissioned Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant lies quietly, with the desperately constructed enveloping sarcophagus for now safely resting within the recently build sleek hangar of the New Safe Confinementand we still have no clue what to with it in a century. For now a reasonably-priced and supposedly safe guided tour to the dead city of Pripyat can provide you with an opportunity to take a cool selfie with the tragedy as your backdrop. For now, we still have no idea what the constant low-level radiation exposure actually does, as the studies have always focused on the Hiroshima model, not very applicable in this situation.

Safety for us, humans, is a fragile thing.


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Some other quite interesting books about Chernobyl nuclear explosion and its effects that I think are excellent:

- Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich;
- Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe by Serhii Plokhy;
- Manual for Survival: An Environmental History of the Chernobyl Disaster by Kate Brown.
Profile Image for Beverly.
775 reviews266 followers
January 5, 2020
Surreal and demoralizing, Midnight in Chernobyl tells the true story of the worst nuclear accident in the history of the world. This statement by one of the officers from the Department of Internal Affairs of the former USSR sums it up. He wrote in the official log on that horrible morning, about six hours after the explosion, at 7:07 a.m., that" . . . The situation is normal. The radiation level is rising. "

These two opposing statements tell the story of a group of bureaucrats so invested in their careers and frozen by shock that the manager of the plant never gave the order to evacuate the town of Pripyat which was 2 miles away. The leaders of the plant were crazed and couldn't or wouldn't act to save lives, those of their workers or the town's people. They also actively sought to cover it up. This criminal negligence was also done by the government of the USSR. They hid the accident from the world and also their own people.

They also started looking for scapegoats. The design of the reactors (there were four online and 2 more being built at Chernobyl )were faulty from the start, because of their unsafe design. Many physicists had pointed out 2 major problems with them, but were ignored. Later, it was acknowledged that several smaller accidents had happened with these reactors in different places in Soviet Russia, but had been hushed up. As a member of the IAEA, the Soviets were supposed to report any nuclear accidents, but secrecy was king.The designers of this particular reactor had ignored 10 years of warnings.

Also, and this is horrific, apparently, radiation poisoning was not understood well by the workers or the plant managers who had little to no safety equipment, no high powered showers, many men injured in the plant wore the same canvas uniforms for days before being treated. One poor man had walked through radioactive waste water and his skin came off in strips later. After the accident was over, they sent firefighters directly into the building without protection.

These same plant workers who suffered cruel deaths in mere days and weeks after the accident were later found guilty and blamed for the accident and their heroic sacrifice to try and shut down the reactor were not recognized until recently. There had been mistakes made, but if a safe shutdown system had been designed, the reactor would have never melted down. This accident and its effect on the economy was one of the things that eventually lead to the breakdown of the former Soviet Union.
Profile Image for Henk.
797 reviews
December 21, 2021
Favorite non-fiction read of 2021!
Brilliant non-fiction on a topic I knew very little about. Higginbotham takes you into the disaster in such a way that you feel anxious to know how the disaster response turns out, and makes you understand in a panoramic way how the meltdown became possible.

Fascinating account of both the day of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl and the wider history leading to the meltdown. How the USSR secrecy and party apparatus defended nuclear secrets and design flaws from being followed up. And I also always found the West education and title obsessed, but the operators at Chernobyl were sometimes really only just graduated and in their twenties, with zero practical experience, while running a potentially fatal powerplant.

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster is a story of radiation not being felt but lethal in seconds, with curiosity and orders instantly killing people.
A story of a convoy of busses 12 km long to evacuate the nearest city.
A story of incredible disregard for human safety to address the effects of the explosion and political fights to pass the blame between various ministries.
And foremost a story about the distorting and little understood powers of radiation and energy beyond comprehension, with for instance cooling water separating into oxygen and hydrogen and fuelling a massive explosion.

Adam Higginbotham writes very compelling and below I include a few quotes from this book that truly captivated me:

Inherent safety issues
When one former nuclear submarine officer first took his seat at the desk in Chernobyl’s Unit One, he was horrified by the colossal size of the reactor and how antiquated the instrumentation was.
“How can you possibly control this hulking piece of shit?” he asked. “And what is it doing in civilian use?”


Immediate effects of the disaster
A neutron pulse surged through the dying reactor, and thermal power peaked at more than 12 billion watts. Steam pressure inside the sealed reactor space rose exponentially—eight atmospheres in a second—heaving Elena, the two-thousand-tonne concrete-and-steel upper biological shield, clear of its mountings and shearing the remaining pressure tubes at their welds. The temperature inside the reactor rose to 4,650 degrees centigrade—not quite as hot as the surface of the sun.

The turbine machinery was filled with thousands of liters of highly flammable oil, and the turbine generators with hydrogen—which in normal operation was necessary to cool the generator coils. If either ignited, the resulting fire could spread down the almost one-kilometer length of the turbine hall to engulf the plant’s other three reactors or lead to yet another massive explosion inside Unit Four.

The needle was glued to the far end of the range, at 500 roentgen per hour. And Volodin knew that the device took its readings from a receiver in the back of his seat. It seemed impossible: the level of radiation inside the cockpit had risen beyond the worst expected in a nuclear war. Whatever it was, he had to get them away from the cloud immediately.


Political response and finger pointing
"Vitali Fedorovich," Scherbitsky began, and Sklyarov braced himself. It was always a bad sign when the First Secretary used your patronymic. “You need to go there yourself.”
Sklyarov, who had almost no interest in seeing a blazing nuclear plant at close quarters, tried to object.
“The station is under the supervision of Moscow. It doesn’t belong to us,” he said.
“The station might not be Ukrainian,” Scherbitsky replied, “but the land and the people are.”

And by the end of the week, the Politburo had granted permission for the most desperate measures yet: Soviet diplomats were reported to have approached the German Atom Forum, West Germany’s leading nuclear industry group, requesting foreign help. The Soviet emissaries did not provide any specific details of the problem at hand but said they urgently required guidance on “how to handle something extremely hot that may have melted through the nuclear plant floor.”

Revealing to the world the true roots of the disaster—the design of the reactor itself; the systematic, long-term failures and the culture of secrecy and denial of the Soviet nuclear program; and the arrogance of the senior scientists overseeing its implementation—was unthinkable.


Evacuations and panic
By afternoon, many banks had run out of money. When the pharmacies sold out of stable iodine pills, people resorted to drinking tincture of iodine, intended for use as an external antiseptic, burning their throats. Lines outside liquor stores quadrupled in length as people sought protection from radioactivity with red wine and vodka, forcing the Ukrainian deputy minister of health to announce, “There is no truth to the rumor that alcohol is useful against radiation.”

That night, Scherbitsky unilaterally ordered that every child in Kiev from preschool to seventh grade, and all those who had already been relocated from around Chernobyl and Pripyat, be evacuated from the city to safe areas in the East for at least two months.


The terrible immediate effects of radiation
Unlike thermal burns caused by heat alone, which heal slowly over time, radiation burns grow gradually worse—so their external beta burns expanded outward in waves from wherever radioactive material had touched them and ate into the tissue below.

