Friday 18 October 2019

Midnight in Chernobyl: Gripping account of 1986 nuclear disaster examining the build-up and fallout

History: Midnight in Chernobyl

Adam Higginbotham

Bantam Press, 560 pages, hardback, €24

Tomb: Construction work to seal off Chernobyl in the aftermath of the 1986 tragedy. Photo: Igor Kostin/Sygma
Tomb: Construction work to seal off Chernobyl in the aftermath of the 1986 tragedy. Photo: Igor Kostin/Sygma
Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

Eamon Delaney

I remember it well. I was sitting on a rush-hour bus in Dublin when a fellow student held up the front of the Evening Herald. "What do you think of this?" he asked grimly. It was the dramatic headline about the meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in then Soviet-controlled Ukraine. "Don't go on your holidays to eastern Europe any time soon!" he warned me. I didn't.

It is hard now for younger generations to realise just how momentous this event was. It was not only the most devastating accident in the short life of the nuclear power industry; but one of the biggest man-made disasters in history: a full-scale meltdown at an energy reactor in the way that the world had always feared. And yet we might never have heard of it, a hushed up catastrophe inside the Soviet Union, where such huge infrastructural projects were regarded with great Communist pride.

However, word, like the contamination, leaked out and soon the whole area was sealed off and bureaucratic heads began to roll. A witch-hunt ensued against the engineers and even builders of this trophy project, for the disaster was not caused by an accident as much as long pent-up structural and safety faults. It was, as the cliché goes, an accident waiting to happen - and the build up to this almost inevitable disaster, and the tawdry official reaction, is brilliantly dissected in this electrifying account by British journalist Adam Higginbotham following a decade of intense research and interviews.

Chernobyl also hastened the collapse of Communism, as the disaster and cover-up exposed the hollowness and sloppiness of the Soviet system. After the meltdown, President Mikhail Gorbachev introduced major reforms which undid the whole system, and eventually unravelled the Eastern bloc. So there was at least one positive effect to come out of the tragedy.

The disaster began after midnight on April 26, 1986, when a series of explosions destroyed Reactor No 4 of the Chernobyl station, three kilometres from Pripyat, a specially constructed 'atomic town' for the Soviet vanity project.

Fifty tonnes of uranium fuel from a reactor core vaporised instantly and were blasted into the atmosphere. Another 70 tonnes of uranium and 900 tonnes of highly radioactive graphite were dispersed round the reactor area, starting more than 30 fires. The 800 tonnes of graphite that remained in the reactor core caught fire at once, creating a radiological inferno that would burn for 10 days, sending lethal fumes into the sky.

The Soviet regime waited nearly three days before admitting that an accident had taken place, and did so only after the fumes had set off alarms in a nuclear plant in Sweden. The contaminants would soon travel around the globe, depositing radioactive material as far away as Japan and the farms of north Wales.

The power of Higginbotham's book is its layered detail and driving narrative, but also in the context: he describes the planning of the Chernobyl plant, in the technological optimism of the 1970s, and the defiant pride that the Soviet system could also produce a globally inspiring feat of nuclear engineering like the West. The reality, of course, was that the Soviet system was creaking and needed new energy supplies urgently.

Dangerous shortcuts were thus taken at Chernobyl, and people were promoted beyond their qualification. Serious risks were taken with the treatment of radiation to speed up the plant's nuclear production.

Higginbotham vividly describes the aftermath as army reservists cleared radioactive debris with their bare hands, and the denials still continued. The death toll is much disputed, from a few thousand killed immediately after the meltdown to the many tens of thousands who got cancers and other diseases, often some distance away.

The whole area around the reactor was devastated, and Irish charities still travel there to do Trojan work, especially with children.

The Chernobyl site is now in an 'exclusion zone' of 1,000 square miles, where wildlife flourishes in what Higginbotham calls "a radioactive Eden". Chernobyl had a mixed effect on the worldwide push for nuclear power. But it certainly drove home the need for absolute safety, transparency and competency in man-made projects which have the potential for great destruction.

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