Senior Lieutenant Alexander Logachev loved radiation the way other men loved their wives.
So begins Adam Higginbotham’s exhaustive account of the April 1986 Chernobyl disaster, recounting a blow-by-blow of the unfolding incident and the monumental effects of the aftermath, amidst the context of Soviet politics and the USSR’s place on the world stage.
The tone varies; at times it’s storyteller-rich, as quoted above or in lovely, evocative lines like: “At the slow beat of approaching rotor blades, black birds rose into the sky, scattering over the frozen meadows and the pearly knots of creeks and ponds lacing the Pripyat River basin.” I was mesmerized by this writing in places, which makes the portrayal of this village, soon to become synonymous with nuclear disaster, or “nukemare” as the New York Post elegantly called it, so vivid. Chernobyl had amusingly even been featured in a glossy “Soviet Life” magazine in a detailed report about “the wonders of nuclear energy”.
When the meltdown in reactor 4 happened, it wasn’t only a shock and surprise, but it challenged the foundations that this new, safe energy industry was built on, not to mention the new policy of transparency that Mikhil Gorbachev had enacted for the Soviet Union beginning the previous year.
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. Delicate and strange, and encircled by a flickering spectrum of colors conjured by flames from within the burning building and superheated chunks of metal and machinery, the beautiful phosphorescence transfixed Yuvchenko for a few seconds.
Losing face in the world’s eyes was unacceptable, never mind what the magnitude of the disaster would mean for people in the unstable USSR who’d been assured nuclear energy was a safe and vastly promising industry for the future. Infamous Soviet censorship had already been at work downplaying the incident at Three Mile Island in the US, for fear of shattering this carefully cultivated illusion: “As bad as it made the United States look, news of Three Mile Island was censored inside the USSR, for fear it could tarnish the ostensibly spotless record of the peaceful atom.”
Information was still scant, and conflicting: the armed forces said one thing, scientists another. Now they needed to decide what – or whether – to tell the Soviet people about the accident. For Gorbachev, this was a sudden and unexpected test of the new openness and transparent government he had promised the Party conference just a month earlier; since then, glasnost had been nothing more than a slogan…the traditional reflexes of secrecy and paranoia were deeply engrained.
But for those who actually understood what they were working with, illusion didn’t exist. The hidden problem in the aftermath was the party machinations that allowed the management of the meltdown, and those who assisted in the clean-up, to veer so tragically off course. We get a lot of this stark, affecting perspective here, like when Senior Unit Engineer Boris Stolyarchuk was struck by one thought upon realizing the scale of what had happened: “I’m so young, and it’s all over.”
Even after those on the scene were coming to terms with the reality, particularly when using dosimeters, that the ground radiation was at critical levels, it was hard to comprehend: one surveyor had to impress on a Party chief that the shocking readings he was showing were in roentgen, not milliroentgen. Those at the top insisted on “a can-do shock-work action plan of fantasy and denial,” which employees were encouraged to report cheerfully to Communist Party chiefs, despite the obvious manifesting itself all around the exclusion zone.
There were signs that not everything in the city was quite as it should be. The technician’s next-door neighbor, an electrical assembly man, spurned the beach that morning in favor of the roof of his apartment building, where he lay down on a rubber mat to sunbathe. He stayed up there for a while and noticed that he began to tan right away. Almost immediately, his skin gave off a burning smell. At one point, he came down for a break, and his neighbor found him oddly excited and good humored, as if he’d been drinking.
As informative and readable as I found some parts of the book, others were difficult to process with very little scientific background of my own as basis. That’s more on me, but worth mentioning for other readers who might similarly be lacking here. The author starts out explaining the science behind nuclear energy, beginning with the basics, incredibly well – I couldn’t believe how clearly he wrote this introduction to the topic and how much I could understand of a subject that’s always felt dense.
But it wasn’t an understanding I could maintain as the details became increasingly complex, and I found myself avoiding the book because I struggled to make any progress through sections that were nuclear- or technology-focused, as well written as they may be. So I’d caution that prior knowledge here is necessary, and if you don’t have that, then at least have the patience and focus to concentrate intensely on these parts, which are numerous and lengthy enough to disturb your reading experience if you’re not processing them.
Nevertheless, it’s a deeply comprehensive telling of this incident and its complex, frightening aftermath, not to mention the sociopolitical circumstances that allowed it to go wrong and wronger. If Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl illustrates the human effects, sometimes dreamy and emotionally told, of the disaster and the world it created, Midnight in Chernobyl charts the fact-packed narrative from start to finish, including some very personal perspectives, the political machinations, and the technology underlying it.
Midnight in Chernobyl:
The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster
by Adam Higginbotham
published February 12, 2019 by Simon & Schuster
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.