His temperature rose; his intestines disintegrated and oozed from his body in bloody diarrhea

Only the fate of the crows that had come to scavenge from the debris but stayed too long—and whose irradiated carcasses now littered the area around the plant—provided any visible warning of the costs of ignorance.

The doctors regarded the survival of some of the most badly exposed operators as almost miraculous. One electrical engineer, Andrei Tormozin, had been only 120 meters from the reactor when it exploded, and then spent hours in highly radioactive areas of the machine hall, working to stop feed pumps and extinguish oil fires. He had absorbed what Guskova and the other specialists had always understood to be a mortal dose of gamma and beta radiation: almost 1,000 rem. His body rejected a bone marrow transplant; he contracted blood poisoning and radiation-induced hepatitis and was not expected to live. But at the end of May, his blood counts began to rally, and—for reasons the doctors could never fully explain—he eventually made a complete recovery.


The long and terrifying clean up and consequences
But in a place where the leaves on the trees and the earth beneath their feet had become sources of ionizing radiation, the work was Sisyphean. Even the most gentle summer breeze recirculated dust carrying alpha- and beta-emitting particles into the air. Every rain shower washed radiation from the clouds and flushed more long-lived nuclear isotopes into the ponds and streams. The arrival of autumn would send radioactive leaves skittering across the ground. The Pripyat marshes—the largest swamp in Europe—had become a massive sponge for strontium and cesium, and the vast stretches of agricultural land proved too large to be scraped clean even by squadrons of earth-moving machines. Only ten square kilometers of the zone would ever be truly decontaminated. A total cleanup would have required nearly six hundred million tonnes of topsoil to have been removed and buried as nuclear waste. And, even with the seemingly unlimited manpower at the disposal of the Soviet Union, this was regarded as simply impossible.

That night, an old colleague from the institute just finishing his own shift stopped by to impart the “commandments” on how to survive in the high-radiation zones of the ruined station, accumulated through months of practical experience. To avoid getting lost, he told Borovoi, never enter any room not illuminated by electric light and always carry both a flashlight and a box of matches in case it failed; he warned him to beware of water falling from above, which could carry heavy contamination into the nose, eyes, or mouth; and, most important of all—the First Commandment—be alert for the smell of ozone. The lecturers back in Moscow might tell you that radiation has no odor or taste, he explained, but they’ve never been to Chernobyl. Intense gamma fields of 100 roentgen an hour and above—on the threshold for inducing acute radiation syndrome—caused such extensive ionization of the air that it left a distinctive aroma, like that after a lightning storm; if you smell ozone, his colleague said, run.

For twelve days, Tarakanov’s army of bio-robots relayed onto the roofs from eight in the morning until eight at night: 3,828 men in all, each of them eventually given a printed certificate and a small cash bonus, admitted for decontamination, and sent home.

In October 1989 the newspaper Sovietskaya Rossiya reported that hundreds of tonnes of pork and beef contaminated with radioactive cesium had been secretly mixed into sausages and sold to unsuspecting shoppers throughout the Soviet Union in the years since 1986. Although the workers at the meat factory responsible had been paid a bonus to compensate them for their exposure to radiation, a follow-up report to the Politburo insisted that the Chernobyl sausage was perfectly safe to eat and had been processed “in strict accordance with the recommendations of the Ministry of Health of the USSR.”
Profile Image for Jenna ❤ ❀  ❤.
744 reviews1,109 followers
July 10, 2019
Had you asked me a week ago what I know about Chernobyl I'd have been able to muster only one short phrase: "A nuclear accident in the former Soviet Union". I couldn't have told you anything more than that. When my friend Beata reviewed this book, I realised how ignorant I was on this topic. The review was enticing and I decided to read this book. How happy I am that I did!

Thank You Blowing Kisses GIF - ThankYou BlowingKisses Muah GIFs
Shout out to Beata!

Midnight in Chernobyl reads like an apocalyptic thriller; I did not want to put this book down! Wow! Author Adam Higginbotham certainly did his homework. This book is full of so much information about this, the worst nuclear accident in world history. He tells of how the USSR cut corners during construction of their nuclear power plants in order to save money. How the operators were ignorant of the risks and not properly trained. How, during a rundown experiment of one of the reactors at Chernobyl there was an explosion. How the men at the plant bravely risked their lives to put out the ensuing fire, several losing their lives and many others becoming gravely ill and suffering severe radiation burns. Mr. Higginbotham takes us on a nail-biting, hair-raising ride, detailing the fight to contain the fire and how many of those in charge were in denial of the severity of the accident. It was anxiety-inducing to read how they delayed evacuation of the citizens of nearby Pripyet because they didn't want word of the catastrophe to get out to the wider world. It is absolutely horrifying how they allowed so many people to be exposed to dangerous levels of radiation and I just kept wanting to race back through time and warn those poor people!

The book goes on to tell of the clean-up and investigation of the accident, and of the later repercussions to both humans and animals (a total of 20,000 domestic and agricultural animals were killed by huntsmen due to their radiation levels). The cleanup was vast, exposing even more people to the radioactive material. However, "only ten square kilometers of the zone would ever be truly decontaminated. A total cleanup would have required nearly six hundred million tonnes of topsoil to have been removed and buried as nuclear waste."

I learned so much from this book and found it absolutely riveting. I highly recommend it to anyone who would like to learn more about this incredible tragedy.
Profile Image for Yun.
505 reviews18.1k followers
March 25, 2020
[Evgeny Velikhov] asked Deputy Minister Silayev to call Gorbachev with a message: "Tell him that our outhouse is overflowing, and they'll have to climb a mountain of shit."
Midnight in Chernobyl is a comprehensive account of the events leading up to and resulting from the meltdown of Reactor Number Four at Chernobyl power station. It details not only the technical failures that led to the meltdown, but also the interpersonal dynamics and prevailing attitudes of secrecy and sycophancy within the USSR governmental structure that contributed to the disaster. It also explores the subsequent confusion around how to contain the nuclear fallout and the monumental efforts by so many firefighters, plant operators, scientists, doctors, and ordinary citizens to undo the damage and save lives.

I went in knowing almost nothing about Chernobyl, and found it absolutely fascinating and eye-opening. The author did a great job building a cohesive narrative out of what must have been hundreds of people's testimonies and a considerable amount of data, likely obscured by secrecy and the passage of time. I found I had no trouble understanding the technical explanations around how the reactor worked and what led to its ultimate meltdown.

One of the things I found most interesting is the book's exploration of the part that cultural and interpersonal dysfunctions played in contributing to and exacerbating the after-effects of the meltdown.
When General Pikalov... forecast the decontamination work would take up to seven years to complete... the hardline Politburo member Yegor Ligachev exploded in fury. He told Pikalov he would have seven months.
"And if you haven't done it by then, we'll relieve you of your Party card!"
"Esteemed Yegor Kuzmich," the general replied, "if that is the situation, you needn't wait seven months to take my Party card. You can have it now."
There were so many nuggets of gold like this one within the book. The focus on each individual person, and their motivations and emotions, brought them to life on the pages. It turned what could have been a dry nonfiction account into a captivating read.

