Book Review: Midnight in Chernobyl

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham CR: Simon & Schuster

Title: Midnight in Chernobyl
Author: Adam Higginbotham
Genre: Nonfiction History
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Publication Date: February 12, 2019
Pages: 538
Format Read: Audiobook
Standalone or series: Standalone
Where I got the book: Libby library app
Date finished reading: November 26, 2019

Goodreads Description: 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.

My Review: I’ve been interested in learning more about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster for years. Three years ago, while temporarily living in Ukraine, I had an opportunity to visit Chernobyl (see my Chernobyl post). It was a haunting experience, but I learned a lot and got to see the building of the new sarcophagus, which was just placed over the reactor a few months ago. Earlier this year, I learned a bit more about this disaster through the HBO miniseries Chernobyl. I looked up the literature that was used to create the miniseries and saw Midnight in Chernobyl on the list and have been looking forward to reading it every since. It did not disappoint.

If you are interested in learning about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Midnight in Chernobyl is the most comprehensive work about this disaster I have come across. The character list at the beginning is very helpful and was useful throughout the book. The book begins by giving some background on the early days of the cities that surrounded the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Around the time of the nuclear disaster, a nearby town, by the name of Pripyat, had grown to a population of 50,000 people.

Midnight in Chernobyl gives you a thorough account of the disaster itself. I’ve always been amazed that officials of the surrounding cities told civilians to just go about their daily lives, while high levels of radiation polluted the air. It seemed like such a horrific and unnecessary detriment to human life. However, Adam Higginbotham does a great job of explaining life and politics in the former Soviet Union. “The traditional reflexes of secrecy and paranoia were deeply ingrained. The truth about an incidence of any kind that might undermined Soviet prestige or provoke public panic had always been suppressed.” There were other nuclear incidences before Chernobyl that were covered up. People were not evacuated during from those areas, so why should they be evacuated now? By evacuating the cities around the Chernobyl nuclear plant, that would be alerting the public and possibly the international community of the accident, which the Soviet Union did not want. Not only did they delay evacuations but they quarantined the area, so no civilians could leave even if they wanted to. However, despite their best efforts, the international community would soon be alerted to this disaster as other European countries measured high levels of radiation in their air. The US President at that time, Ronald Reagan, stated “A nuclear accident that results in contaminating a number of countries with radioactive material is not simply an internal matter. The Soviets owe the world an explanation.”

Midnight in Chernobyl continues with such extensive details related to the aftermath, including the containment, the suffering of individuals exposed to acute radiation poisoning (ars), the building of the sarcophagus to put over the reactor, and the trial to hold certain individuals responsible for this nuclear disaster. While officially only 30-60 deaths occurred due to the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the UN states that 3.5 million people in multiple countries were affected. This book was the best piece of literature I have read on this event, and I highly recommend it!

My Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

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20 Years of Travel #19: Chernobyl

_DSC5065The 20 Years of Travel series continues with our day trip to Chernobyl in Ukraine. If there was any trip my husband and I have taken where people ask the question “Why?”, it would be our trip to Chernobyl in 2016. The nuclear disaster in Chernobyl happened on April 25-26, 1986, when I was a little kid. When my husband and I heard that they were opening the13770367_267208830320350_1063754274685798828_n areas around the reactor for visitors almost 25 years later, we immediately put it on our list of places to visit. We were definitely interested in learning more about the accident and the reactor first hand. However, there is something unique and a bit post-apocalyptic about seeing towns that have been completely deserted and as a result have remained completely the same for the last 25 years. The only differences are that grass and weeds are overgrown everywhere and the buildings are rundown. When the people evacuated these towns after the accident, they were all under the impression that they would get to return to their homes in a week or so. However, as most of us know, that did not happen. Even the carnival rides from the fair that was being held in Prypyat during the time of the accident continue to hauntingly remain standing and abandoned.

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Journey to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone:
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is safe! It would not be open to public tours if it wasn’t. Actually, you are also allowed to stay overnight in the Exclusion Zone, however, due to time constraints, we decided just to take the one-day Chernobyl Tour that leaves from Kiev early in the morning. The drive to the Dytyatky checkpoint into the Exclusion Zone takes a couple of hours, so you have a chance to nap in the car or watch the Chernobyl documentary that they put on the television for us. This documentary was amazing, and I really wish I had written down the title of it. It gave an overview of what led up to the explosion, including power failures during testing. I think the most shocking part of this documentary for me, as I was very young when this disaster occurred so knew little about it, was the cover-up that occurred after the explosion. As this was a Soviet nuclear power plant, they tried to keep this incident a secret from the international community and even from their own people. Many individuals in the nearby town of Pripyat felt the explosion in the middle of the night. As firefighters were risking their lives, trying to contain the explosion, people in Pripyat were told to continue with their daily activities and enjoy the carnival that was in town, while fumes and smoke spread through the city. More than 24 hours later, they finally decided to start evacuating nearby towns. The international community became aware of the situation, when Sweden started detecting high radiation levels. If Sweden was detecting high radiation levels, just imagine the radiation levels in the towns near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

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Geiger counter & Homes:
Once in the Exclusion Zone, we started visiting some of the towns that were abandoned. _DSC5173To get a clear idea of the vast impact of the Chernobyl catastrophe, the picture above is a memorial to all the towns that were affected by radiation and had to be evacuated. When we exited our vehicle, our guides gave us individual Geiger counters (see picture on the right) to be able to track radiation levels. The Geiger counters were sound an alarm if radiation levels were above 2.0 mSv’s. I think I saw our Geiger counter hit 4.0 at one point. However, even when the alarm sounds, the radiation levels are not harmful. Basically we were just given our yearly dose of radiation in one day. We first started visiting some of the abandoned homes (see pictures below).

Abandoned Community Facilities
We also visited some community buildings including a local school, gymnasium and public pool (see pictures below).

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Duga-1:
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union built this missile defense system, which was designed to detect the launching of intercontinental ballistic missiles. This structure, located only a few kilometers from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, was irradiated during the Chernobyl disaster but remains standing, as all the valuable metal has been contaminated and the surrounding sand too. Since it can’t be knocked over without releasing dangerous amounts of radiation, it’s one of the few remaining Soviet missile radars still standing in the former Soviet Union.

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Pripyat Carnival:
The nearest town to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was Pripyat. The town of approximately 50,000 people were enjoying a carnival that was in town when the explosion happened. The carnival rides are still standing (see pictures below).

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The Reactor:
Less than a month after the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, a cover was designed, called the Sarcophagus, to go over the reactor to contain the radiation. The Sarcophagus was only designed to be a useful cover for 20-30 years, so work was done to build the Chernobyl New Safe Confinement (aka the Arch). This Arch would cost billions of dollars and be constructed next to the reactor. We got to view the reactor with the Sarcophagus and the Arch next to it from a safe distance (see picture below). In 2017, a year after our visit, the Arch was moved over the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant as a more permanent containment system.

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was one of the most interesting places we have ever explored. We have never seen so many abandoned towns. The expansive reach of such a tragedy was astounding. It was quite a haunting and somewhat unnerving site to behold. We would definitely recommend visiting this area if you are ever in Ukraine.

HAPPY TRAVELS!!!