It’s been 33 years since Reactor Number Four at the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station in Ukraine exploded, venting radioactive material into the atmosphere. That radiation rolled over huge swaths of what was then the western part of the Soviet Union, and the explosion entered history as one of the worst nuclear power plant disasters.
As with accounts of any disaster, there are three major questions: What happened, why did it happen, and could it happen again? Several books investigate the answers: In 2018, for instance, there was “Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe” by Harvard professor Serhii Plokhy, and in March there will be Kate Brown’s “Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future.” But the most comprehensive, most thoroughly detailed history yet to appear in English is Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Disaster by Adam Higginbotham.
The author, along with his research partner Taras Shumeyko, has conducted extensive interviews and compiled background material over ten years, creating a compelling, panoramic account of the disaster set in its broader context but still working with those three fundamental questions, starting with “what happened?” Thanks to the nature of Soviet Union, answering such a question was complicated from the start.
Unbeknownst to its citizens and the world at large, the Soviet Union in 1986 was in extremis, poised for a collapse that would come only five years after the Chernobyl disaster. In its final years, the bureaucracy doubled down on keeping its secrets. But the basic facts are clear: during a plant turbine test being conducted at 1:22 a.m., the reactor had run out of control in a matter of seconds. “To generate electricity, the uranium fuel inside a reactor must become hot enough to turn water into steam but not so hot that the fuel itself starts to melt,” Higginbotham writes. “To prevent this, in addition to control rods and a neutron moderator, the reactor requires a coolant to remove excess heat.” When those coolant levels dropped below a critical point, catastrophe was inevitable and erupted in a matter of seconds.
As Higginbotham reports, the Chernobyl disaster was predictable. “The first Soviet reactors, copied from those built for the Manhattan Project, used both graphite and water,” he writes. “It was a risky combination: in graphite, a moderator that burns fiercely at high temperatures, and, in water, a potentially explosive coolant.” This was a combination that was cheaper to implement and run, but it made reactors more susceptible to runaway chain reactions.
Disasters of this type weren’t unprecedented. As Higginbotham details, in 1957 there had been an explosion at the secret nuclear facility of Chelyabinsk-40 in the southern Ural Mountains. No emergency plans had been drawn up, and “In the remote villages beyond the wire, barefoot women and children were instructed to harvest their potatoes and beets but then dump them into trenches dug by bulldozers, overseen by men wearing protective suits and respirators.” Ten thousand people were evacuated and 23 villages were abandoned, plowed under, and forgotten.
“Midnight in Chernobyl” builds this background material along with dramatic first-hand accounts into a gripping story that fully answers the three questions. The “what” was a violent chain reaction, and the “why” was a combination of cost-cutting, misfortune, and an obscurist bureaucracy that led Soviet officials initially to downplay the severity of what had happened.
As to the third question, could it happen again: Readers will think of Fukushima. In 2011, the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s nuclear plant there underwent a process identical to Chernobyl: a loss of coolant that provoked a meltdown. Many people would take this to indicate that disaster goes hand-in-hand with nuclear power, but Higginbotham ends on a note of hope. A new generation of reactors might at last provide an alternative to fossil fuels. “In principle,” he writes, “these fourth-generation reactors would be cheaper, safer, smaller, more efficient, and less poisonous than their predecessors, and could yet prove to be the technology that saves the world.”
Steve Donoghue regularly reviews books for the Monitor.