If you've ever been curious about what happened at Chernobyl, I highly recommend this book. It's accessible to the layman, and contains so many insightful and often inadvertently humorous passages on what went so horribly wrong and the heroic effort to set it right. Especially at this time, when we are all dealing with a viral disaster in the making, it can offer a bit of relief to escape and read about a completely different disaster from the past.
Profile Image for Matthew.
1,219 reviews8,689 followers
May 3, 2020
Growing up during the 80s and the final stages of the cold war I remember many, big defining stories in the 80s and early 90s. Reagan vs Gorbachev. The arms race. The fall of the Berlin Wall. But, probably the biggest event with the longest lasting impact is the Chernobyl disaster.

While the Berlin Wall falling was a big deal and has had a lasting impact on the political climate in Europe, there are very few remaining sections, some memorials, but any lasting visible impact is mainly relegated to history books and museums. Chernobyl, on the other hand, has led to thousands of square miles of land that are still uninhabitable to this day and will be for decades to come. Entire shells of cities crumbling - barley touched since the hours after the event. A gigantic metal and concrete sarcophagus concealing rubble that is too hot to move or cleanup and sits concealed as it was just moments after the reactor was destroyed.

Midnight in Chernobyl is the story of that fateful night and the months afterward. I have always been very interested in learning more about this event and was excited to finally read this. It has me even more intrigued to watch the recent HBO mini-series. I learned so much from this book and now it is much more than just stark pictures online and a footnote from my childhood.

Two things to be aware of going in if you are interested in checking this out. First, it does get very technical and scientific at times. This may interest you or you may just need to push through it and say "okay, yeah, nuclear science stuff - okay, got it!" Second, there are LOTS of characters so there are LOTS of Russian names. This can be difficult to keep track of. There is a list of these at the beginning to help you keep track, but the list is pretty daunting, too.

If you like history, remember this from your childhood and want to know more, or a big fan of disaster books/movies, this book is 100% worth checking out.
Profile Image for Nick Borrelli.
354 reviews318 followers
October 25, 2018
The Chernobyl disaster is an event that has fascinated me over the past couple of decades. I was in my early teens when it actually happened and although I remember seeing the news stories about the disaster on TV, being an adolescent at the time with an adolescent's priorities, it didn't really register with me. As I've gotten older I have become more interested in reading about historical events that took place either before I was born or when I was too young to fully appreciate the significance of them. I've read a couple of books about Chernobyl in the past but neither really answered the questions that I had fully. They scratched the surface but never dug into the nuts and bolts of the chain of occurances that caused the worst nuclear disaster in the history of the world. When I saw this title on Netgalley, I thought "maybe this will be the one". I was approved for a free review copy a few weeks ago and have been obsessed with this book ever since, having just finished it late last night. Here's what my conclusion is with regard to Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham: If you read only one book about the disaster of Chernobyl, this is the only one that you should read. To say that it is comprehensive is a profound understatement. The book begins in the late 1960's covering the USSR's budding nuclear program. We learn how the idea of Chernobyl was born and we are taken through the very beginnings of the construction of both the reactors and the town in Pripyat that would house the tens of thousands of workers and their families. Higginbotham then gradually breaks down the entire evening/morning leading up to the catastrophic meltdown. This is where I was absolutely flabbergasted as numerous warning flags were raised and either ignored or taken as not so serious. If even one of these warning flags were caught or taken seriously, this catastrophe might have been averted. The book then describes the eventual evacuation of the town surrounding the power plant and also the attempted coverups by the government to minimize the seriousness of what occured. Midnight in Chernobyl was one of the best non-fiction reads I have had in quite some time. Even though the subject matter is at times very difficult to get through, the book is impeccably researched and just so well-written that you can't stop reading. This book won't be released until February of 2019, but I highly recommend pre-ordering it on Amazon. You will be both informed and amazed at the history of this horrible accident.
Profile Image for Max.
337 reviews288 followers
May 24, 2020
Higginbotham holds our attention with his focus on the human side of the tragedy at Chernobyl. We learn about those working at the plant that fateful night, their backgrounds, their daily lives, their families and friends. Thus as Higginbotham describes the unfolding of the disaster in a blow by blow account, we can feel their dismay as their lives and their world come apart. In addition to a riveting account of the night of the disaster and the chaotic days following, Higginbotham explains the reasons for the nuclear reactor’s failure and the wider impact on Soviet society. We get a glimpse of what it was like to live in the 1980s Soviet Union under a dysfunctional authoritarian government.

The tragedy is explored at three levels: First there is the human toll, the suffering and death, and the displacement of over one hundred thousand people. Then there is the technical failure of the reactor and the failure of the scientists and administrators that culminated in the disaster. Lastly there is the deeper underlying issue of autocratic and expedient Soviet governance that led to all the suffering and failures and made them worse with an ill prepared inept response.

The town of Pripyat was built near the Chernobyl atomic power station to provide places to live for the men and women who constructed, maintained and operated the plant. Fifty thousand people were living there including many families with children on April, 26 1986 when reactor number four exploded spewing huge amounts of radioactive particles high into the air. The scientists and technicians working at the plant at first denied the seriousness of the accident. They did not believe it possible for the reactor to explode. Many of them would succumb to radiation poisoning.

For the first 36 hours, the people of the town were misled by the authorities who told them everything was under control. Soviet leaders did not want to create panic and did not want negative press. But the core of the reactor had destroyed itself creating a radioactive fire that could not be extinguished by conventional means. Microscopic radioactive particles kept falling on the town as people unaware went about their everyday Saturday and Sunday activities, many of them outside on an otherwise pleasant spring day. Suddenly they were told that they would have to evacuate. Over a thousand buses were lined up. The townspeople were told to just take what they needed for two or three days. The buses deposited them one by one with rural and small town families in the countryside who were told to take them in.

Pripyat would never be reopened. Lied to by the authorities, it slowly dawned on its former citizens they would never return. They would be permanently resettled as would thousands more in nearby areas as the extent of the contamination was uncovered. Radioactive particles were dispersed far and near following the whims of the winds and rain. Kiev, over 100 kilometers away, closed its schools in mid-May and evacuated hundreds of thousands of children, their mothers and expectant mothers. They were scattered around Ukraine, many to summer camps and some even to Crimean resorts.

Staff and first responders at the plant that night showing signs of acute radiation sickness were sent without notifying their families to a hospital in Moscow. Many would never see their loved ones again. Thirty of them would die from radiation sickness. The descriptions of their deaths are horrifying as visible injuries heal and the patient appears to get better only to succumb to the relentless radiation from particles inside the body destroying vital organs and tissues. Thousands of others from Pripyat and other contaminated areas would die early deaths as radiation weakened immune systems and induced cancers.

What caused the accident? Primarily it was poor design. Higginbotham gets into the technical details which I’ll skip. Basically to operate safely, the reactor required constant attention by the operators. The faulty design was the product of an insular scientific establishment led by a bureaucracy enamored with its own creations. They were also under great pressure to get the reactors built fast and cheap, thus many design steps were skipped and readily available technology adopted even if not the best. The designers recognized some of the inherent weaknesses of their reactors, but felt conscientious operation would prevent any problems. They wrote reams of instructions and procedures, but were careful not to expose the underlying design faults that required them. The Soviet leadership always wanted to present a face to the world of technical superiority. Covering up faults was common practice.

