David Vaughan's Reviews > The Truth About Chernobyl

The Truth About Chernobyl by Grigori Medvedev
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's review
Apr 17, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: nuclear
Recommended to David by: on-line reference when researching Chornobyl
Recommended for: historians, scientists, nuclear engineers, curious public
Read from April 25 to May 08, 2011 — I own a copy

The Truth About Chernobyl is as close to primary-source historical material as you can get without visiting the libraries in Kiev and Moscow and reviewing americium-dusted pages from the reactor's SKALA printouts. Medvedev was chief engineer of the reactor's design team when it was built, yet recommended against placement of the leaky, cheap core type in the middle of the Soviet Union's agricultural Ukrainian breadbasket. He was overruled by the same pompous, incompetent bureaucracy that later fumbled the reaction to the accident, allowing thousands of residents of nearby villages and cities to suffer needless exposure to radioactive contamination for days.

Medvedev recounts in vivid detail decisions leading up to the building of the Chornobyl (Ukrainian spelling) site, provides a second-by-second accounting of the accident, then paints a portrait of the aftermath that draws not only from his knowledge of nuclear physics, but from his experience as a seasoned official embedded in Soviet systems. He describes personalities in ways that show you the person ("He suffered from periodic spasms of the cerebral arteries that required emergency medical care at his home during this period") and make it clear that the Soviet governmental system of central control reward driving personality types regardless of their ability to make useful decisions ("In Chernobyl a cosmic tragedy had taken place; and the cosmos can be handled not by brute force alone, but by the force of reason, which is in itself a living and more powerful cosmic force.")

If the book has a fault for me, it is in the vivid side trails that the author explores throughout the book, instead of following a more logical and sequential pattern in his narrative. This is a personal preference, though. Others may appreciate the odd breaks from relentlessly depressing accounts of incompetence and destruction, descriptions of the effects (gruesome) of radiation poisoning ("nuclear tan," "metallic taste," "nuclear frenzy, followed by depression and collapse..."), and dozens of personal statements by reactor station employees, firemen, fishermen, residents of Pripyat, housewives, officials, and scientists. Medvedev interviewed many personally, and read the official accounts of others, often taken just before their demise from exposure to ungodly amounts of ionizing radiation.

This book stands as brilliant witness to the intersection of human frailty and human technology, a nuclear Titanic. It also stands as a first-person accounting of the unreal details of the aftermath of that intersection, from the blue glow of ionizing air, to the mental inability to recognize disaster when you're kicking the graphite core of a blown reactor with your foot, to the effects of severe radiation on the human nervous system, tongue and skin.

If you're scientifically inclined and curious about Chornobyl, this is the book for you.

Now out-of-print, it's available for outrageous prices from on-line used book sellers. I managed to find one early in the Fukushima aftermath for a reasonable price, but there probably aren't too many left.

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