A secondary problem was the training and rules governing the operators. While Higginbotham presents all of them as capable and well intentioned, they weren’t always prepared for the job at hand. The accident occurred while running a test, one they hadn’t run before or practiced. Mistakes were made. The reactor became unstable for reasons the operators never could have anticipated or understood because the relevant information was hidden from them by the designers. They all were sure that under no circumstances could the reactor explode. It took many hours after the explosion for the operators and their management to believe that it actually did. Also, reactor operators were not always in the best condition to perform critical tasks. A key mistake was made during the test by an operator who had not slept for thirty-six hours. Higginbotham notes some operators would drink before coming to work. Higginbotham portrays heavy drinking as common in the community.

Higginbotham spends much of the book on the response to the reactor explosion and the radioactive contamination. It begins with first responders trying to put out the fire and determine the extent of the damage. Apparently unaware of how dangerously radioactive the area was, many would suffer from acute radiation sickness. Radioactive debris was spread all around the reactor. There was no way to get close to it and live. Everyone was afraid of another explosion or the China Syndrome. If the remains of the core sunk into the earth, it could contaminate the water supply for the heavily populated Kiev. Team after team of government officials and workman would engage in cleanup effort after cleanup effort taking years as one approach after another failed to achieve results. Over 600,000 people were engaged in the cleanup effort, many conscripted for the work and many ruining their health. A major impediment to the cleanup was the Soviet leadership’s refusal to admit the true causes of the disaster and the enormity of the damage and contamination. Government leaders and their scientific functionaries remained insular and did not seek help from other countries. All remediation plans were homegrown often decided by those with power but little expertise.

The Chernobyl disaster cost the Soviet Union an amount equal to its entire 1989 defense budget. As the public realized it was continually being lied to and word spread about the true extent of the devastation and the fumbling attempts to deal with it, people lost faith in their government. Gorbachev said Chernobyl was a primary reason for the Soviet Union falling apart. In 2016, exactly thirty years later, the Ukrainian president gave a speech dedicating a huge new structure being built to further contain the remnants of the still highly radioactive reactor. He too noted that the Chernobyl disaster was an important factor in the breakup of the Soviet Union and Ukraine’s independence. He recognized the 115,000 people who would never return to Pripyat and the Exclusion Zone. He acknowledged that 2,500,000 people were living on contaminated land and that the state was still making payments to hundreds of thousands of people disabled by the accident.

The Exclusion Zone extends 30 kilometers from Chernobyl covering 1,000 square miles. While not safe for permanent habitation, there are tours offered. Everyone’s radiation level is monitored and there are signs warning of hot spots. Nature has been resurgent in the zone. Fears of three headed cows did not come true although genetic changes have been detected in plants and animals. Wildlife has prospered in the absence of humans with wolves, bears, elk, lynx and other native species forming a vibrant ecosystem.

Higginbotham has done a masterful job of research. He provides extensive notes. He interviewed people that were there, members of their families, people involved in the Soviet nuclear program at the time and people involved in the containment effort. He was able to access files only recently available. Perhaps most important he made this remarkable book one we want to read by putting the human story first. Today when nuclear power plants are still being built and seen as a way to help stem climate change, his book is highly relevant. Taken together with the Fukushima disaster and the partial reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island, it makes one pause to consider whether the risk is worth it. I am convinced it isn’t.
Profile Image for Barbara.
1,286 reviews638 followers
December 25, 2019
10+stars: Oh My Dear Lord, this novel will scare the beejesus out of you. Journalist Adam Higgnbothem has written an amazing documentary of the 1986 catastrophe at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the USSR. I listened to the audible production that is narrated by Jacques Roy. At the beginning, Roy lists all the important characters in this story. Since I listened to it, I was at a disadvantage keeping all the players straight in my head. If one wants to truly understand the politics, lies, radiation illnesses, etc, that involved each character, one should read the novel. As an American listener, all those Russian names were difficult to keep in my mind.

That said, it is an amazing listen. Just getting the timeline of events, the mistakes, the horror of the disaster while listening is enough for me. This tragedy was a culmination of mistakes. Although the USSR wanted to lay blame on separate individuals, Higgenbothem shows that is was straws, that individually wouldn’t be the blame, but added together resulted in a global tragedy. Also, it was the political pressure and the culture of Russia at that time that lead to the explosion. Russia wanted to save face which added layers to the event that cost thousands of lives. The government secrecy magnified mistakes.

Higgenbothem exposes the devastating losses and damages to humans, the landscape, and animals. Once the catastrophe made global news, he explains the collective efforts made to find solutions.

Nuclear energy seems here to stay. Creating safe nuclear energy is paramount to the safety and survival of the earth. Making worker education a priority is a necessity. We must remain aware and well informed of the cost/benefit of producing nuclear energy. This is an amazing case study.
Profile Image for Kate Olson.
2,087 reviews727 followers
April 22, 2019
Riveting, horrifying, absolutely STELLAR reporting. I have always been fascinated (in horror) at the Chernobyl disaster and this book was JUST what I needed to wrap my mind around it. The only criticism I can possibly think of is that I would have loved even MORE pictures but I was able to find tons on The Atlantic and Nat Geo and Time online to fulfill my need for visual confirmation. What I found even more fascinating about this account than the many articles I had read previously was the detailed analysis of the role that the Soviet culture and politics played in the cause of the disaster, and the impact that disaster had on the downfall of the Soviet empire.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. FYI, I have zero background knowledge of nuclear science whatsoever and was able to grasp enough in this book to understand what happened. Also, don’t let the size intimidate you - almost a 1/4 of the book is endnotes ;-)
Profile Image for Gabrielle.
977 reviews1,093 followers
June 3, 2021
After reading Svetlana Alexievich’s book on Chernobyl (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), I was still curious about the tragedy of Chernobyl: the oral history was harrowing, but I wanted to know what had led to this horrible moment, how such a thing had been allowed to happen. I also wanted a better understanding of the science behind the explosion, something Alexievich does not really dwell on, as her collection is much more personal than technical.

This book was a great source of information, not only on the building, running and eventual explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, but also on how Soviet society operated at the time. How the nepotism, and dysfunctional power structure made this disaster much, much worse than it ought to have been. At times, simply knowing that the people in charge were blatantly unqualified for the work assigned to them – but ideologically irreproachable – was enough to make me shudder, knowing how the story ultimately ends.

I was very impressed with Higginbotham’s prose, which elevates this book from a simple history and account of the explosion into a riveting narrative that brings the reader much closer than comfortable to the events of April 1986. This book reads almost more like a thriller than like a non-fiction book about a nuclear power plant, and it’s pretty hard to put down. The scientific and technical explanations are clear and very interesting, there is a lot of details about the major players involved at every level of this story, and about what happened after the situation was “under control”.

The Chernobyl disaster is an example of the very best and very worst aspects of the Soviet Union: the blind obedience to often incompetent or corrupt authorities, the stubborn denial of any wrong doing – contrasted with the profound understanding that sacrifices must be made for the welfare of the society. One the one hand, there was a perfect storm of denial, corrupted bureaucracy and incompetence, but getting it under control was, on the other hand, a collective effort of great courage, as many people who were called to put out the fire and fix the whole mess knew the risks to their health were essentially suicidal. I do wonder if this would have gone down the same way had it happened somewhere else.

Very recommended for anyone interested in the history of the Chernobyl disaster.
Profile Image for Melki.
5,584 reviews2,310 followers
October 24, 2019
The worst nuclear disaster in history occurred April 26th, 1986 in northern Ukraine.

Chernobyl's deputy chief engineer for science was the first to call back. He calmly explained what he knew: Unit Four had been taken off-line for routine maintenance, and some kind of electrical tests were being carried out; exactly what, he couldn't say. During those tests, an accident had occurred.
But when asked about the progress of emergency cooling of the core - the vital work that would ensure Reactor Number four could soon be repaired and brought back online - the Chernobyl engineer's composure snapped abruptly.
"There's nothing left to be cooled!" he shouted. Then the line went dead.


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As soon as government officials took charge of the emergency, saving face became more important than saving lives.

"We need to evacuate everyone."
Scherbina snatched the phone from the energy minister's hand.
"He's a panicker!" he yelled at Scherbitsky. "How are you going to evacuate all these people? We'll be humiliated in front of the whole world!"


Meanwhile a cloud of escaped radiation was heading for neighboring countries . . .

It's hard to tell what's more horrifying - the accident, the nightmarish clean-up, or the higher-ups' attempts at downplaying the severity of the situation. There are a lot of edge-of-your seat moments here, and, be warned, the author pulls no punches as he describes what it's like to die of radiation exposure.

A highly disturbing, but necessary read. And, yet another reminder that the ones who call the shots won't be among the ones risking their lives.

Gorbachev told Slavsky he wanted the reactor sealed up by the end of the year. Deaths were almost inevitable. The octogenarian nuclear minister turned to his men.
"Lads, you'll have to take the risk."
Profile Image for Dax.
226 reviews98 followers
November 29, 2019
I can appreciate the effort that went into collecting sufficient research and organizing those documents into a coherent narrative. I can’t imagine that the USSR was transparent with its documentation of facts. For that, Higginbotham gets an A+. I am also a fan of Higginbotham’s efforts to illustrate the ramifications of the disaster beyond death toll and pollution. The Chernobyl disaster was, in a way, the straw that broke the camels back with regards to the USSR’s economic viability as well as its geopolitical reputation.

I am settling on three stars because I struggled keeping track of who is who and felt disconnected from the story from time to time. Undoubtedly a very good book, but can’t call it excellent. High three stars.
Profile Image for K.J. Charles.
Author 57 books7,652 followers
Read
May 5, 2022
Really, truly horrifying: the story of Chernobyl. There's a lot of backstory here which is vital in depicting the wider context in which this could happen: the absurd Soviet target culture, the endless endemic Potemkin world of imaginary technological greatness, whereby it was unpatriotic to say things like "does this work properly", the social structures and oppression that made it impossible for people to speak out about danger or be heard if they did speak. Plus, the backstory reminds us over and over that these were people, mostly trying to do their jobs, often with families, who did not deserve what this demented system did to them.

And then the explosion. Which is terrifying, especially in how much worse it could have been. The utter horrors of radiation sickness, and the terrifying levels, and the people who were shipped in to act as bio robots for the clean up at three minutes a time...

God. Everyone should read this and remember how very little people care about people when there's governments and corporations and structures to shield them from the reality of what they're doing.
Profile Image for Jill Hutchinson.
1,433 reviews105 followers
April 28, 2019
It could have easily become the end of the world as we know it.....a nuclear disaster which was not connected to war......a series of human error that continues to haunt. This is the harrowing account of the April, 1986 explosion at Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station in Chernobyl, Ukraine (then the USSR) which released unbelievable amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. The ever-secretive Soviet government attempted to keep news of this horror from becoming public even within their own departments. Of course, that was an impossible task and rumors (and radiation) started to spread across Europe and the western world. It became a political, finger pointing, bureaucratic nightmare as well as a nuclear one.

The author has done an amazing job of collecting information from original sources, new resources, and interviews with many of those involved. Obviously there are still events that are being hidden by the former USSR, such as the number of deaths but the author has discovered, through his research, much of what was previously not revealed. The result is a brilliant book which puts one into the hell that was Chernobyl and will stun the reader. I highly recommend this important book.
Profile Image for Ken.
2,112 reviews1,317 followers
November 3, 2019
A expertly detailed and fascinating read of the nuclear power plant disaster in Chernobyl on the morning of 26th of April 1986.
I’ve always been interested in the disaster but it was the award winning HBO series that has led me to want to learn more.

Why this account makes for a perfect addition is the detailed backstory that Higginbotham introduces the reader, as he makes this incident even more tragic.
The city of Pripyat that was founded in 1970 to serve the nearby power plant sounded so perfectly ideal.

Whilst both the political landscape and the science behind the physics involved is still prevalent throughout, it’s the human cost of this tragedy remains the main focus of this meticulous and harrowing true retelling.
Profile Image for Chris.
Author 36 books11.1k followers
August 28, 2019
Midnight in Chernobyl is magnificent: a page-turner that is scary as hell, but a history that is meticulous and surprising. I read this after watching the spectacular HBO mini-series, Chernobyl, and it was the perfect companion read. I loved this book — every heart-stopping chapter and every well-chosen word.
Profile Image for Brett C.
769 reviews156 followers
November 13, 2022
"The Era of Stagnation [1960s-80s] had fomented a moral decay in the Soviet workplace and a sullen indifference to individual responsibility, even in the nuclear industry. pg 21"

This was a fantastic read. Higginbotham created a well-balanced account of this unfortunate disaster with history, politics, and science. It was well-written, well-researched, and seamlessly put together without overwhelming me at any time.

Higginbotham told the story of corruption and sycophantic deterioration within the Soviet bureaucracy, the events leading up to the event, and a powerful account of the disastrous aftermath both within the USSR and Europe. He dedicated an entire chapter on basic radiochemistry leading up to the Soviet weapons and power production programs.
The staff of Soviet nuclear power plants, faced with ever-increasing production targets and constantly malfunctioning or inadequate equipment, and answerable to a bewildering and dysfunctional bureaucracy, had long become accustomed to bending or ignoring the rules in order to get their work done. pg 68-9
Overall this was superb. The history of the event and the subsequent effects were addressed. I would highly recommend this to anyone interested in learning about the Chernobyl incident in the fullest detail. Thanks!
Profile Image for Jackie.
760 reviews24 followers
December 23, 2018
I won this book as a giveaway for goodreads. Interesting book about the horrible events that unfolded almost 30 years ago. It gives you a look at why it was created, why the location, who were involved, what are atoms, Gemma and beta, and so forth. I do wish we got more information about the people made to leave and followed them more, but this book focused more on the administration which was still really interesting. Granted, I’m not 100 percent sure how accurate it is and how dramatic the author makes the story... While there is over 100 pages of footnotes since this was an advance copy the footnotes were not connected to the text yet. So if I wanted to verify a source I couldn’t. However for the most part, it seems this was a well researched and thought out book! Granted it’s hard to tell what people were thinking but I’m going to let that slide since this was a very interesting book! I’d def recommend buying it or getting it from your local library!
Profile Image for Dan.
1,059 reviews52 followers
April 16, 2020
Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

On Tuesday evening, Vremya broadcast a new statement in the name of the Soviet Council of Ministers. This conceded that two people had been killed as a result of an explosion at the Chernobyl plant, that a section of the reactor building been destroyed, and that Pripyat had been evacuated. There was no mention of a radioactive release. This time the report was relegated to sixth place, behind the latest encouraging news about the mighty Soviet economy. By then, the rest of the world’s media had the scent of a spectacular catastrophe behind the Iron Curtain, and Chernobyl had become headline news in the West.

The nuclear meltdown at the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station Reactor Number 4 in Pripyat, U.S.S.R, in modern day Ukraine, occurred on April 25 1986 just before midnight.

Ironically the disaster began during a botched safety system check that was meant to ensure that the Chernobyl nuclear power station could continue to safely operate in the event the surrounding electricity grid went down. The law of unintended consequences.

No one suspected that there would be serious problems even though the test had never been successfully demonstrated at Chernobyl. In fact it had been aborted numerous times over the prior years for less serious reasons and as a result the plant manager was eager to complete and check it off the list.

Although there would be a cascade of bad decisions necessary for the full disaster, the critical error was when the plant manager in a bid to make the test safer instructed the engineer to lower the reactor power output to 200 MW, even though the manual stated never to go below 700 MW because the reactor could become unstable. The engineer protested but to no avail and within minutes the reactor output spiraled below 200 MW amidst numerous circuit failures and water valve failures. Despite the ongoing alarms the test was continued. The water valves were intentionally shut, the rods were lowered and the fuel channels failed and within a minute the there was an explosion in Reactor #4 and a meltdown. There simply was nowhere for the reactor energy to go as the coolant evaporated.

The vast bulk of the book follows the officials during their futile efforts to get the situation under control, the evacuation the townspeople, the initial denials by the Gorbachev administration, Europe’s outrage at the nuclear fallout, and the multi-year cleanup and the investigation and prosecutions.

The focus is on those officials and engineers who were in charge of Chernobyl and the cleanup workers who risked and who ultimately gave their lives. I felt the coverage of the resulting prosecution of the plant officials could have been a little deeper.

The section on the “Sarcophagus” — the massive concrete structure built to cover Reactor #4 and stop the spread of radiation — was so dramatically and eloquently described. Thousands of roentgens of radiation, levels so high that the robotic bulldozers failed during the cleanup, their circuitry overcome. The radiation was clearly at fatal levels, but nonetheless thousands of humans, called “bio-robots”, were sent in to clean up. Some workers intentionally went first to receive their maximum allowable doses of radiation knowing that they would be sent home quickly. Later on, with workers now scarce, the radiation exposure guidelines were routinely violated to “get the job done”.

4.5 stars. The level of research in this book was top-notch. The writing and editing were superb and concise. The narrative was neutral, with a somewhat scientific bent. Although nuclear disasters are serious matters, I found this to be an informative book and not a depressing read
Profile Image for Dennis.
652 reviews251 followers
November 3, 2020
The reactor was a pistol with the hammer cocked. All that remained was for someone to pull the trigger.


The Chernobyl disaster shows what can happen when all of these factors come together:

- Faulty design that no one is able or willing to admit to
- Operators that do not fully understand what they’re working with and how to operate it safely
- A culture of secrecy and denial
- An institutionalized reluctance to acknowledge when things do indeed go wrong. Which they did often. Even before that fateful day in April 1986.
- A propensity to suppress details of the accident in an attempt to save face.

In short, it shows what happens when lies and cover-ups are preferred to admitting failure or even just a lack of knowledge or understanding.

Many payed the price for this. However, as one would expect, medical records were also altered.

This book depicts the construction process of the plant. One of unreasonable and unreachable timetables and of neglect for safety measures. It takes a close look at the events that lead up to the catastrophe and gives a very detailed account (sometimes to the second) of what happened on the night of 26 April 1986. It also takes a look at the science behind the disaster. Which was sometimes dense, but nevertheless explained well enough. It spends quite some time with the immediate aftermath and shows pretty well the immense forces people were dealing with and how little control we have over them. These parts were chilling and highly fascinating to read, and offered some memorable quotes like this one:

And from somewhere in the heart of the tangled mass of rebar and shattered concrete - from deep inside the ruins of Unit Four, where the reactor was supposed to be - Alexander Yuvchenko could see something more frightening still: a shimmering pillar of ethereal blue-white light, reaching straight up into the night sky, disappearing into infinity.


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Then comes the phase of denial, which lead to indecisiveness, and the subsequent attempts to cover the whole thing up. Later we hear about the liquidators, those poor souls.

Their throats itched, they felt dizzy, and there was never enough water to drink. Some men suffered nosebleeds, while others began vomiting. Called to help clear the chunks of reactor graphite lying on the ground near Unit Three, a detachment of chemical warfare troops arrived in a truck and began to pick them up using their hands.
Such tasks exposed the liquidators to their maximum allowed annual doses of radiation – often in a matter of seconds. In the high-radiation areas of the Special Zone, a single task that anywhere else could be completed by a single man working for an hour might now require thirty men to work for two minutes each. And the new regulations dictated that as soon as they each reached their 25 rem limit, they should be sent from the zone, never to return. Each job had to be measured not only in time but also in the number of individuals who would have to be “burned” to accomplish it. In the end, some commanders resolved that it was better to keep deploying the men they had – men who had already been exposed to their limits – than to burn fresh troops in the danger zone.


We witness the hasty construction of the sarcophagus and the search for the missing nuclear fuel. During all of this Adam Higginbotham doesn’t forget the people involved. Be it the plant operators, commanders, liquidators, scientists, firefighters, politicians, doctors, nurses and so on. We get a backstory for some and we also see what became of several of them years later. Although for some there were not a lot more years to come, and we spend some time with them in the hospital, on their way to an agonizing death. Others we will meet again in the courtroom.

The author also finds the time to draw a picture of the political landscape prior to and during the Chernobyl disaster, and to go into the downfall of the Soviet Union thereafter. Well, it’s a long book. One that took over Adam Higginbotham’s life for many years. And one that I think is well worth your time.

4.5 stars
Profile Image for Malia.
Author 6 books542 followers
January 21, 2021
Though I was reluctant to read a book when I already knew the outcome of the story would be so tragic, the glowing reviews won me over. I am glad they did, because it was a truly engaging yet informative read. Higginbotham has a way of making nonfiction read like fiction (I wish it had been fiction!) and really made this about the people who lived and worked in and near Chernobyl. It illustrated how, as is so often the case, the value of human life is prioritized less than the ability to cling to power and make a profit, regardless of the cost
At it's core, however, this is a very human story, and one I would recommend to anyone interested in learning more about this shocking disaster that really wasn't very long ago at all!

Find my book reviews and more at http://www.princessandpen.com
Profile Image for Alex.andthebooks.
213 reviews1,631 followers
May 9, 2021
Znakomity, rzetelny reportaż. Dawno nie czytałam niczego tak dobrego, a dodatkowo sam temat bardzo mnie intrygował. Kończę audiobooka usatysfakcjonowana i przerażona skalą całej tragedii, a także wszystkimi absurdami dotyczącymi ludzi, będących wówczas u władzy w ZSRR oraz brakiem poszanowania dla procedur i samej energii jądrowej.
To była dobra lekcja historii.
Forma bardzo przystępna, słuchałam książki jak zajmującej opowieści.
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
256 reviews285 followers
October 10, 2019
Midnight in Chernobyl is a definitive and chilling account of the nuclear disaster that began on April 25-26, 1986 when the fourth nuclear reactor of the Chernobyl plant exploded, causing a nuclear disaster that the USSR tried to deny but had to reveal when the fallout spread into Europe.

If you remember Chernobyl, this book is definitely worth reading.

If the words Chernobyl or USSR seem like ancient history, Midnight in Chernobyl is definitely worth reading.

When Reactor #4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Complex failed due to poor design, construction, and human error, the USSR, then in its last years, did its best to keep as much of what happened a secret not just from the rest of the world, but from within as well, meaning that thousands upon thousands of people within the area and provinces around Chernobyl (located within the Ukraine) were unwittingly exposed to enormous doses of radiation.

The extent of the nuclear disaster spawned by the reactor implosion was and is enormous. Over thirty years later, the town built to house the worker complex of Chernobyl, a then bustling town named Priypat, remains contaminated with nuclear fallout, and it will remain (safely) uninhabitable for almost another 30,000 years. So will a large portion of the land around it.

Not uninhabitable for 30 years. Or 300. Or 3000.

30,000. Years.

Because the USSR, as Higginbotham explains, worked tirelessly to keep its secrets secret--there had been nuclear accidents in the USSR before, though nothing on this scale--and was still, even in the dawn of glasnost (the period where the USSR attempted to be more open to its citizens and the world, which led to its destruction) not interested or even equipped to be forthcoming about just how bad things were, it took years for what really happened at Chernobyl to come to light. And even now the repercussions of exposing so much radiation to so large an area is virtually impossible to study because so many records pertaining to the reactor number 4 and its destruction were destroyed or simply not created because so few could understand or even believe just how bad things were. (And because there were simply no resources or even plans to deal with this kind of nuclear disaster.)

The USSR, which excelled at so many things in its race with the United States and the rest of the world to harness the energy created by nuclear power, simply cut corners to get what it wanted, creating reactor plans and then using them to create electricity without considering the problems created when the reaction in question--the yield created by harnessing the power of atomic energy--went wrong. As a result, the consideration of potential problems weren't buried--they ceased to exist.

In 2019, it's almost impossible to think of a large scale nuclear disaster not being broadcast to the world in some way or form. Midnight in Chernobyl does an excellent job of showing how tightly the USSR controlled information internally and the extraordinary lengths it went to postpone any external release of information even when it was obvious to the pre-internet world that something truly terrible had happened.

Midnight in Chernobyl isn't perfect--since there are very few survivors left (the parts of the book that deal with the radiation exposure caused deaths are straightforward and more terrifying than fiction could ever be), there are very few first hand accounts, and any records created by the then USSR are often hard to access, cryptic, incomplete, inaccurate, or simply gone--the account of what happened is layered with a lot of scientific detail.

And while the explanation of how nuclear power works and the dangers that lay in early attempts to yoke the extreme danger and instability of harnessing it to create electricity is fascinating, there's so much more about the construction of early reactors, the various units used to measure radiation exposure*, and scientific infighting in the USSR about it, that Midnight in Chernobyl does slow its pace at times.

While I would have liked less of the scientific detail (*the radiation units, for example, don't matter to the narrative much because everyone involved in the reactor meltdown and lengthy attempt to contain it got this much: wayyyyyy too much) I see why it's there--to drive home the point that Chernobyl was very, very bad gain but to also fill out sections like the containment attempts, which boil down to: it was mostly luck that none of the other reactors exploded, to this day no one is really sure exactly where the reactor core went, and just about everyone involved in the containment efforts died. (!!!)

Having just said all that, the section of the book devoted to the attempt to first "clean" and then the increasingly frenzied efforts to contain the damage caused by Reactor #4's enormous and deadly nuclear blast that also produced days and and weeks and months of continued radiation leaking from what was left of the open and exposed reactor core is so very well done. It's chilling--bone deep terror inducing chilling--to see how ineffective the early efforts were in the race to literally bury the reactor. Yep, that's how Chernobyl was "fixed"-- what was left of the reactor was buried under an enormous metal structure as containment. And hope that that solution will continue to work. Will it?

Theoretically--probably. Maybe.

Check back in when another 30 or 300 or 3000 years have passed.

That's the ultimate and terrifying message of Midnight in Chernobyl. Over 30 years ago an enormous nuclear incident occurred, and a cover up was attempted. Though the cover up failed, it failed after thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people (not to mention animals and the earth itself) were exposed to massive amounts of radiation without any knowledge of it.

The damage caused by the destruction of Reactor #4 was immediate and long lasting. Scientists are attempting to study the effects, but monitoring the human fallout is nearly impossible as the USSR relocated thousands of Priypat residents who had been exposed to radiation, and also failed to track those who were exposed to the release of radiation that was dispersed via the wind, rain, etc. Attempts to study the effects of the radioactive fallout on animals and plants in the area are hampered by lack of funds, falling off of interest, and the whole "the area is deadly if you're in it for too long" thing.

Midnight in Chernobyl is thoughtful and more than a little frightening. It's a disaster story that no one seems to think about anymore even though its impact will be felt for lifetimes to come.

Highly recommended.
Profile Image for ALLEN.
553 reviews113 followers
August 20, 2019
Of all the sorry spectacles that characterized the fearful 45-year interlude called the Cold War, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster has to be one of the worst. The site was supposed to embody the best and most flawless of Soviet technology -- four enormous nuclear reactors pumping out enough electricity for western Ukraine and southern Belarus (both still part of the U.S.S.R. in those days). An entirely new “atomic town” (*Atomgrad*) called Pripyat had been carved out of the wilderness simply to house elite nuclear workers for the jumbo-sized power station. The town’s buildings were enlivened with bits and pieces of metal and glass used as mosaics by the feisty town architect -- strictly against the rulebook but charming. There was even a high-speed hydrofoil designed to take the residents of Pripyat down the Dnieper river for shopping expeditions to Kiev, avoiding the primitive local roads.

Yet despite the “best in the world” propaganda, the plant was doomed to failure almost from the git-go. Years earlier a serious accident had occurred at a plant of the same design, but it had been so successfully hushed-up by top-down censorship that even the Chernobyl planners were unaware of it. Ironically, the accident that led to the meltdown of Unit No. 4 in April of 1986 came in response to a failed safety test, which could have been postponed a while longer if not for the desire to meet quotas before the upcoming May Day holiday. A gerontocracy ran Soviet nuclear power-production, men going back to the days of nuclear submarines who so invested in that technology that they could not feature a better approach for a huge civilian installation in the 1980’s. Even the computers -- like so many other things touted as the best in the world -- were obsolescent by the time the Chernobyl installation was fully operational, much slower than computers in use in the West.

As bad as the Unit 4 meltdown was, human intervention (or more properly, lack thereof) made the bad much worse. In order to put a good face on things, officials claimed that only a handful of people had died in the incident, when it was already dozens and after shockingly high doses of radiation, hundreds soon to come. Many of the workers lay seriously ill or dying in a Moscow hospital, yet their relatives were not allowed to set foot inside (once again, an obsession with optics at the expense of truth). Since lies were the order of the day, the population of Pripyat and children of Kiev were allowed to stay in place much longer than they should have been. In essence the response to the Chernobyl disaster made mockery of the policies of *glasnost* (openness) and *perestroika* (restructuring) then mouthed by Premier Gorbachev, and hastened the demise of the once-mighty U.S.S.R. five years later.

MIDNIGHT IN CHERNOBYL is the best non-fiction book I've read in a long time. Author Adam Higginbotham has done an incredible job of researching the 1986 nuclear accident: its origin in questionable design, the building of the reactors, the technical gigantism that assumed if one huge suboptimal reactor could work, why not four of them? All this within a martial Soviet culture that mixed military, political and engineering concerns in an atmosphere of not asking questions. He does a fine job of taking us nuclear non-experts into a working understanding of nuclear-reactor design flaws, the unfortunate traits of control-rod “tip” and “positive void coefficient” that better design could have avoided. The several waves of attention devoted to keep lethal radiation confined to the destroyed Unit 4 -- largely dumping boron and sand into the nuclear fires in a dicey attempt to quell them -- were only partly successful, and occasionally ill-advised, leading to even more expensive and dangerous remedial efforts later on. It is not journalistic exaggeration to say that the area around the stricken installation became a “nuclear wasteland.”

The 32-year gap between the accident and this book's publication enabled Higginbotham to re-interview survivors and have a look around the mutated countryside and the dead, wholly irradiated company town of Pripyat that had been built to serve the reactor. This is a great book to read and I recommend it without qualification. I would advise American readers to be aware that once in a great while, author Higginbotham uses Briticisms: “creche” where we would say preschool or nursery; “pitch” instead of tar for the reactors’ roofs (yes -- inflammable roofs at a nuclear installation, incredible but true). This book deserves its healthy sales and will probably become a staple not only in the annals of failed technology, but as a history of a dictatorship in the first stage of its death throes. For all that, it is surprisingly easy to read.
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Profile Image for sarah.
377 reviews397 followers
October 4, 2020
“a society where the cult of science had supplanted religion, the nuclear chiefs were among its most sanctified icons—pillars of the Soviet state. To permit them to be pulled down would undermine the integrity of the entire system on which the USSR was built. They could not be found guilty.”

After watching the HBO miniseries ‘Chernobyl’ I wanted to learn more- particularly from a more academic rather than dramatised perspective. Midnight in Chernobyl was perfect in satisfying that desire for knowledge, so if you are similarly intrigued by the disaster I would recommend giving it a try.

This was over 500 pages of physics, Russian politics and details. It is safe to say that I was pretty intimidated. But Adam Higginbotham managed to present the information in a relatively straightforward and easily understandable way. However, the narrative style was also pretty dry and bland. It felt like a very (very) long article rather than a book, which had me losing interest at a few points.

I found myself having the most issues with the sheer amount of names metioned throughout. I listened on audiobook so didn’t have the luxury of being able to flick to the glossary every time I forgot who was who, but this is just a combination of a) my bad memory b) my lack of familiarly with Russian names and c) audibly listening to it.

Overall, I am glad I read this and I definitely gained some knowledge about the disaster. I wouldn’t recommend this for a bit of light reading, but if you are interested in the subject matter it was definitely thorough and well researched.
Profile Image for Julie.
1,863 reviews38 followers
December 15, 2019
I knew bits and pieces about this but nothing prepared me for this in-depth coverage of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. Painstakingly researched and written in an engaging style, this was an enthralling and horrifying account of the disaster written through the eyes of the many people involved at all levels. Tears fell on many occasions. One instance that haunts me is when two men went to fix a broken pipe in contaminated water and used their bare hands as the gloves they were issued fit so poorly. There is so much to discover about the disaster in this book that we previously hadn't known. I listened to this as an audiobook and the narration by Jacques Roy is wonderful.
Profile Image for Anita Pomerantz.
629 reviews93 followers
March 20, 2020
This book is sooo highly rated and was listed as "best non-fiction" by numerous sources in 2019. All I have to say is I wish I read Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster instead.

This book was just boring unless you like reading a lot about engineering and the technical structure of power plants and buildings. In addition, there are a zillion Russian names, and even with Kindle X-Ray and a guide to who was who, I struggled because the people just were not brought to life for me.

This is reporting. It's very strong reporting, and it unveils the type of cover-up that makes you worried about government and implies that conspiracy theories can be true. The story is important. I just did not find it interesting because of the absolute overload of details, many of which were beyond my understanding or ability to picture.

Maybe my timing in picking up this one was just way off . . .as we are in the middle of a crisis ourselves, my concentration is pretty shot. So, judge this one by the reviews of others. I just can barely bring myself to give it 3 stars.
Profile Image for Joy D.
1,688 reviews205 followers
July 28, 2020
Detailed account of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown in 1986 in the former Soviet Union (now Ukraine). Higginbotham takes a look at the reasons behind the explosion, what happened at the plant immediately afterward, the radioactive fallout, protracted clean-up efforts, and the consequences. The author’s account is based on interviews, archives, and de-classified documents.

Despite Gorbachev’s stated policy of glasnost, a blanket of secrecy was drawn over the catastrophe. Operators were blamed and punished, despite multiple design flaws. Thirty-one people died, according to official numbers, though the statistics were not meticulously tracked, and subsequent deaths were intentionally attributed to causes other than radiation. It is almost unbelievable how long it took to evacuate the nearby town of Pripyat.

This book provides a detailed analysis of causes and effects, focused on scientific and political explanations. It requires a strong interest in science to fully appreciate it. The chapters related to the disaster are both horrifying and riveting. There were many people involved and it is sometimes difficult to keep them straight. I listened to the audiobook, read by Jacques Roy. He does an excellent job. His narration is smooth and lively.

I found it an enlightening examination of the Soviet bureaucracy and cultural legacy of the era. Employees generally had no desire to communicate bad news upward in the organization for fear of reprimand. Political loyalty was prized above technical proficiency. The “narrative” was tightly controlled such that what really happened was obscured from public view. I think a great deal can be learned (mainly on what not to do) from this in-depth assessment of the disaster.
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